By Brian Fath, IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program and Towson University

Brian Fath. © Matthias Silveri | IIASA

Brian Fath. © Matthias Silveri | IIASA

The seminal book The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and colleagues was a first attempt to make a world model that integrated environment, economics, population, and industrial pollution. Without drastic changes to curb human population growth, consumption of non-renewable resources and industrial effluence, the model scenario projected a collapse of the world social-industrial system, because physically it is not possible to keep growing on a finite planet.  This important message spurred many people in the environmental sciences, but was largely ignored, or worse ridiculed, by the dominant economic and political leaders.  Perhaps their work was too pessimistic (although some could say realistic) and called for change for which society was not yet ready.

My co-authors and I  feel their message was interpreted incorrectly.  The restrictions imposed by The Limits to Growth do not entail stagnation and strife but rather give us an opportunity for new priorities, greater equity, and greater well-being.  Living within the limits can offer agreeable, pleasant, even thriving and wonderful living conditions.

Therefore we have written a book, which shows that following nature provides guidance and pathways to Flourishing within Limits to Growth.

People today are confronted with a number of very serious problems: poverty, increased inequalities among countries and people, refugees, regional conflicts and civil wars, global climate change, accelerating exploitation of the global non-renewable and renewable resources, rapid land use change and urbanization, and increased emissions of harmful chemicals into the environment. History has shown us that we cannot solve these problems using traditional methods based on short-sighted economic growth.

Additionally, we know from natural laws that continuous growth in a finite environment is not possible. How can we ensure sustainable development for society on Earth? It would be possible by imitating the system that understands how to sustain long-term development: to learn from nature and follow nature’s way. Nature shifts from quantitative biomass growth when the resources become limiting to qualitative development by increasing resource use efficiency, in terms of both improved network connectivity and information on process regulation and feedbacks. The two main ecosystem functions, flow of energy and transfer of nutrients, are accomplished by renewable energy and complete recycling of the needed elements.  Nature also originated and perfected the use the 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

“The restrictions imposed by The Limits to Growth do not entail stagnation and strife but rather give us an opportunity for new priorities, greater equity, and greater well-being" Innsbruck Austria - architecture and nature background. ©Nikolai Sorokin | Dollar Photo Club

“The restrictions imposed by The Limits to Growth do not entail stagnation and strife but rather give us an opportunity for new priorities, greater equity, and greater well-being” Photo: Innsbruck, Austria ©Nikolai Sorokin | Dollar Photo Club

Our book employs a global model to experiment with applying these properties of nature in society. Using global statistics, the model considers how the development will change if:

  • A revenue-neutral, resource-based Pigovian tax is increased significantly and along with commensurate tax reduction to enhance recycling and application of renewable energy
  • We increase investment in education, innovation, and research significantly to raise the level of understanding by the population and to develop new progressive ideas to address our global problems.
  • We increase pollution abatement considerably to reduce its negative impacts on our health, nature, and production.
  • We increase aid from the developed to the developing countries to 0.8% of GNP, which would enhance the cooperation among countries, reduce poverty and population growth and thereby also the number of refugees. In this context, it is important that the aid is given as support to education, health care, and family planning and not at all as military aid.

flourishingbookThe model calculations show that it is possible to obtain a win-win situation, where both industrialized and developing nations can achieve a better standard of living – the developing countries mostly quantitatively and the developed countries mostly qualitatively. The calculations are compared with scenarios based on “business as usual” practices. The business as usual scenario shows a major collapse around the year 2060, which is in accordance to the Limits to Growth results from 1972 and the follow-up-publications from the Club of Rome.

Furthermore, the book demonstrates calculations of ecological footprints and sustainability by assessing our consumption and loss of work energy due to our use of resources and destruction of nature. These calculations lead to the following conclusions:

  • Maintain natural areas and the ecosystem services they provide.
  • Improve agricultural production by increasing efficiencies and technologies.
  • Shift our thoughts and actions from quantitative growth to qualitative development, for instance by using the three R’s.
  • Shift to renewable energy.
  • Leave today’s policy focused entirely on short-sighted economic considerations and start to discuss how we can improve environmental management, increase the level of education and research, and achieve greater equality in society.
  • Develop and promote alternative measures of welfare and well-being.
  • Reduce, rather than reward, financial speculations, exorbitant profits, and stock market gambling.

More information: Listen to an interview with Brian Fath on WCBN Radio.

Jørgensen SE, Fath BD, Nielsen SN, Pulselli F, Fiscus D, Bastianoni S. 2015. Flourishing Within Limits to Growth: Following nature’s way. Earthscan Publisher.

Meadows, DH, Meadows, DL, Randers J., Behrens, W.H.  III, (1972) Limits to Growth, New York: New American Library.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

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