Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, The Story of Stuff, and a consolidation

A single idea by itself doesn’t stand for much, but one often finds a series of ideas, that when brought together, have powerful implications.

The 4 books above, when brought together, represent a compelling story about the trajectory of the world that we are on. Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies tells of the fundamental reasons why civilisations rise and fall. The main reason is simply that social organisations can become too complex that they collapse under their own weight when they can’t find new resources to solve new problems. Hence the western Roman Empire could not always tax the population while fighting the barbarians and improve food output in the context of changing climatic conditions. In this post, Collapse serves as the main meta-narrative – how the story of the world’s collapse might be told.

Systems Thinking, as represented by Donella Meadow’s Systems Thinking: A Primer, and the Limits to Growth: A 30-Year Update (LTG) represent another crucial element in understanding the processes through which a plausible environmental and socio-political collapse of the world might occur. While the words might sound abstract, these processes have real consequence. LTG belongs to the category of ideas that ought to be proven wrong. To cut the story short; LTG notes that the world is already in overshoot in the drawing of resources from the planet – renewable resources are being extracted without thought of their capabilities to regenerate; non-renewable resources are being extracted without thought of how they might be substituted with renewable sources; and the actual improvement of human welfare is being undermined by the increase in pollution and eventually by their actual health consequences. LTG’s example of CFC’s ban and the preservation of the ozone hole represents a positive example of how action is possible to avert a global catastrophe. Not all is lost, but the window for change before collapse is imminent is narrowing very quickly. With every year of inaction, we hurtle towards our own collapse in our interconnected world.

Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff is an illustrative example of systems and processes. Without explicitly using the language of systems thinking, Leonard nonetheless illustrates the flows and stocks of natural and human resources that come together to create the products that we take for granted. Plastics and the trace compounds used in their production present as-yet unknown health hazards, and preliminary findings of their role as hormone disruptors and as carcinogens are extremely worrying. The costs to human welfare in developing countries are tragic in all the sense of the word – from irresponsible toxic dumping to the horrid conditions of work – these represent a moral case against the excesses of the lifestyle of those in the developed countries. The entire system that creates the stuff in the first place is also clearly presented: the kind of economic system that believes in the unadulterated power of markets to bring about human welfare and the creation of demand via advertising and the grafting of status upon material goods at the expense of other expressions of human dignity.

What is the synthesis then? The only way to avoid collapse, as far as the books seem to indicate, is to embark on a lifestyle that reduces the emphasis on the material goods.To want less stuff, and to find contentment in the many other ways beauty and wonder are expressed. If the end goal is human happiness and dignity, these qualities can be attained through other creative means other than to demand more stuff in our lives. The slackening of this demand ultimately reduces the extraction of resources from the planet and the accompanying pollution; in the pursuit of being less centred on stuff, we can become more connected to the social milieu around us, and find the happiness that we so crave.

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