growth sustainability

Starting again on the idea of limits

Limits to Growth projections

Forty years on from the seminal Limits to Growth report, the idea that there are environmental limits to human activity is still contentious. The report’s projections are largely spot on, so the debate should be more relevant than ever. It’s just been denied, obstructed and wished away, while industrial society has gone ever deeper into overshoot.

There are a whole variety of reasons why the conversation was lost in the noise. There are vested interests. Many people still don’t have the basics, and resent talk of reducing consumption when they don’t have enough. There are opposing ideologies and deliberate  choices not to engage, perhaps best symbolised by Reagan taking the solar panels off the White House. Maybe, as the book of Genesis suggests, there’s just something in the human psyche that rebels against a perceived limit.

There’s also been a lot of confusion. The biggest is over what it is that is limited. ‘Limits to Growth’ can be read as population growth, economic growth or materials growth. It’s really about all of those together, but there’s no particular word for that – the human project? Civilisation? Industrial society? Lacking the big-picture language, the debate has often settled on one aspect of it: economic growth.

The trouble is, economic growth is an abstraction from the underlying human activity that creates it. You can make money from money, as the City of London demonstrates every day. That obscures the relationship between the economy and the environment, and suggests that the economy somehow transcends the natural world and that it can therefore growth can continue indefinitely. That’s true in theory, but in practice economic growth and ecological impact are still tightly bound together, particularly on CO2 emissions. Even if they can be picked apart, it is highly unlikely that it can be done fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.

So the debate gets skewed. Talk about limits to economic growth, and you will be told that you don’t understand economic theory. Talk about the science of sustainability, and it will be assumed that the economy doesn’t matter.

A second problem is around what is and what isn’t a limit. Limits to growth are often interpreted as ‘running out of stuff’, such as oil and metals. These are ‘soft’ limits rather than ‘hard’ ones. If a resource is renewable, like timber, or recyclable, like copper, you don’t every need to run out of it unless you’re being careless. Some things can be substituted too. You can run an electric car instead of one with a petrol engine, so surely the end of oil isn’t a real limit either.

The answer to whether these are limits is again a theoretical no, those don’t need to be limits, but only if you manage them right and plan properly. In practice, they are limits, because we’re not doing that planning or not allowing those substitutions to happen. Countries lie about their oil reserves or subsidise fossil fuel consumption, masking the inexorable rise in prices and decline in energy returns. Products are made to be thrown away rather than re-used, making retrieval of metals complicated and expensive.

The debate stalls again. Mention resource depletion, and you’ll be told that you don’t understand economic theory. Acknowledge substitution and recycling, and you risk minimising the very real problems of unsustainable resource use – as seen in government briefings on peak oil, for example.

So are there any real limits, or should we just let it go? The answer is a qualified yes on both counts. There are limits to the scale of human activity and they are real, but we need to let go of that language and find new ways of talking about the problem.

planetary boundariesFortunately, the Stockholm Resilience Centre has given us a potential new start with the idea of planetary boundaries. They gathered a conference of scientists in 2009 and investigated all the areas where human activity is in conflict with natural systems, and identified nine boundaries that we need to keep within – a ‘safe operating space for humanity.’

It’s not an entirely new idea – the Gaia folks have been talking about ‘planet management’ for some time, but it’s a new framing of the problem and it’s already been influential. “While planetary boundaries are still a young concept,” says Alex Evans, “they are becoming the most important idea in sustainable development to emerge in the 25 years since the Brundtland report. They recognise natural resource limits as critical – but, importantly, focus not on abstract, polarising ideas like ‘limits to growth’, but instead on evidence-based, quantified limits to the sustainable use of particular renewable and non-renewable resources. In so doing, the approach aims for a clear definition of the safe operating space for a sustainable global economy.”

Building on this work, I plan to write a series of posts on the planetary boundaries. I’ll look at them one at a time, looking at the tipping points and how close to them we might be. I’ll be drawing on the Planetary Boundaries report in Ecology and Society, Mark Lynas’ book The God Species, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and various other sources. Time allowing, I’ll try and post one a week over the next couple of months.


  1. Thanks Jeremy, great article.

    You raise a key point about how the concept of limits is perceived according to the lens through which we look at it. When I started to delve in to sustainability I realised that we can’t just look at it from an environmental perspective, even though the underlying earth sciences enables us to understand ecological limitations and overshoot. To build up a more complete picture of sustainability/limits, we need to use a collection of disciplines e.g. economics (GDP based on material production, material production requires raw materials and energy to power it), athropology/history (patterns of ecological overshoot in past civilizations – causes and consequences), psychology (why we struggle so badly to grasp these concepts). If we want to make a difference, then solid understanding of business and government is also essential.

    I think the concept of limits is also clouded by the uncertainty of future circumstances. We may be overshooting limits now (and I’m thinking atmospheric CO2 levels especially here), but we are not seeing the consequences now. It is the future in which the effects will be felt, and the human brain is notoriously limited when it comes to long-term problem solving. We must look at limits not just in the present, but also in terms of what science tells us will happen as a result over the forthcoming decades.

