Dennis Meadows: “There is nothing that we can do”

By Rainer Himmelfreundpointner | 3 June 2012

Dennis Meadows shattered the belief in progress on a sustainable basis with his study, commissioned by the Club of Rome, “Limits to Growth” 40 years ago. (Credit: We Love Earth / YouTube)

FORMAT interviews Dennis Meadows, author of “The Limits to Growth”, about the shocking position of the planet. 40 years ago, Dennis Meadows presented the best seller “The Limits to Growth”. In it, he predicted, not the exact date of the apocalypse, but the U.S. researchers showed by means of computational models, that by mid-century, the resources of planet Earth will be depleted.

The book sold 30 million copies and Meadows is now regarded as the most famous “Sunset prophet” of the world. FORMAT’s writer Rainer Himmelfreundpointner met Meadows on a visit to Vienna for an exclusive interview. The message of the nearly 70-year-old is now no more optimistic as then, and is not for the faint of heart.

FORMAT: Prof. Meadows, according to the Club of Rome, we are currently facing a crisis of unemployment, a food crisis, a global financial and economic crisis and a global ecological crisis. Each of these is a warning sign that something is quite wrong. What exactly?

Meadows: What we meant in 1972 in “The Limits to Growth”, and what is still true, is that there is simply no endless physical growth on a finite planet. Past a certain point, growth ceases. Either we stop it … by changing our behaviour, or the planet will stop it. 40 years later, we regret to say, we basically have not done anything.

FORMAT: In your 13 scenarios the end of physical growth begins – that is, the increase in world population, its food production, or whatever else they produce or consume – between 2010 and 2050. Is the financial crisis part of that?

Meadows: You cannot compare our current situation that way. Suppose you have cancer, and this cancer causes fever, headaches and other pain. But those are not the real problem, the cancer is. However, we try to treat the symptoms. No one believes that cancer is being defeated. Phenomena like climate change and hunger are merely the symptoms of a disease of our earth, which leads inevitably to the end of growth.

FORMAT: cancer as a metaphor for uncontrolled growth?

Meadows: Yeah. Healthy cells at a certain point stop growing. Cancer cells proliferate until they kill the organism. Population or economic growth behave exactly the same. There are only two ways to reduce the growth of humanity: reduction in the birth rate or increase the death rate. Which would you prefer?

FORMAT: No one wants to have to decide.

Meadows: I don’t either. We have lost the opportunity of choice anyway. Our planet will do it.


Meadows: Let’s stay on diet. Do the mathematics, take food per person since the 90s. The production is growing, but the population is growing faster. Behind every calorie of food that comes to the plate, ten calories of fossil fuels or oil are used for its production, transportation, storage, preparation and disposal. The less oil reserves and fossil fuels, the more the increase in food prices.

A trash picker plies a Manila waterway. (Credit: Judgefloro / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

FORMAT: So it’s not just a distribution problem?

Meadows: Of course not. If we share it equitably, nobody would starve. But the fact is, it needs fossil fuels such as oil, gas or coal for food production. But those supplies are running low. Whether or not new shale oil and gas reserves are exploited, peak oil and peak gas are past. This means tremendous pressure on the entire system.

FORMAT: According to your models the population, which in 2050 will be around 9.5 billion people, even with a stagnation of food production for another 30, 40 years.

Meadows: And that means that there will be a lot of very poor people. Considerably more than half of humanity. Today we can not feed a large portion of humanity sufficiently. All the resources that we know of are declining. One can only guess where this will lead. There are too many “ifs” for the future: If people are smarter, if there is no war, if we make a technological advancement. We are now already at the point where we cannot cope with our problems, how we should do it in 50 years, when they are bigger?

FORMAT: And blame is our way of doing business?

Meadows: Our economic and financial system, we do not just get something. It is a tool that we have developed and that reflects our goals and values. People do not worry about the future, but only about their current problems. That is why we have such a serious debt crisis. Debt is the opposite of that, worrying about the future. Anyone who takes on debt says: I do not care what happens. And when for many people the future does not matter, they will create an economic and financial system that destroys the future. You can tweak this system as long as you want. As long as you do not change the values of the people, it will continue. If you give someone a hammer in his hand and he uses it, and it kills his neighbour, it helps nothing to change the hammer. Even if you take away the hammer, it remains a potential killer.

FORMAT: Systems that organise the kind of coexistence of people come and go.

