THE LIMITS TO GROWTH ANALYSIS OF OUR GLOBAL SITUATION

16.9.2019

Full account: 25 pages.

(For 3 page summary see thesimplerway/info/LIMITS.3p.htm.)

Our society's most fundamental mistake is our commitment to affluent-industrial-consumer lifestyles and to an economy that must have constant and limitless growth in output, on a planet whose limited resources make these goals impossible.

Our way of life is grossly unsustainable. Our levels of production and consumption are far too high. We can only achieve them because we few in rich countries are depleting stocks faster than they can regenerate, thereby causing huge ecological damage, and because we are grabbing most of the resources produced, which deprives most of the world's people of a fair share. It would be impossible for all the world's people to rise to our rich world per capita levels of consumption.

Most people have no idea of the magnitude of the limits problem and how far we are beyond sustainable levels.

Although present levels of production, consumption, resource use and environmental impact are unsustainable we are obsessed with economic growth, i.e., with increasing production and consumption, as much as possible and without limit!

Most of the major global problems we face, especially environment, Third World poverty, international conflict and social breakdown are primarily due to this limits problem; i.e., to over-consumption.

The limits to growth analysis means we must work for radical system change from consumer-capitalist society, that is, for an eventual transition to ways of life and to an economy that will enable all to have a high quality of life on far lower levels of resource consumption, perhaps to 1/10 of present rich-world levels. Such ways are available, and attractive, and easily developed -- if enough of us want to adopt them. There is now a De-growth movement for this kind of transition.


Since the publication of the book The Limits to Growth (see the appendixed note) in 1972 a huge amount of research and publication has accumulated documenting the fact that we are on a grossly unsustainable path. We are consuming resources and damaging the environment at rates that cannot be kept up for long. Most of the big global problems increasingly threatening us are being caused by the fact that we have exceeded the limits to growth. Despite this, the supreme goal of all countries is to increase production, consumption and GDP as fast as possible and without limit; i.e., the goal is limitless economic growth. The following discussion is intended to make clear that this guarantees that a multidimensional global breakdown will impact within a few decades.

The present situation is being generated by the overconsumption by only a few of the world’s people, so the situation will become much worse as the rest aspire for affluent “living standards”. The amount of energy for instance used in rich countries is around four-fifths of the world's energy production, and their average per capita consumption is about 17 times that of the poorest half of the world's people. It will never be possible for all to rise to present rich world per capita levels.


THE EQUATION… I = PxAxT

The resource and environmental impacts we have on the planet (I) correspond to the number of people we have (P), multiplied by their per capita level of consumption or affluence (A), multiplied by the sort of technology in use (for instance heating a house by fossil fuels has a bigger impact than heating by solar passive design.)

This equation shows that affluence is the biggest concern. World population is only likely to multiply by 1.3 as it rises to 9 or 10 billion, but the Australian energy use per capita is 120 times the average in Bangladesh. Thus the main worry is that the dominant assumption that “development = economic growth” is taking us towards global levels of production and consumption that are many times current levels. The Simpler Way perspective therefore stresses the need to dramatically reduce levels of per capita consumption.

The IPAT equation supports the claim that the richest countries are grossly overpopulated, including Australia. We can support our numbers affluently only by a) importing most of the world’s resource production, b) putting a lot of resources into exporting to pay for imports, c) exporting products such as coal and aluminium and beef which are creating the greenhouse problem and depleting our ecological capital. If we lived without doing these things we could support far fewer people at our present "living standards".

There would seem to be only two basic counter-argument to the limits to growth claim. The first is that the problems are not that serious or urgent. The second is that technical advance will solve the problems, allowing us to go pursuing ever increasing living standards” and GDP. These arguments are dealt with at some length below.

 

DOCUMENTING THE OVERSHOOT, THE DEGREE OF UNSUSTAINABILITY.

The most important point to begin with is to make clear is the magnitude of the problem, the fact that we are far beyond sustainable levels of resource consumption and environmental impact. Present rich world, and global, levels are grossly unsustainable. The evidence below on demand, available resources, and environmental impact makes it clear that we have to face up to dramatic reductions in present levels, probably to the region of 10% of present rich world per capita use rates.

It is therefore important that we begin by looking at evidence on resource consumption and availability.

 

RESOURCES.


The basic concern in the limits analysis is how long would crucial resources last, especially if all people aspire to rich world "living standards"? Economists often give the misleading impression that resource availability depends mainly on the price we are prepared to pay. Their assumption is that if a resource becomes more scarce its price will rise and it will then be economic to process poorer grade deposits, or move to substitutes. There is a tendency for this to happen, but the important limits are set by geo-chemistry, e.g., by the quantities and grades of ore and fuels in the earth, and by biology, e.g., by the amount of biomass that could be put into ethanol production.


Resource costs fell for a long time until about 2000; since then they have begun to rise significantly. (King, 2015.)


ENERGY RESOURCES


If the common estimates for potentially recoverable non-renewable energy resources are added together and we ask how long would they last if 10 billion people each used energy resources at the present rich world per capita rate, the answer is about 30 years.
Most of these energy resources should not be used because they contain carbon, but the figures indicate the scale of the energy problem. Clearly, even if we doubled or trebled the assumed potentially recoverable non renewable energy resources it would not be possible to keep up rich world "living standards" for all people for more than a few decades. 
(On renewables, see below.)

PETROLEUM


The most urgent limits problems are set by petroleum. Our society is highly dependent on liquid fuels. Since 1995 a number of petroleum geologists have contributed to the following set of alarming claims about world supply of conventional petroleum.


- World supply of conventional oil appears to have peaked in 2005. (Several say this, incl. Birol, head of the International Energy Authority, and Higgs, 2014, p. 263.)


- By 2030 supply might be down to half its peak supply. This would enable all people on earth then to average only 1/15 the amount per capita we now use in Australia.


- Alternative or non-conventional petroleum sources such as tar sands and oil shales will not make a major difference to the situation. These “non-conventional” sources are difficult to extract, and have a low ratio of yield to energy spent in production effort (EROI). Some estimate that oil EROI has halved in only fifteen years. (See thesimplerway.info/Oilsituation.htm.) These sources re also environmentally problematic. In the short term unconventional liquid fuel output (e.g., “tight oil” and gas from “fracking”) has boosted supply significantly in the US but a number of people do not expect this to last long; fields have been found to deplete fast. Above all, the industry has never made a profit; extremely high debt has accumulated, meaning the price of oil would have to be very high to cover production costs.


- According to some measures, at present the world is using oil three times as fast as it is being discovered. Heinberg and Fridley, (2016, Fig. 1.1.) say that between 2005 and 2013 investment in the production of conventional oil almost trebled, but output decreased about 50%. The HSBC Report (Fustier et al. 2016) finds that the rate of new oil discoveries and their quality (EROI) have declined dramatically over the last few decades.


