Fifty years ago, an international team of researchers was commissioned by the Club of Rome to build a computer simulation of exponential economic and population growth on a finite planet.
In 1971, its findings were first released in Moscow and Rio de Janeiro, and later published in 1972 under the title The Limits To Growth. The report concluded:
- Given business as usual, i.e., no changes to historical growth trends, the limits to growth on earth would become evident by 2072, leading to “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity”. This includes the following:
- Global Industrial output per capita reaches a peak around 2008, followed by a rapid decline
- Global Food per capita reaches a peak around 2020, followed by a rapid decline
- Global Services per capita reaches a peak around 2020, followed by a rapid decline
- Global population reaches a peak in 2030, followed by a rapid decline
- Growth trends existing in 1972 could be altered so that sustainable ecological and economic stability could be achieved.
- The sooner the world’s people start striving for the second outcome above, the better the chance of achieving it.
Few reports have generated as much debate, discussion and disagreement. Though it’s hard to argue that its forecasts made back in the early 1970s have proved eerily accurate over the ensuing decades.
But most of its warnings have been largely ignored by policymakers hoping (blindly?) for a rosier future.
One of the original seventeen researchers involved in The Limits To Growth study, Dennis Meadows, joins us for the podcast this week. Fifty years later, what does he foresee ahead?
Decline is now inevitable.
We’re without any question moving into the remainder of a century which is going to see, by the end of these decades, a much smaller population, much lower level of energy and material consumption and so forth.
Whether we retain equity amongst people and avoid the more violent forms of conflict remains to be seen. But sustainable development is no longer an option.
This is one of the most important discussions we’ve ever recorded among the hundreds produced over the past decade.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Dennis Meadows (55m:24s).
Chris Martenson: Welcome, everyone, to this Featured Voices podcast. I'm your host, Chris Martenson, and it is December 5, 2019. You know, here’s one of the things that I'm fond of saying, and I picked this up from some really incredible people who are in the space, and it’s simply this idea that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. I mean, it’s just obviously a wrong idea. Ever since Malthus way back when noted that geometric growth and exponential growth are a bad combination, that’s been proven out over and over again. And it’s not a terribly difficult thing to reason out either. It really isn’t.
But somehow, continuous exponential growth, that’s still the operative economic model of our times. Endless growth as far as the eye can see, that’s the model. The global economy seeks nothing else besides more growth at all points in time. Politicians also seek nothing but more growth; they will all promise it, faster growth or even faster growth than that. That’s the debate in political circles at this point.
Every single stock and bond portfolio owes an enormous amount of its present value to the concept of endless economic growth actually happening. So that’s the model we're running. And yet, it’s a completely unworkable model.
Anybody who’s ever filled a glass with water can tell you why. Finite things, they have limits. A glass can only hold so much water. A stadium can only hold so many people. An entire planet only has so much to give and only so much space upon its surface. These are not terrible difficult concepts.
But really, what’s surprising about talking about any limits to growth is that it remains so difficult, controversial even. So misunderstood. Really a difficult concept to broach.
Now, given the outcast status of the conversation, you maybe come to the conclusion it’s still a very new concept maybe that needs a few more years to penetrate the centers of intellectual and political power, but that’s not the case. The ideas are many decades old.
And today we're going to be discussing the limits to growth which was published in 1972 and reported on the results of a computer simulation of exponential economic and population growth set against a finite supply of resources. It was funding by the Volkswagen Foundation, commissioned by the Club of Rome. The findings of the study were first presented at international gatherings in Moscow, in Rio De Janeiro, in the summer of 1971. The reports authors are Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William Behrens representing a team of over 17 researchers.
Now, today we're going to be talking with one of the lead co-authors of The Limits to Growth. That’s Dennis Meadows. Dennis is an American scientist. He’s a former director for the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research at the University of New Hampshire. He is president of The Laboratory for Interactive Learning and speaks to audiences widely. I first met Dennis at a Population Media Center back I think it was in 2009, and I'm just thrilled to have him on the program with us today. Welcome, Dennis.
Dennis Meadows: Thank you. Happy to have a chance to talk.
Chris Martenson: Well, thank you for that. Dennis, for our listeners, can you please summarize The Limits to Growth. What is it?
Dennis Meadows: In the early ‘70s, a group called the Club of Rome, which is an international network of mainly corporate leaders, became concerned about the interconnection of emerging problems, and out of their conversations evolved finally a project at MIT, which I directed over a course of two years.
We gathered available data going back to the year 1900 to create a computer simulation model showing the interaction between population, economic capital, and environmental resources, and used it to project out to 2100 under a bunch of different assumptions, assumptions about social change, technical change, and so forth.
