The Addiction to Growth

Kinga Kiełczyńska, 'Courtesy of Infinity', 2021-2022, video HD, binaural sound. Courtesy of Exile Gallery | Find out more


The Addiction to Growth

Dennis Meadows on The Need for a Mature World

The Club of Rome's 1972 report “The Limits to Growth” has been a warning for humankind: 50 years on, carbon emissions, transgression of planetary boundaries and biodiversity extinction are still at an all-time high – but environmental activism is becoming stronger and louder. THE NEW INSTITUTE is commemorating this ambivalent anniversary with a series of events – including one of the authors of the report, Dennis Meadows. Here he talks about models of analysis, promising developments, and imminent actions to take today in order to survive on this planet.

What feelings do arise on the 50th anniversary of the report?


Why so?

I have received so many requests for speeches, papers, chapters of publications, movies on the 50th anniversary of The Limits to Growth. Most of these requests come from people who have actually not the slightest interest in the underlying issues. They are trying to justify their salaries by publishing an article or organizing an event related to our book’s birthday. Those who are interested typically have no understanding of what we said. So it's cynicism. It's not other than that.

Haven’t you seen any promising developments in the last 50 years?

Of course I have. The scientific understanding of biophysical systems and concern about violating their limits has evolved enormously since we wrote the first book in 1972. Knowledge of climate change, of the role of energy in the economy, of organic agriculture, and similar factors has progressed greatly. But the problems we talked about then are not essentially technical problems. They are ethical and psychological and political problems. And understanding of those problems hasn’t seen much progress.

Bernd Schwabe, Portrait of Dennis Meadows, 2012

Does this frustrate you?

Frustration means that you don't get what you want. I do it the other way round. I want what I get, so I'm not frustrated.

How did you perceive the social and political developments during the time you wrote the report? Take us back to 1972.

Dominant views in the early 1970s were that physical growth on this planet was desirable and that it could continue more or less indefinitely. It was expected that technology and the economic system would automatically eliminate scarcities. The natural world, for example the atmosphere and the ocean, seemed too large to be affected by human actions. Social and political developments varied enormously among the many nations, but leaders in all countries shared these views.

I would greatly prefer that society was seeking fundamental solutions to its many problems rather than hoping they will be solved through economic growth.

What was the immediate reaction to your report? Did reactions from politicians differ depending on the different countries?

Reactions differed depending on profession not on national origin. Most politicians rejected our findings since growth and the resulting promise of more for everyone is the foundation for political compromise. Acknowledging and accepting limits would make political leadership very much more difficult. Environmentalists generally praised our work. Note that the majority of those expressing an opinion about our book, pro or con, did not actually read it entirely. Instead, they reacted in accordance to whether our conclusions supported what they were already saying.

Karimah Ashadu, Brown Goods (Film Still), 2020, Courtesy of the artist

Was there a pushback, where did it come from?

The most universal and aggressive pushback came from economists since the assumption of growth’s desirability and inevitability is the foundation of their discipline. Deny the possibility of indefinite growth and you deny the utility of most macroeconomics theory.

Acknowledging and accepting limits would make political leadership very much more difficult.

Looking at the present, would you wish for another reception of the report?

I would greatly prefer that society was seeking fundamental solutions to its many problems - poverty, pollution, inflation, debt, hunger, species extinction - rather than hoping they will be solved through economic growth. However, I devote my time to wishing for things that are actually possible. Most politicians prefer to argue about which of several impossible futures they want. That may win them votes, but it doesn't solve the problems.

Talking about poverty, the question of migration because of environmental problems was not mentioned in the original report. What was the reason?

Migration is the movement of peoples across national borders. We constructed and analyzed World3 to be a model of the entire globe. It did not distinguish national borders, which always change over the centuries. Coping with migration is an enormous and important problem, but it was not the focus of our research.

Can you explain to us how the model works?

We identified causes and consequences of physical growth in economy and population that we believed will persist on planet earth for the 200-year period 1900 - 2100. Then we expressed those relations mathematically and used computer simulations to understand their possible interactions. Prediction is not scientifically possible for systems in which human actions influence the path of change. Thus, we presented 12 different scenarios of possible futures. They differed in the assumptions we made about future human responses. The media naturally focused on the catastrophic futures portrayed by World3, but many of our scenarios showed a relatively stable and prosperous future for humanity.

Karimah Ashadu, Brown Goods (Film Still), 2020, Courtesy of the artist

Could new technologies help humanity solve its problems?

Technology is a tool; it has no goals of its own. It serves the purposes of those who control it. Consider, for example, a hammer. It's an excellent tool for construction. Now suppose that someone is holding a hammer and is coming at you to hurt you with it. Would you try to solve the problem by giving him a better hammer? Of course not! Solving the problem requires changing the goals of the person who is using the technology. If technology is controlled without considering social equality, human rights, or the environment, it is not going to advance those issues. Agricultural companies, for example, say that genetically modified crops will solve the global hunger problem. It's just bullshit. If they wanted to, those companies could solve the global food problem with presently available technologies.

Prediction is not scientifically possible for systems in which human actions influence the path of change.

What is the role of technology in thinking about climate change and action?

Advances in computer science and in meteorology have given much better understanding about the causes and consequences of climate change. Some other technologies, such as those providing energy alternatives to fossil fuels and those facilitating energy conservation may give us a little more time to act. But fundamental solution of the growing climate crisis requires changes in human goals and behavior, not more photovoltaic panels.

What is the key to achieving that change?

There is no single key. Achieving that change will require many actions. Foremost among them will be to develop positive images of a world without growth. Most of human history, over 300 thousand years, occurred during times of essentially zero growth. The expansion of the population and economy over the past several hundred years is an anomaly, but it has come to be accepted as the norm. To have some constructive impact on the future we need to have a better understanding of a world where the search for physical growth has been replaced by a desire for social and psychological development. We make that shift automatically for our children. Now we need to make it for our civilization. The English definition of the word "mature" is "fully grown, in one’s prime." An important priority is to understand how we can achieve a mature global society.

What kind of action are you thinking of?

In 1972, the priority should have been to slow down before exceeding the planet's sustainable limits. The opposite happened. The most attractive long-term social futures now require us to get back now down below the carrying capacity of the planet and to solve many concrete problems: for example, change social security systems so they do not depend on debt; prepare for the four-fold increase in refugees that will result from the inevitable sea level rise before 2050; shift agricultural production to rely more on solar energy and less on fossil fuels. All this requires profound psychological, political, and economic action, and we must start by altering the addiction to growth.

Interview by María Inés Plaza Lazo and Tobias Müller.


“Courtesy of Infinity (voices)” Video HD, binaural sound, 10.40 min., 2021-2022.

The video takes as its starting point Alan Weisman's book "The World Without Us." It is a non-fiction book published in 2007 that explores what might happen to the natural and built environments if humans suddenly vanished. It is a slow meditation on material durability and the fragile balance of various ecosystems. According to Weisman, radioactive waste, bronze statues, plastics, and Mount Rushmore would be among the most long-lasting evidence of human presence on Earth.

The video responds to it with a visual record of abandoned funfairs and shopping malls, the entrance to the Biosphere 2, a wrecked motorway, abandoned vehicles and a collection of pictures from a failed art project in the Colombian forest.

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