- Ahmed (2017) points out that all Middle East oil producing countries are rapidly running into extreme difficulties due to peaking of oil production, falling EROI and declining oil export income, high population growth, intense water land and food scarcity and thus rising import dependency, increasing discontent and conflict prompting more authoritarian government. They are having to use more oil themselves, meaning less to export to rich countries. Ahmed says it is likely that many of these states will collapse in the next decade or so. These trends will impact heavily on rich-world access to oil. (For more detail on Ahmed’s important book see thesimplerway.info/AhmedFailingStates.htm.)


In 2014 the price of oil surged to the region of $150/barrel. This seems to have contributed to a major decline in the global economy, and in turn to a large fall in the price of oil. Evidently whenever the price of oil has risen above $100 a barrel in the US there has been economic recession. But a price under about $50 is too low for companies to make a profit given the increasing difficulties and costs in producing oil. It is likely that we have entered a period of wide fluctuations in these factors, but that underlying these will be a steadily rising cost of production. Heinberg (2014) says the cost of production is increasing at 10% p.a.

RECENT OIL AND GAS SOURCES: “FRACKING.”


Since 2010 there has been a boom in US supply of oil and gas from previously untapped shale sources, accessed by “fracking”. It now seems clear that these sources show “…spectacularly high decline rates.” (Ahmed, 2014, Berman, 2013), and that total supply from these fields will begin to fall rapidly in five to ten years. Miller and Sorrel (2014) say the global long term potential of “tight oil” might be 10% of conventional oil. Access to European areas for fracking is much more limited than to the US sources exploited so far, due to tighter rules and more dense settlement. However the potential in other regions of the world is not clear yet. The fact that there seems to have been little exploratory effort suggest that the favorable conditions in the US are not common elsewhere.


It is likely therefore that in the next decade or so diminishing and more costly petroleum supply will begin to impact seriously on the global economy.


ALL FOSSIL FUEL SUPPLY TO PEAK BY 2025?


A number of analysts estimate that supply of all fossil fuels, i.e., oil, coal and gas combined, will cease to increase as early as 2025. ( Ahmed 2016, Mohr et al. 2015, Maggio and Cacciola 2012, Laherrere, 2012.)

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF EROI.


A most important factor in thinking about limits issues, especially energy, is the ratio between what is produced and the effort needed to produce it. So for energy the crucial indicator is Energy Return on Energy Invested, or EROI. When oil was first produced it took one unit of energy to discover and produce oil equivalent to about 100 units of energy. Morgan says in 1990 the EROI for the overall energy supply system was around 40, but by 2010 it had fallen to 15 - 20. (See also Higgs, 2014, p. 267, Clark, 2011.) He makes the important point that quantities in new discoveries are not as important as the likely EROI for getting oil out of them. He says (p. 74) that the EROI for the new shale oil and gas sources is 5, for tar sand oil 3.7, for North Sea oil now 5, and that few conventional oil fields being discovered have an EROI better than 10. (Clarke, 2011, gives similar values.) These figures reflect the increasing difficulty of finding, drilling and pumping, e.g., in deep oceans, and the increased amount of energy-intensive infrastructure needed. (This is why the trebling of investment has not produced significantly more oil.)


The EROI values for renewable energy sources are low. Hydroelectricity is best and wind is probably around 18, and PV perhaps 8 - 12 (…although some argue it is much lower), but ethanol from corn is around 1.4, meaning that such a great deal of energy (and land and water) has to be invested to produce the fuel that many regard it as not being a viable option.


The minimum overall energy EROI for a modern society is thought (by some, without a strong case) to be around 10. Some have pointed out that below this approximate value there is an “energy cliff”, i.e., a rapid deterioration in net energy available for use. Morgan says that if the overall EROI fell to 5 the economy would collapse.


Morgan notes that as EROI declines expenditure on energy becomes a greater percentage of GDP. He estimates that when EROI is 20 then about 4% of GDP is being spent on energy, but if it falls to 5 about 18% of GDP will have to be spent on energy. Tverberg makes much the same point; falling EROI means falling net energy available and rising cost of production, and thus damping effects on the economy.


NUCLEAR ENERGY?

 


There are several reasons why nuclear energy is not likely to solve the energy problem and/or should not be adopted even if it could.

• There is far too little Uranium at high grade to fuel a large-scale nuclear era for more than about 5 – 10 years (… unless breeder or fusion reactors are developed; see below.) Clarke reports that peak supply will occur in 45 years, even at the present rather low rate of use.

• If 9 billion people were to live as Australians do now, getting all their energy from nuclear sources, the world would have about 300 times the present nuclear capacity.

• Nuclear accidents can have catastrophic consequences. Some of the materials that would be released would remain radioactive for thousands of years. If the US Price Anderson Act had not limited insurance claims that could be made on nuclear generating corporations there would be no reactors in that country, because no company would insure them. However this should be weighed against the fact that coal power has large health consequences. But these would cease within one generation after use of coal ceased, and that is not the case with nuclear energy.

• No matter how well designed, reactors are operated by humans so it is always possible for mistakes to be made, e.g., when operators over-ride automatic safety systems as happened at Chernobyl.

• The “proliferation” problem. A nuclear era would increase the chances of access to dangerous elements by criminals and terrorists, or governments seeking to produce nuclear weapons.

• Nuclear energy involves considerable release of carbon dioxide, because liquid fuels must be used in mining. This would increase as ore grades deteriorated. It is not likely that heavy mining machinery could be powered by electricity, nor that much transport can be powered by biofuels. However it is argued that existing plutonium stocks and waste nuclear fuel could enable large scale operation of Breeder reactors for a long time, without mining new fuel.

• There is no agreed solution to the problem of waste disposal. It is not possible to be sure that a site that has been very stable and dry for a long time will remain dry or earthquake free for hundreds of thousands of years into the future, through ice ages and greenhouse effects on hydrology. Even the reprocessing of spent fuel might give terrorists access to highly radioactive elements. However Breeders might be able to ”burn” wastes.

• Nuclear energy only produces electricity, which is only about 20% of rich world energy use, so it could not cut carbon release sufficiently. However we are likely to shift many things as possible to electrical power in future, especially light vehicle transport.

• The moral problem; the people living in a nuclear era would get all the benefit, but many future generations would pay the biological costs without getting any of the benefit after the fuel has been used up.

• We have no idea what the total long term health, genetic and mortality effects of nuclear energy will be. These effects will accumulate over hundreds of thousands of years as radioactive materials re constantly cycled through organisms and food chains. Even without accidents small quantities of long lived radioactivity are released. There is no threshold level below which we can be sure there will be no biological effect. If we do not have confident estimates of the magnitude of these long term biological costs then it is not possible to say that the benefits will outweigh the costs.

