Limits to Growth? A Critique of the book Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update by Meadows, Randers, and Meadows

This book is excellent in that it shows how and why our planet is in “overshoot” and therefore how and why we are headed for imminent collapse. The book is a 30-year update on their original book Limits to Growth that first appeared in 1972. It has been through numerous printings. It chronicles the input and output for 11 different computer models for our planetary future (chosen from hundreds they have run) that powerfully show the options available to us and the ways that most of our possible choices will lead to planetary disaster. The options of what we need to do to avoid disaster are fairly narrow and clear.

Computerized modelling of possible planetary futures in relation to human activity has become a fundamental feature of contemporary Earth System Science (Lenton 2016). Many factors are introduced into the model such as economic and population growth along with a corresponding growth of extraction (taking from the Earth the substances we need to support human life) and sinks (discharging our heat and material wastes back into the ecosystem of the planet). Variations on many models are run, and the computer is able to generate possible futures depending on the variables programed into each model. The broad consensus of the thousands of variant models that have been run is that we are currently in overshoot, and that without major changes in the ways we do things (that can also be modelled), we are rapidly heading toward planetary collapse and major civilizational disaster.

Meadows, Rander, and Meadows correctly outline what is necessary for a sustainable world system:

(1) Extend the planning horizon for the world. This would have to include pollution reduction planning for soils, water, and atmosphere, planning for technology use and production goals, planning regarding extraction practices and loss of nonrenewable resources, and planning for the future health and maintenance of our entire planetary ecosystem.

(2) We must improve the signals for monitoring the real impact of human activity on our planetary ecosystem across all these dimensions. In response to monitoring, we must be able to take action.

(3) We must speed up response times so that we can keep resource extraction, production, and waste disposal to sustainable levels. We must be able to respond effectively on both local and planetary levels.

(4) We must prevent the erosion of renewable resources (such as soils and forests) and minimize the use of non-renewable resources (such as minerals and fossil fuels), and do these things consistently worldwide.

(5) We must use all resources with maximum efficiency (including repair, recycling, and innovating), with massive technology transfer to the third world to make this possible, and, finally,

(6) We must slow down and eventually stop the exponential expansion of population and physical capital (pp. 259-60). Limitless growth on a finite planet is impossible.
Nevertheless, the entire framework of the book elicits a living contradiction between these authors’ acceptance of the present world political and economic system and their vision of a necessary paradigm-shift to a sustainable world system. This paradox vitiates the power of their message and leaves the reader with the impression that their vision of sustainability is hopelessly utopian.

They say “it takes clarity and courage to challenge an established system,” but their book constitutes an implicit defense of the world’s established economic and political system and neglects to rethink that system. It does not evidence a great deal of clarity and courage. To promote the massive changes required for planetary sustainability, they can offer us no better options than what they call “soft-tools” of “vision, networking, truth-telling, learning, and loving.”

Everyone knows that the millions of people who have engaged reasonably well in these five “soft tools” over the past half century have not made a significant difference in changing the omnicidal trajectory of the world system. Since Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring launched the modern environmental movement in the early 1960s, more than half a century has passed and nothing substantial has changed with regard to overshoot. It has only gotten worse.

Such an inept solution as these authors propose to a monstrous global problem can only breed hopelessness and despair. The world political and economic systems do not constitute a political peace system (rather they manifest an institutionalized war system). Nor do they include a justice system (rather our world system exhibits an institutionalized system of poverty, injustice, exploitation, and domination), nor, of course, is our world system a sustainability system.

These authors promote a “revolutionary” change toward a sustainability system without seriously advocating fundamental change in the war-system or the injustice-system. One would think that “systems theorists” like themselves would know better.  They have written a good book that shows the nature of our present overshoot and the inevitability of collapse. However, at the same time, this book is fundamentally flawed.