And the basic conclusion was that if the policies which were then in force and which had produced enormous growth in in welfare around the world by early ‘70s, if those were continued, we would see further growth through maybe 2020, and then the physical realities would start to impress themselves and there would be decline.
We knew it was impossible to make predictions precisely because so much of this depends on political responses, so we developed a set of thirteen different scenarios, some of which showed sustainable development, most of which showed what we would loosely term overshooting decline. And it’s the overshooting decline scenario which is our standard – was standard at that time – and actually has been borne out. We're clearly now just beginning the decline phase.
Chris Martenson: So let’s talk about overshoot really quickly. I noticed in your book, in Limits to Growth and the update, you also talk about the three causes of overshoot. If we could just define overshoot for people so we're all on the same page, please.
Dennis Meadows: Overshoot refers to a concept of carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is the rather loosely defined concept of how much a population can be supported on a given ecosystem. So in our case, it comes down to sort of how much population and material wellbeing can be sustained a planet earth given its stock of resources and its natural regenerative possibilities.
This is a concept which is not very well defined. It’s subject to a lot of debate. But I think there's pretty good consensus that the current population, and certainly the current material wellbeing, are far above what could be sustained.
So, as a consequence, it’s kind of like if you have a bank account, for a short period you can spend a lot more from the bank than you're putting into it as you draw down your reserves. But at some point, you deplete your reserves, and then your spending has to go into a decline. And in a very crude way that’s what we're looking at.
In our case, spending is things like energy use, food consumption, fresh water, and so forth.
Chris Martenson: So this idea of overshoot – you know, I'm a biologist by training, I guess. My PhD is in pathology. I did a lot of biology as I went through. And to me, humans are just another organism. And whatever metaphor you want to use, whether you talk about mountain climbers carrying calories up a mountain, and they can only go so far as their calories will permit them to go and then they get into trouble, or whether you look at cheetah’s chasing gazelles, there's sort of rule there which says that every organism needs to live within its energy budget one way or the other.
And the way I look at all of this, it says, well, you know, humans as an organism came upon a really, really tasty, highly concentrated form of chemical energy – we call them fossil fuels. And coincident with that discovery came all sorts of things which included this tasty growth that everybody seems to really love because along with that growth came rising standards of living and a lot of progress and a lot of technology and an age off abundance that is unmatched in the human experience.
And so the way I look at this, Dennis, it seems to me that people are confusing access to energy with human ingenuity. And do you see it that way, and can you help parse that for people a little bit here?
Dennis Meadows: Well, it’s complicated. And so when you talk about carrying capacity by, let’s say, using fruit flies in a bottle, the situation is quite clear. But when you start to look at humans on the planet and factor in the capacity for technological advance and resources substitution and so forth, it becomes more ambiguous although the underlying situation is still the same.
Yes, you're right. The discovery of how to find and then to use the various fossil fuels, natural gas, coal, oil, principally, was a one-time event in the history of our species starting, as you know, in the late 1800s up until now. And without any question, that burst of energy has given us access to a standard of living that never existed for the masses before.
I was reading recently a recapitulation of the situation, and someone said – I don't know if the numbers are precisely correct, but they’re ceratianly in the ballpark – that a barrel of oil contain four and a half years of human energy in an equivalent. So every time you use a barrel of oil you basically have got yourself a slave for four and a half person years. Well, obviously, with that kind of slave we can enjoy the sort of life that let’s say the ancient elite Romans used to have when they had hundreds of slaves.
But the oil’s going to run out. It is running out, actually. Conventional oil peaked out probably in 2006. This burst of fracking, and to some extent deep oil, has sustained the growth, but general consensus is that by 2030 fossil fuel production levels will be quite far below what they are today. And there's virtually no way we're going to invent our way out of dealing with the consequences of that.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, and that, of course, remains a very controversial subject for a lot of people who do believe in technology. We’ll get to that in just a minute because I think it’s an important conversation to have.
So, The Limits to Growth comes out. It makes quite a splash, actually. If I have my number right, more than 30 million copies of the book sold, translated into 37 languages, and it remains the top selling environmental title ever published. Given all that, what we're the aims of the group when you decided to run the study, and how have those been meet by all of that success?
Dennis Meadows: You started this interview with a monolog about the absurdity of the notion that growth can continue forever. That went into our study. We didn’t imagine that we were going to have to prove that growth couldn’t continue forever. That was a predicate for the study. And we then set out to understand how much longer physical growth could be sustained and what would be some various options for dealing with the limits for physical growth.
We emerged from that with a set of scenarios which we loosely termed sustainable development and pointed out, amongst other things, that social and cultural changes are actually much more important than technical changes. Technical changes, for example energy efficiency, can buy a little time, but they don’t solve the problem. The problem is exponential growth of consumption demands and population on a finite planet and stopping those is not a technical but rather a cultural issue.
