The Financial Sense News Hour with Jim Puplava continues. Featuring uncommon news for the wise investor. Up next, commentary and debate about today’s financial issues with the experts. Here’s Jim Puplava.
Puplava: Welcome back, everyone. In 1972, three scientists from MIT created a computer model that analyzed global resource consumption and production. The results shocked the world and created stirring conversation about global overshoot, or resource use beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. Now preeminent scientists Donella Meadows, Jordan Randers and Dennis Meadows have teamed up again to update and expand their original findings in The Limits to Growth: the Thirty-Year Update. Joining us on the program today is Professor Meadows, and Professor, when Limits to Growth was published in 1972, what did you say back then, and how accurate has that been?
Meadows: In 1972, we presented the set of scenarios about the global future that were produced by our computer model. These showed sort of the gross features of global society out to the year 2100. On the basis of that we said that if policies weren’t drastically changed, the global community would overshoot its limits sometime in the early part of the twenty-first century, and that the most probable result would be collapse. Now thirty years later, we look back, we’ve redone the analysis and find that what we said in ’72 was essentially correct, except of course now we’ve lost thirty years. And whereas in 1972 we were comfortably below the carrying capacity of the globe—that is to say there was room for population and industry to grow—now we’re significantly above.
Puplava: Well, if we take a look at the last thirty years, we’ve certainly seen new technologies that have enabled, for example, more oil out of, let’s say, the ground. Some areas of food and energy production have exceeded population growth. Can we expect the same in the next thirty years? In other words, can technology help alleviate some of these problems?
Meadows: Of course, technology has made enormous strides, and every sign is that it will continue to change rapidly. Indeed, in our studies we in some cases assume that technology will be able to reduce resource use, for example, by as much as 85 or 90% over the coming century.
The key thing to know about technology is that it’s a tool. It’s not autonomous; it doesn’t operate under its own rules. It reflects the goals and the values of people who make investments in technology. If you have a society which doesn’t care about the environment, doesn’t care about the gap between the rich and the poor, and thinks that violence or conflict is a way to resolve differences of opinion, then you’ll have lots of technological advance, but that technology will damage the environment, exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor, and strengthen the military capacity of a dominant nation.
So we shouldn’t just step back and say that technology’s going to get us out of this. What we need to do is come up with a plan, and when we have it, technology will be very helpful to us.
Puplava: Now what about, for example, something that we’ve seen, and I guess it’s getting wider recognition now with the prices moving up in the energy market. But since the early eighties we’ve been running a net energy deficit. We’ve been consuming more energy, oil and carbon fuels than we’ve been finding, and also per capita grain production peaked in the eighties, so we had peak grain production per capita. We also had peak energy. How serious is that? At least now, at least oil prices on the day you and I are talking, oil prices closed at $49.90 a barrel.
Meadows: Well you mentioned two problems – food and energy – and let me take them in turn. The globe currently produces enough food to give everyone an adequate standard of nutrition. The problem isn’t with the technology; it’s with the values set. Unfortunately, our values cause us to feed a lot of that food to the pets of the rich and to leave a lot of poor people (a couple billion) without enough food to go to bed every night. So it’s a question of values, not the technology itself. Soils are eroding, ground waters are being depleted, and agricultural soils are being diverted over to urban and industrial uses, so the pressures are enormous on the food system.
Our model projected that per capita food production would peak out and start to go back down around 1990. That seems to have been the experience, although it’s a little early to tell. And our model suggested that total food production would peak out around 2020. Food production’s still going up, but the population is going up even faster, so per capita, it’s going down. If we don’t address the underlying causes, then it will be extremely serious. You see, for example, China now beginning to move into the international food market. And it means that although China gets the grain it needs, prices are raised, and poorer countries are finding it much more difficult.
Energy is an interrelated issue but quite different in its dynamics. You’re right, we haven’t at least for a couple of decades discovered as much fossil fuels each year as we’ve used. So, of course, we’re coming to a point where the global production is going to peak out and start going back down again. There’s a fairly informed group of experts who think that that’s going to happen soon – this year or certainly in this decade. Once again, it depends on values. We have more than enough energy to satisfy all of our basic needs, but if our value set says that we ought to run a lot of it through SUVs for the rich and leave the poor without cooking and heating, then of course it’s going to generate enormous difficulties.
