Questioning the Limits to Growth: Responses to a Lecture by Dennis Meadows

Following Dennis Meadows’ lecture, “The Limits to Growth and the Future of Humanity,” which was given at the Amerika Haus in Munich on Tuesday, 4 December 2012, the RCC is making available the slides used during the presentation and the questions collected from the audience. Many people responded to the issues Meadows raised. To make the questions easier to navigate, we have grouped them into five (loose) categories: Individual Actions, Collective Strategies, Visions of the Future, Politics and Business, and Science and the Scientific Community. We hope that these resources give a flavor of Meadows’ fascinating talk and of the thought-provoking discussion that followed.

Please click here for the slides.

Individual Actions

I want to start changing the world tomorrow. Where do I start?

How can you change the habits of people who do not want to change and do not care?

What actions do you recommend? What actions did you take?

What would you advise a student to do after graduating with an environmental M.Sc.? Act, e.g. take a job to reduce CO2 emissions? Go into science? Or something else?

What is your favorite example of taking action?

What are your opinions on the food movement: organic, urban gardening, etc.? What is your diet?

What can we do in our daily lives in order to achieve sustainable living?

How can an individual, one person, make a change?

How did you manage not to lose hope over the decades?

Collective Strategies

Interests are distributed unequally, which means that the parts of society that have to change – the companies – are not interested in changing their habits. How can we solve this dilemma?

Is change compatible with continuing to value nature only instrumentally? In other words, to preserve natural resources for future generations, is caring for future generations the right approach? Is it enough? Or should we act to preserve natural resources for nature?

The essay “Ten Ways to Intervene in a System” argues that the most effective way to change a system is to get beyond paradigms into the realm of “not knowing.” Isn’t a fundamental change of consciousness required in order to bring about a sustainable culture?

Population is the key variable. Why does nobody tackle this “problem”? Isn’t supporting an unsustainable population “unsustainable”?

Is resilience always a good thing? Aren’t financial systems very resilient?

What is your definition of sustainability (now that we are on the overshoot path)?

What are the methods to identify sustainable systems?

People can adapt to any changes. Why should we do something new?

Don’t the ideas of change and of building a resilient system contradict each other? E.g. with the advancement of renewable change, we have large growth in carbon capturing batteries.

Please give an example of the difference between global values and universal values.

Do you think that the order of shocks matter? Maybe we could learn by allowing the financial system to collapse how to respond to other crises (e.g. oil shortages).

What role do/will religion and faith play in supporting or hindering a positive future?

What is the role of religions and superstition in population growth?

Visions of the Future

Do you think we could still realize the “great transformation” towards sustainable ways of living?

Whatever we do, will we reach Earth’s tipping point?

How likely is it that we will be able to leave the path of “overshoot” for the path of sustainable development by making a conscious decision instead of being forced by exhausted resources?

How does the development of the oil sands projects in Canada influence sustainable growth? Will it push sustainable development back?

Big History: We may be on this planet for the next 500 million years (if the sun is not too hot) – have we understood this?

Do you personally believe we will survive the next 50 years without collapse?

How realistic is it to say that we will not use existing fossil energy resources? E.g. coal liquefaction. Can we find ways to not use all the unconventional oil and gas?

Politics and Business

Politicians and countries want to keep their power. There is a lot of lobbying. How can there be any action and change when there is this big difference between rich and poor, a difference that no one in politics wants to address?

How can we change or constrain the philosophy of business in big industry? Is the quality of industrial growth responsible for the survival of humanity?

Why do we confuse “economy” with “finance”?

Before the crash of 2008, eco-politics had a very high profile. How can we overcome the sense that it is the politics of affluence and prosperity?

Isn’t the difference between “global” and “universal” related to the administrative and political levels? Universal = acting locally and global = deciding globally/nationally?

If I remember correctly, in The Limits to Growth nuclear energy was thought to be one answer to the energy question. In Germany, environmental movements have been combined with anti-nuclear-energy movements for decades. When and how did you decide to avoid the risks of nuclear energy?

What expectations do you have regarding Doha COP 18?

Does an increase in immigration lead to an increase in cultural problems? How about change in global education? Should there be a Unified Civil Law for all?!

Yesterday Hilary Clinton was in Prague to promote techniques for the production of nuclear energy. If you were a consultant of the Obama administration, what would you tell them?

The global population needs to decrease. However, on a local level this raises problems, such as lower rent and later retirement e.g. in Germany. How could we counteract this?

In some developing countries hunger and poverty are still a problem. How can one make these countries believe that sustainable development is more important than the food and water they need to survive?

You have spoken about ethics and culture as ways to tackle the problem. But how can we establish a global culture of sustainable development when the differences between cultures are so large?

Science and the Scientific Community

Has the scientific community failed in its attempt to generate a “knowledge transfer” to society in general?

For over 40 years now, we have been modeling and simulating our economic and environmental future. When and how will the scientific community be able to take action and not only provide research results?

Are geo-engineering and trans-humanism scenarios still linked to the future of humanity?

How does Systems Theory incorporate unanticipated errors, which we have already encountered?

Will scientific and technological progress change the [growth and sustainability] curves?

Why is the fourth factor (the use of renewables) on the diagram explaining the use of fossil fuels not enough to get the use of fossil fuels down?

What is your view on the use of geo-engineering and the spraying of aluminum nano-particles into the stratosphere to manipulate the climate?


How is the data for German happiness gathered?

Why can’t we make every city as attractive as Munich?

Can one pursue a career as a Sustainability Ambassador?

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