MODULES FOR UNIVERSITIES ON SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT SCIENCE

4.2.2. The limits to growth.

The polemic on the zero growth is linked to another current controversial topic: existence/non-existence of limits to growth

This idea has been the most important contribution of the Beyond the Limits report (also known as Meadows Report), written in the early seventies by a group of experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and commissioned by Club of Rome on the major ‘problems’ of the society.

 

Within the report, there are developed and enriched the Malthusian concepts of absolute resources limits and the exponential population growth, considering the contamination, the malnutrition and the general environmental deterioration. The methodology that has been used is the ‘system dynamics’ one (also named ‘feedback circuit’), which is based on two factors that act in an opposite way and that determines the system evolution. In the case of the population, these two elements are the births and the deaths.

The basic hypothesis of the report is that the resources are limited. Firstly, the food supply depends is limited by the available cultivable land and the rising prices of new lands incorporation in the productive system. This problem is getting worse, because of the agricultural land loss derived from the rising erosion, the utilization of the land for other purposes (construction of transport infrastructures, building, etc) and the fecundity loss due to the contamination.

Secondly, referring to the non-renewable natural resources, and particularly the minerals, it has been calculated that, because of the high utilisation rhythm, and depending on the reserves known in the moment when the book was edited, there is a supply guarantee for only the next 250 years. Apart from this fact, there should be considered the capital costs for locating and developing new resources. Lastly, another environmental aspect mentioned in the report, although there was little knowledge on this topic in the moment of the report edition, is the contamination, which is believed to growth exponentially, without any known limit, and to have a great territorial expansion and global effects on the whole planet.

The most important conclusions made in the report can be summarised into the following:

  • If the described growth trends on the world population, the industrialisation, the environmental contamination, the food production and the resources exhaustion continue in the same direction, the planet will reach its growth limits in 100 years time. The final result would be a sudden and uncontrollable reduction of the population and its industrial capacity.
  • It is possible to change these growth trends and establish some regulations of ecological and economic stability to be sustained in the future. A global equilibrium could be designed, so as to satisfy the basic material needs of every Earth inhabitant, and to give the same opportunities of developing the individual human potential to everyone.
  • If humanity decides to make this effort, it is necessary to do it as soon as possible, in order to have more chances of success.

The strength of these statements has triggered a strong polemic on the report conclusions, and also a great amount of criticisms referring to its methodological and conceptual aspects. Among the first criticisms, there was one which stated that as only a limited number of variables can be included in the models, the studied interactions were partial; and also that the employed aggregation degree was too high. In addition, the publication has been accused of technocracy, and not taking into account critical social factors, such as the effects of the adoption of different values systems. Therefore, as it has been made at global scale, it does not allow the particular analysis of the differentiating circumstances of the rich and the poor countries.

Regarding the conceptual aspects, the criticisms agree that the report gives little importance to the possibility of solving some of the problems through the social and the technologic progress, as the development of the contraceptive methods, the extension of the recycling, the artificial production of proteins or the chance of finding new mineral reserves in unexplored areas, which would temporarily solve the problem of resources lack.

A second criticism rejects the fact that the report presupposes a continuous technological progress sustained in the industry, decreasing outputs from the investment on agriculture and natural resources, and a lack of a continuous progress within the anti-contamination technologies. Lastly, some other authors have pointed out the methodological errors, the scientific deficiencies, the insufficiency of the empirical information, and the obviously wrong ideology.

 

MODULE "WORLD POPULATION AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT". Author: Joan Alberich. joan.alberich@urv.cat.
DOW/URV Chair Sustainable Development.
desenvolupament.sostenible@urv.cat