Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Did Limits to Growth get it wrong?

Did Limits to Growth get it wrong?

Perhaps, but perhaps not the way you might think.

For many, the emphasis in LTG (a common acronym for the book and the associated Weltanschauung) was on limiting or reducing growth to preserve our ability to thrive.  Often system dynamicists (the authors of the work were system dynamicists) emphasize that we face challenges when trying to deal with limits that are far in the future and hard to perceive, and the topic of LTG certainly seemed to fit that description.

Yet we work inside limits to growth all the time.  On a business level, we grow our companies only as fast as we can generate the required assets, either through profits, the sale of equity, or both.  There's a delay, to be sure, but it's relatively short. 

We've seen limits to growth in housing, too.  At least in the USA, we seemed limited by the willingness of lenders to finance mortgages and by the capacity of the construction sector to build or renovate houses.  Both sectors seemed ready to raise those limits to capture the demand that existed or that could be generated, and we were able to sense those limits to growth in housing relatively quickly.  I'm sure you can think of other examples.

What we didn't sense nearly as well were the limits to size, a term that might have helped us.  That's what the LTG authors were really worried about: that we might exceed the size constraints of the planet.  If you've read this blog or any of a number of other resources, you've probably seen concerns that we've exceeded the available size of the planet.

Deciding how fast we can grow is challenging.  Even if you say we have to have 0 overall growth, there will be dynamics that cause certain parts of our system to grow while other parts decline.  How do you pick the numbers?

It's a bit easier to set goals for size.  Research such as that shown in the above-linked Wackernagel article help us understand what the planet can stand, and public dialog can help us form social agreements about where we want to position ourselves relative to those limits. 

As we develop an idea of the long-term size goals, we can think about the rate at which we want to approach those goals.  In some cases, we'll need real growth—for example, we arguably need more sources of clean, renewable energy.  In other cases, we'll seek a smaller size for certain sectors of our overall system. 

Limits to size (LTS) fits with a classic system dynamics approach: we set goals for certain stocks, and we create feedback systems that bring those stocks into alignment with the goals.

I don't really think that the LTG authors got their message wrong, but I do wonder if calling the idea LTS instead of LTG could help us.

What do you think?  Does LTS help you think about issues, decisions, and actions better than LTG?  What's the desirable size for things for which you have responsibility or control?

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4 Comments:

Blogger Erik said...

Hi Bill, Interestingly enough, Donella Meadows was writing about some of these same questions in 1999 in a paper I was just reading in the context of "leverage points", the opportunities for intervention and change in our systems. (http://www.sustainer.org/pubs/Leverage_Points.pdf). Something that I come back to frequently regarding growth paradigms is that as you say, we tend to think of growth purely in terms of size, as expansion.

But the rest of our (more than human) world continues to grow beyond maturity by creating diversity, fine detail, greater complexity and other refinements which do not necessitate the sort of expansion seen in immature creatures, habitats or systems. Think of the fractal branching of coral as an example.

As for determining the desirable size for any of the things within my reach....I think that's the sort of simple question which requires a very involved answer. It's all relative to everything else in the system.

20 August, 2010 11:08  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Thanks, Erik, for dropping by and for the additional insights. I like that Donella Meadows article, BTW.

20 August, 2010 21:10  
Blogger Ralf Lippold said...

Hi Bill, It's been a while since our last contact. Now by sheer serendipity (Saying "Happy Birthday" to MichaelBean today, I see that you are also a friend of him) I connect back.

DonellaMeadows has so beautifully written what is still valid today. One of her last books just came out in German and friends are grasped by her thoughts ;-) A real pleasure to get in conversation with like-minded people as soon as the language provides common ground.

Best regards, Ralf

21 August, 2010 13:32  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Hi, Ralf. I know lots of people who like that book.

25 August, 2010 19:08  

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