So we pointed that out, and in the last 45 years, I’ve given thousands of speeches, written another nine books, met with tens of thousands of people to discuss this issue. The baseline, I would say, is there has not been much change.
A recent retrospective analysis of our work undertaken in Australia at the National Institute there concluded that the world was still evolving more or less along our standard scenario. That is to say, for all of these 45 years of concern about climate and energy and everything else, basically, the dominate policies in 1970 still prevail. Politicians still find growth a wonderful Ponzi scheme which lets them promise more for everybody without asking anybody to sacrifice. And, of course, there's a whole institutional framework in Wall Street and the banks geared up to make short terms profits off it. So none of that’s changed. If anything, it’s gotten, I would say, much more pronounced.
Chris Martenson: If I have the story right, I believe one of the principals involved in that Australian study you just mentioned there, I believe he started an off-grid community way out in the wilderness, or something is response. Ran through the data again and said where are we, how are we tracking? Found that business as usual was the closest approximation.
And, of course, when you model that all the way out, the scenario says that leads to overshoot and then collapse. And that remains the conclusion that seems to be driving some – at least this person’s behaviors, and mine as well. I have to confess, that idea of overshoot and collapse, when I look into that it’s very euphemistic terms for what I see as very unpleasant possibly future. Doesn’t have to happen, but still, that’s what we seem to be tracking towards. Is that accurate?
Dennis Meadows: Actually, I would correct you on two different things. So I would say decline – let’s call it decline because I think it’s going to be a bit more orderly than is implied by the term collapse. But decline is now, I would say, inevitable. I wrote already in 1999 an article, which is published in one of the major German newspapers, the title of which was It’s Too Late for Sustainable Development. It was true then, and it’s even more true now.
So we're without any question moving into the remainder of a century which is going to see, by the end of these decades, a much smaller population, much lower level of energy and material consumption and so forth. Whether we retain equity amongst people and avoid the more violent forms of conflict remains to be seen. But sustainable development is no longer an option.
Now, in terms of your personal situation, it’s tempting, when looking at the results of our study, to think of things in sort of black and white terms. We made a global model. The model didn’t differentiate amongst the various countries. We used averages. We didn’t talk about the extremes. And so while on average decline I think has already started in material terms, there will be people, even younger people today probably, who live out their lifetime without really ever being aware or experiencing personally the consequences.
It’s an unfortunate fact that the poor and dis-powered who, by and large, haven’t caused these problems, are going to be the first ones and the most serious ones to experience them. Somebody like you who’s rich, smart, and mobile will probably be able to move around, at least for yourself and your immediate colleagues, structure an existence which is acceptable to you.
Chris Martenson: Now, as we look at the granular nature of this, you’ve travelled around and seen how a lot of countries are and are not maybe positioning themselves with this awareness, do you have places where you think there are countries and large enough groups of people that get it, that are actively reorganizing themselves in fruitful ways? Or is it really more homogenous than that, that everybody’s going to get bit by the peak oil bug at some point equally?
Dennis Meadows: So, of course, there are efforts at innovation going on around the world, both in rich and in poor areas. And I think when you assess them you need to differentiate between what I would loosely term global and universal problems. Universal problems affect everybody, but they can be dealt with and immigrated locally: water pollution, soil erosion, air contamination. These are universal problems. You can clean up the air in Detroit without having to wait for Beijing or Tokyo to clean up their air.
So people can innovate socially and create circumstances for themselves where they can reduce the impact of the emerging universal problems. Global problems affect everybody and are only going to be dealt with through collective action: climate change, some aspects of fossil fuel depletion, nuclear proliferation, the threat of global epidemics – these are global problems, and no amount of innovation is going to protect you over the long term from these things. If they manifest globally, they’re going to affect everybody.
Now, you can move to areas which are relatively less affected by climate change now, but by the time we’ve run the trends out – let’s say another ten, twenty, thirty years – the disruptions of natural cycles are going to be affecting everybody. Rich people can buy their way out of food shortages. They can buy clean water. But they’re not going to be able to buy a benign climate.
Chris Martenson: Right. And that’s an excellent distinction: global versus universal. And we're already starting to see, I think, the early results back from India getting closer and closer to the wet bulb temperature past which humans cannot survive without air conditioning or some other artificial support. India is being followed I think closely by Australia, which is just, again, under drought and bush fires and abnormally warm temperatures, all this and that.
So I think at least in a couple cases, we're already seeing the early stages of what the future is likely to hold. Would you agree with that, or is this still just an example of where climate change and weather events can’t really be connected yet?
