A Last Call for Limits to Growth?

Following closely on the heels of the IPCC’s most recent publication on climate change (outlook: not good), Dartmouth College screened the film Last Call about the controversial 1972 book Limits to Growth. Limits to Growth explored the potential consequences of population growth, concluding that unless political measures are taken to mitigate current rates of population and economic growth, they will both increase exponentially until they exceed the limits of sustainability and suffer a catastrophic decline. Needless to say, no measures were taken and the book was heavily criticized. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan famously argued “there are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.”

After the screening, one of the book’s authors, Dennis Meadows, answered questions. A student addressed a part of the film where co-author Donella Meadows expressed frustration at the public’s refusal to accept the study and its calls for action. The student asked how “we” (environmentalists) should respond when those in power refuse to take action on environmental issues. Dennis Meadows quickly replied that we should ignore them and focus on disseminating information about the issue. His point, which he went on to articulate, reminded me of a recent conversation about collective animal behavior–the coordinate behavior of a herd or group of animals of the same species. Large groups of animals often make decisions as a group. Herds of red deer, for example, spend the day grazing but at some point, each deer needs water. If the herd goes to the river too soon, some of the deer won’t get enough to eat; if they wait too long, some of the deer will become dehydrated. So how does the herd decide when to go? When more than half of the deer stand and face the river. In this way, each deer has an influence on the herd’s decision, but not all of the deer need to agree on when they should go.

The film’s reminder of this behavior makes it a little easier to think about the political gridlock impeding meaningful reform of TSCA. The proposed bills pit environmentalists against the chemical industry, forcing those seeking reform to settle for compromise or to try and convince politicians that weak standards, loopholes, and exceptions erode the ability of the law to protect health. But the film quietly suggests otherwise, asking whether hope for meaningful reform could lie in this theory of collective animal behavior—that at some point, when the majority is looking for change, political decisions will reflect that collective desire. This sounds a lot like how the democratic process should work, but with a reminder that politicians can only represent the herd when they know which direction they are facing.

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