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Beyond the Limits to Growth

by Richard Heinberg

In 1972, the now-classic book Limits to Growth explored the consequences for Earth’s ecosystems of exponential growth in population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion. That book, which still stands as the best-selling environmental title ever published, reported on the first attempts to use computers to model the likely interactions between trends in resources, consumption, and population. It summarized the first major scientific study to question the assumption that economic growth can and will continue more or less uninterrupted into the foreseeable future.

The idea was heretical at the time, and still is: During the past few decades, growth has become virtually the sole index of national economic well-being. When an economy grows, jobs appear, investments yield high returns, and everyone is happy. When the economy stops growing, financial bloodletting and general misery ensue. Predictably, a book saying that growth cannot and will not continue beyond a certain point proved profoundly upsetting in some quarters, and soon Limits to Growth was pilloried in a public relations campaign organized by pro-growth business interests. In reality, this purported “debunking” merely amounted to taking a few numbers in the book completely out of context, citing them as “predictions” (which they explicitly were not), and then claiming that these predictions had failed. The ruse was quickly exposed, but rebuttals often don’t gain nearly as much publicity as accusations, and so today millions of people mistakenly believe that the book was long ago discredited. In fact, the original Limits to Growth scenarios have held up quite well, so much so that even the thoroughly pro-business Wall Street Journal printed a lengthy front-page reflection on that fact in March 2008.

“We are living today at the end of the period of greatest material abundance in human history.

In any case, the underlying premise of the book is irrefutable: At some point in time, humanity’s ever-increasing resource consumption will meet the very real limits of a planet with finite natural resources.

We believe that this time has come.

The Pivotal Role of Energy

During the past two centuries, an explosion in population, consumption, and technological innovation has brought previously unimaginable advances in health, wealth, transport, and communications.

These events were largely made possible by the release of enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels starting in the mid-nineteenth century. Oil, coal, and natural gas, produced by natural processes over scores of millions of years, represent far more concentrated forms of energy than any of the sources previously available to humanity (food crops, human and animal muscles, and simple windmills or water mills) and, with even basic technology, are comparatively easy to access. With this abundant energy available to drive production processes, it became possible to increase rates of extraction of other natural resources– as, for example, chain saws and powered trawlers could harvest timber and fish at rates previously unimaginable. Meanwhile, fuel-fed tractors enabled a relatively small number of farmers to support many specialists in industrial or commercial enterprises, leading to massive urbanization in nearly every country. Modern chemistry (largely based on organic compounds derived from fossil fuels) led also to modern pharmaceuticals– which, together with improved sanitation (likewise dependent on cheap energy), enabled longer life spans and growing populations.

And so, increased consumption of fossil fuels has produced both economic growth and population growth. However, a bigger population and a growing economy lead to more energy demand. We are thus enmeshed in a classic self-reinforcing (“positive”) feedback loop.

Crucially, the planet on which all of this growth is occurring happens to be limited in size, with fixed stores of fossil fuels and mineral ores, and with constrained capacities to regenerate forests, fish, topsoil, and freshwater. Indeed, it appears that we are now pushing up against these very physical limits:

• The world is at, nearing, or past the points of peak production of a number of critical nonrenewable resources—including oil, natural gas, and coal, as well as many economically important minerals ranging from antimony to zinc.

• The global climate is being destabilized by greenhouse gases emitted from the burning of fossil fuels, leading to more severe weather (including droughts) as well as melting glaciers and rising sea levels.

• Freshwater scarcity is a real or impending problem in nearly all of the world’s nations due to climate change, pollution, and overuse of groundwater for agriculture and industrial processes.

• World food production per capita is declining and the maintenance of existing total harvests is threatened by climate change, soil erosion, water scarcity, and high fuel costs.

• Earth’s plant and animal species are being driven to extinction by human activities at a rate unequaled in the last 60 million years.

The exact timing of peak oil (the maximum point of global oil production) can still be debated, as can the details of climate science. Experts can further refine their forecasts for food harvests based on expectations for new crop varieties. Nevertheless, the overall picture is incontrovertible: The growth phase of industrial civilization was driven by the cheap energy from fossil fuels, and the decline phase of industrial civilization (now commencing) will be led by the depletion of those fuels as well as by environmental collapse caused directly or indirectly by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas.

At the End of Abundance

Our starting point for future planning, then, must be the realization that we are living today at the end of the period of greatest material abundance in human history– an abundance based on temporary sources of cheap energy that made all else possible. Now that the most important of those sources are entering their inevitable sunset phase, we are at the beginning of a period of overall economic contraction.

“At some point in time, humanity’s ever-increasing resource consumption will meet the very real limits of a planet with finite natural resources.

Limits to Growth foresaw this inflection point nearly forty years ago. But the world failed to heed the warning; as a result, adaptation now will be much more difficult than would have been the case if growth had been proactively curtailed decades ago. Global leaders now face the need to accomplish four enormous tasks simultaneously:

1. Rapidly reduce dependence on fossil fuels. We must do this to avert worse climate impacts, but also because the fuels themselves will be more scarce and expensive. Ending our reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas proactively with minimal social disruption will require a rapid redesign of transportation, agriculture, and power-generation systems.

2. Adapt to the end of economic growth. This means reworking, even reinventing, our existing economic system, which functions only in a condition of continuous expansion. Banking, finance, and the process of money creation will all need to be put on a new and different footing.

