The limits to growth

Donella Meadows Institute has kindly provided the book "The limits to growth" as a free download. Since I have already heard how thought-provoking it can be, I was curious to learn more. The book contains an extensive research on the factors that affect growth in our society and how they influence each other. It shows us an interesting way to think, while not attacking us with too much data. Please note that the data here may be outdated as the book originates from 1972. Here is my short summary:

“ Problems can grow so big that we no longer can control them. Most people must have been able to solve a smaller problem before they move to a bigger one. […] Only a small fraction of our society is concerned with the most pressing problems and is actively seeking solutions to them. Very few people have a global perspective that extends into the future. Most are only concerned with the immediate needs of family and friends, so on a space-time diagram, they would be positioned in the lower left quadrant. Therefore, there is a danger that problems in the upper right quadrant will largely remain unsolved. We need to raise the space and time horizons of our concerns to be able to identify the patterns around us that are defining for these problems. Even then, our efforts might get defeated by the events in the larger context. […] Decisions are being made every day everywhere that will affect the physical, economical and social conditions of the world system for decades to come. These decisions often cannot wait for perfect models and total understanding. […] Problems we face: accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of non-renewable resources, deteriorating environment. All these are caused by exponential increase in resource usage. […] Nearly all mankind activities can be presented by exponential growth curves. Exponential increase is deceptive, because it generates immense numbers very quickly. Therefore, it's useful to think of exponential growth in terms of doubling time. World fertilizer production doubles about every 10 years. Average doubling time for city populations in the less developed regions is 15 years. This population grows much faster than the one in developed regions. The more money there is in the bank account, the more will be added to it in interest. The cumulative amount then grows exponentially. […] Exponential growth often comes as a positive feedback loop. As wages are increased, prices also increase, which makes people demand even higher wages. An example of a negative loop would be that population size depends on average mortality, which in itself is a function of the average age of the population. Changes need to be made if we want to balance positive and negative feedback loops. The model's feedback loop is much more important determinant of overall behavior than the exact numbers used to quantify the feedback loops. Global equilibrium is achieved when population and capital stay stable and in balance with the forces trying to affect them. Equilibrium doesn't have to mean stagnation, but it would require trading certain freedoms in exchange. We should avoid overproduction of goods and underutilization of the workforce. Trying to free ourselves of our needs can help us in reaching a more balanced state. […] Steady population growth will continue as long as average fertility remains constant and births exceed deaths. The average value of services per capita is a factor that relates to fertility. Perfect birth control effectiveness does not imply low fertility. If desired birth rate is high, fertility will also be high. "People at present think that five sons aren't too many and each son has five sons also, and before the death of the grandfather there are already 25 descendants. Therefore people are more and wealth is less; they work hard and receive little." – Han Fei Tzu. "The rich get richer and the poor get children." […] Industrial output is increasing even faster than the population. More available capital creates more output, some variable fraction of the output is investment and more investment means more capital (positive feedback loop). The more capital there is, the more wears out on average each year, leading to less the next year (negative feedback loop). The world's capital is growing exponentially, which decreases its average lifetime. […] Determinants on the limits of growth will be our resources: land, water, metals, forests, oceans. There's an upper limit on the available fresh water. The demand for it increases while the supply remains constant. Food resources and a healthy environment are necessary, but not sufficient conditions to growth. Even if they are abundant, growth may be stopped by social problems. The great majority of non-renewable resources will be very costly in the future. The expansion of food production in the future will be very much dependent on the availability of non-renewable resources. The world usage rate of every available resource is growing exponentially; for many resources the growth is even faster than the population, indicating both an increasing overall resource consumption per year and average resource consumption per person in the same period. Neither resource reserves nor resource consumption are distributed evenly around the globe. Amount of resources consumed per year = population size * per capita resource usage. The last variable depends on industrial output per capita. Consumption can reach a plateau when a certain level of material possessions has been reached. Depletion of the available resources makes them prohibitively expensive as they aren't infinite. The price of mercury has increased 5 times in a 20-year period; the price of lead has increased 3 times in a 30-year period. Mining of chromium has fallen close to zero due to very high costs. A doubling of the resource reserves increases the actual period of use by only 20 years. Interestingly, resource production can give us the time to fix its problems. To minimize resource depletion we'll need to make tradeoffs evaluating present and future benefits. […] The people in most areas of the world are undernourished in respect to their protein and calorie intake. Inequalities of distribution exists not only among the regions, but also within them. As the number of people over whom a fixed resource must be distributed increases, the equality of the distribution decreases. The process of economic growth is widening the absolute gap between the rich and the poor nations of the world. […] Problematic: exponential growth in a finite space. The demand on land will become greater than the supply, which will raise food prices and cause some people will starve. Although only around 50% of the land is under cultivation, perhaps 10-20 million deaths per year can be attributed directly/indirectly to malnutrition. Opening new land for cultivation can be costly and the loss of land due to erosion isn't negligible. Although total world agricultural production is increasing, food production per capita in non-industrialized countries has remained nearly constant at a low level. 