Dennis Meadows: There is no longer any scientific uncertainty about the fact that climate change is progressing. It’s cost, at least in some measure, and probably large measure, by human activity, and that it is moving the weather regime into more disruptive and negative areas. And it’s, of course, not only hot temperatures that are causing problems. Sea level rise combined with more intense periods of rainfall and wind are causing flooding problems or drought problem on occasion. The agricultural systems are starting to be disrupted.
I’m watching with great interest what’s unfolding just now between the hog epidemic in China, the freezing of, for example major potato producing areas, the flooding of some of the major grain producing areas. I think food may already be a serious constraint even next spring, and not only in India, but some places like the United States.
So, yes, we are absolutely seeing these things now and in many ways. The people who deny that this is happening I think, by and large, actually are not ignorant of it. It’s just that they don’t care or that they find it politically extremely inconvenient to deal with the consequences. So rather than try to figure out how to solve the problem, you just deny it.
Chris Martenson: You know, Dennis, I guess I'm well over a decade at this now, and I’ve put together a thing called the Crash Course which is sort of a systemic level view to try and put together the economy, energy, environment into sort of a very high level view to say hey, look, you know, this is like one big balloon. You can squeeze on one part and it just pops out over here.
So we’ve hit the edges of what the earth can provide, and now we have to manage it as if it were a single thing. And, of course, you know, I was just trying to bring to the financial community this idea that infinite exponential growth, it’s the plan, but it’s not a good one. And it’s not even possibly.
So even with all that, I thought I was in the business of sharing information with people. But I have a science background. I have a lot of training in it, and data speaks to me, and I quickly learned that it doesn’t speak to most people.
And further, that data can actually cause the opposite effect of what you expect, called the backfire effect. And I had to take this whole tour into psychology and areas that had frankly not been strong in my background to learn things about why people actually form opinions and hold beliefs and how they can shift those.
Because really, you said earlier that it’s not the technology that matters, it’s the social and cultural variables and how we push those. Those are largely immune to data, I found, personally. And I'm wondering what your thoughts are on that and what you’ve encountered and learned over the years?
Dennis Meadows: I have, in retrospect, spent a lot of my time communication with people who are generally inclined to share these views. You know, when you or I go and give a speech, or when you or I write a book, the people we're speaking to are by and large not rabid critics, but rather people who are looking for a reaffirmation of views that they already hold.
Unfortunately, they are a very small minority. And I agree with you, for a large fraction of the population, the kind of data becoming available now don’t serve to persuade anyone of either the situation or they need to change.
I'm not an expert in this area, but I have wondered whether actually our species cognitively has the capacity to deal with these issues. You know, we evolved over several hundred thousand years where long-term issues were simply not an issue. The main concern was to escape immediate danger, acquire food over the next 24 hours, and at the very longest, move so as to cope with seasonal changes.
But if you had two cavemen sitting there, one guy says, “Let’s run. There's a tiger coming.” And the other one says, “Let’s develop some hundred-year scenarios,” the first one is going to pass on his genes and the second one isn’t. And here we are two, three hundred thousand years later.
It has occurred to me that we simply will not deal with this issue. You know, somebody said to me the other day, “Well, we got to save the planet.” And I said, “No, we don’t, the planet always saves itself.” You know, we worry about climate change. Climate change is not worried about us. Climate change is a mechanism by which the planet re-establishes some sort of dynamic equilibrium in this little thin micro percentage fraction of its surface.
And if it takes the planet a million years, two million years, you know, it’s not a matter of great concern to the planet. But, of course, it has enormous implications for our species.
Chris Martenson: Well, indeed, the earth will be just fine, and it will go forward. So I really do think this is about whether humans are capable of getting past our wiring, and I think we are.
So here’s the thing. When people ask me this – I have great faith in individuals – I have almost no faith in groups of people, the larger the group the worse that prognosis for me. And so what it really speaks to is that we do need to start making these changes. And, of course, it’s great to see younger people starting to disconnect from the standard model, which is consumerism and infinite growth, at least enough to say, hey, we're really worried about the future; it looks like the elder generations are not saying the right things or doing the right things.
But given all that, with Greta Thunberg coming up and all of that, with all that awareness now centered around climate change, have you seen any proposals from even I would say the most ardent of climate change groups that would actually go far enough to prevent the worst declines that you're seeing in the Limits to Growth models?
Dennis Meadows: I have seen proposals which if they had been implemented back in the ‘70s would have achieved that purpose. But I would say that now a number of self-reinforcing positive loops have kicked in on the climate system to the point where it almost doesn’t make much difference what we do, what humans do with respect to energy use.
The climate dynamics are going to play themselves out according to a set of long-term physical parameters over which we have essentially no control. So I guess the simple answer to your question is yes, I have seen proposals that would have worked 40 years ago. They won’t work now.