One of the interesting anomalies for me has been to see that recently, you know, all of the concern about terrorism has basically categorized people who take violent action as somehow being against us politically, or jealous of us, or something like that. There’s really no historical basis for that. What we know is that when people find their basic needs are not being satisfied and they have no other alternatives, they turn to violence. So if energy is going to exacerbate that problem, it’s something of enormous concern also to us.
Puplava: Do you have a problem, however, with some of the global poverty issues, which is not just a political problem, but also an economic problem. In other words, if you take a look at the genocide, the wars in Africa, you know, how do you solve that kind of issue when you’ve got a political problem occurring at the same time you don’t have an economic system that can even do anything to help those people.
Meadows: Let me say, one of the insights we gathered in the course of doing our work was that even if we have a great model, it doesn’t let you answer all questions. And, I must say our research doesn’t give us any special perspectives on issues confronting the really desperately poor nations in Africa. What I can say is that the market is not going to let people grow their way out of poverty. We’ve had twenty or thirty years of absolutely historically unprecedented economic growth. And it has widened the gap between the rich poor, so it’s really amazing to me that people think somehow sustaining growth for another couple decades is going to somehow start reducing the gap. It isn’t. But it requires that we take on poverty as an as an explicit ethical, political issue, and when we’ve done that, then we can find markets or technologies or economies that will help us deal with the problem.
Puplava: Moving on to this book now. You released a version earlier, and now this is the thirty-year update to this book. If, essentially, you’re making the same points, why another version?
Meadows: Well, we address that issue in the preface to the book, and, in fact, actually this is the third edition. The first one came out in 1972. The second one was called Beyond the Limits, published in ’92, and now this one, well, which just came out.
First of all, we have to look back and say that people didn’t pay attention in 1972. We said then if current policies are sustained, there’ll be problems. Looking back, we see that current policies were sustained. There’s been no interruption to the growth in population, resources use, energy consumption, and so forth from the 1970s. In 1972 there were 3.65 billion people on the planet. Now there are over 6 billion. You’ve probably noticed recently in the papers headlines saying something like that the population has fizzled. Well, you need to put that in perspective. A while ago, demographers thought that there were going to be 12 billion people, and now they think there’s only going to be nine, so they’re claiming that the population bomb has fizzled. But actually the planet can only support about 2 billion people at the standards of the West, and we already have six, so I would say the population has exploded. It was to call attention to that and a number of other issues that we rewrote this book.
Also, the book has been very widely used in many languages as a textbook, and the data sets were just getting out of date. In 1992, all of our data tables stopped in 1990, so one of the main reasons for me, at least, as a teacher was to put out a new edition which brings all the data up to the year 2000 so that teachers can continue to use this as a text.
Puplava: Your contention is that the planet that we live in is in overshoot. What does that mean, exactly?
Meadows: Yeah. Let me say that’s not simply our contention. Although in 1972 we were crying in the wilderness, now there’s a very wide array of people who recognize the truth of what we said. Indeed, there’s a widely used indicator called the human ecological footprint, which compares the demands on the planet with what the planet can provide. And that indicator, which was developed totally outside our group, indicates that we’ve moved above the sustainable levels back about 1980 or so. We’re now about 20% above. Nobel scientists, looking at individual problems like climate change, species disappearances, ???., reached the same conclusion.
What it means is that the number of people and the standard of living that we have adopted put our demands on the planet above levels that can be sustained. It’s like you had a big bathtub full of water, and you start taking water out of it. Over the short term, you could do that, irrespective of how much is running in. But over the long term, you can only take as much water out of the bathtub as is being regenerated by the faucet. If you take out more than that you’re technically in overshoot. That’s what we are. In 1972 the problem we faced was to slow population and industrial growth so that they came to a halt below the level that could be supported. Now we’re way above it. We need to figure out how to get back down without engendering some kind of collapse.
This is nothing new. There’ve been many societies in history that have temporarily overshot their carrying capacity and collapsed. What’s different today is that global trade, international communication, migration, the international financial system and so forth have linked all the reasons together so that when one country or one region goes, it’s felt everywhere.