To summarise, the nuclear option involves several potentially very serious risks and uncertainties. It should not be taken while there is significant doubt among the experts about these.

Above all, nuclear energy is not necessary. We do not have to take the risk. It is possible to provide very satisfactory ways for all by shifting to The Simpler Way.

Fusion reactors and the Integral Fast Breeder Reactor.

It is uncertain whether fusion reactors will ever become viable but if they do they will not be scaled up sufficiently to make much difference before 2050. They will be very costly. They require Lithium, and resource estimates indicate that there will be not enough to meet demand for electricity storage and electric vehicles.

Some people believe that the Fourth Generation Integral Fast Breeder Reactor could provide abundant energy. There are several questions on which we would have to see strong agreement among experts before we could be confident about this reactor. Again it isn’t likely that enough could be built fast enough to replace carbon based power sources before serious atmospheric effects impact. Note again that if 10 billion were to derive all the energy needed presently from reactors we’d need perhaps 300 times as many as we have today, and far more than this when we take into account the additional energy needed to derive minerals from what will be poorer ores and to deal with the resulting greater environmental problems, etc.

 

WHAT ABOUT RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCES?

We must eventually move from fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy, but there is a strong case that it would be quite economically disruptive, if not unaffordable, for all to live in energy-intensive societies running entirely on renewable energy sources. (For a summary of the argument see thesimplerway.info/RE.3p.htm.)


Following are some of the considerations supporting this conclusion.


• Because the wind is so variable it will probably be limited to providing no more than 40% of electricity needed, even in good wind regions (..unless there is unforeseen storage capacity.) For PV the proportion is probably around 25% (and possibly much less.)


• Some favourable regions such as Australia will probably be able to get all their electricity from renewables, but at a quite high and possibly economically-disruptive cost, i.e., maybe three times the present retail price. It is however difficult to see how Europe with its poor climatic and biomass conditions (weeks of continuous cold, cloud and calm) could afford enough infrastructure to derive all electricity from renewables, let alone meet all other energy demand.


• Electricity is only about 18% of energy used in rich countries now. Most renewable sources produce only electricity, except for biomass. Where are we to get the other 82%? We will shift as many functions as possible to use of electricity, e.g. battery powered cars; see below. But this will leave a large amount of energy needed in non-electrical form, e.g., hydrogen, and producing this from electricity will be quite inefficient and costly.


• Transport energy is the big problem. Electric vehicles will make a significant difference but medium and large trucks, ships and aircraft cannot be run on electricity. There are major limits to the use of hydrogen, due to the weight of tanks that would be needed to hold enough of the low density gas, even after high compression (which uses energy.)


• It is not likely that the world can derive more than about 100 EJ/y of ethanol from the limited amount of biomass available. That would be only 3% of 2050 world energy demand if 10 billion people were to live as Australians do now. However, we should not be using large quantities of biomass for energy, let alone taking more land for energy plantations, partly because land will be needed for food production, and especially because we should returning large areas to nature.


• The cost of generating 1 kWh by renewable electricity has fallen greatly and is now probably below that for coal-fired generation. But that is misleading, because the cost of producing 1kWh by a system that has enough redundant capacity to be able to meet demand at any time despite poor conditions would be quite high. Lenzen et al. 2016 found that to meet Australia’s 23 GW average demand 162 GW of renewable capacity would be needed.


• It is at present not possible to store electricity on the required scale to even out the intermittency of renewable supply, especially when there can be periods of intense cold, cloud and calm across the whole European continent lasting for days or weeks. Lithium resources seem quite unlikely to meet the storage need if 9 - 10 billion are to live as Australians do now, and battery costs would have to fall enormously. The best storage option seems to be “turkey nest” pumped hydro storage, but the difficulties and costs are not clear and would seem to be considerable. (See thesimplerway.info/PHS.htm.)


• Solar thermal power systems, which can store energy as heat, now seem to be less promising than was expected. Output in winter, when storage is most needed, seems quite low, and unable to plug gaps effectively. (Trainer 2019.) An Australian simulation modeling study (Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill, 2013) found that solar thermal can’t make a major cost-effective contribution. Trainer (2010) derives the conclusion that providing for winter demand via this strategy would be very capital costly.


• There are good reasons for thinking that we will never have a large scale hydrogen economy. There are large energy losses in storing, pumping and transforming this difficult element. (To run a car on hydrogen produced from wind generated electricity would involve generating four times as much energy as would be needed to drive the wheels. Friedmann, 2016.)
These points support the general conclusion that although the renewables issue is quite unsettled and significant advances are being made, it cannot be assumed that a shift to renewable energy will enable us to avoid moving to far less energy-intensive lifestyles and systems. It seems likely that energy costs would be much higher than at present, and these will multiply the economic and social difficulties we are likely to run into in future years. (A detailed numerical case supporting the conclusion that to meet all Australian energy demand via renewables would be impossibly costly is set out in Trainer 2017.)


Note that this has not been an argument against use of renewable energy sources. We must live on them solely before long so it is important to make them as effective as possible. The argument has been that their development cannot support a consumer-capitalist society committed to affluent living standards and economic growth. However renewables could sustain a society functioning on Simpler Way principles, because it would require far less energy.


MINERAL RESERVES AND RESOURCES.


Minerals are becoming scarcer and the trend over the past few decades has been to rising prices. (But price is not a good indicator of underlying scarcity because fluctuations in global economic conditions make a major difference to demand and prices.) In 1970 global use of materials was 31 billion tonnes; in 2005 it was 61 billion tonnes and in 2015 over 70 billion tonnes. The grades of all ores being mined are falling, in general by 50% in a few decades. Kazmerski (2012) says that between 1998 and 2009 the average for copper went from 0.8% to 0.7%, for Zinc from 6% to 5.4%, and for Lead from 3.7% to 2.5%. Production costs have increased by 75% since 1985. Deideren (2009, p. 23) summarises the situation; “The peak in primary production of most metals may be reached no later than halfway through the 2020s.”

Wiedmann et al. (2014) find that the top 8 iron and aluminium using countries average 14 times the per capita consumption of the bottom 80 countries. Given their finding that a 1% increase in GDP is accompanied by a .6% increase in materials consumption, to raise all people in 2050 to the Australian per capita use rate by then, world resource production world have to be 10 times as great as at present. But global resource use is already beyond sustainable levels; stocks and ore grades are dwindling. Again at least a ten-fold reduction is indicated.

According to Hickel (2018) we are now 60% beyond a sustainable global consumption of materials. If everybody in the world consumed as much as the average person in the high-income countries, we would need 3.8 Earths to sustain us. This multiple is almost four times as bad as that for productive land derived by the WWF.


