From ‘Limits to Growth’ to ‘Life Beyond Growth’

By Dominic Stucker, Program Manager at Sustainability Leaders Network. This piece also appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Systems Thinker.

Celebrating the Publication of Limits to Growth
The Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institute hosted the symposium Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet in Washington, DC on March 1 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launching of Limits to Growth, the first report to the Club of Rome published in 1972. This book, which sold over ten million copies in over 25 languages, was one of the earliest scholarly works to recognize that the world was fast approaching its sustainable limits.

The symposium was divided into two sessions. The morning session focused on the lessons of Limits to Growth and included presentations by two of the original authors of the work, Dennis Meadows and Jørgen Randers. Donella (Dana) Meadows was the third author, who passed away in 2001. These talks were complemented by a perspective from Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute. The afternoon session addressed the difficult challenges of preserving biodiversity, adjusting to a changing climate, and solving the societal issues now facing our world. View video footage from the full event.

It is Too Late for Sustainable Development
My personal interest in the event was Dennis Meadows’ speech “It is too late for sustainable development,” which I watched live-streamed from Brazil. Though my Internet connection was not perfect, I wrote up these notes:

Dennis started with describing his feelings: gratitudes to organizers, privileged to be here 40 years after making the first public presentation on Limits to Growth, and apprehension about the future. He made special mention of Dana Meadows, saying that she was the key author behind the book, her genius bringing together and communicating vast amounts of collected data.

He continued with a crossing arms exercise, pointing out that there are two possibilities for which wrist is on top and that we tend to develop habits. The audience was divided 50/50 on which wrist was on top. A key task, he said, is changing habits, which – after the audience tried switching wrists – requires (1) thought and reflection, (2) practice, and (3) tolerance of discomfort.

The key message that Dennis offered was that he anticipates overall decline of our global systems in the coming years and that we need to focus on increasing the resilience of those systems to withstand impacts and maintain our values.

He went on to reflect on lessons learned since Limits to Growth was published in 1972, including:

    1. Nuanced, conditional discussions are difficult to have in the public discourse
    2. We filter information to confirm a set of conceptions we already hold
    3. We are following the overshoot and collapse scenario and exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity soon after LTG was published
    4. We act as if technological change can do what social change has to do

Dennis pointed out that sustainability is difficult to achieve because it requires investment in the future, short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. It is difficult for people, politicians, executives, etc to make such long-sighted decisions.

He emphasized again that we need to raise the resilience of our systems, warning that, if we fail, our fundamental values will be stripped out of us and our systems, only contributing to further decline.

He ended with the point that actions speak louder than words, using the activity “1, 2, 3, clap,” in which he tells the audience to clap when he says “clap,” but he actually claps on “3” along with many others who follow his lead.

Call to Action
I was heartened that Dennis started his talk by sharing his feelings: he was grateful, honored, and scared. This helped me understand where he was coming from, helped me listen more fully to his talk. He came across as being realistic. I share his apprehension as we brace for continued impacts – of climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty, conflict, gender inequity. Parts of his talk left me feeling frustrated with the slow pace of change over the past 40 years, frustrated by our inability as a society to, as Dana may have said, expand our horizons of time, space, and care.

I was reassured, therefore, that he made a call for action, offering us direction: build resilience in our global systems. This did not necessarily leave me feeling hopeful about the future, as building resilience implies that we have to withstand continued environmental, social, and economic impacts, attempting to maintain what we have. To work toward a vision of a better future, we need to be resilient, but also regenerative, building up what we have lost and then some.

Dennis did offer implicit guidance on the flip side of each lesson learned over the past 40 years:

  1. We have to become better at engaging in nuanced, conditional public discourse
  2. We have to hold our conceptions about how the world works loosely and be open to new and sometimes contradictory information
  3. We need a new scenario for the future, one in which we live within the carrying capacity of the Earth
  4. We should focus our work on social change processes

Through the crossing arms exercise, he also noted that change processes require thought and reflection, practice, and tolerance of discomfort. Good advice. And through the final clapping exercise, the point was to take action, as action speaks louder than words.

Even with this guidance, what was lacking for me in his talk were concrete tools to help us achieve the mandate of building systems resilience, indeed for bringing about the sustainability revolution. Throughout the talk, I kept wondering what Dana would have added, imagining how it would be both visionary and practical.

Dana Meadows

Dana Meadows

Tools for the Transition to Sustainability
I wasn’t alive in 1972 when Limits to Growth trumpeted the warning of possible overshoot and collapse. I belong to a second generation of sustainability practitioners, inspired by Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. While it concluded that we are still on a trajectory to environmental and social collapse – as Dennis pointed out in his speech and I saw in the world around me – the book went further, offering a concluding chapter on Tools for the Transition to Sustainability, with Dana as lead author. I image, had she had the chance, that she would have integrated some of these tools into her speech at the Smithsonian.

Here, I have collected a few quotes that speak to me from this concluding chapter 8, ideas that, I feel, are important to always bear in mind and heart.

