Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree: “The Limits to Growth” through the Generations

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By Annka Liepold; published in conjuction with a lecture by Dennis Meadows, co-author of The Limits to Growth, an event co-sponsored by the RCC.

book_coverGrowing up, most people are told by their parents what they can do to make this planet better. I remember that my dad’s advice was a little more radical than the usual “plant a tree” or “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Maybe because it’s so radical, I remember it well. He always told me and my brother that if you wanted to really help the environment, there were two things you could do: 1) immediately kill yourself, or 2) don’t have kids.

Luckily, he did neither of those things, nor do I think he actually wanted us to act on his advice. But the advice is very much tied to one of the lessons to be learned from the book The Limits to Growth: the world’s population is exploding and, consequently, the planet is stressed due to the exploitation of available resources—something needs to change.

My dad read the book shortly after it was published in 1972, and I read it 40 years later, in the summer of 2012. But were the predictions made in the book correct? And how did my experience of reading this world-famous book differ from my dad’s experience?

The Limits to Growth, written by Donella and Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, was published 10 years after Rachel Carson’s wake-up call, Silent Spring. Carson’s book can be seen as a one-issue eye-opener: an attempt to fight the use of DDT. But The Limits to Growth authors aimed higher: a projection for the future of the world.

The book is one of the first to acknowledge the exponential growth of the world’s population. It sought to show what this population explosion means for the lives of human beings and for Earth’s resources.

In doing so, the authors used the World3 computer model to calculate different scenarios. They used three different projections for population growth—low, average, high—showing how each scenario related to the supply of, say, oil or copper. While acknowledging the models are far from perfect, the authors claimed they indicate the direction of developments.

The book’s biggest impact is probably its emphasis on the finiteness of our planet’s resources. Another of its core achievements was that, just like Carson’s book, it was well written and easy-to-understand, making it suitable for a wider audience.

The critics of this book—and they were numerous—called the authors “Malthusianists” and “nay-sayers.” But having read the book, I have to say that this is a general misrepresentation. A very young group of academics, mostly from MIT, tried out new research approaches (in this case, computer simulations) to make predictions about the future based on the world’s history. It was an experiment that helped revolutionize academic writing. Just because their findings were alarming, doesn’t mean that they were “nay-sayers.” Rather, they tried to come up with solutions to the problems we were likely to face.

Having read the book only a couple of months ago, I found that many of its arguments are common sense for a lot of people these days; for instance, the idea that to ensure we and the following generations will have a planet worth living on (without the need for major resource wars), we have to change our lifestyle and adjust our consumption.

But having talked to one of the authors’ contemporaries, my dad, I discovered that the book left a bigger impression on him. He recalled that, for the first time, the absurdity of endless growth was pointed out, along with the fact that most resources are just not infinite. For him, this fact was mind-boggling, as there wasn’t much awareness of this now widely-acknowledged fact. Furthermore, due to The Limits of Growth, the word “sustainability” was revived and generalized, to be applied to a lifestyle that didn’t exploit the environment, other humans, or succeeding generations.

Considering how much publicity “sustainability” receives these days, it’s a shame not more is done to act upon it. Nevertheless, The Limits to Growth can be seen as a milestone in environmental history, as it taught us the important lesson of the finiteness of resources. Even today, reading this relatively old book is fascinating; it made me wonder why more was not done in response to the suggestions of the book.

But I think The Limits to Growth left an even greater impression on the authors’ contemporaries, who were confronted with this radically new approach and the startling awareness of the problems caused by the rapidly growing population of this planet. Since he read the book as a teenager while living abroad in the United States, my dad has moved quite a few times; an indication of how big an impact this book had on him is that his original copy has survived all the moves and can still be found in my parents’ reading room. While it might be just his inclination not to throw away books, either way, The Limits to Growth has now made a profound impression on two generations of the Liepold family.

Annka Liepold is a research assistant at the Rachel Carson Center and a graduate student in American history at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich.

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