It is highly unlikely that minerals could ever be extracted from common rock, because of the high energy cost. If energy becomes more scarce or costly, then minerals will also become more scarce. Some deposits that could once be mined economically now will no longer be economic because it would take too much energy to do it.

Again there is no possibility of all the world’s people using the per capita amounts of mineral use we take for granted in rich countries.

ENVIRONMENTAL RESOURCE LIMITS.


The most worrying limits we are running into are not to do with minerals or energy but involve the deterioration of the environment. We are seriously damaging the life support systems of the planet, the natural resources and processes on which all life on earth depends. The World Wildlife Fund says that since about 1970 global ecosystems have deteriorated 30%. The most obvious area of concern is greenhouse gas emissions but there are many others.

Climate change.


The world releases about 50 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year, but a number of climate scientists estimate that to have a 70% chance of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees all emissions must be eliminated before 2050 (below). If 9 billion people were to have the present Australian energy consumption (270 GJ/y of primary energy) world energy consumption would be 4.5 times as large as it is now. Reasons for thinking this cannot all be derived affordably from renewable sources were considered above. Reasons for thinking the climate problem cannot be solved by technical advance, such as in energy use efficiency, are considered below. This indicates that the solution to the climate problem has to involve dramatic reduction in energy use.


The burning of fossil fuels contributes only 70% of harmful emissions, so even if these could be dealt with there would have to be large reductions in other fields.

Carbon release: Australia’s hidden contributions.


The official and usually quoted figure is that Australia releases 546 million tonnes of CO2e p.a., which gives a per capita average of 27.3 tonnes, the highest in the world. (Aust. Govt. Climate Change Authority, 2013.) But this is misleading because large emissions also result from production of the goods we import. In addition there are about 831 million tonnes of CO2 in the coal we export, and more in our oil and gas exports. So our per capita average total contribution to the greenhouse problem is probably around three times the commonly stated figure.


The official claim for the UK is that emissions fell 5% between 1990 and 2011, but when carbon in imports is taken into account emissions increased by 16%! (Clark, 2011.)

Most climate scientists now seem to accept the approach put forward by Meinshausen et al., (2009), and followed by the IPCC (2013), which I to analyse in terms of a budget, a total amount of carbon release we must not exceed if we are to meet the 2 degree target. They estimate that to have a 67% chance of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degree the amount of CO2(e) that can be released between 2000 and 2050 is 1,700 billion tonnes. But they say that between 2000 and 2012 emissions were 612 billion tonnes, meaning that if that rate continued the entire budget would have been used up by 2033. (Climate Change Authority, undated, Ch.3.) Several climate scientists argue that a 67% chance is too low (i.e., we should aim to be surer than that), and that a 2 degree rise is too high. (See Anderson and Bows 2011, Spratt 2008, and Hansen 2008.). For an 80% chance the budget limit would be 1,370 billion tonnes, not 1,700.


These figures mean that the world should completely cease emissions before 2050, which is what the 2018 IPCC Report says. There is a very strong case that there is no possibility of achieving anything like this. It would require enormous, rapid and unprecedented effort and restructuring, yet most countries have hardly begun to make any significant effort. Many emissions come from sources that would be very difficult to control or reduce, such as carbon electrodes in the electrical production of steel and aluminium. (Only about 40% of US emissions come from power generation.) In 2019 global emissions were continuing to rise.


There are other worrying impacts on the atmosphere, including the depletion of the ozone layer, jet airliner contrails, dust and pollutants, the changing reflectivity of the planet, e.g., due to loss of ice cover, and the 500 EJ/y of heat released to the atmosphere by our energy use.
In addition to warming, climate change is predicted to increase variability and the frequency of extreme events such as floods, bushfires, tornadoes, heat waves and droughts. It is killing coral reefs and causing sea levels to rise, possibly by one metre by 2100, threatening millions of people living on low lands. Already some island communities in the Pacific are experiencing major disruption caused by sea water rising into fresh water sources.


Biodiversity loss.


We are driving specie extinct at such an increasing rate that scientists say the sixth holocaust of biodiversity loss has begun. The rate has been estimated at 114 times the natural background rate. (Ceballos, et al., 2015, Kolbert, 2014.) The numbers and mass of big animals has declined dramatically. Carrington (2014) says, “… vertebrate species populations across the globe are, on average, about half the size they were 40 years ago.” The mass of big animals in the sea is only 10% of what it was some decades ago. The biomass of corals on the Great Barrier Reef is only half the amount that was there about three decade ago. By the end of the 20th century half the wetlands and one third of coral reefs had been lost. (Washington, 2014.)

According to the 2016 World Wildlife Living Planet Report the world has lost more than half of its vertebrate wildlife in just the last 40 years. In freshwater ecosystems the numbers have plummeted by 75% since 1970.That means, “…For every five birds or fish that inhabited a river or lake in 1970, there is now just one.”

This huge damage is primarily due to humans taking too much of nature, (for instance Australia is clearing 60,000 ha of bushland every year) and dumping wastes into the environment.

Disruption of the nitrogen cycle.

Humans are releasing huge quantities of nitrogen into the environment, mostly through the production of fertilizers for agricultural use, and this is disrupting natural systems. It is not generally recognized that this is one of the most significant impact areas and that we have exceeded sustainable levels.

Phosphorus.

We are also putting large quantities of phosphorus into ecosystems, again from agricultural use. Phosphorus is crucial for plant growth and there are worries about exhausting supplies within decades, especially as increasing populations will require greater food production.
The increasing toxicity of the environment.

Large volumes of chemicals are entering ecosystems disrupting and poisoning them. This includes the plastics concentrating in the oceans, which among other effects is killing sea birds. Toxicity is responsible for much of the loss of species.
Food, land, agriculture.

Food supply will have to double to provide for the expected 2050 world population, and it is increasingly unlikely that this can be done. Food production trends are only around 60% of the rate of increase needed. (Ray, et al., 2013.) Food prices and shortages are already serious problems, causing riots in some countries. The 1.4 billion ha of cropland on the planet is declining alarmingly as ecosystems deteriorate, water supply declines, salinity and erosion continue, population numbers and pressures to produce increase, land is used for new settlements and to produce more meat and bio-fuels, and as global warming impacts.


The area of food producing land is continually being lost or abandoned, at a rate which Burn, (2015) and Vidal (2010), report as 30 million ha p.a. Vidal says, “…the implications are terrifying”, and he believes major food shortages are threatening. Pimentel says one third of all cropland has been lost in the last 40 years. China might be the worse case, losing 600 square miles p.a. in the 1950 – 1970 period, but by 2000 the rate had risen to 1,400 square miles p.a. For 50 years about 500 villages have had to be abandoned every year due to expanding deserts.