Puplava: How much of this also is a monetary issue? In other words, if you have central banks that are, for example, printing a lot of money to expand or keep the economy afloat and keep this constant growth factor where you get all these ??? investments. How much does monetary policy have to change? Because it seems like that is a contributing factor in some of the things that are going on in the western economies.
Meadows: Over the short term, I think the monetary system is quite important, particularly if it works in a way that diverts investment away from solving problems over into the things that really cause problems. A monetary system which facilitates the purchase of very expensive cars or the build-up of a huge military system obviously makes it harder for mankind to live peacefully and adequately on this planet.
But over the long term, I don’t think the monetary system actually has that much to do with it, because it’s the underlying physical realities of resource scarcity, limits to pollution, eroding agricultural soils and so forth that are causing our problems. And if we don’t change the physical realities, doesn’t make any difference how much money we print. We’re still going to have problems.
So in our global model we actually omitted money. That’s a model which works out over 200 years. What I feel models that have behavior over two or three years, then you have to put money in there, because over that period of time the monetary system has a major impact.
Puplava: Well let’s talk about in this thesis of overshoot, what are the three causes, and if you could explain each one, and let’s get into those.
Meadows: Overshoot is a phenomenon that we all experience almost every day in our daily life, but at a very much smaller scale. You know, if you’re driving a car, and on a slippery road and come up to a stop sign and misjudge how long it’s going to stop, you can overshoot the stop sign. Or if you step into your shower and turn on the hot water and don’t make adequate allowances for the length of the pipe, you could overshoot the comfortable temperature and scald yourself. So we’re just talking about something which occurs everywhere, but now it’s on a global basis.
And the three underlying causes are, one, a rapid rate of change; two, a limit of some sort; and three, delays in perceiving the limit. When you have those three things you’re going to have overshoot. And unfortunately, that’s what characterizes global, population and industrial growth.
Puplava: Well let’s talk about the first cause, which is exponential growth, because the one thing that we do know is populations keep growing. When you wrote this book, I think there were three billion people on the planet. Today there are six-and-a-half, and by the end of the decade, what—another billion or a half a billion. We’re starting to feel some of the pressure with China, most visibly right now in the price of raw materials and energy.
Meadows: Right. Well, as I said, one of the underlying causes of overshoot is rapid change, and at the global scale that rapid change is caused by exponential growth in population and industrial output. Exponential growth is an expansion where things tend to double over a fixed period of time. For example, when you put money in the bank. And what we illustrate in the book is that where you have the conditions that give you exponential growth, as we certainly do with population and industry, the change can become incredibly rapid very quickly. It fools you, you think you understand what’s going on, and you don’t. And that’s then what gives cause to the second concern, which is the limits.
Puplava: Well, if we take a look at this change in a lot of exponential growth, and then versus limits, I want to talk about that, because one of the problems that you have, and this gets back to a point you make in your book where you say 20% of the worlds population or countries control 80% of the economy and GDP. And one of the problems that I see here to all of this is also political and economic to some extent. For example, if you have a dictatorship in a country, or a country where you absolute poverty, environmental degradation is not as important to somebody who’s just looking for water and food to live on versus, let’s say, a wealthier population that has the means and resources to do something about it.
Meadows: That’s true. I mean, there is absolutely a political and an economic aspect to all of these things, but you shouldn’t let that confuse you or mislead you. And of course, you don’t have to go to poor countries to find populations that are unwilling to deal with population. The United States, which is the richest country in the world at the moment, is blithely ignoring climate change, for example. Simply not dealing with it. Indeed, it’s making it worse. So it’s not only the economic level; it’s also a question of psychological values.
Puplava: Let’s talk about the second limiting factor, which is an issue that is confronting China, for example. A lot of the more populous centers in China, which are along the seacoast, which have the richest soil for farming, are now being plowed under, and they’re building concrete structures. So one of the limits, obviously, is food, land and water. In China, we’re starting to see this reality. Why don’t you speak about this for a moment.
Meadows: The computer model that we developed generates a variety of different possible futures. It doesn’t predict the future; you can’t do that, and we have no way to know which of the different futures might occur. But the one that shows up first when we run the model is one with food shortages where global trends in land and water , like the ones you see in China today, finally make it impossible for the planet to grow enough food. It has enormous consequences, because when that happens, you will see that a lot of investment pulls out of human services and industry in trying to prop up the agricultural system. And then that leads to declining growth rates in the other sectors.
