Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows.
This influential book offers both a compelling overview of the climactic challenges we face on a planetary basis and, in the last chapter, how we might evolve culturally if we hope to transition to a sustainable system.
We spent two months reading and discussing this book.
One thought on “Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update”
Although I admire this book, I recognize that it has some problems. The book may be divided into two parts; the first part is largely technical or grounded in technical findings, and the second part, the last chapter of the book, is a prescription for how we must change if we are to transition into a world where mankind has a sustainable future. The first part is not perfect. Data and models should be updated. We can quibble about technical terms and extrapolations. Nonetheless, the overall conclusions seem inescapable. We are in serious trouble, and unless substantial changes are rapidly enacted, dire consequences must follow. Who besides industry shills and ideological crackpots would seriously question this? The last chapter of the book marks a transition from a technical warning about the path we are on to a nearly spiritual guide to the virtues we must implement throughout the world community if we are to somehow avoid destroying the planet we will leave to our posterity. The last chapter calls for a spiritual enlightenment among the people of the world. It is the sort of call that one finds in many religious works. It also reminds me of the kind of utopia Marx had in mind for a self-consciously realized communist society.
Sadly, although I find the ideals of the last chapter highly desirable, I also find their widespread attainment to be unlikely, especially in the short term. More likely are famines, wars, disease, mass extinctions, and the avoidable loss of the world we have been born into. Whatever happens, it will be a reflection of mankind’s ability to govern itself and care for our world.
The spiritual transformations called for in this final chapter will require a cultural enlightenment. And it must happen rapidly. Is this realistically possible? I doubt it. Such transformation takes time, maybe ages, and we simply don’t have much time. Moreover, such transformations may not be in our nature. The necessary virtues require of us a capacity for empathy that few have. We must put the future of mankind above the narrow interests of our own material prosperity and selfish reward. Capitalism itself must either fundamentally transform or contribute to our demise.
Here is a famous passage from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments that addresses this issue.
“In the same manner, to the selfish and original passions of human nature, the loss or gain of a very small interest of our own, appears to be of vastly more importance, excites a much more passionate joy or sorrow, a much more ardent desire or aversion, than the greatest concern of another with whom we have no particular connexion. His interests, as long as they are surveyed from this station, can never be put into the balance with our own, can never restrain us from doing whatever may tend to promote our own, how ruinous so ever to him. Before we can make any proper comparison of those opposite interests, we must change our position. We must view them, neither from our own place nor yet from his, neither with our own eyes nor yet with his, but from the place and with the eyes of a third person, who has no particular connexion with either, and who judges with impartiality between us. Here, too, habit and experience have taught us to do this so easily and so readily, that we are scarce sensible that we do it; and it requires, in this case too, some degree of reflection, and even of philosophy, to convince us, how little interest we should take in the greatest concerns of our neighbour, how little we should be affected by whatever relates to him, if the sense of propriety and justice did not correct the otherwise natural inequality of our sentiments.
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would, too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves than by whatever concerns other men, what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves. It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.
When the happiness or misery of others depends in any respect upon our conduct, we dare not, as self-love might suggest to us, prefer the interest of one to that of many. The man within immediately calls to us, that we value ourselves too much and other people too little, and that, by doing so, we render ourselves the proper object of the contempt and indignation of our brethren. Neither is this sentiment confined to men of extraordinary magnanimity and virtue. It is deeply impressed upon every tolerably good soldier, who feels that he would become the scorn of his companions, if he could be supposed capable of shrinking from danger, or of hesitating, either to expose or to throw away his life, when the good of the service required it.”
What proportion of us would sacrifice their little finger for a million strangers? Maybe Smith is right, and that there is something within us that will enable such abstract empathy. It seems to exist in some creatures, such as ants. But humans? A little reflection on recent political realities call this into serious question.
As the impending collapse of a livable climate begins unfolding, many of us will suddenly become aware of the necessary reforms we must make. Change will then become real and maybe even deep. But will this be enough? Will we not then have so deeply overshot the necessary corrections that calamity is inevitable? At this point, the virtues we newly discover may be selfish, and both too little and too late to save us, or at least most of us. We have the ability to foresee what will happen. We may be doomed by our lack of empathetic virtue.