Monbiot’s (2017) restates the astounding FAO finding that “…at current rates of soil degradation…the world on average has 60 more years of harvests…To keep up with demand we need 6 million ha/y more land…we are losing 12.”

These are alarming figures. Ahmed (above, 2017) stresses how the rapidly deteriorating water and food situation in Middle East countries is likely to feed into catastrophic breakdown within a decade or so.
Water.


There are already serious water shortages in about 80 countries. More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. Over 175 million Indians and 130 million Chinese are fed by crops watered by pumps running at unsustainable rates. (Brown, 2011, p. 58.) About 480 million people are fed by food produced from water pumped from underground. The water tables are falling fast and the petrol to run the pumps might not be available soon. In Australia overuse of water has led to serious problems, e.g., salinity in the Murray-Darling system. By 2050 the volume of water in the system might be cut to half the present amount. The greenhouse problem will make these problems worse. Access to water will probably be the major source of conflict in the world in coming years.


Forests.


Tropical rain forest is being lost at a rapid rate, perhaps 16 million ha p.a. Pressures from population growth and corporations is reducing tropical rainforests, where most species live. If all 9-10 billion people expected were to use timber at the US per capita rate we would need to harvest from 4 times the world’s forest area.


Fish.


Nearly all fisheries are being over-fished. World fish catch is likely to go down from here on. The mass of big fish in the oceans, such as shark and tuna, is now only 10% of what it was some decades ago.


Oceans.


Among the most worrying effects is the increasing acidification of the seas, dissolving the shells of ocean animals. This plus the heating of the oceans and run off from farmlands is seriously damaging coral reefs. The coral life on the Great Barrier Reef is down 30% on its original level, and there is a chance the whole reef will be lost in forty years. (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2015.)

The “Footprint” Measure: A summary indicator of environmental overshoot.

The Footprint index estimates the amount of productive area needed to provide a person with food, water, settlement area and energy. The global average area available (“bio-capacity”) is 1.7 ha, but the Australian and the US average footprint is in the region of 7 - 8 ha. The World Wildlife Fund (2018) emphasizes that humans are already using so many biological resources that we would need 1.7 planet earths to harvest these in an ecologically sustainable way. (Note Hickel’s statement above that for materials use we would need 3.8 planet earths.)

But that is only to do with the present situation. If 9 - 10 billion people were to live as Australians do today we would need to harvest from about 72 billion ha of productive land … but there are only about 8 billion ha available on the planet! (…after leaving about one third of it for nature.) And that assumes no further loss of good land, which is very unlikely in view of the present loss rate.

In other words in 2050 the amount of productive land available per capita will be only about 0.8 ha, which is only 10% of the present Australian per capita use. That means we are 10 times over the long term sustainable use that all people could have. This is one of the most important reasons for The Simpler Way claim that we need to shift to lifestyles and systems that would enable present resource use rates to be cut towards 10% of present rates.

Why is there an environmental problem?

The basic reason for this massive damage being done to forests, the atmosphere, soils, oceans, grasslands, coral reefs, and biodiversity, is simply the fact that far too much producing and consuming is going on, causing us to take too many resources from nature and dump too many wastes back into nature. Even years ago one species, humans, was using the biological productivity of 40% of the land; the figure would be worse now. (Vitousek, et al., 2012.) The weight of that one species is now ten times the weight of all mammals on earth! (Smil, 2013.) How many biological resources would be left for nature if he expcted 10 billion people were to live like Americans? Efforts to conserve and recycle cannot make much difference to the magnitude of the problems while these rates remain so high, let alone increase with economic growth. (below.)

As with energy and materials, rich world responsibility for the problems is masked by the fact that we import so much. Lenzen et al., (2014), found that for each unit of environmental damage we cause within rich countries, another half a unit is caused overseas and mostly in the Third World by the production of all the things we import.

WHAT ABOUT POPULATION?

The world's population in 2015 was around 7.3 billion. It is likely to reach almost 10 billion by 2050. Most of the increase will be in the poor countries.

Over-population is obviously an extremely serious problem, evident in the I = PxAxT equation. Many believe the world is presently far beyond a sustainable population, which might be only 0.5 - 2 billion people. We now feed only about 1.5 billion people well, but we might soon have to provide for 10 billion. Indicators of the biological productivity of the planet are falling and many agricultural trends are worrying (e.g. falling water tables, land losses…), even without taking into account the probable effects of global warming. The above discussion shows that there is no possibility of all the people on earth now rising to anything like present rich world “living standards”.

So population is a major problem… but there is a far more serious one… this is the over-consumption on the part of the rich countries…and the goal the rest have of rising to our levels. Population is likely to rise by less than 30% but if all people rise to the present rich world rates of consumption world resource use and footprint will be about 5 to 10 times as great as they are now. So solving the big problems depends much more on reducing consumption than on reducing population, important though that is.

Third World people are often criticised for having such large families when they are too poor to provide for them. However, this fails to recognize that the economic conditions very poor people suffer make it important for them to have large families. When there are no age pensions people will have no one to look after them in their old age if they do not have surviving children. Also when infant death rates are high it is necessary to have many children in order to be sure some reach adulthood. Even very young children can help on the farm. These are powerful economic incentives to have large families and they will only be removed by satisfactory development which enables aged care and safe water supplies in villages etc. (It is important to realize that satisfactory Third World development does not require economic growth. It requires the conventional approach to development to be scrapped and replaced by Appropriate development; See TSW: Third World Development.)

THE MAGNITUDE OF THE OVERSHOOT -- WE ARE ALREADY FAR BEYOND SUSTAINABLE LEVELS.


The most important point the above figures drive home is the magnitude of the overshoot, the huge extent to which we are already beyond sustainable rates of resource use and environmental impact. We would need 1.7 planet Earths to meet resource demand sustgainably. The per capita rates of resource use and environmental impact in rich countries are probably 10 times higher than all people expected on the planet could have sustainably.


NOW ADD THE ABSURDLY IMPOSSIBLE IMPLICATIONS OF ECONOMIC GROWTH.


The foregoing argument has been that the present levels of production and consumption are quite unsustainable. They are too high to be kept going for long or to be extended to all people. But that does not represent the seriousness of the problem. Consumer-capitalist society is determined to increase present living standards and levels of output and consumption, as much as possible and without any end in sight. In other words our supreme goal is limitless economic growth. Few people seem to recognise the absurdly impossible consequences of pursuing economic growth.

If we have a 3% p.a. increase in output, by 2060 we will be producing 8 times as much every year. (For 4% growth the multiple is 16.)