Like the rest of the book, their description of these tools brings forward their limited model and vision of our human reality. They say: “All models, including those in our heads, are a little right, much too simple, and mostly wrong.” Indeed, their arguments that their 9th version of a modeled computer projection (leading to sustainability) will not get us there. This is because it includes their flawed assumptions about both political and economic realities. They explicitly state that their computerized model “has no war, no labor strikes, no corruption, no drug addiction, no crime, no terrorism” (p. 150). This utopian computerized model looks at the world as a whole and ignores the fragmentation of present world realities.

In their final chapter, these authors quote Buckminster Fuller regarding truth-telling. But the truth about Buckminster Fuller is that he advocated world government, a fact that they omit. Instead their “vision” includes dangerously vague and barely comprehensible recommendations for “decentralizations of economic power, political influence, and scientific expertise” and “political structures that permit a balance between short-term and long term considerations.”

It is difficult to imagine what these vague generalizations could possibly mean. Would they be global? Would they separately exist within each nation-state?  How would they be organized and funded?  What could these suggestions possibly mean with respect to our present world of some 193 militarized sovereign nation-states with absolute borders and murderous political, military, and economic competition?  Their vague ideas are incommensurate with present realities and show no way to get us from here to there.

Everywhere, these authors tout diversity and decentralization but then talk as if the world were a unity that could adopt their recommended new paradigm: they speak in terms of “the sustainable society” that must take these actions; or we must have a world that benefits “everyone;” or “a sustainable world” would not be this or that. They are recommending, they say, “a formidable twenty-first century program” for sustainability. A program for whom?  Of course, for humanity as a whole. Everywhere they fudge the realities of political and economic fragmentation. Humanity as a whole must do this or that, but they unveil no mechanism for humanity as a whole to do these things, certainly not the UN, which is helpless before the militarized autonomy of the big sovereign nation-states and has no global authority to make things happen on a planetary scale.

These authors promote a unified paradigm-shift and system transformation to a sustainable world-system as a whole and then declare (unbelieveably) that “world government is not needed to deal with global problems” (p. 201).  They say they “believe” in markets as feedback indicators, and they have built “perfectly responsive markets” into their computer models.  Then they go on to show all the ways that markets are inefficient, poor indicators, and flawed, and declare that we need vastly improved ways of monitoring and planning. Such cognitive dissonance is glaring in this apparently well-meaning book. Whether this omission is intentional or due to ignorance, it is inexcusable in people who claim to care so much about the future of humanity.

They seem to favor democracy, along with plurality, diversity, and decentralization, but these prominent systems theorists do not appear to comprehend that democracy itself is a system—a system designed so that government can represent the common good and interests of the people and take steps, through planning, dialoguing, and drawing upon scientific information, to implement that common good over planned shorter or longer periods of time. Their entire perspective coalesces around the planetary “we,” around the idea of “humanity’s long-term future” (p. 250). Yet they present no clear idea how “humanity” can achieve these things in the face of the Westphalian system of some 193, militarized, fragmented political-economic entities. They seem to assume that any truly unified global planning, monitoring, and economic guidelines would have to take the some form of a totalitarian system like the former Soviet Union (p. 257).
However, democratic theorists have for three centuries articulated the dynamics of the only system human beings have ever invented for embodying the common good of human beings combined with planning and action to further actualize that common good as we move into the future (Harris 2008, Chap. 7).  That system is called “democracy.” Hence, Thomas Jefferson declared that “all men are created equal” at the same time he and his society excluded slaves and women from human rights. But these values (that embody our universal human common good) became enshrined in the U.S. Constitution of 1787 and led to a progressive movement that ended slavery and enfranchised women.

So too, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 says that all people everywhere have the entire list of inalienable rights, including the right to democracy. Yet, then as now, it is far from the case that the people of Earth enjoy these rights. However, Article 28 declares: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” The UN Declaration points forward to a democratic world system.

By 1991, hundreds of world citizens from dozens of countries had collaborated to write the Constitution for the Federation of Earth, laying the foundations for such a democratic world system and articulating the procedures and methods by which the common good of the people of Earth could be embodied, planned for, and progressively actualized into the future (see Article 13). The Constitution recognizes the rights to peace, justice, and to a protected, sustainable planetary environment, and it structures a democratic world system to actualize these.