Chris Martenson: And is that simply because the scale of the problem or because we’ve gone past some sort of critical moment?
Dennis Meadows: As I said, it’s because the number of self-reinforcing feedback loops have kicked in. These are called, in the climate community, tipping points. You know, for example, the sun comes down, it melts the ice on the Arctic. When the Arctic ice melts, less sunshine is reflected back so that more is absorbed by the earth, so the earth warms up, so it becomes even warmer, so even more ice melts, et cetera.
Well, once that cycle starts, whether or not somebody in Delhi decides to drive their car becomes increasing irrelevant. We are now in a point where not only the Arctic ice cycle, but methane emissions and the tundra, the slowing of heat exchange cycles, macro cycles and a number of things that have started to pick up, and once they get going, they sustain themselves.
We triggered them but having – it’s kind of like firing a bullet of a gun. You can decide whether or not to shoot the gun, but once you pull the trigger you no longer have any flexibility about that despite the fact that there will be a short period of time where there's no apparent consequences for what you’ve done.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, so as we look at that idea, you mentioned – I think this as in the 30 Year Update to Limits of Growth – and I’d love to hear what was new in that and what got changed – you said, “Now we must tell people how to manage an orderly reduction of their activities back down below the limits of the earths’ resources.”
There's a related idea to that which I just love which is that instead of looking at this as piles of resources and how many are there, you actually talk about this around the concept of throughputs of resources. Can you talk to us about that?
Dennis Meadows: Yes, I’ll be pleased to. Let me point out that the book you're citing was written 15 years ago and, of course, things have progressed in the last 15 years.
But underlying our analysis, a fundamental concept is the difference between stocks and flows. Stocks are accumulations which sit there. It’s like water in a bathtub. And flows are the rate at which those stocks increase or decrease. Having a stock of energy under the ground, which we did have for millions of years, has no particular influence on the climate. It’s once the flow of that energy increases to the point where carbon balances are changed that it starts to have an impact.
So this interrelationship between stocks and flows is replicated through out our analysis. Take populations, for example. If you have a stock of people, which we do now of 7.5 billion people, too large to be supported by the planet, it has to go down. It will go down one way or another. There are only two ways it can go down. The birth rate can decline – that’s the input flow – or the death rate can increase, and that’s the output flow.
We have been working as a species for a long time very hard to reduce the death rate. We haven’t put much energy into reducing the birth rate. And so one way or another, those two flows will come back into balance.
If we choose how they do that, we're more likely to be happy with the results. If we ignore the problem and let the planet set them to be equal, then probably that will operate to the death rate in ways that we're not very happy with.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, you know, this is getting back to this idea of social versus cultural in this particular story. Those two things feel like the most important variables here because we already have – here’s the frustrating part for me, and it’s maybe the hopeful part for other people. So are you an optimist or a pessimist in this story? I consider myself a realist. But it goes like this: we already know that the sun heats things up really well and if you just orient your house to thee south and have appropriate overhangs and window glazing and then maybe some solar hot water heaters up there that you could reduce the energy footprint of a house magnificently.
And you mentioned the 1970s. We’ve known this since the 1970s. It’s not hard. It’s not rocket science. And yet, I would say, Dennis, that nearly every new development drive by is totally ignorant of these things, which means it’s not a failure to have the technology. It’s not a failure to have the knowledge. It’s not a failure of any of those things, it’s just we have a culture that doesn’t think those things are important yet.
And so, as you mentioned, you pull the trigger and the bullet leaves the barrel. It feels like we're already past that overshoot moment, and yet we're persisting as if it doesn’t exist. Is that a fair way to look at this?
Dennis Meadows: Yes.
Chris Martenson: And how do we go about changing that?
Dennis Meadows: It’s possibly to respond to that question in theory or I practice. I can tell you a lot of theoretical changes that would have an impact, specifically, let’s say taking a look at the use of solar on residential structures. In theory, you could change that by inventing a drastically new and much cheaper solar energy source, and then, in theory, you could require that it be retrofitted on all existing structures.
But in practice, the housing stock has an average lifetime of 20 or 30 years. So even if you started right now to implement solar at 100 percent of everything newly built, it’s still going to be 30 years before you have penetrated the market. So that’s the different between theory and practice.
I know lots of theoretical things that may get done, but when I look at the practicality of it, the physical delays, the short time horizons of politicians, the overemphasis of the economic system on monetary instead of physical indicators and so forth, then practically speaking I don’t know how you could do it.
Chris Martenson: I guess I'm looking at the difference between if you fly into Tel Aviv or into China, you’ll find that there are solar rooftop collectors for hot water. Thermal collectors on pretty much every roof because it’s mandated, and they said this is important and we’d rather not be expending fossil fuels to heat water because guess what? The sun does a great job at that, and that all just makes sense.
