Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think
Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

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Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

Reading 3.4: Limits to growth

In April 1968 a group of thirty people from ten countries gathered in Rome. From this meeting grew the 'Club of Rome', a loose association of people of twenty-five nationalities all united by their belief that mankind faced major problems which were of such complexity that traditional institutions and policies were not capable of dealing with them. They commissioned a study which was eventually published in 1972 entitled The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972). This initiative was driven by the realisation that much of our economic activity consisted in using up limited resources, for example land needed for food production, the mining of metals and felling of forests as a resource for manufacturing, the mining of coal and extraction of oil as a source of energy. Also much of our economic activity resulted in waste materials being dumped into rivers and the sea, onto the land, and into the atmosphere, without thought for the consequences.

Most serious of all, though, this was being done at an ever-increasing rate, a situation which, however one looked, was certain to lead to disaster. A finite Earth could not always supply an ever-increasing demand for materials nor absorb an ever-increasing amount of waste. It had already been noticed that some of these waste materials were highly toxic and already damaging living things. This aspect was highlighted by Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, published in 1962 (Carson, 1962) for which the title was taken from the damaging effects of the chemical industry particularly on birds. The book is credited with popularising the science of ecology.

The example of the fishing industry discussed in Reading 3.1 showed how traditional economics, because of its reductionist roots, is unable to look at the context within which the economic system operates. The root of the problem is that the complex interconnections cannot be considered within this framework of thinking. Thus, there can be no brake on our currently unsustainable lifestyles which arises from informed choice. Ecology has had to look for a different foundation of thinking to be able to equip us with the appropriate concepts and techniques to deal with these emerging crises resulting from a world dominated by reductionist thinking.

The dominant set of rules governing decision making from the global to the local level, is often considered to be where reductionist thinking wields its greatest power. Just as the behaviour of atoms can be used to understand anything in the physical world, money (the basic unit of measurement in economics) can be used to understand anything in the social world. Everything has a price!

The following is an extract from the Fundamentals of Historical Materialism: the Marxist View of History and Politics, written by Doug Lorimer:

The atomistic view of society arises from one side of the contradictory nature of the capitalist social system. Capitalism separates and pits people against one another through the generalised commodification of the means of production and labour-power. … This isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere … The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle and separate purpose, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.

(Lorimer, 2006)

The reductionist thinking that underpins modern economic development has oversimplified and misinterpreted the theory of natural selection, believing that competitive fitness is the factor that determines long-term survival. Thus, the appropriation of the maximum amount of resources by individuals or groups is paramount regardless of the long term outcomes. André Gorz, in his book, Ecology as Politics, states that: we are dealing with a classical crisis of over-accumulation … with a solution to this crisis cannot be found in the recovery of economic growth, but only in an inversion of the logic of capitalism itself. This logic tends intrinsically towards maximisation: creating the greatest possible number of needs and seeking to satisfy them with the largest possible amount of marketable goods and services in order to derive the greatest possible profit from the greatest possible flow of energy and resources

(Gorz, 1980)

Gorz goes on to say that:

[T]he link between more and better has now been broken. Better may now mean less: creating as few needs as possible, satisfy them with the smallest possible expenditure of materials, energy, and work, and imposing the least possible burden on the environment.

But how did he arrive at this conclusion? The failure of reductionist thinking to adequately describe all phenomena around us is, in my view, manifestly not delivering the promise of health and prosperity to all.

This problem has resulted in the emergence of a new (and at the same time ancient) way of thinking. I say 'new' because systems thinking has only been articulated scientifically from the 1940s, and 'ancient' because I have come across the same thinking approach articulated in many traditional indigenous communities that I have worked with in South America.


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