The Limits to Growth

The 30-Year Update, 1972-2004
Donella (Dana) Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows

4. World3: The Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World

Overshoot and Collapse

pp. 166-167
When a country’s elites believe it is acceptable to have large differentials in well-being within their nation, they can use their power to produce big differences in income between themselves and most of the citizenry. This inequality can lead the middleclass to frustration, anger, and protests. The disruption that results from protests may lead to repression. Exercising force isolates the elites even farther from the masses and amplifies among the powerful the ethics and values that justify large gaps between them and the majority of the population. Income differentials rise, anger and frustration grow, and this can call forth even more repression. Eventually, there may be revolution or breakdown. [gilets jaunes]

6. Technology, Markets, and Overshoot

Why Technology and Markets Alone Can’t Avoid Overshoot

pp. 223-225
There are three other reasons why technology and market mechanisms that otherwise function well cannot solve the problems generated by a society driving toward interconnected limits at an exponential rate. They relate to goals, costs, and delays. The first reason is that markets and technology are merely tools that serve the goals, the ethics, and the time horizons of the society as a whole. If a society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then that society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between the rich and the poor, and optimize for short term gains. In short, that society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.

The second reason for the vulnerability of technology is that adjustment mechanisms have costs. The costs of technology and the market are reckoned in resources, energy, money, labor, and capital. Those costs tend to rise nonlinearly as limits are approached. That fact is another source of surprising system behavior.


Thus as some point it stops being true that growth will allow an economy to become rich enough to afford pollution abatement. In fact, growth takes an economy up a nonlinear cost curve to the point where further abatement becomes unaffordable. […]

The third reason technology and the market can not automatically solve these problems is that they operate through feedback loops with distorsions and delays. Delays in market and technology reponses can be much longer than economic theories or mental models expect. Technology-market feedback loops are themselves sources of overshoot, oscillation, and instability.

Technology, Markets, and the Destruction of Fisheries

p. 233
Traditional markets and technology have brought the globe’s marine fisheries to the brink of collapse. More of the same will not restore them to health. Used with no concept of limits, markets and technologies are instruments of overshoot.

8. Tools for the Transition to Sustainability

The First Two Revolutions: Agriculture and Industry

pp 266-267
About 10,000 years ago the human population, after millenia of evolution, had reached the huge (for the time) number of about 10 million. These people lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, but in some regions their numbers had begun to overwhelm the once abundant plant and game. To adapt to the problem of disappearing wild resources they did two things. Some of them intensified their migratory lifestyle. They moved out of their ancestory homes in Africa and the Middle East and populated other areas of the game-rich world.

Others started domesticating animals, culitivating plants, and staying in one place. That was a totally new idea. Simply by staying put, the proto-farmers altered the face of the planet, the thoughts of humankind, and the shape of society in ways they could never have foreseen.

For the first time it made sense to own land. People who didn’t have to carry all their possessions on their back could accumulate things, and some could accumulate more than others. The ideas of wealth, status, inheritance, trade, money, and power were born. Some people could live on excess food produced by others. They could become full-time toolmakers, musicians, scribes, priests, soldiers, athletes, or kings. […]

As its inheritors, we think of the agricultural revolution as a great step forward. At the time it was probably a mixed blessing. […] People who didn’t move away from their own wastes experienced humankind’s first chronic pollution.

Nevertheless. agriculture was a successful response to wildlife scarcity. It permitted yet more population growth, which added up over centuries to an enormous increase, from 10 million to 800 million people by 1750. The larger population created new scarcities, especially in land and energy. Another revolution was necessary.

The industrial revolution began in England with the substitution of abundant coal for vanishing trees.

The Next Revolution: Sustainability

p. 269
It is a impossible now for anyone to describe the world that could evolve from a sustainability revolution as it would have been for the farmers of 6000 BC to forsee the corn and soybean fields of modern Iowa, or for a English coal miner of AD 1800 to imagine an automated Toyota assembly line.