In the United States, if you fly in almost anywhere, including even in Tucson, you have to scour really hard and you’ll see them on less than one percent of the roofs, if my rough airborne estimating is correct. And so it’s not a question of does this make sense long term? Does it make sense even short term? Does it make sense financially? Do we like to support local manufacturing installation and maintenance? Every possible reason you could say this is a green checkmark, and yet it doesn’t happen.
So again, back to this idea of how we go about changing people’s cultural practices in this. That’s such a long-term project. It’s sort of where my scepticism comes in because I know what’s possible, but what’s probable is a different thing. And I think you’re right, we have to change the social and cultural conditioning first.
And the only times those really change, the only thing I have in my data sets, like here’s when oil consumption went down, was during a moment of economic duress. That’s the kind of thing that changes people.
But, of course, when you're in the middle of an economic crisis people say, well, now is a really bad time to talk about doing things because we're in a crisis. And then you get out into the good times. Eh, it’s a bad time to talk about stuff because everything’s going good, why would we want change anything?
So we have this enormous resistance to this change. It feels like, at least in the United States, but maybe other parts of the world, it’s going to require some sort of a slap to the face to really change things and put us on that fabled World War II war footing equivalent.
What kind of things can you imagine would be a significant enough wake up call to actually create that level of change?
Dennis Meadows: I’ve asked myself that question, of course, more or less continuously for the last 45 years, and I haven’t come up with a really good answer. An unfortunate tendency of our species is to erode its standards so that – it’s like cooking a frog in water. The idea being if you stick a frog into hot water – let me say a repulsive idea, but if you were to do it the frog would hopefully jump back out. But if you put it cold water and slowly bring it up, the frog never notices the difference.
Well, our attitudes about energy price, climate variability and so forth, have this unfortunate tendency to track recent experience. So in order to catalyse action there needs to be a really big difference between what you want and what you get. And if you want is slowly tracking what you get, difference never opens up enough to prompt action.
You mentioned sort of growing chaos. That’s another one of the self-reinforcing loops is as leaders come into a period of chaos, the natural inclination, for reasons that you explained, in part, are to do short term expedience. That is, to do things which have a very short time perspective and diminish the symptoms of the problem without actually altering the underlying causes.
Well, when you do that, rather quickly, the problems mount even further. So you're in this cycle where you do short-sighted, short term things that causes more problems which causes you to be even more short term and more short-sighted. And I'm afraid we're in that mode now.
The climate debates, the discussions about energy and so forth are simply what we term kicking the can down the road. You know, it’s a group of economic, political leaders who are basically saying there shouldn’t be problems on my watch. If I can simply defer the consequences of this until after I'm out of office or retired, that’s good enough for me.
How to overcome that, well, I mean, in theory, we need longer term perspectives. One of my dear friends, Elise Bowling, used to talk about the 50-year presence. This notion that you walk around viewing everything in the context not of the immediate or the day implications, but how it’s going to unfold over the next 50 years. And if you had a 50-year presence, the cause of what you're doing now would start to outweigh the benefits. But the benefits are always short term and the cost are longer term. So you don’t have a 50-year present but a one-day present, or a one-hour present, then there's just systematically the inclination to keep doing things which are going to cause you more problems later.
Chris Martenson: So if we look at the tendencies here, I know that you mention that it’s been, and I can’t believe this, but it’s been 5 years since the update to Limits to Growth, and you mentioned that things have transpired since. First, very quickly, what was in the update? Did you have new variables? How were the models shifted and what popped out of that? And secondly, what do we know since then?
Dennis Meadows: We rewrote the book, Limits to Growth, three times, and each was a fundamental rewrite. We sat down – we kept the structure, you know, the logical structure of the book, but we re-examined everything to new data, possibilities for new relationships in the model. But finally, at the level of the long-term global future, we didn’t find reasons to make major changes. So, of course, there were some discoveries.
I think we underestimated the response of human decisions to some of the economic variables that are at work. We also, I think, underestimated to a minor extent the ability to increase food production through the application of fertilizers and water. But when we put those changes into the model and then ran it out to 2100, it didn’t make any difference in the fundamental results.
We still concluded that you simple cannot support seven or eight or nine billion people with a material and energy flow anything like what is currently experienced in the West or aspired to in the third world.
Now, as to what’s happened in the last 15 years, well, we had at one time actually intended to write the 4th edition of the book. But I finally decided not to do that because sort of the conceptual framework which you use simply no longer applies. In the first three editions, we could show how current policies were leading to a period of overshoot decline, and we could lay out, at least in theory, some changes, cultural and other changes so it would avoid that outcome and produce not infinite long-term welfare, but at least sustain our species in its current form, more or less, for another century.