Meadows: But man remains the same. In the U.S., we have a system in which it’s okay that a few are immensely rich and many are damned poor, yes even starve. If we find this acceptable, it does not help to change the system. The dominant values are always the same result. This value is reflected in climate change enormously. Who cares?

FORMAT: Europe?

Meadows: China, Sweden, Germany, Russia, the United States all have different social systems, but in each country rising CO2 emissions, because the people really don’t care. 2011 was the record. Last year there was more carbon dioxide produced than in all of human history before. Although all want it to decrease.

FORMAT: What is going wrong?

Meadows: Forget the details. The basic formula for CO2 pollution consists of four elements. First, the number of people on Earth. Multiplied by the capital per person, so how many cars, houses and cows per man, to come to Earth’s standard of living. This in turn multiplied by a factor of energy use per unit of capital, ie, how much energy it takes to produce cars, build houses and to supply or to feed cows. And finally multiply that by the amount of energy derived from fossil sources.

FORMAT: Approximately 80 to 90 percent.

Meadows: Approximately. If you want the CO2 burden to decline, the overall result of this multiplication must decline. But what do we do? We try to reduce the share of fossil energy as we use more alternative sources like wind and solar. Then we work to make our energy use more efficient, insulate homes, optimise engines and all that. We work only on the technical aspects, but we neglect the population factor completely and believe that our standard of living is getting better, or at least stays the same. We ignore population and the social elements in the equation, and focus totally on just trying to solve the problem from the technical side. So we will fail, because growth of population and living standards are much greater than we would save through efficiency and alternative energy. Therefore, the CO2 emissions will continue to rise. There is no solution to the climate change problem as long as we do not address the social factors that count.

FORMAT: You mean the Earth will take things into its own hands?

Meadows: Disasters are the way to solve all the problems of the planet. Due to climate change, sea levels will rise because the ice caps are melting. Harmful species will spread to areas where they do not meet enough natural enemies. The increase in temperature leads to massive winds and storms, which in turn affects precipitation. So, more floods, more droughts.

The infamous Makoko slum in Lagos, Nigeria. (Credit: Stefan Magdalinski / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

FORMAT: For example?

Meadows: The land which today grows 60 percent of wheat in China will be too dry for agriculture. At the same time it’s going to rain, but in Siberia, and the country will be more fruitful there. So a massive migration from China to Siberia will take place. How many times have I told people this in my lectures in Russia already. The older people were concerned. But the young elite has merely said: Who cares? I just want to be rich.

FORMAT: What to do?

Meadows: If I only knew. We come into a period that calls for a dramatic change in practically everything. Unfortunately, changing our society or government system is not done quickly. The current system does not work anyway. It did not stop climate change, or prevent the financial crisis. Governments are trying to solve their problems by printing money, which will almost certainly result in a few years of very high inflation. This is a very dangerous phase. I just know that a person has, whenever he in uncertain times, has the choice between freedom and order, and chooses order. Order is not necessarily right or justice, but life is reasonably safe, and the trains run on time.

FORMAT: Do you fear an end of democracy?

Meadows: I see two trends. On the one hand, the disruption of states into smaller units, such as regions such as Catalonia, and on the other hand a strong, centralised superpower. Not a state, but a fascist combination of industry, police and military. Maybe there will be in the future even both. Democracy is indeed a very young socio-political experiment. And it does not currently exist. It produced only crises that it cannot solve. Democracy contributes nothing at the moment to our survival. This system will collapse from within, not because of an external enemy.

FORMAT: You talk of the “tragedy of the commons”, (Allmendeklemme)

Meadows: This is the basic problem. If in a village everyone grazes his cows on the lush meadow – called in old England “Commons” – the short term benefit goes most to those who choose to have more cows. But if that goes on too long, all the grass dies, and all the cows.

FORMAT: So you have here an agreement, such as the best use of the meadow. That can be democracy at its best.

Meadows: Maybe. But if the democratic system can’t solve this problem on a global level, it will probably try a dictatorship. After all, it’s about issues such as global population controls. We are now 300,000 years on this planet and we have ruled in many different ways. The most successful and effective was the tribe or clan system, not dictatorships or democracies.

FORMAT: Could a major technological development to save the earth?

Meadows: Yes. [But] Technologies need laws, sales, training, people who work with them – see my above statement. Moreover, technology is just a tool like a hammer or a neoliberal financial system. As long as our values are what they are, we will [try to] develop technologies that meet them.