It’s not only in China. Worried most about China just because that’s a country still rich enough to buy food on the international market, so when they overstrip their land and water resources, we feel it economically. When Uganda or Botswana or Ethiopia overstrip their soil and their water resources, it doesn’t manifest on the international markets, and so we just don’t notice it.
You mentioned just a minute ago the monetary system. Here’s an interesting example of how it may operate. Remember I said one of the key factors causing overshoot is delay, and the monetary system can introduce a very significant delay. Take the United States, for example. We have actually overstripped our energy resources in this country, and the way we have been able to ignore that is by borrowing money and using it to import oil and gas. If the monetary system didn’t exist, and we had to exist on our own energy resources, then long ago we would have had to come to terms with our current energy policies. But because Japan and China and other countries are willing to keep buying federal bonds, we’ve got a ten or twenty year delay here before we really have to confront the reality of the fact that we’re really using more resources than we can generate or can generate the goods for.
Puplava: One issue that I think even though oil is on the front page of the news every day, another issue I see as very important, which is water. We discussed it on this program in the past, but here, for example, in the western part of the United States, we’re in the sixth year of the drought. We’ve got, I’m trying to think of the name of the major dam in Nevada, which if the drought and the water levels keep going lower, they’re going to stop making hydroelectric power.
Puplava: But this is also a global issue, and most people don’t think of, you know…we just expect, for example, in the west we’re going to turn on the faucet or take a shower and the water’s going to come on, and we expect to show up at the gas station and be able to buy a gallon of gasoline.
Meadows: One of the interesting, dynamic features of these problems is that they can switch very suddenly. You can experience decades of growing use for some resource—marine fisheries is a good example—and year after year you’re able to produce more. It seems like there’s no problem, and then suddenly, almost overnight, the resource collapses and you find yourself left with nothing.
Water has some of these properties. We’ve grown used in the United States, particularly in the East, to the notion that there’s abundant water—clean, pure, relatively inexpensive water. And so we are doing things which, day by day, diminish our water or degrade it, thinking that this is not going to have any long-term consequences. But what we’ll see is, almost overnight, we’ll move into a period of water scarcity. This has happened already in many regions of the globe, and serious efforts to understand where conflict is arising now recognize that conflicts over water are more and more important.
Puplava: What can be done about this? For example, the United States was in a very special situation. We were a large producer of energy. We were endowed with large energy resources. Much of that has already been consumed, but when the last energy crisis erupted in the seventies, it turned out to be more of a political issue. We were able to import our way out of that particular crisis. But now the United States is now competing for oil with China, which has become the second largest consumer, but what do you do with water? For example, there are so many vagaries having to do with weather, you know. We don’t get a lot of snow, there’s not as much fallout from the water…uh, the water tables. I mean, how do you handle something like that?
Meadows: Well, I think there are three general policies with respect to water that you can going on around the world. So first of all, of course, would be intelligent efforts to reduce water use, to reduce the contamination of water, and to respect the groundwater supplies so that we don’t overpump them. Whole set of very rationale measures, and if we undertook these in a deliberate fashion, they would be relatively inexpensive and they would generate a high profit. And so there’s a lot of what we might call low-hanging fruit there, if only we would go looking for it.
The second response, of course, is to import grain. It turns out that importing grain is one of the easiest ways to import water, because it takes an enormous amount of water to produce grain. And so when you see China importing grain, they’re not only importing food; they’re importing water. They’re offsetting their local water scarcities. And a deliberate effort to import water-intensive materials can be one way of overcoming the shortage.
And then the third way is, which at least works maybe in the short term, you simply try to seize territory that’s got water on it or under it. And you look around for neighbors that are weaker than you are, and then you enter into treaties with them. If they don’t want to get into treaties, then you can threaten them with something more serious. So those are the three ways we now see people trying to deal with water scarcity.