Well, in the last 15 years, there's been such an acceleration in demand for energy and materials, the natural resources of the earth have deteriorated sufficiently, and the population has grown to the point where I no longer see ways realistically of changing the model to produce a so-called sustainable development scenario.
And it’s caused me, in my own thinking, to shift from this notion of sustainable development, which is actually a kind of an oxymoron anyway, over to the concept of resilience. How do you structure a system, a personal system, your family, your firm, your household, your town, your nation, so that it will absorb the shocks which are coming and continue to afford a basis for a humane existence?
Resilience has a benefit of being scalable. You can think about resilient policies at the household level. You can think about resilient policies at the national level. That’s less true over the long term for sustainable development. I don't know how an individual can think about sustainable development of a household over say the next 30, 40, 50 years in the midst of a nation which is pursuing exactly the opposite goal.
Chris Martenson: Fascinating. And quite aligned with the thinking of Adam Taggart and myself and what we do at Peak Prosperity is encouraging people towards resilience along multiple dimensions. A lot of people hear that word and they think, oh, I’ve got food in the basement. That’s not it. We're talking about eight different forms of capital, living capital being your personal health and the ecosystem around you as much as you can influence as well as your social capital, emotional capital, a lot of things that are really, really critical.
And I think, Dennis, part of the problem when we talk about this decline part, to you or I where we can run the numbers and we go, oh, it’s kind of a unless we do something, and we're not doing anything, that’s what’s coming.
For a lot of people, that evokes something where they think, oh, they’re talking about going back to the Middle Ages. So to resilience, I have this other word I like to throw in which is preservation. Middle Ages they didn’t have germ theory, and they didn’t understand some of the finer points of how we heal developmental trauma and all these wonderful things we’ve learned. We need to preserve those as well.
And the question is really can we fashion lives that sustain a really comfortable standard of living, but at maybe much lower levels of throughputs from that stocks and flows example that we currently have? Do you think – is that a framework that has some legs here at least to buy us some time? And is there a way we could go there?
Dennis Meadows: I think all of those are important ideas. Welfare, real welfare, by and large, depends of the stocks that we’ve accumulated, housing stock and so forth. And, obviously, there are ways to sustain those stocks with much lower throughputs. Extremely useful, feasible, important to pursue them.
But there's another part of the equation, which I think probably you're also pursuing. And you say sustain a comfortable lifestyle. Well, you know, that’s a matter of social definition. I remember back in the early 50s, my family had a housing, had transport and other stocks which would be considered today very inferior. Nonetheless, we were perfectly comfortable and happy.
So I like to point out that happiness is getting what you want. And if you're not happy, that means you're not getting what you want. There are two ways to adjust. One is increase what you get. That’s, of course, the traditional way. And the other is to reduce what you want.
A very important policy, a very important strategy for the next decades will be people and larger groups, families, communities and so forth, adjusting their goals and understanding how they can have objectives which are not purely measured by let’s say GDP. Making yourself happy with much lower stocks. That’s a very important, very feasible thing to do.
Chris Martenson: Well, indeed. And we have – part of the battle that I know you fight, I'm sure, I do as well, is this idea that technology is going to save us, and the people are very techno utopian and they look at the positive sides of things all the time. And I’ll tell you what. I like my Smartphone. I live being able to drive in through Boston, which I can’t fathom, but with GPS it’s possible. I get it.
And at the same time, we have people now reporting a whole generation that feels more isolated, more lonely, more disconnected from self, from other, unhappy, and that’s the other side of that coin. So it’s clear that somehow in our so-called modern existence we’ve lost some things that used to add to that level of happiness. And, of course, the consumer model is perfectly happy to fill that back on with cheap dopamine hits from new TVs and the latest app on your Smartphone.
And so as we get locked into this, it feels to me like there's a little bit of a seismic shift coming where it almost feels like a critical mass of people have started to say hey, wait a minute; we don’t even like this culture we’ve got. Can we do better? The answer is yes, but maybe I speak to an echo chamber.
What’s your personal experience with the people you live around and communicate with who you would consider your neighbor’s? How on this wavelength are they do you think, without getting anybody in trouble?
Dennis Meadows: First of all, I’d have to point out, I live in a very, very unrepresentative milieu. I'm in New Hampshire. I'm in an academic university town which has a fairly high-income standard, so I wouldn’t want to make inferences about the globe by looking around my neighborhood.
Nonetheless, even amongst my colleagues, my friends, it varies enormously. Some are rabid Trump supporter. Some are rabid Trump non-supporters. Some believe in climate change. Other are incredibly sceptical. There is a shift, I think, towards things like recycling, renewable energy use, shifting mass transport modes and so forth. I wouldn’t call it a seismic wave, but it’s coming.