    Look forward to the blogs on planetary boundaries, I’m just beginning to explore this!

    1. Absolutely, the moment sustainability gets filed as a ‘environmental issue’ it gets sidelined into specialist departments or ignored altogether. It has to be understood in its full context, and put right at the centre of our priorities.

      The long term thing is interesting too. One of the more awkward realities here is that long term planning doesn’t come naturally to democratic governments. You have to keep one eye on the next election, and hope the difficult decisions fall on the next administration.

  2. Outstanding and informative post. I’ve been thinking about this idea about limited growth for several years now, and it shocks me that nobody is talking about it.
    To acknowledge planetary boundaries is to admit that unfettered capitalism and global trade isn’t in our best interests long-term. And who wants to–or is bold enough–to say that? Here’s a blog post that touches on some similar ideas, but not nearly as well as you have!

  3. This is a really great. I feel like “A qualified yes and no” is the answer to so many issues where the theories and debates around the (coterminous and co-constitutive) elements of environment and development. And quantitative data is useful yes, but along with economics is such an abstraction from lived experience (Amartya Sen’s work on this was a bit of a revelation in terms of ‘lens’ on this issue for me). It’s hard to find a balance between all of the constitutive parts of society leading to environmental degradation without privileging some parts of the narrative more than others, and this balance is really is required if we are to understand the problem in all its complexity, and in informing solutions so that they do not create more problems.

  4. The only way to make from money is through Ponzi schemes, which is essentially what the City has become.

    Our politicians think that we need to get the economy back on a “growth” path, which as you say is the path to catastrophe. The real need is to get better distribution of wealth.

  5. I’m looking forward to your posts! Have you read Enough Is Enough by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill? I just finished it, and thought it contained some great ideas for a post-growth economy, as well as explaining why we need such a thing. A big part of that was ecological limits. I’m looking forward to knowing more about these Planetary Boundaries.

  6. Hmmm, I wonder Jeremy why ‘the limits to growth’ concept was ‘polarising’ and the scientists at the resilience institute now prefer to talk about ‘planetary boundaries’? Me thinks it has nothing to do with ‘evidence’ – the evidence for ‘limits’ or ‘boundaries’ being very clear. May it be, rather, that the first notion refers explicitly to the issue of growth, which of course cannot be eradicated until we move beyond capitalism and market forces…and which, therefore, the elites will never contemplate acting on. The nicer concept of boundaries is perhaps a little easier to reconcile with green capitalism or ‘sustainable development…i.e growth without end (until collapse)

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head there, and it’s what I mean by the opposing ideologies I mentioned. ‘Growth’ is still a sacred term. I remember Tim Jackson describing how he gets, in his words, “an almost visceral reaction” from politicians when they hear the title of his book, Prosperity Without Growth. It’s just no-go territory.

      The boundaries concept is exactly the same principles, it’s just different language, and that’s helpful. It doesn’t get growth off the hook though, and the proponents of planetary boundaries need to be careful that they don’t become a legitimising platform for mistaken ideas about ‘green growth’.

  7. Jeremy, to be blunt (that’s my style), I think you will find that many of proponents of planetary boundaries are, implicitly or explicitly, for ‘green growth’. Prime example is Mark Lynas, who I notice you plan to review; I look forward to reading.

    To me ‘the movement’ just has to get away from this ridiculous mentality that we can/should ‘frame’ things to paper over conflicts, or ‘sell’ the message to as many as possible without offending. Saving the planet; ‘sustainability’; call it what you will, requires offensive solutions to not only the bulk of elites who want nothing more than capital accumulation without end, but also, sadly, the vast majority of happy consumers in affluent countries who will scream at any suggestion that we lower our ‘living standards’. But, you say, is this not the tired old confrontational ‘doom and gloom’ narrative that failed in the past? Maybe…but so what, this is our situation and we need to proclaim it loudly and clearly. Of course, the other thing we need to do is creatively demonstrate all the ways in which we can live perfectly well, indeed maybe better, with simpler more self-sufficient ways…cheers

    1. You’re right, some of those picking up on the planetary boundaries concept are pushing a green growth agenda – I think Lynas is out of his tree on some of the claims in his book. (reviewed here: )

      I agree that there’s no dodging the difficult truths we face. The problem is securing an audience. Almost every time I read a reference to the Limits to Growth report, it’s prefaced with ‘the now debunked’ or ‘the discredited’. Even environmentalists do this. They’re wrong, and if they read the book they’d know better, but it’s out there now. The denial lobby won the day on the whole message of Limits to Growth and its language.

      Some attempts to find new ways of describing things are softening the blow, and Rockstrom himself has written things that I think are pussy-footing around the issues. But equally, new language gives us another opportunity to communicate hard truths without people going ‘yes, I’ve heard that one’. Sometimes a new way of explaining something just captures the imagination, like ‘transition’ has done. It’s worth a try.

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