Puplava: Well certainly there’s been a number of issues that have been written on this. Michael Klare has written a book called Resource Wars. He’s got a new one called Blood and Oil. If, it seems to me, there’s limits to growth at the top, it seems that energy and water have to appear right underneath there because we take a look at, for example, the enormous improvement in agricultural output. A lot of that has to do the type of fertilizers which are made from, let’s say, natural gas. And water has contributed to that, so it seems like if you don’t have energy or if there’s a scarcity of energy, you can’t plow as many fields. You don’t have the technology or the resources to get the food output, and it seems like they’re all linked.
Meadows: They are absolutely all linked. Anyone who looks back 500 years from now on this period of human history will see that this brief bubble of cheap, relatively abundant energy, which we got initially from coal, then from oil, and now more recently from natural gas, was what permitted the enormous growth in industry, ecological progress, and the expansion of the human population. We now face the very real prospect that we will be so short-sighted and so stupid in our reliance on technology and the markets that we will not do the things required to get along in a world which has much less available energy.
Solar energy is relatively abundant—wind energy, photovoltaics and so
forth—but it takes a long time and lots of capital investment to get yourself
over to the point where you could make good use of it. If we wait until the
oil system is rapidly collapsing, we’ll no longer have the discretionary
resources we need to make the adjustment. And then this technological development,
which people have come to think is inevitable over the last hundred years or
so, will be seen to be nothing much more than an artifact of abundant energy.
It’s no mystery why countries which have enormous amounts of oil and gas
can build up their services, their food, their personal consumption, and their
industry much more rapidly than countries that don’t. And the United States
is rapidly moving from being a country that does to one that doesn’t.
Puplava: Has it surprised you, to some extent, that our leaders, and certainly people…investors have not paid as much attention to what’s going on with energy and water. I mean, even—it doesn’t matter if you’re an environmentalist or you’re a capitalist. I mean, a prominent investment banker, Matthew Simmons, has been talking about this for quite some time as it relates to energy. And, you know, it doesn’t seem to be on the forefront and on this year’s presidential election. It’s not given a lot more press other than the fact that people have noticed that prices have gone up.
Meadows: I don’t know if it’s surprising, but it’s certainly frustrating and disappointing. I have to say there’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between Bush and Kerry when it comes to talking about climate change, energy shortages, and environmental destruction. I think probably the two candidates do have different views on the matter, but in terms of their public pronouncements, there’s nothing…nothing to pick there.
Investors are looking for a quick turnaround in their profits. And if your time arrives, and there’s only a year or two, then energy depletion is not a particularly interesting matter for you. But those of us who have kids or grandchildren have, or should have, a somewhat longer incentive. And if you want to make sure that this planet is an acceptable place for your kids, energy depletion is enormously important. Thirty years ago this was a distant matter, but we’re now talking about trends which are going to manifest over the next five to ten years.
Puplava: Now what about your computer models? You have a computer model called “World 3.” Why don’t you tell us what it is. What does it tell us?
Meadows: Our goal back in 1972 was to understand where policies—current policies—that govern population growth, energy use, food production, capital investment, and so forth—where they were taking us, globally and over the longer term. There’s no way to predict the future, but there are some systematic rules or regularities that you can identify.
And so the team of 12 people that I put together looked at government data, we talked to experts, we read the literature, and we came up with a list of probably about 50 general principles that govern the behavior of the industrial and the population systems. Now these aren’t mysterious. Each one of them, actually, when you lay it out in writing, seems perfectly obvious. For example, when people get richer their diets shift. They go from basically being a grain-based over to being a meat- or dairy-based diet. When people’s income goes up, their birthrate tends to go down. When you invest more in industry, your productive capacity goes up. When your productive capacity goes up, you need more energy, and less technology reduces your consumption requirements.
So we came to a set of about 50 of these principles, and then what we did is program them—express them mathematically and put them into a computer—and play the experiments with them. As I said, there’s no way you can predict the future because obviously even this conversation is going to change the future slightly, so what we can do, though, is draw out a set of portraits about how things might evolve and look for common features, and that’s what we did. And the portraits are scenarios. They’re plots which show possible behavior for global population, for industry, for food consumption, for pollution generation, and so forth between 1900 and the year 2100.