If by 2050 all the world's people rise to the living standards we in Australia will have then given 3% growth, the total world economic output will be about 18 times today’s amount! Yet the present level is unsustainable.


It is difficult to imagine how anyone could disagree with this “limits to growth” case. It makes clear how absurd it is to pursue any economic growth at all, and it shows that we should be trying to dramatically reduce global levels of production and consumption. Many are now working within the global De-Growth movement. Yet the limits argument is ignored by the mainstream, by governments, economists, media and people in general.

"Those who believe exponential growth is possible in a finite world are either mad or economists."

Professor Max-Neef, quoted in Sydney Morning Herald, Jan.31, 1994, p. 5.

BUT WHY THINK IN TERMS OF 10 BILLION LIVING AS WE DO?


There are two important points here. The first is the moral argument, i.e., the foregoing figures show that all could not live in anything like the way we few in rich countries do now. We are taking far more than our fair share of the world’s resources, and thus condemning many to impoverished lives.


If that argument is disregarded then there is the argument that it would be increasingly unwise to try to live in ways all could not share. This is firstly because the rest want to have rich world “living standards”, meaning that all our problems will get worse and in time we will be forced to face up to the limits anyway. The second reason is to do with security. If you try to go on getting and consuming far more than your fair share of the world’s scarce and dwindling resources then you are going to have to put increasing effort into grabbing that share, including through the use of armed intervention to suppor

t repressive regimes, tip out uncooperative ones, intimidate others, and carry out open invasions to take mineral and oil fields etc.
Obviously the only acceptable goal is to shift towards a society, lifestyles and a culture that all people could enjoy, and the above numbers show that this cannot be a resource intensive society or one focused on affluent lifestyles.

THE COUNTER ARGUMENTS.


1. “The limits are a long way into the future.”


A common response is that yes the economy can’t grow forever but it can grow for a long time yet before we need to worry. The information above shows this to be incorrect; we are already dealing with serious global problems being caused by too much production and consumption. Ahmed’s explanation of the Middle East situation indicates enormous problems within a decade or so.
2. “But can’t technical advance solve the problems?”


Most people are "technical fix optimists", assuming that technical advance will make it unnecessary for us to change to simpler lifestyles and very different systems including a zero-growth economy. The belief is that smarter technology and more recycling, greater energy efficiency, etc., will enable higher "living standards" to be provided with reduced total resource use and environmental impact.
There is considerable scope for reducing resource and environmental impacts, but following are reasons why they cannot make a big enough difference.


Some people (notably Weisacker and Lovins, 1997, Factor Four, and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 2000, Natural Capital) have argued that in general we could produce things with only 1/4 (or perhaps eventually 1/10) of the resources and energy now needed. Even if this is so the reduction would be far less than would be necessary to enable all people to have present rich world living standards. Let us assume that we have to halve resource and environmental impacts per unit of output (…although the above figures indicate much higher reductions are required.) If by 2050 9 billion have risen to the “living standards” we in Australia would then have given 3% p.a. economic growth, meaning world output would be almost 20 times as great as it is now … then we would have to achieve a Factor 40 reduction in impact per unit of output! A Factor 4 reduction would be insignificant.


Discussions of technical advance and economic growth have generally failed to focus on the fact that these have been due in large part to increased energy use. In general greater output etc. has been achieved primarily through increased use of energy (and switching to more effective fuels, such as from coal to gas, and to electricity.) Now energy is running into increasingly serious limits.


It is commonly assumed that in general rapid, large or continuous technical gains are being routinely made in crucial areas such as energy efficiency, and will continue if not accelerate. Ayres (2009) notes that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel production. He reports that the efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century. His Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960. Ayres notes that reports tend to publicise particular spectacular technical advances (typical of Lovins) and this is misleading regarding long term average trends across whole industries or economies. Huebner’s historical study found that the rate at which major technical advances have been made (per capita of world population) is declining. For the US he finds that the peak was actually1916.

Remarkable technical advances are being made all the time, notably in astronomy, particle physics, genetics and medicine, but these are not very relevant to this discussion. What matters for the limits to growth issue is whether technical advance is reducing demands on resources and ecosystems, and it is clear that these demands are rising rapidly.

Tech-fix optimistic claims often fail to recognise that an advance in one area would cause problems elsewhere. For instance some claims that food demand can be met assume clearing more land, but that would worsen several other problems. Solving water problems by desalinisation makes energy and climate problems worse.

The field where gains are most needed and are not being achieved is to do with energy. The above discussion of falling EROI makes it clear that it is taking increasing quantities of energy and investment to produce a barrel of oil.

The “decoupling” claim.

The crucial assumption or claim or faith, built into tech-fix optimism is that technical advance will enable economic growth to continue while breakthroughs solve the resource scarcity and ecological impact problems. In other words the claim is that growth can be “decoupled” from these effects. The best known assertion of this position is the Ecomodernist Manifesto, from the US Breakthrough Institute. (Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenbeger, 2015.) For a critique see, TSW: Ecomodernism.

However the evidence on this issue flatly contradicts the faith. Remember from above that there would have to be enormous decoupling, reducing resource use to a small fraction of today’s levels, while GDP constantly increased. But in fact there is a great deal of evidence that despite constant effort over the last thirty years the actual decoupling rate achieved has been negligible; if output or GDP increases so do resource use and ecological imacts. (See TSW: Decoupling, and TSW: Ecomodernism.)

 

The most detailed and impressive recent reports have been from Hickel and Kallis (2019), and from the European Environmental Bureau (Parrique, et al., (2019.) The second of these lists over 300 studies. It notes that in some instances “relative” decoupling of resource use from GDP growth has been achieved, for instance where GDP rises and use of energy also rise but not as fast. Yet the goal has to be reduction of impacts, that is, “absolute” decoupling on a very large scale must be achieved, and impacts have to go down to a small fraction of present levels. Reference is made to few cases where an absolute decoupling has been achieved but there are usually reasons why this is misleading and not generalizable, for instance where it is due to action which shifts impacts to some other domain (e.g., reducing water withdrawals by implementing desalination.) The conclusion stresses that in general absolute de-coupling of resource use and environmental impact from GDP growth is not occurring, and that greater recycling effort and transition to “service and information economies” are not going achieve it. They emphasise that there are not good reasons to expect absolute decoupling in future; in fact the trends are getting worse. This aligns with the finding by Giljum et al. (2014) that the rate has deteriorated since 2000. They say, “…for the past 10years not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.” (p. 328.)

There seem to have been no studies coming to contrary conclusions. It is therefore difficult to understand why anyone would take the tech-fix claim seriously.

