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Issue 5 - May 1972
The Limits To Growth
The Club of Rome is a group of top industrialists, academics and administrators who got together in 1968 to try to work out ways of approaching the present and future predicament of man. They are luckier - or maybe more influential - than most of the people who are trying to solve the problems that our present growth trend has set, in being able to command resources, techniques and respect, that make the first preliminary report of their findings one of the most important documents published in this field. The report came out at the very end of March and is called 'The Limits to Growth'. An expensive paperback at £1.00, but it is an investment for the future that is worth very much more than that. If you feel that you can't afford it you're a perfect example of what the book is about - ignoring long-term needs for short-term considerations. I only wish that everyone who has responsibility for any decision-making at all on any level could read this book, understand it and take due notice.

Reading this book is pretty shattering, particularly because it is so comprehensive. Every time you think you have caught the investigators out, they prove that they have taken notice of the faults you have found - and many more too. They are all too keen to stress their own deficiencies, but it is frighteningly comprehensive in what it does cover: maybe even more so because it is so aware of its own limitations. As the 'Blueprint for Survival' (see MG3) was a breakthrough because it set out practical suggestions for moving towards a society that won't collapse under its own weight, The Limits is so amazing because it attempts - very successfully - to work out all the interactions of all the physical conditions that will control what is going to happen to our planet during our lifetimes. A point will come not too far away when we will overstep the limits and come crashing down. If you don't believe that this will happen then you have either to reject the evidence of the book or to accept that big changes in our values system will take place pretty soon to prevent the crash.

Ours To Do
Having stated that, the book then goes on to prove it pretty convincingly. The difficulty is that this whole problem is on such a large scale and over such a long term. For it is an acknowledged fact that the further from us a problem is and the further into the future that it reaches, the less likely we are to be truly concerned with it. Yet it concerns us all very much, and the book's conclusion is that we do not have long to take drastic action to prevent a disaster, that will occur certainly within the lifetime of children born today, and is certainly controlled by things we are doing now. It is our problem, and cannot wait for our children - we are living on a mortgage of their future, and it is up to us to ensure that they have one. "When the progress ceases, in what state are we to expect that it will leave mankind?" (J S Mill, 1857). It should be the primary task of man to ensure that we have a future. And the lead must come from us, from the 'developed' nations; it is for us to show the rest of the world that the path of growth that we have taken is not viable. But let's not build any more empires - like the colonial empires of the last century, or the industrial empires of this one - but rather to ensure that there is equality for all.

How It's Done
'The Limits to Growth' sets out to find out just how serious the threats of global collapse really are, that are made so often nowadays. Do we really have as little as a decade to control present growth trends? What will happen if we do not control them?

The method the book uses is to construct a 'model' - based on modern science, systems analysis and the computer. The model has built into it all the component variables on a global scale, not as independent entities but as constantly interacting elements, as they are in the real world. The model is built on to a computer that can follow how the different factors will interact as they all change independently and as their influences on each other change. So that the investigators programme their computers with a certain structure of inter-related elements, and the computer will follow through how they will each behave. This is something that the human mind cannot do, because the factors involved are just too complicated.

Starting from there, the book sets out the problem - which lies in one word, 'exponential'. Exponential growth is growth that increases by a fixed percentage in a given period of time, not by a constant amount. There is a riddle that illustrates this. Suppose you have a pond on which a lily is growing, and the lily doubles in size every day. If it grew unchecked it would cover the pond in 30 days and choke off all other life in the pond. For a long time it seems small, so you decide not to cut it back till it covers half the pond. When will that be? On the 29th day; you have one day to save the pond!

The problem
Population, industry, pollution and the running down of non-renewable resources are increasing exponentially. Population, for example, is growing at 2.1% a year, which means that it takes only 33 years for it to double. Although industrial output is rising at 7% a year, the material standard of living is rising only in the richer countries, exaggerating the economic gap between rich and poor. The big problem is - in a finite world growth must reach a limit sometime.

The computer shows what the result of continuing growth as we are doing now will be: inevitable collapse when the limits of the world are reached. Even worse in pushing it too far, the vitality of the world will be permanently weakened. Further trials on the computer show that limiting just one of the major factors controlling growth - population and industry - will not prevent the collapse. However optimistic you are about technological and agricultural advances and the finding of new resources, the end will only be delayed for a few years. This is because of the nature of exponential growth, which creates huge problems with amazing suddenness.

Which Limits
The book makes no exact predictions about when the collapse will come, where, how, or due to which particular factor. It is not built to do that, because it deals with general trends on a worldwide scale. All it shows is the way that the world will behave if we continue to treat it in the same way that we do now.

One of the most important features of the whole process is that the delays - both physical and social - built into the present growth system mean that we can never tell if we have already done too much damage. Science changes fast, but its effects on the world, and on society, take time. Society only changes in answer to, not in anticipation of a social need. The delays make the danger of instability and of over-shooting the limits even greater. Technology has no answers for problems like overcrowded cities, the nuclear arms race, racism and unemployment.

Once the world seemed infinite yet now we can and do affect it. That's why we have to start imposing limits on growth ourselves. Our society was built on overcoming limits, not learning to live with them; and so far, we have proved so successful, that we have forgotten that we can set our own limits on ourselves. It will mean profound changes, but the only alternative is to be forced by pressures beyond our control - and worse than we would choose.

The Answer
A blind trust in technology is the most dangerous and most common reaction to books such as this. Technological solutions, however, usually just conceal the problem. We must learn to impose limits on the things that feed exponential growth. 'The Limits' suggests just one possible set of controls that would produce a lasting and stable state, that the investigators call 'equilibrium', but they stress that it is just one set of controls that the computer shows to be more workable than our present system.

They also stress that stability does not mean stagnation, but rather a greater opportunity for improving the quality of life. At the moment, the greater the number of people the less equal the distribution: equal sharing is suicide if the average is not enough to live on. We must trade our freedom to have more children, and consume more, and waste more, for freedom from hunger, and freedom to be educated, creative and equal.

The book is aimed at finding out what the limits are: what controls those limits, the how these factors interact. It answers all these questions fully, clearly and convincingly, leaving no doubt that we are in desperate need of a rational state of 'equilibrium' that must be founded on basic changes of values on individual, national and global levels.


On a personal scale things are being done. There is a plan for a research community in 1973, probably in Wales, which will attempt to base its lifestyle entirely consistently on the basis of a 'soft technology', in the belief that soft technologies - technologies that have due regard for the environment and resource-usage - must replace current large scale technology, and that the best way to work out ways of accomplishing this is to experiment by living with and relying only on such technologies. But the decision-makers too must be made to realise the real need to move over to new attitudes and new values in order to save our world.

There are also local groups such as the Tyneside Environmental Concern (see page 23), being set up around the country who see that the best defence against such destruction as the razing of the Exhibition Park trees (see page 3) and the best way to save areas like the Minories off the Jesmond Road in N/cle, as a challenge to growth as a necessity for prosperity.

We rebuild bigger, but rarely better, to accommodate more people, more trade and more movement, all encouraged without thought for the quality of our lives. That quality can only be preserved in small stable communities, where sharing and caring replace the ulcers and vandalism of present day city life. Abandoning growth as a philosophy may be revolutionary, but being ahead of its time has not bothered the north-east in the past. The region has suffered under the fickle economics of the 20th century: now let it try stability, the only system likely to see us through the 21st century.