Limits to Growth and the COVID-19 Epidemic (by Dennis Meadows)


Progress Namibia - Limits to Growth and the COVID-19 Epidemic (by Dennis Meadows)
28 May 2020

[This week I am sharing a great article written by Dennis Meadows, a colleague of mine, recently published by Chelsea Green Publishing House]

Forty-eight years ago I led an 18-month study at MIT on the causes and consequences of growth in population and material production on the planet earth through the year 2100. “If the present growth trends … continue unchanged” we concluded, “the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.”
To illustrate this conclusion, we published a set of 13 scenarios generated by World3, the computer model built by my team. In those scenarios major global indices, such as industrial output per capita, typically stopped growing and began to decline between 2015 and 2050.

The current epidemic does not prove we were right. When climate scientists are asked if a particular storm proves their theory of climate change, they point out that a model of long-term continuous change can not predict, nor be corroborated by a short-term discrete event. There have always been catastrophic storms. But, the climatologists point out, increasingly frequent and violent storms are consistent with the climate change thesis.
World3 is a model of continuous interactions between population, resources, and capital over the long term. In the context of 200 years, the COVID-19 pandemic is a short-term, discrete event. There have always been plagues, but increasingly frequent and violent epidemics are consistent with the limits to growth thesis.

There are two main causative links.

First, the explosive growth of humanity’s population and economy has stressed natural ecosystems, lowering their capacity to self-regulate, and making breakdowns such as epidemics more likely. In the recent past global society has been confronted with MERS, Ebola, Zika, SARS, and H1N1 plus major outbreaks of measles and cholera. And now we have COVID-19.
Second, growth in consumption has forced us to use resources more efficiently. Efficiency is the ratio between the output we want and the inputs required to produce it. Common measures of efficiency are, for example, miles per gallon, years of expected lifespan per dollar of health care, or bushels of wheat per gallon of water. Raising the efficiency of a system permits one to use fewer inputs per unit of output. In itself, higher efficiency is typically good. However, raising efficiency inescapably lowers resilience.
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