FORMAT: All the world currently sees salvation in a sustainable green technology.

Meadows: This is a fantasy. Even if we manage to increase the efficiency of energy use dramatically, use of renewable energies much more, and painful sacrifices to limit our consumption, we have virtually no chance to prolong the life of the current system. Oil production will be reduced approximately by half in the next 20 years, even with the exploitation of oil sands or shale oil. It just happens too fast. Apart from that you can earn more than non oil with alternative energy. And wind turbines can be operated, with no planes. The World Bank director (most recently responsible for the global airline industry) has explained to me, the problem of peak oil is not discussed in his institution, it is simply taboo. Whoever will try to anyway, is fired or transferred. After all, Peak Oil destroys the belief in growth. You would have to change everything.

FORMAT: Especially with airlines the share of fossil fuels is very high.

Meadows: Exactly. And that is why the era of cheap mass transport by air will end soon. This will only be affordable in large empires or countries. With a lot of money you might buy the energy, and cause food shortages. But you can not hide from climate change, which affects both the poor and the rich.

FORMAT: Do you have solutions to these mega miseries?

Meadows: This would change the nature of man. We are basically now just as programmed as 10,000 years ago. If one of our ancestors could be attacked by a tiger, he also was not worried about the future, but his present survival. My concern is that for genetic reasons we are just not able to deal with such things as long-term climate change. As long as we do not learn that, there is no way to solve all these problems. There’s nothing we could do. People always say again: We need to save our planet. No, we do not. The planet is going to save itself already. It always has done. Sometimes it took millions of years, but it happened. We should not be worried about the planet, but about the human species.

Dennis Meadows shattered the belief in progress on a sustainable basis with his study, commissioned by the Club of Rome, “Limits to Growth” 40 years ago. The economist has been Director of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a visiting lecturer in the world and has taught at Dartmouth College and at the University of New Hampshire, where he now teaches.

Final Warning Limits to Growth

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


  1. 6-7-14 Comment


    Challenge religious privilege in public life! Philosophy, philosophy of science, –logic, ethics, epistemology, critical thinking skills as relevant are needed. There’s a world of possibly correct thinking as far as the world population issue is concerned. Rational thought followed by appropriate action must prevail. Religious leaders’ thinking, age of mythology thinking can no longer prevail unless they are willing to compete with the best thinking. The sciences especially including evolutionary theory advances also need to prevail.
    Shift to massive agricultural engineering to save domestic and wild life animals and their ecosystems with protective habitat.
    What about massive agricultural engineering to protect farm animals and wildlife, domestic and wild crops from heat, cold, drought, floods, pollutants, and predators? Climate change, massive melting etc are at our doorstep.
    Water rationing and related issues is the number one problem — we must solve it!
    What about civil, mechanical, chemical and biological engineering to save, sequester and purify water?
    What about civil and mechanical engineering etc to manage the soil, the forests, fresh water, oceans, storms, snow and ice, fires, trash and recycling and other global warming-related phenomena?
    What about bringing in the artists to help make the restoration beautiful?
    Behavioral-cognitive training for self-managed health care as far as possible and practical: Fit Folks Health Promotion.
    Beyond the planetary and environmental issues, there is so much available in the social and health sciences. For example, a sample. Fit Folks Health Promotion: 1. Nutrition 2. Exercise 3. Sleep & Rest (recreation) 4. Stress Management 5. Avoiding Harmful Substances and Situations in the Environment 6. Timely Preventive and Restorative Medical Care. Combining say nutritional science with cognitive behavioral science promotes genuine compliance. Pick another biological science and combine it with cognitive behavioral science, again compliance is enhanced.
    Separating topics and some of these sciences out from some of the medical sciences could reduce health care costs considerably. Also, health care resources will probably be significantly changed. We are in the sixth mass extinct of life on earth.
    The entire transportation system even with green technology I would think would have to be sustainably modified. The ratio of biological life forms to contemporary human-constructed buildings needs to be entirely redone. It’s already a work in progress. What we have done to planet earth makes change imperative and even then the future is in jeopardy.

    “The documentary LAST CALL shows the urgency to listen to this message of warning, in order to pursue a new model of equity and sustainability, before it’s too late.”

    • “Also, health care resources will probably be significantly changed. We are in the sixth mass extinct of life on earth.”

      Typo: Should read: extinction of life.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here