3. Design and provide a sustainable way of life for 7 billion people. We must stabilize and gradually reduce human population over time, using humane strategies such as providing higher levels of education for women in poor countries. But even in the best case, this objective will take decades to achieve; in the meantime, we must continue to support existing human populations while doing a better job of providing basic services for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. We must accomplish this in the context of a non-growing economy and with a shrinking stream of resource inputs, and we must do it without further damaging the environment.

4. Deal with the environmental consequences of the past 100 years of fossil-fueled growth. Even if we cease all environmentally destructive practices tomorrow, we still face the momentum of processes already set in motion throughout decades of deforestation, overfishing, topsoil erosion, and fossil-fuel combustion. First and foremost of these processes is, of course, global climate change, which will almost certainly have serious impacts on world agriculture even if future carbon emissions decline sharply and soon.

Each of these four tasks represents an enormous challenge whose difficulty is multiplied by the simultaneous need to address the other three. The convergence of so many civilization-threatening planetary crises is unique in our history as a species.

The Post-Carbon Transition

Already many farsighted organizations and communities see and understand long-term trajectory of the human project and are experimenting with ways to satisfy basic human needs in a way that can continue into the indefinite future.

Alternative energy sources and greater efficiencies are important, but the post-carbon transition will not be limited merely to building wind turbines or weatherizing homes, for two key reasons: First, there are no alternative energy sources (renewable or otherwise) capable of supplying energy as cheaply and in such abundance as fossil fuels currently yield, in the brief time that we need them to come online. Second, we have designed and built the infrastructure of our transport, electricity, and food systems– as well as our building stock– to suit the unique characteristics of oil, natural gas, and coal. Changing to different energy sources will require the redesign of many aspects of these systems.

The post-carbon transition must entail the thorough redesign of our societal infrastructure, which today is utterly dependent on cheap fossil fuels. Just as the fossil-fuel economy of today systemically and comprehensively differs from the agrarian economy of 1800, the post-fossil-fuel economy of 2050 will profoundly differ from all that we are familiar with now. This difference will be reflected in urban design, land-use patterns, food systems, manufacturing output, distribution networks, the job market, transportation systems, health care, tourism, and more. It will also require a fundamental rethinking of our financial institutions and cultural values.

Leading the Transition

Our new historical moment requires different thinking and different strategies, but it also offers new opportunities to solve some very practical problems. Ideas from environmentalists that for decades have been derided by economists and politicians– reducing consumption, relocalizing economic activity, building self-sufficiency– are suddenly being taken seriously in households that can no longer afford to keep up with the consumerist treadmill.

Quietly, a small but growing movement of engaged citizens, community groups, businesses, and elected officials has begun the transition to a post-carbon world. These early actors have worked to reduce consumption, produce local food and energy, invest in local economies, rebuild skills, and preserve local ecosystems. For some citizens, this effort has merely entailed planting a garden, riding a bike to work, or no longer buying from “big-box” stores. Their motivations are diverse, including halting climate change, and promoting environmental preservation, food security, and local economic development. The essence of these efforts, however, is the same: They all recognize that the world is changing and that the old way of doing things, based on the idea that consumption can and should continue to grow indefinitely, no longer works.

“…reducing consumption, relocalizing economic activity, building self-sufficiency– are suddenly being taken seriously in households that can no longer afford to keep up with the consumerist treadmill.

Alone, these efforts are not nearly enough. But taken together, they can point the way toward a new economy. This new economy would not be a “free market” but a “real market,” much like the one fabled economist Adam Smith originally envisioned; it would be, as author David Korten has said, an economy driven by Main Street and not Wall Street.

Thus far, most of these efforts have been made voluntarily by exceptional individuals who were quick to understand the crisis we face. But with time, more and more people will be searching for ways to meet basic needs in the context of a shrinking economy. Families reliant on supermarkets with globe-spanning supply chains will need to turn more to local farmers and their own gardens. Many globe-spanning corporations–  unable to provide a continuous return on investment or to rely on cheap energy and natural resources to turn a profit– will fail, whereas much smaller local businesses and cooperatives of all kinds will flourish. Local governments facing declining tax revenues will be desperate to find cheap, low-energy ways to support basic public services like water treatment, public transportation, and emergency services.

Elements of a transition strategy have been proposed for decades, with few notable results. Usually these have been presented as independent– sometimes even contradictory– solutions to the problems created by fossil-fuel dependency and consumerism. Now that “business as usual” is ceasing to be an option for mainstream society, these strategies need to be rethought and re-articulated coherently, and they need to become the mainstream.

What we need now are clarity, leadership, coordination, and collaboration. With shared purpose and a clear understanding of both the challenges and the solutions, we can manage the transition to a sustainable, equitable, post-carbon world, though the urgency of the need to fully and immediately engage with the transition process at all levels of society can hardly be overstated.

Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and educator who has written extensively on energy, economic, and ecological issues, including oil depletion. Author of ten books, including The Party’s Over (2005), Peak Everything (2010), and The End of Growth (2011), he is one of the world’s most effective communicators of the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels. He serves as the Senior Fellow at Post Carbon Institute.

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  • Bob Hunder

    This is a good plan or roadmap. A bit intellectual but not stretching it too much like alot of what I read. Thx

  • VictorIUU

    This is just such a good magazine. I moved to Beaumont from New York City 2 years ago and I was really surprised to get something so edgy and unique and great out here. Just though I’d let you know my feedback.