The same problematic claims have at times been made in terms of a “de-materialisation” of the economy as it moves more towards service industries. In fact services are quite resource intensive, and switching to them from manufacturing might actually increase energy use. (Sorrell, 2010.) Alcott’s review of several studies finds that there is no evidence that the shift to services reduces resource or environmental impacts. (2012.) In fact there is a correlation between the amount of services in an economy and the amount of energy used. Smil (2014) concludes that even in the richest countries absolute dematerialization is not taking place. Alvarez found that for Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% in 20 years, but materials use actually increased 85%. (Latouche, Essay 3.)
To summarise re the tech-fix issue…

The “tech-fix” faith assumes there is no need to rethink consumer-capitalist society, because technical advances will enable us all to go on living more and more affluently, and enable the GDP to go on growing, for ever. The case against these claims is overwhelmingly strong. The basic Simpler Way position is that technical advances can’t solve the massive problems that consumer-capitalist society is continually making worse.

“BUT WE WILL BECOME RICH ENOUGH TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT.”


Conventional economists say that as economic growth continues to raise GDP and to lift incomes we will have no difficulty paying much more for energy, for scarcer resources and fixing the environment. The “Environmental Kuznets Curve” thesis is a version of this case, claiming that as countries become richer they can afford to and do reduce their environmental impacts. The evidence reviewed by Alexander (2014) is that these claims are false but there is also a logical fault. If the price of crucial resources such as energy rises markedly, the GDP will not rise…indeed the entire economy might crash. An economy cannot increase GDP at a normal 3% p.a. unless many conditions and inputs remain at least as favourable as they were at the beginning. For instance an economy that grows to 2085 at 3% p.a. would then be producing 8 times as much every year, but that would not be possible unless it could get many more times the inputs of resources and energy that it does now, from greatly depleted sources, and could deal with many times the environmental impact.

DIMINISHING RETURNS, COMPLEXITY, REDUNDANCY, FEEDBACKS,
FRAGILITY AND VULNERABILITY.


The limits problem increases all these kinds of difficulties. As society becomes more complex, more resources and time and dollars have to go into just maintaining systems and the net benefit per unit of input declines. Tainter (1988) saw this as the key effect in the decline and fall of empires. For instance Rome reached the stage where most of the effort had to go into maintaining the borders and territories previously conquered, leaving none for expanding any further. Imagine using gravel to make more roads. As the system expands more of the gravel has to be used to repair roads, until eventually all of the supply will be going into maintaining existing roads and there can be no further extension of the system


The diminishing returns effect can be illustrated by the expense we go to where roads cross. In a village there is no problem, but in a modern freeway system an intersection can involve construction of multi-million dollar flyovers etc. Water has to be pumped to high levels in buildings. Long ago there was no need for staff, buildings or expense to care for aged people, deal with pollution or recycle water. Now we have to put great effort into remedying all the social damage being caused, the depression, stress, homelessness, crime and suicide. Tribes need no lawyers, prisons, or welfare workers. They have law but one person can remember it all, whereas our law occupies metres of shelf space and we have elaborate institutions making more law every day. At the global level vast sums have to be spent on arms to maintain access to the markets and resources rich societies must now get. We are having to consider vastly expensive schemes to bury the CO2 from fossil fuel use. Thus as consumption and complexity increase, disproportionately more and more effort and resources have to go into dealing with the problems created. Daly argues persuasively that our economy is well past the point where increasing production adds more to costs to be met than to welfare to be enjoyed.


Tainter also points out that systems are becoming more inter-connected and therefore prone to total system breakdown when one component fails. Globalisation has reduced redundancy, robustness and resilience in crucial sectors. Spare parts for a device used all around the world might come from only one factory. Supermarkets have only a few days food supply so if the ships or trucks stop we are soon in trouble. Most spectacularly, the integrated global financial system went down suddenly in 2008 causing disruption almost everywhere. But in earlier times your region would have been dependent only on the local banks which would not have been affected if banks in other countries failed. In rural villages many people would have been able to go on producing food, repairing carts, building houses etc., but now many necessities can only be secured via complex, distant systems requiring specialists, high-tech components, global transport networks and infrastructures. Individuals and towns can’t fix local problems; they lack resilience, being dependent on distant complex systems, and thus they are insecure and vulnerable. Similarly world trade is highly interconnected; the failure of a harvest in one major country can starve millions everywhere.


The interconnections between systems mean that as problems in one sector of the economy develop they create problems in others. For instance as energy becomes more expensive and scarce, minerals do to because it takes a lot of energy to produce them. A breakdown in one area can send bad feedback effects cascading through many others. Redundancy reduces this possibility; if the village plumber was ill and couldn’t fix your tank the blacksmith probably could. The lingering difficulty in getting the post GFC global economy to work as normal seems to reveal a marked sensitivity to high energy prices (and rising inequality.) Morgan (2013b) and Korowitz (2012), explain how the global financial and trade systems are now vulnerable to total, sudden and catastrophic collapse due to the impact of increasing resource limits on these interdependent and fragile systems. Mason (2003) argues that the resulting problems will come to a head in the “2030 spike.” Ahmed’s (2017) explanation of the Middle East situation provides a graphic illustration of these themes … increasingly over-extended, complex, fragile systems, becoming less and less resilient, and threatening global disruption due to the interconnectedness and interdependence on oil.


People in rich countries do not think about the limits problem because it does not yet affect them much; they continue to get most of the dwindling resources. But they are likely to be impacted heavily within one or two decades. It is difficult to believe they will be able to avoid extremely serious breakdown, especially given that they do not yet have any understanding of the situation they are in.


CONCLUSIONS ON LIMITS.


The basic conclusions the limits to growth perspective leads to regarding resources can be summarised as follows.


• Levels of production, consumption and resource use in rich countries and globally are far beyond sustainable. They cannot be kept up for long and there is no possibility that all people on earth could rise to our high "living standards". We can have them only because we are getting far more than our fair share of the world's resources.

• Resources are scarce and dwindling, ecosystems are deteriorating rapidly…because far too much producing and consuming is going on…even though only about one-fifth of the world’s people are affluent.

• Yet the supreme goal of all countries is economic growth; i.e., to increase production, consumption and GDP as fast as possible and without limit.

• It is highly unlikely that technical advance could enable us to solve the problems while we go on pursuing limitless economic growth and rising “living standards”. That goal is an absurd, suicidal, mistake.

• The problems cannot be solved in or by consumer-capitalist society. The only sensible option is to work very hard to shift to ways that enable us to live well while using far fewer resources. That means scrapping some of the core elements in consumer-capitalist society, and developing some kind of Simpler Way.

As Gandhi said long ago,

THE RICH MUST LIVE MORE SIMPLY, SO THAT THE POOR MAY SIMPLY LIVE.