It designs a democratic system that is deeply pluralistic and diverse, but at the same time is united and representing the whole of humanity. This is precisely what all honest democracy does: it establishes unity in diversity. The Constitution protects human diversity while it embodies and sets up the procedures and agencies necessary to actualize our planetary common good of peace, justice, and environmental sustainability.

Meadows,, appear to have no clue that “peace” is not merely an interim between endless wars of the war-system but rather authentic peace is necessarily a product of a peace system. They recommend a more equal world system in the future that addresses poverty, quoting J.S. Mill, Lewis Mumford, and others that we need to be more compassionate and human. Yet they appear not to understand that injustice is a product of a world system founded on domination and exploitation, and that justice is necessarily a consequence of a justice system, founded and designed differentlyThey surmise that we need to have peace, justice, and sustainability together, but they have no clear idea how to make this happen—because they ignore the one possible system in which these three are united and integrated for success: global democracy.

All of the six principles necessary for sustainability found in Limits to Growth(and listed in the third paragraph above) are built into global democracy under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. The Constitution sets up worldwide, participatory agencies for planning. It sets up worldwide participatory agencies for monitoring. It mandates the democratic government to find ways to reduce response times, to prevent erosion of renewables (such as soil, water, and forests) and minimize the use of non-renewables (such as oil or mineral deposits). It mandates efforts for maximum efficiency and charges the world parliament to find ways to reduce population explosion through nonviolent, non-authoritarian means. It is designed to do all these things with a clarity and efficiency far beyond anything the UN or any other agencies can now accomplish.

The Earth Constitution is explicitly and consciously designed as a sustainability system for the Earth (see Harris 2014). Because it is holistic (mirroring the fact that humanity is a whole and the planetary ecosystem is a whole), it also is designed as a justice system and a peace system. It progressively and carefully ends poverty and war. It does not abolish markets, but it takes markets out of the war, weapons, and industrial military complex business. It is difficult to fathom why this is not obvious to systems theorists.

Intelligent creatures are not limited to the virtues of “vision, networking, truth-telling, learning, and loving” embodied within civil society independently of political and economic arrangements. Intelligent creatures are also capable of designing systems that cultivate these values. Democracy, properly designed and operated, embodies these virtues as well. However, the potential for democracy everywhere on our planet is limited and, indeed, destroyed by the global Westphalian political (war) system and a global economic (exploitation) system run by and for the rich at the expense of the poor and our planetary environment (see Held 1995).

The Earth Constitution is the key to a sustainable, just, and peaceful world system. The Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update shows us the interdependent dimensions of sustainability and where we need to go. It completely obfuscates how we might get there. To get there we need to draw upon the systems-theoretical concept called “democracy” and understand that a truly planetary crisis can only be addressed by planetary democracy.

Under the Earth Constitution, freedom is enhanced everywhere on Earth, and local communities are empowered and protected, at the same time that the world is united to wisely and carefully actualize the requirements to avoid collapse and establish global sustainability. To address the environmental crisis, our first and foremost task must be to ratify the Earth Constitution.

Brief Bibliography

Constitution for the Federation of Earth (2014). Pocket Edition, with an Introduction by Glen T. Martin. Also on-line at
Daly, Herman E. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development.
Harris, Errol E. (2008). Twenty-First Century Democratic Renaissance: From Plato to Neoliberalism to Planetary Democracy.
Harris, Errol E. (2014).  Earth Federation Now! Tomorrow is Too Late.
Held, David (1995). Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance.
Lenton, Tim (2016). Earth System Science: A Very Short Introduction.
Martin, Glen T. (2013). The Anatomy of a Sustainable World: Our Choice between Climate Change or System Change.
Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation.
Meadows, Donna, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows (2004). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. 
Romm, Jospeh (2018). Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know. Second Edition.

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