Population Matters

Revisiting Limits to Growth

October 21st, 2009

In the past several years, concerns about climate change, peak oil, water scarcity and rising commodity prices for food, energy and minerals have led to renewed concerns about potential limits to growth.

Eight months ago, even the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story, entitled, “New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears.” But then twelve months ago, with stock markets crashing and oil prices plummeting, concerns about limits to growth almost vanished, but not for long. Oil prices, even in the midst of the greatest recession since the Great Depression, staged a rebound. And climate change forecasts took yet another turn for the worse.

It wasn’t long before respected mainstream thinkers like Thomas Friedman started to ask whether the whole 20th century growth model was flawed.  Six months ago, Friedman wrote a column in which he said:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

On October 6, 2009, the Population Institute, the Population Media Center and the Wallace Global Forum hosted a forum to answer the question posed by Friedman’s column. Titled “Population Growth and Rising Consumption:  What’s Sustainable?”, the forum featured five notable speakers on the subject of sustainability.

In our first session on “Population and the Environment,” Dr. William Catton, Jr., the author of a classic treatise written in 1980 on the subject of population “overshoot” took us back in time to the dawn of modern humans and showed us how our species, homo sapiens, is evolving into what he calls homo colossus.

Our second speaker, Laurie Mazur, the editor of a book that’s coming out this month titled “A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Solution” reminded us that projected population growth is not inevitable. If we can educate and empower women and expand voluntary family planning services, we can also help to save the planet.

In our second session on “Population, Economics and Limits to Growth,” we were very fortunate to have with us one of the pre-eminent thinker on the subject of sustainability, Dr. Dennis Meadows, the 1972 co-author of Limits to Growth. Dr. Meadows gave a very sobering assessment of the challenges that we now face as a result of limits to growth.

Richard Heinberg, from the Post-Carbon Institute, and the author of Peak Everything showed us how a growing scarcity of fossil fuels, water and minerals could lead to economic decline in the 21st Century.

Finally, Dr. Peter Victor an economist from York University in Toronto, and one of the founders of ecological economics, described to us how economists are grappling with limits to growth, and how we can adapt and prosper without population growth and the steady depletion of the world’s resources. He also talked about his recent book, Managing without Growth.

Together, these presentations gave us an informative and compelling look at how population growth and rising consumption are imperiling both the planet and our economic wellbeing.  I encourage you, if you haven’t done so already, to view their presentations.

To view a podcast of the speakers, their  presentations and their PowerPoints just click here.

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