80% of the increased agricultural production come only from 3% of the farms. The law of increasing costs applied in agricultural context states that each doubling or yield from the land will be more expensive than the last one. A smaller increase in the produced output will require heavier investments in tractors, fertilizers, pesticides. Over time more capital is required to produce the same amount of finished goods and so overcoming successive crisis points will cost us even more. Just in a couple of years we can transition from great abundance to great scarcity. We may come to the point where all our available resources are dedicated just at producing food, leaving no further possibility for expansion. […] No new technology is spontaneous or without cost. It introduces side effects and has a global impact. We need to anticipate the social side effects before we introduce it. The rate of technological change exceeds the rate of social (political, ethical, cultural) change. Even when society can pay for a new technology, it may not. Growth is often stopped by problems that don't have a technical solution (racial tensions, unemployment etc.) or by pressures that are not of our choosing. Even when technology is improving, exponential growth in consumption can be stopped by rising costs due to resource depletion. As demand continues to increase, advances in technology won't be fast enough to counteract the costs of discovery, extraction, processing and distribution. Prices begin to rise slowly at first and then very rapidly. […] We need to learn to recycle discarded materials, but recycling and better product design are expensive. After the extracted metals and fuels are used/discarded, their atoms get dispersed into the air, the soil and the water of the planet. Nature's absorptive mechanisms have their limits and can't cope with lots of pollution that tends to increase exponentially. Many pollutions are globally distributed; their harmful effects appear long distances from the points of generation. Long-lived, globally distributed pollutants are lead, mercury, asbestos, stable pesticides, radioisotopes. Most pollutants grow faster than the populations. Agricultural activity leads to pollution and is related to population growth. We need to stay constantly concerned with the effect of our activities on the natural environment. Even science can't measure this effect completely. […] All factors interact in a dynamic complex system and we need to understand how growth or shrinking of one element can affect all others. Population and capital influence each other in many ways. But most of the causal influences in the real-world are non-linear. For example, if food per capita increases 10% and this raises life expectancy by 10 years, it does not follow that increasing it by 20% will raise life expectancy by 20 years. We can then say that life expectancy of the population is a non-linear function of the nutrition that the population receives. Energy consumption correlates well with total output per capita. One of the best indicators of the wealth of a human population is the amount of energy it consumes per person. When burned, fossil fuels release CO2 in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, thermal energy, radioactive wastes are growing exponentially. There is typically a long delay between the release of a pollutant into the environment and the appearance of its negative effect on the ecosystem. Chemicals can evaporate when sprayed and enter the land and the ocean. We need to question where our pollutants will be 20 years from now. With rising chemicals in lakes, fish catch can decline 100-1000 times. 25 years after the decision to reduce DDT, former fish levels were restored. Oxygen in the seas is decreasing. In deeper waters, where it reaches a zero level, no life can exist. Some parts of the Baltic have already reached such level (and the latest research confirms that oceans lose oxygen at an alarming rate). The level of pollution affects human health, but it is impossible to eliminate it entirely due to technological and economic constraints. The basic behavior model of the world system is exponential growth of population and capital, followed by collapse. A decision to do nothing is a decision to increase the risk of collapse. Even when growth is exponential, the system might be changing even more rapidly. Many people are trying to fight the limits rather than live within them and the success of overcoming them has been accepted as a cultural tradition of many dominant people in the today's world. We need to decide whether it would be better to accept self-imposed restrictions on growth or to grow until some other limit arises in the hope that when we reach it, a new technology will be available to enable an even faster growth. Population and industrial growth will stop in the next century. […] Different constraints stop growth at different time. Skyscrapers solved the problem with the insufficient space for new constructions. Then expressways, mass transit systems and others solved the problem with the inability to move in city centers due to the high population density. We can only guess where future constraints will appear. […] "Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress" - Sierra Club's motto […] Aristotle's idea: Many things either wholly lose their nature or are spoiled. […] Issues must be debated by a much wider community than that of scientists alone. ”

Donella & Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William Behrens in "The limits to growth"