The first hundred years gave us a sort of a historical base that we can compare with real data, and then the next hundred years help us where we might be going. It’s kind of like a radar on the bridge of a ship. The captain of a ship knows that it’s going to take a long time to turn or stop his vessel, so he can’t just look 10 or 15 feet out in front of the ship to know what he should do. And when it’s cloudy, he has to use the radar to project out into the future path of the ship far enough to see obstacles, soon enough that he can change course. That’s exactly what we’re doing with “World 3.”
Puplava: Now these two scenarios that you’ve come up with, “World 3.” Which one do you believe to be the most probable?
Meadows: Well, people ask me that a lot, and what I think is the most useful way to respond to that is that professionally I hope for the best, and personally I prepare for the worst. What we have found is that today it is extremely much more difficult to get our World 3 model, to generate what we might call sustainable development. In the 1970s it was quite simple. You could assume relatively low rates of technological advance, relatively small shifts in personal consumption patterns and see a desirable future.
Now you need to make really extreme assumptions, because the world’s population has gotten much bigger, and the resource base has diminished. We are in overshoot. We are above the levels that can be sustained long-term, even if you make heroic assumptions about technology. So the question is, how are we going to get back down? Is it going to be peaceful, equitable, easy? Or is it going to involve conflict, difficulty and great disparities between the rich and the poor? Every day that we delay thinking about these issues, the second outcome becomes more likely.
Puplava: Let me just come back for a moment to technologies, because we’ve seen some of these Malthusian arguments and problems surface in the past. And if I want to play devil’s advocate, I might say well, yeah, people were concerned about this in the seventeenth century. They were concerned about this in the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century. Here we are today, six-and-a-half billion people, and we’re still around, and, you know, depending on where you live, doing okay. What about technology? In other words, when we came to the end of timber, all of a sudden coal was discovered as a source of energy, and when the coal age was seen to be coming to an end, we discovered oil in Titus, Pennsylvania, and the oil age was upon us. What about technology?
Meadows: Well, it’s a useful question, and it needs careful thought. It is the case that even before Malthus, people looked at the situation and said, my goodness, we’re going to get ourselves into real trouble here. And then, in one way or another, the difficulty went away or was finessed. You know, there’s a famous claim that horses were going to bury New York in horse manure, and then of course along came the internal combustion car.
So I think it’s useful to look back on those forecasts and understand where they went wrong or what they ignored. One thing we can say is…I’ve done that, and what comes out is the following. In the past, the issues that were being addressed tended to be quite local. Malthus was looking at England and England’s ability to feed itself, for example. And the problems went away when the local systems began to draw resources from outside. Actually, Malthus would have been right if England had had to continue feeding itself, but through the industrial revolution it began to trade textiles and other manufactured goods for the food that it needed, so it expanded its agricultural base.
Now we’re dealing with problems which are global in scale. And for the first time, and this is really recent, last couple of decades. The issues we’re looking at affect the entire globe. We’re not going to import a new climate from someplace else. We’re not going to find new oil reserves from someplace else other than this planet when the current ones start to deplete. So the scale has increased enormously. Also, the rapid rate of change has increased, so that we have much less time to deal with these issues.
Let me say, I appreciate technology. I have a Ph.D. from MIT, the leading technology school in this country, perhaps. But let me point out that now it’s not just a bunch of luddites who are making this claim. Nobel prizewinners, scientists of many stripes look at the current trends and say we’re doing permanent damage to the globe and we have to change.
Technology can be helpful to us in making that change if we get our priorities straight. But if we just sit back and think that somehow technological advance is going to make it unnecessary to deal with these issues, it’ll be a catastrophe.
Puplava: Well given some of these problems that exist and the things that we need to start planning for, how do we make the transition?
Meadows: I think the most important thing is to recognize that we do need to make a transition, to realize that it doesn’t work anymore to just project the old trends onward and upward. A change is coming, and we need to get out in front and make sure it works to our benefit. That’s the most important thing.
Then we need to start increasing the time horizon. For a variety of reasons, politics, the media, and the economic system have shortened down the period of time that anybody pays attention to when they’re making fundamental tradeoffs. But meanwhile we’re doing things which have consequences over decades. So we need to start looking further out again.