..or as someone else said, 



WE ARE STEALING RESOURCES FROM OUR CHILDREN

 

THE LIMITS EXPLAIN THE MAJOR GLOBAL PROBLEMS


Most of the big global problems are directly due to the limits to growth … because over-consumption is their main cause.


a) The environment problem.


The reason why we have an environment problem is simply because there is far too much producing and consuming going on. Our way of life involves consumption of huge and unsustainable amounts of materials and these must be taken from nature and most of them are soon dumped back as waste and pollution.


b) Third World poverty and underdevelopment.


The facts and estimates given above regarding potentially recoverable resources make it clear that the Third World can never develop to be like the rich countries; there are far too few resources for that. And it means that the very few who live in rich countries can have their high "living standards" only because the global economy is so very unjust; i.e. because it allows us to take far more than our fair share of the available resources.


Again there cannot be a sustainable and just world order unless we in rich countries move to ways of life in which we live well without consuming anywhere near as much as we do now, and until the Third World abandons the conventional development goal of affluent living standards and embraces The Simpler Way.


c) Conflict, war, peace.


If all nations go on trying to increase their populations, wealth, production, consumption and "living standards" without limit in a world of limited resources, then we must expect increasing conflict. There are two major areas of concern.


Much of the turmoil in poor countries, including riots, coups and civil wars, is due in significant degree to unrest caused by ecological breakdown, especially food riots and disputes over access to land, fisheries, water and forests. (Remember Ahmed’s discussion of the Middle East above.) In addition there are conflicts over these resources being devoted to mining and agribusiness exports when local people are hungry.


Secondly, the foreign policies of the rich countries are major causes of international conflict, because they are primarily about securing most of the world’s resources and markets for the rich few. As minerals, energy, water, timber and agricultural lands become more scarce competition for these resources will intensify and the likelihood of resource wars will increase.


Our affluent lifestyles require us to be heavily armed and aggressive, in order to guard the empires from which we draw far more than our fair share of world resources. We cannot expect to have a peaceful world until we achieve a just world, and we cannot do that until rich countries change to much less extravagant living standards.


d) Social breakdown and the falling quality of life.



"Genuine Progress Indicators" show that even in rich countries the quality of life experienced is either stagnant or falling. Some measures of life satisfaction in the US have not increased since the 1950s, despite more than a doubling in average "living standards". Above relatively low levels, increasing incomes and wealth do not significantly increase happiness or the experienced quality of life.
In addition, just about all our social problems are getting worse; it is difficult to point to any indicator which does not suggest accelerating social breakdown. Consider alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, domestic violence, family breakdown, stress, depression, binge drinking, eating disorders, loneliness, anxiety and suicide. Inequality has increased markedly; many are dumped into “exclusion” while the super-rich are becoming much richer. Stress and depression are at epidemic proportions and are almost the most common illnesses in rich countries.


The Western focus on competitive individualism has intensified, largely due to the triumph of neo-liberal ideology, which legitimises the self-interested quest for more wealth. Over the last generation collectivist values, social responsibility and concern for the public good seem to have deteriorated markedly. There is concern about loss of respect for the political system; hence the rise of “populism”, Trump, right wing extremism, and authoritarian rule etc.


All these undesirable social trends are being made worse by the obsession with increasing production and consumption, wealth, “living standards” and the GDP. Governments allocate few if any resources to developments that might build community and cohesion, social responsibility, concern for the public good, equity and justice, generosity and collectivist values. The dominant neo-liberal doctrine says the best way to improve everything is just to grow the GDP.


THE ECONOMY: BASIC CAUSE OF THE LIMITS PROBLEM.


There is no possibility of solving these limits to growth problems in an economy that is driven by market forces, competition, profit maximisation and growth. The supreme goal in this economy is to produce and sell as much as possible, and to increase the volume without end. If growth in output slows there are problems. Yet the basic point the limits to growth analysis makes is that there is far too much producing and consuming going on and a sustainable world requires De-growth to far lower levels of production, economic turnover and GDP.


THE ALTERNATIVE SOCIETY --- THE SIMPLER WAY



If the limits to growth analysis of our global situation is valid we have no choice but to try to move to a society in which:-


• We have relatively simple material lifestyles. A sustainable society cannot be an affluent society. This does not mean hardship or deprivation. It is easy to ensure a very high quality of life on very low levels of consumption.


• There must be an almost totally new economy, a steady-state or zero-growth economy, not driven by market forces or profit maximization, and with far less production, business turnover and GDP than at present.


• The basic institution must be the small, highly self-sufficient local economy, so that most of the things we need are produced in farms and factories within our suburbs or close by.


• We have mostly cooperative and participatory ways, so that we share and give things, and we work together on committees and working bees to do many of the things we need in our locality. In other words we must govern our own towns and suburbs via town assemblies which deal with most of the important issues, leaving few functions for the centralized “state” to deal with, and requiring few paid politicians or bureaucracies.


• We use many alternative technologies, which minimise use of non-renewable resources, including much craft and hobby production, and building houses from earth. This does not mean rejecting modern high-tech systems.


• Some very different values must be accepted, replacing competition, individualism, affluence and greed with cooperation, sharing, working for the public good, social responsibility, generosity, nurturing others and a desire for materially simpler lifestyles and systems.


For a detailed discussion see TSW: The Sustainable Alternative Society; The Simpler Way.)


The last two decades or so have seen the emergence of the Global Eco-village, Transition Towns and De-growth movements. Many small communities around the world are working towards the required kinds of new settlements and lifestyles. A great deal depends on whether these movements can grow fast enough in coming decades. There is no possibility of making the transition unless there is a vast increase in public awareness of the limits to growth analysis, of the fact that we are on a grossly unsustainable path, of the unacceptability of consumer-capitalist society, and of the existence of a satisfactory alternative way. Therefore the task for us here and now is to focus on raising awareness regarding the limits to growth situation and the way out. (For a detailed discussion of how the transition might be achieved see TSW: The Transition Process.) 


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Appendix. A note on the book, The Limits to Growth, by D. Meadows et al., 1972.

This was an extremely important contribution, drawing widespread attention to the issue for the first time. However we now have far more impressive evidence for its basic thesis. For instance it used mineral and fuel reserve figures, whereas we now have estimates of potentially recoverable resource quantities, and evidence on declining grades. We also have “footprint” analysis”, and much clearer understandings of the greenhouse problem, the “peak oil” thesis, and the general energy problem. And there is now vast documentation on the accelerating ecological damage. The book is at times claimed to have been discredited, but in 2008 Graham Turner from the Australian CSIRO published a review concluding that we are on the path to serious troubles that the book said we appear to be on.

In my view the book does not provide a good case. It’s general position is correct and it is good that it has been so influential, but the argument it puts forward is weak and open to significant criticisms. However a far stronger case can be given now.