Dennis L. Meadows at the Japan Prize 2009 News Conference

Every year for the past 25, the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan has awarded the Japan Prize "to people from all parts of the world whose original and outstanding achievements in science and technology are recognized as having advanced the frontiers of knowledge and served the cause of peace and prosperity for mankind."
This week, the prize has been awarded to two Americans, Drs. David E. Kuhl and Dennis L. Meadows. On 22 April I was priveldged to attend a news conference by these two eminent scholars at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan.

Dr. Kuhl has been one of the inventors and improvers of tomographic imaging, which has greatly accelerated progress in research and medicine. Dr. Meadows lead the research project that published "The Limits to Growth" (Club of Rome, 1972). This book presented the results of modeling simulations that demonstrated that continued growth of human populations and resource consumption would hit physical limits of our very finite planet sometime in the coming decades. The book generated tremendous controversy; much of modern economics is based on the premise that growth is necessary for well being of countries. Though Dr. Kuhl's work is tremendously important in research and medicine, Dr. Meadows' work resonates with two critical issues facing the world today, the global recession and environmental degradation, most notably on the political horizon: climate change; consequently, all of the press conference questions went to Dr. Meadows, and it is his remarks that I write here.

Dr. Meadows began the press conference by stating that the current financial crisis is not due to hitting the limits to growth, but rather due to the world economy building productive capacity far in excess of demand; the resulting depression is predicted by the Kondratiev wave  and Dr. Meadows predicts that economic recovery will not come anytime soon. Both for the downward phase of Kondratiev waves and for the approaching limits to growth, technology does not solve the fundamental problem; at best, it only buys you a little time.

In 1972 when "Limits to Growth" was published, human consumption of resources was accelerating, but not yet beyond Earth's carrying capacity. When the book was updated in 2004 (Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update), we had already exceeded carrying capacity and continue to do so today. Achieving a sustainable future in 1972 required only a slowing of the growth of population and consumption; today, sustainability is impossible without reducing both. Furthermore, unsustainable behavior has never been a long-term option; our population and consumption will be reduced to sustainable levels either voluntarily or involuntarily (and most unpleasantly).

Of course the wiser course is to base policies and actions on their long-term consequences. People need to learn to feel 'wealthy' in terms other than consumption. A sustainable future might be some kind of 'ecotopia' with a regional collective of networks of sharing and caring about society and about the ecosystem that provides for our most important and fundamental needs. Failing that, the wealthy may build a fortress society, using tax laws, fences, and guards to maintain their privileged lifestyles while lifestyles for most people deteriorate rapidly.  

Though I was only 15 years old when The Limits of Growth was published, I have always believed the conclusions of that analysis and been concerned about rampant growth of population and consumption stealing our precious and rich natural heritage from our children and future generations. I am glad to see Dr. Meadows honored and the broader recognition of environmental problems. But overall, we humans remain a growing herd headed to the brink of a long steep cliff.