McKibben Reminds Us that We Have Yet to Come to Terms with Our Limits
In A Timely Reminder of the Real Limits to Growth, a recent opinion piece in Yale Environment 360, Bill McKibben reminds us that it's been 37 years since publication of the book, Limits to Growth, which warned, "If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity."
(Limits to Growth, by the way, was co-authored by the late Donella "Dana" Meadows, an early board member of the Center for a New American Dream. The book, in fact, is cited as one of the primary "aha" moments by our founder, Betsy Taylor, in prompting her and others to focus on the issue and eventually create the Center for a New American Dream as the first American organization to really take on over-consumption as its central mission.)
McKibben observes that we've spent most of the past one-third of a century plus pretending that a) the book was overly alarmist, and b) besides, 100 years is a long way off, isn't it? Things have not gotten better since 1972. When the book was published that year, its use of enormously sophisticated and at the time revolutionary computer modeling sparked vehement denials from those who saw it as a subversion of the American way... which they saw as "consume, consume, consume, grow, grow, grow." They laughed derisively and shouted angrily and said no way are we running out of anything and even when we do start running low on stuff (which we were not, they'd have you know), the benevolent hand of laissez-faire economics will adjust prices, spur innovation and make everything ok.
Trouble was, those who cast their fate with free markets live under the delusion that environmental resources exist as a piece to fit into the economic puzzle--i.e., that nature lives within and serves the economy. They fail to realize that it is the other way around. The overarching "system" is the ecosystem. The "economy" originated as our puny effort to attach a grappling hook to this enormous system and go for a ride. Except that, as we've grown, our grappling hook has turned into an exploding harpoon.
The original critics of Limits to Growth zeroed in on how well it predicted the limits of finite resources like oil. They completely (and willfully) missed the point that the book and its authors were interested not in whether and how "commodities" would become scare and have to be re-priced or replaced, but in how the whole interdependent system fits together, and how many pieces you can pull from it before it starts to collapse. The point was and still is that, at some point, the system starts to unravel and no amount of re-pricing or substitution will allow us to correct course.
McKibben, who's own 1989 book, End of Nature, also sounded the alarm in sobering fashion, says that in arguing about whether we can "afford" to deal with climate change, or must rather wait until we can jump start the economy and then see how it goes with the whole carbon thing, we are entirely missing the big picture. By ineffectually dealing with climate change, we are orchestrating a collapse that will make the economy entirely irrelevant. It's like being on a speeding train, heading for a cliff, and worrying whether hitting the brakes will cause us to jump the track. (My metaphor, not his.) It is the political system once again failing to grasp the severity of the issue, and how other goals must be adjusted to deal with this far more serious (and yes, immediate) threat--a threat not just to Arctic bears and Antarctic ice shelves, but to everything in between, including us.
McKibben, ever to the point, closes his piece thusly:
"Yes, it’s hard to change ways of life, and hard to break addictions, and hard to turn your economic systems and political goals away from the constant expansion that have been their target for more than 200 years. But now we know... that there’s something that’s harder to imagine, which is going on as we’ve been going. "
R.I.P. Dana. We're a little more receptive to your message than we were back then. But we're also 37 years closer to that cliff.