This is not rocket science. There are some rather simple institutional changes that could be made. For example, the United States used to have a Council on Environmental Quality which looked out at environmental trends. It was disestablished and shut down. We need to have something like that come back again. Economists need to quit discounting a future with high interest rates so that they don’t pay any attention to things three or four years out. And so forth. And voters need to demand that the people running for office quit promising to solve problems over the short term without telling what kind of costs are going to be involved in the long term. There are lots of things like that to be done.
And then I think that we need look at the environment and realize that it doesn’t somehow exist apart from us. We’re dependent on it. And if we damage this planet, it’s the only one we’ve got. So, these are, I know kind of vague, and even, I might say academic prescriptions, but anyone who takes them seriously can immediately find things to do in their own life that will make a big difference.
Puplava: Professor, I guess one of the easiest ways to solve the problem is to recognize that a problem exists, and then you go about seeking solutions. But one of the…I guess one of the issues I see so often happens…we saw this here in California, where we got into an energy crunch. We had blackouts in 2000, and what you typically see is the first thing the politician does is look for somebody to blame. They don’t want to take responsibility, and then the media comes on board and they get into he-said, she-said. And the real relevant issues that should be or should have been discussed in, for example, California’s energy crisis or, for example, last year when power went out on the east coast and in the Midwest, is what have we done to mature energy infrastructure and what are we going to do about it in the future? Instead, it became a blame game.
Meadows: I don’t see an easy solution for that. I see ??? to the problem. What I can say is that it’s not going to get solved if each of us just stand back and wait for somebody else to do something. Each of us has the capacity to start asking hard questions and not to accept easy answers.
When a lot of smart people keep making the same mistake, as, for example, with blackouts, I understand that there’s not some one person at fault. There’s an underlying structural issue that needs to be corrected, and that’s when you start probing to see what are the features of the system that are causing this.
Puplava: I guess maybe a couple of final questions, Professor. You know, you say you plan for the worst but you hope for the best. If there were something that was to make you more optimistic about the future, what would that be?
Meadows: I think it would be seeing politicians who are running for office starting to talk about the underlying physical realities, long-term realities that we face on this planet. Climate change is no longer a scientific uncertainty. There is adequate scientific evidence that we have changed the climate, and that we’re in a period of rapidly accelerating climate change. And it is going to have generally negative consequences. I’d be enthusiastic if politicians would start to recognize that fact and do something about it. I’d be more optimistic if politicians would quit pretending that oil was an infinite resource, which is just going to keep going up and up and up in its production. By and large, I would be optimistic if people would start looking at the physical realities instead of the economic, short-term political signals that, by and large, confuse us and obscure what’s really going on.
Now how to bring that about? I’m not sure. I’m a teacher. I’m a writer. When I’m working with my students, I help them to see the underlying realities, and when I write books, I try to point out what’s going on. That’s what I know to do.
Puplava: And finally, Professor, if there is one thing that you would want the readers of Limits to Growth to walk away with, what would that point be?
Meadows: The recognition that we’re coming into two decades of radical transformation. These problems are no longer off in the distant future. In 1972, we thought that the issues would start to occur about 2010, and we still think they’re going to occur about 2010, so recognize something’s going on, and so as the symptoms begin to start cropping up—inflation, high oil prices, growing conflict. Instead of scapegoating or pointing the finger at some political party or some individual, realizing that the underlying system is out of kilter and needs to be brought back into balance by stabilizing population and drastically changing material consumption needs.
Individuals, once they recognize that, can make some fairly quick, relatively painless changes in their own lifestyle, and then they can start calling attention to their children and other people around them to the reality. It wouldn’t take very much of that to get a real sea change.
You know, it’s easy to become pessimistic about the changes that are necessary, but our society has in the past couple of decades gone through some really profound revolutions. Take, for example, smoking. You know, if I told you 20 or 30 years ago that smoking would be outlawed in public places, you’d have thought I was crazy. But spontaneously there came in our society a rapid shift. We used to be in favor of large families. Now we’re in favor of small families. That’s a really profound shift. We’re talking about that kind of change, which feeds on itself once it gets started.
Puplava: Well, Professor, I want to thank you for joining us here on “The Financial Sense News Hour.” Hope some of the messages of this book gets out, at least to our political leaders, because these issues need to be addressed. The name of the book is called Limits to Growth: the Thirty-Year Update.
Transcribed by Julie Boerst