Write about peak oil, environmentalism, or any kind of resource constraints to enough people, and you’ll eventually meet someone who stopped reading books after 1973. That is, this person — male or female — will remember one thing, and one thing only: The Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth in 1973, and the results were mocked, dismissed, and eventually disproved by the glut and economic expansion of the 1980s and 1990s.

When our hypothetical person remembers this, they will mock your concern, dismiss it, and expect it to be disproved by history. Pretty cocky for a book that was released more than 30 years ago, but LTG has taken on a far more important role than the one it’s authors intended — the useful straw man for the corporate apologists of the world.

Except, of course, that Meadows et al (the authors of LTG) were right, and their critics were wrong. I read Matt Simmons’ defense of LTG a while back, and you should read it now. But what got me thinking about this book — which, sad to say, I have yet to read — was the presentation [PDF] by Dennis Meadows (husband of the late Donella Meadows, lead author of LTG) to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil.

Meadows drily remarks:

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

One does not need a computer model to prove there are physical limits to physical growth on a physically finite planet. That was not our goal, and it was not our main contribution. Our contribution was to show that population and industrial growth are inherently exponential; and that exponential growth takes one to any existing limit quickly, whatever its magnitude. We showed also that global society will most likely adjust to limits by overshoot and collapse, not by S-shaped growth. But sustainable development is possible, if important changes are made.

It is not, as you might expect, a bright, easy read. But it is critical to understand that so long as we are addicted to exponential economic growth, we really have only three choices:

  1. Find more resources and energy. (Happening, but not quickly enough anymore.)
  2. Become radically more efficient at resource consumption. (Ditto — happening, but not enough.)
  3. Choke on our own waste, while the engine of growth seizes and dies because of a lack of available inputs.

These are undeniable conclusions of our existence. These are not hypotheses, they are mathematical facts. They are exactly the same arguments made by the authors of LTG, and they deserved to have been taken seriously, not dismissed by right-wing economists or corporate shills. We have failed to do so, and if we continue to do so we are courting disaster.

(For an excellent video on how crucial exponential math is, watch this lecture by Albert Bartlett, or listen to the MP3 here.)

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.