“In our own search for ways to encourage the peaceful restructuring of a system that naturally resists its own transformation, we have tried many tools. The obvious ones are rational analysis, data gathering, systems thinking, computer modeling, and the clearest words we can find. Those are tools that anyone trained in science and economics would automatically grasp. Like recycling, they are useful, necessary, and they are not enough.”

The following represent “…essential characteristics of any society that hopes to survive in the long term.” They are, in my opinion, a powerful suite of leadership tools for bringing about the sustainability revolution.

“Vision without action is useless. But action without vision is directionless and feeble. Vision is absolutely necessary to guide and motivate. More than that, vision, when widely shared and firmly held in sight, does bring into being new systems.”

I can image Dana talking about the Cobb Hill ecovillage she co-founded in rural Vermont as a shared vision of community practicing sustainability to the best of their abilities. The farm and its draft horses; community debates and consensus building; Vermont winters and passive solar heating; Common House meals and composting toilets. She wrote: “A sustainable world can never be fully realized until it is widely envisioned. The vision must be built up by many people before it is complete and compelling.”

“A network is… a web of connections among equals… held together by shared values and the understanding that some tasks can be accomplished together that could never be accomplished separately.”

Here, Dana may have spoken about the Donella Meadows Fellows Network that seeks to embody and apply the leadership tools discussed here. A network that is grounded in local communities, businesses, nonprofits, and governments around the world, these Fellows are doing their best to change socio-environmental systems to help bring about a better world.

A system changes behavior when information flows are opened, providing accurate, timely, and relevant data to all the right people. Reflecting on this process, Dana urges us to have the “…courage to admit and bear the pain of the present, while keeping a steady eye on a vision of a better future.”

Perhaps Dana, as she did in her article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, would have talked about Thomas Kuhn on shifting paradigms:

  1. Keep pointing at the anomalies and failures of the old paradigm
  2. Keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one
  3. Insert people with the new paradigm into places of public visibility and power
  4. Don’t waste time with reactionaries
  5. Work with active change agents and the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded

A combination of truth-telling and learning, the next leadership tool, seems to represent both the advocacy and inquiry of reflective conversation.

“Whatever you do, do it humbly. Do it not as immutable policy, but as experiment. Use your action, whatever it is, to learn… Learning means exploring a new path with vigor and courage, being open to other people’s explorations of other paths, and being willing to switch paths if one is found that leads more directly to the goal.”

Always action-oriented, Dana emphasized that “A sustainability revolution requires each person to act as a learning leader at some level, from family to community to nation to world.” Here, she may have drawn from observations made in her article Dancing with Systems:

  1. Get the beat.
  2. Listen to the wisdom of the system.
  3. Expose your mental models to the open air.
  4. Stay humble. Stay a learner.
  5. Honor and protect information.
  6. Locate responsibility in the system.
  7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems.
  8. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
  9. Go for the good of the whole.
  10. Expand time horizons.
  11. Expand thought horizons.
  12. Expand the boundary of caring.
  13. Celebrate complexity.
  14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness.

Going for the good of the whole and expanding the boundary of caring may have led into a discussion of love.

It is hard to talk as a scientist to scientists about love. Love is hard to define and to measure. Yet Dana asserts that “The sustainability revolution will have to be, above all, a collective transformation that permits the best of human nature, rather than the worst, to be expressed and nurtured.” She goes on to observe that “It is not easy to practice love, friendship, generosity, understanding, or solidarity within a system whose rules, goals, and information streams are geared for lesser human qualities. But we try, and we urge you to try.”

The above suite of leadership tools and insights can help us move beyond the growth-as-progress paradigm, an effort Dana refers to twice in chapter 8.

Life Beyond Growth
Sustainability expert and colleague, Alan AtKisson, published Life Beyond Growth yesterday, 40 years to the day after the publication of Limits to Growth, a book that helped inspire his career. The report tracks and encourages us to move beyond gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of progress, showing that many governments are seriously considering and using indicators like “happiness.”

Alan writes: “The report demonstrates that more and more countries are seriously questioning GDP and traditional economic growth as their default definition of “progress.” And, a consensus does seem to be emerging: we should all be aiming for a world that is environmentally green, economically secure, and happy, for all… These ideas are not new; some are decades old. But the political willingness to engage with them is very new. Leaders are realizing that social and environmental conditions simply demand a different approach.”

A hopeful report on the “revolution in how we think about progress,” the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society plans to commission each year, Life Beyond Growth carries the Limits to Growth flag into the next decade. Read more about the report on the Global Transition 2012 website and download it here.

Looking Inward to Look Forward
At the very end of chapter 8 in Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, the authors emphasized that the future is not preordained, but rather a choice between mental models, listing three:

  1. This world, for all practical purposes, has no limits
  2. The limits are real and close, and there is not enough time to avoid collapse
  3. The limits are real and close, but there is just enough time to achieve a sustainability revolution

While Dennis’ talk on “It is too late for sustainable development,” leans more toward the self-fulfilling mental model of collapse (or at least decline), I wonder where Dana would have positioned herself? My feeling is the “if-you-start-right-now-we-have-just-enough-time-to-achieve-sustainability” mental model. Indeed, “There is no way of knowing for sure, other than to try it.”

What is your prevailing mental model and what significance does it have for our common future?

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