Meadows, D. Meadows, D. & Randers, J. Beyond the Limits: Global Collapse or a Sustainable Future

Beyond the Limits: Global Collapse or a Sustainable Future, Earthscan, London, 300 pp.

As we near the end of the second millenium, the view that humankind is passing through a major transition is gaining ground. Part of the credit for this must go to the Club of Rome (COR). For all its isolationism and connotations of a ‘rich man’s club’, it has sponsored a whole series of publications and forums, and thereby heightened awareness throughout the world of the many dimensions of the human predicament. Its term ‘problematique’, or interlocking series of major global problems, has passed into the language.

Beyond the Limits is a book of a completely different order. Its authors have matured enormously in the twenty years since the publication of the original Limits to Growth. Their new book is quite simply the most original, useful and coherent I have seen on the dynamics of the transition to sustainability.

Whereas many writers slip into an almost preachy, “we know best” mode of expression, Meadows, Meadows and Randers are in exquisite control of their subject. They have their model (World3), and they understand its limitations. They understand their own biases and turn them to advantage. They speak as scientists or systems analysts, yet end their book with a very human chapter written more from the heart, as it were, than the computer. So why does it succeed so well?

Beyond the Limits has a clear and easy-to-follow structure. It begins with a lucid account of exponential growth as a driving force, and the very severe dangers it brings with it. I am in no doubt that few planners, politicians or policy-makers are aware of the implications, either locally or globally. It continues with a very accessible account of the nature of limits on the planet: the sources of raw materials and the ultimate ‘sinks’, or final destinations, of wastes and pollutants. It then considers the dynamics of growth in a finite world. Near the end of this chapter is a passage which encapsulates a key part of the message of the book:

Because of the time it takes for forests to grow, populations to age, pollutants to work their way through the ecosystem, polluted waters to clear, capital plants to depreciate, and people to be educated or retrained, the economic system can’t change overnight, even if it gets and acknowledges clear and timely signals that it should do so. To steer correctly, a system with inherent physical momentum needs to be looking decades ahead. (P. 137. Emphasis added.)

This provides a simple, yet powerful rationale for much greater social investment in foresight. It is one our leaders should take note of and then apply.

The remainder of the book paints a picture which, if not totally optimistic, certainly provides substantial reasons for hope. It considers the way the world community has responded to the Ozone threat in ways that may prevent the worst scenarios from occurring. This is rightly used as a sign that humans can respond to perceived threats before their worst manifestations occur, and then act. There are many other systems which require similar attention well before they reach the stage of ‘overshoot and collapse’. However, the authors do make it clear that, in contrast to prevailing conventional wisdom, markets and technology alone do not have the capacity to prevent global deterioration. Something more is needed. That something is dealt with in the final two chapters.

First, governance and policy-making at all levels needs to be directly informed by an understanding of the dynamics of a transition toward sustainability. This is not a simple or obvious task. Which helps to explan (but not justify) why such insights have so often been lacking both in the literature on global problems and in the so-far mainly pathetic responses of governments to them. How many governments are deliberately and systematically informed by structured foresight and global modelling? Yet without them ‘overshoot and collapse’ are virtually inevitable. We are still driving into the future with our eyes fixed on the past. (But a different past with different, more forgiving, dynamics so distant from the limits now being breached.)

Second, a number of human and cultural shifts are outlined with skill and restraint. They include: visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning and loving. To reproduce such a list risks mis-representing what these talented researchers have achieved here. For, unlike so many others, they understand their own limits and the limits of their method. This is a real achievement. I hope that Beyond the Limits is read and debated even more widely than its predecessor. It is essential reading for eveyone who is concerned about the future and wants to play a part in the greatest challenge facing humankind: the transition to sustainability.

If, in a different universe, the Club of Rome had existed solely to begin the twenty-year process that led to this book, it would have been worthwhile. I know of no better way to empower oneself to resist the looming dystopias of the coming century than to read and then apply it in every possible way.