You mentioned this notion that technology will save us. It’s unfortunately one of the main problems we have to deal with is that many people hold this view. It’s an incredibly naïve view, I can say, having spent a lot of my life being at the forefront of developing new technology. There's somehow implicit in that idea that technology is autonomous, that it moves according to its own goals and that those goals are beneficial. In fact, that’s actually not the case.
Technology emerges when people invest money and effort into developing something new, and they don’t do that at random, and they by and large don’t do it out of a sense of general human wellbeing. They do it because they feel it will give them some special economic, political, military advantage. And so when you say that technology will save us, you're really saying that the people who invest in technology will save us. And that’s a much more difficult idea to defend.
Who invests in technology? Well, one of the biggest investors in the United States is the military. I’ve never thought that the military was trying to develop things that would feed the world, clean up pollution, and make everybody more equal in their income. Quite the contrary. Or the technology developed by people out in Silicon Valley. Once again, they’re doing it for their purposed, not for ours.
So we need to come past this idea and understand that oh, technology is very powerful, it gives you great tools, the tools aren’t going to be very much use to you unless they’re developed out of a cultural shift that accords much more value to social equity, environmental preservation and so forth.
Chris Martenson: Well, I’ll tell you, the only sort of glimmer of hope I have around technology, and it’s going to sound terrible for most people. I was at this think tank that was being put on by Nassau and there was a guy from DARPA there, really nice guy, actually, and he mentioned that DARPA deals a lot with things that are very complicated. But they were really concerned about the complexity of the systems involved. So they were holding an AI modelling challenge, and I haven’t seen the results of it yet, but they were really looking for artificial intelligence to come in and see what it can do around complexity modelling. So you mentioned the military. This would be an example.
The only thing I could imagine is if humans somehow said, gosh, everything’s gotten more complicated as well as it’s too complex for human culture, society, and even brainpower to manifest. We built these AI machines now that can self-learn and beat the world master at GO and chess and other things like that. So what if we got an AI software package together that could sort of model this all out and let it make the decisions? I don’t think we’d like the answers because it might conclude, hey, we can only afford to have 200 people living in what we currently call Phoenix, let’s move the rest out.
I don’t know what decisions it would make, but that was the only sort of way I could see technology really managing to live into this forest is if it could somehow make the decisions for us that we're unable to. But I can’t for the life of me imagine how anything like that would actually come in to being. So it’s more of a specifically-fi novel at this point that I haven’t written rather than anything realistic.
Dennis Meadows: I agree with you totally.
Chris Martenson: All right. Well, Dennis, we're pretty much out of time, but I could keep talking to you forever, and I would love to do this again. And I'm wondering, what’s next for you, and how can people follow your work and maybe hear you speak?
Dennis Meadows: Much of my intellectual work now takes place in two venues. Because my books were translated into lots of languages, I still receive invitations from around the world to go and meet with people, teach teachers, consult with leaders and so forth. Often, those presentations are filmed, and if you type in YouTube Meadows, you’ll come up with a whole bunch of videos which, at least amongst the more recent ones, show some of my current ideas.
I'm also working with a group that I founded back in 1982, so it’s now 37 years old, called the Balaton Group. It’s a network of leaders from around the world who are interested in dealing with these issues. We come together once a year for a week of informal conversations to help each other, and it’s based on the idea that we don’t know what’s going to happen, but whatever is emerging we're going to be happier with it if there are around the world smart, well informed, altruistic leaders responding to it. And so the Balaton Group is working to identify and cultivate those leaders.
Those are the two ways that people can keep in touch with my idea at the moment. I also do a lot of work around here locally on my community, but that’s not of much influence or much interest, I would say, to people outside of Durham.
Chris Martenson: Well, Dennis, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for the work you are doing in the world, and I really hope to remain in touch with you around these very important ideas and the work you’ve done.
Dennis Meadows: Thank you. Well, it’s a pleasure to talk to you Chris. I admire the work you’ve done with your course and with your blog. I hope you are encouraging people to really become informed and active on these issues.
Chris Martenson: Well, absolutely. It’s education first. If people ask me, Chris, what do we need to do? I'm like well, we have to get education. But education without action is kind of just interesting rather than useful. So we encourage people to take actions as well. And we’ve had a remarkable amount of success at that, so we're going to keep doing it even though there are times when it feels completely insufficient. I know it’s also necessary work. And so this is what we do, and I’ll keep doing it. So thank you for that vote of support. I really admire you and the work you’ve done, so it means a lot. And I wish you all the best.
Dennis: Thank you. It’s nice talking with you.