Interview with Dennis L. Meadows
"The changes we will all witness over the next two decades, will be greater in most ways than the changes we saw during the entire 20th century. "
Dennis L. Meadows, coauthor of the book „Limits to Growth - The 30-Year-Update“ that has been published this summer in German, studied chemistry in Minnesota and economy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prof. Meadows got famous in 1972 with the study for the Club of Rome „Limits to Growth“, that emphasized the limitation of natural resources based on computer models. He is Emeritus Professor of Systems Policy and Social Science Research at the University of New Hampshire, USA.
Prof. Meadows, what has changed since the publication of „Limits of Growth“ in 1972?
There have been many changes during the past 3 decades, both in our analysis and in the global society's perception of its long-term problems. In 1972 it was inconceivable to most people that the physical impact of humanity's activities could ever grow large enough to alter basic natural processes of the globe. But now we routinely observe, acknowledge, and discuss the ozone hole, destruction of marine fisheries, climate change and other global problems. In 1972 we had to talk in our first edition of Limits to Growth about future problems. Now, in the third edition of our book we can quote from many, many studies and reports by scientists who have looked at existing global problems, and who are extremely worried about the possible consequences of trends already existing. In 1972 our studies showed that humanity's activities were still below sustainable levels. Now they are above. In 1972 our recommendations told how to slow growth. Now we must tell people how to manage an orderly reduction of their activities back down below the limits of the earth's resources.
What factors prevent the sustainable use of natural resources?
Of course this question is one of the main areas of focus for our book. There we address this question in hundreds of pages. So it is difficult to give a brief answer. However, two examples show the nature of unsustainable practice and the factors that make it so difficult to change them - global depletion of ocean fish stocks and global exhaustion of under ground water supplies.These problems persist because we rely on economic systems to give signals for the main decision makers. Economic systems focus on short-term issues and ignore the long-term and environmental "side effects." Both problems also have a "commons" aspect, in that one person alone cannot make decisions to conserve the resource. If he does, others will simply use more.
Why do you think is it so difficult for people and politics to switch from quantitative to a more qualitative based growth?
Decision makers who have been extremely successful at producing and managing quantitative growth are the ones who rose to positions of power through corporate and government organizations during the past decades. Now those dominant decision makers do not wish to consider that the situation has made their skills and knowledge less relevant. They deny the need for a shift to qualitative goals. Also we have developed a variety of economic data systems and decision support systems that implicitly take quantitative growth as a goal. So the numbers we focus on automatically lead us to physical expansion. Satisfying goals for quantitative growth can be a source of enormous profit for the organizations that advertise in the media. Satisfying qualitative goals does not offer the same potential for profit, at least over the short term. So advertisements stimulate physical growth. We are on a treadmill that spins faster and faster but leads nowhere. In order to produce more and more physical goods, people; culture, and the environment have been degraded in ways that prevent them from offering the qualitative satisfactions they used to give. To substitute for those lost values - quiet, companionship, beauty, healthy surroundings, etc. - we consume more and more physical goods. And that degrades our environment and culture even further.
In Germany you often hear about all the things that have improved during the last 30 to 40 years: Sulfurdioxide-Emmissions have been minimized, cars have been equipped with cats and diesel filters, refrigerators are CFC-free and sewage-works provide clean water for lakes and rivers. Aren't we on the right path? Is there really reason to be seriously worried about the future?
Germany in particular, and the European Union in general, definitely have accomplished some major victories. They can be proud of that, and they can take inspiration from their successes. But notice that the solutions have come mainly in what I call the universal problems - these are the problems that have local solutions. For example ground water contamination, or urban air pollution are mainly universal problems. The global problems, where solutions require concerted action and shared vision among many nations, have not been solved. Climate change, terrorism, epidemics, nuclear proliferation, marine fish depletion, oil depletion - these and many more are global problems that are getting worse, year by year, and they require immediate solutions. You should be very, very worried about what these problems will do to the political and cultural life of your country. And I am not speaking about the distant future. I infer from the study of my model that the changes we will all witness over the next two decades - before 2025, will be greater in most ways than the changes we saw during the entire 20th century.
"The US should sign the Kyoto Protocol."
According to your computer models: How much time is left and what are the main things that have to change?
I must honestly admit that it has become more and more difficult for us to find plausible changes in our model that will avoid collapse. In fact a sustainable future, in the way most people understand that term, is no longer possible. We desperately need for population, energy use, material use, and pollution streams to be reduced. The best possible future is not one that sustains the current lifestyles of the rich or that permits further physical growth. It is one that brings physical demands on the planet back down to sustainable levels. And does that in a way that avoids conflict, increasing the gap between the rich and the poor, and damaging even further the environment. Simple changes in technology will not accomplish this reduction. Technology is a tool. Like all tools, it reflects the values and goals of the person or organization that develops it. As long as the dominant values and goals are short-term, egoistic, and concentrated on economic indicators, there will not be any way to avoid collapse.
What would you do first if you could succeed George W. Bush as US-president tomorrow?
I suppose the question also implies that I am actually able to make desired changes. One problem with our current political system is that the US president must secure the agreement of the House and the Senate in the US Congress for most changes. But let us assume I have this power. I would immediately change the nature of our electoral system to make it more democratic, more reflective of the majority of the people. That means defining very strict limits on the amount of money that can be given by special interest groups to specific candidates. I would eliminate the electoral college or force its members to vote proportionately. Now the party that wins by even 51% of the electoral college votes, takes over the entire government apparatus. The views of 49% can be ignored. There are many other structural reforms that would be useful in the US, such as reducing the power of corporations over the content of our television and newspapers, and getting consumers to reduce their debt and save more. But let us talk about international problems. And I will focus on environmental issues - leaving for others to deal with the catastrophic situation in Iraq. The US should sign the Kyoto Protocol. It is a poor and inadequate agreement, but it is an important first step. It took several formal agreements before the global community finally managed to deal with the ozone hole. It will take decades of efforts, errors, and new agreements before we can stabilize green house gas emissions. But until we all take the Kyoto agreement seriously, we will not be able to start that process. Population must be stabilized. I do not know any simple or centralized ways to accomplish this. However, as a first step the US should quit blocking other countries from dealing with population growth in ways that are consistent with their own culture and traditions. Then we need to work with countries that are willing to develop new communication methods and new technologies that lower family's goals for the desired number of children and help them achieve their goals. The world faces a peak in global food production before 2025. There should be worldwide efforts to protect agricultural lands, ground water, and seed varieties. The world faces a peak in global oil production within a decade. This will have enormous consequences. There is no way to fill with alternative supplies the gap that will be left by declining oil production, but starting now can reduce the damage. There needs to be a massive effort, organized as if during war time, for the whole world to implement measures that will reduce energy consumption and increase the use of renewable energy sources. The security of our nation would be greatly increased if the US would spend its money and technical resources on that rather than on waging war in foreign nations.
Questions: Gunther Willinger