ONEPLANET Sustainability Review

Sustainability Research, Reviews and Signposting

From Limits to Growth to Global Change


Reflection on Buttel et al, From Limits to Growth to Global change (1990)

This is a paper that compares and contrasts two dominant debates in environmental science and ideology, those highlighted in the title.  The author group’s main aim was both lofty and necessary, nothing less than assessing the current and future course of modern environmentalism through a critical review of GEC as a framing mechanism or global framework.

Limits to Growth (LTG) and Global Change (or global environmental change, GEC) are strikingly similar in many important ways, but quite different especially when it comes to their socioeconomic contexts.

LTG, whilst ground breaking and broad-scope, greatly challenged conventional wisdom with its recommendations for solutions to global environmental problems. And it was a spectacular failure in the public eye.

This is not surprising, although unfortunate, because their arguments seem to have been presented in a way that was far too controversial.  The upside was that these issues were even raised at all and given as much attention as they were.  LTG can almost be seen as a testing bed for critical issues and recommendations for solutions. Their main similarities included:

  1. Global reasoning in terms of the systemic nature of processes and inputs
  2. Predictions of environmental collapse
  3. Causes of problems rooted in industrial civilisation
  4. Quasi-malthusian arguments of population and consumption
  5. Knowledge derivation not from traditionally hard sciences, in which accurate predictions are less authoritative and/or prestigious
  6. Anchoring in early, complex computer modelling
  7. Empirical validation of predicted events
  8. Prescriptions involving “globally coordinated, multilateral political responses and a significant reduction in the use of natural resources”.

Fortunately, despite the similarities in their methodologies and findings, GEC succeeded in just the ways that LTG failed.  Their main differences included:

  1. Reception; LTG received extraordinary early attention and quick rejection, whereas GEC continues to develop and receive endorsement, despite thin scientific evidence and a lack of consensus at the time.
  2. Challenge; both challenged the foundations of modern industrial societies, however the policy prescriptions from LTG were too threatening, particularly to private business, including the steady state economy.
  3. Fossil fuels; LTG considered exhaustion as a contributor to system failure, where GEC sees the abundance and use of FF.
  4. Third world issues; almost entirely absent from LTG, whilst figuring centrally in GEC with their attention to tropical deforestation and development policy.

It strikes me that the arguments for GEC were developed and presented far more subtly and sensitively.  They appreciate and attend to the needs of a modern world and seem more responsive to the realities of political, social and economic contexts. Turner et al offer the following list of reasons why GEC may have gained prominence:

  1. It serves as both a science and an ideology, thereby addressing the needs of many groups in society that can lend support to it.
  2. It provides a rationale for environmentalists as a result of the two aforementioned characteristics and can therefore act as a ‘comprehensive organising framework’, answering as it does many questions.
  3. It successfully presented the issue of CFCs and ozone depletion through solid science that captured a ‘scary’ issue ripe for media and public consumption.
  4. It’s ability to capture further issues with the same ‘formula’ of solid science and media ripeness (i.e. dread factors and spectacular events).
  5. It attracted international consensus.
  6. It recommended change that was less severe and therefore less intrusive and more amenable to civil societies.
  7. It characterised opportunities for business rather than restrictions on operations.
  8. It filled a social need created by recession that virtually eliminated previous ‘traditional class-based discourse’ in the political-ideological spectrum through the provision of a widely attractive and applicable social movement.
  9. It filled a political need to couch development debates in meaningful terms outside of recession-bound traditional development finance and assistance arenas, legitimising development criticisms based on environmental grounds.

All in all, the arguments posed by Global Environmental Change are a brilliant agglomeration of science, policy, economics, sociology and psychology on a mass scale, capitalising on timing, cause and effect.

With the exception of one or two, nearly all of the potential issues raised as disadvantages to the GEC notion as a” framework for environmental action” are for me almost non-issues today.  The only things I think that are real issues are political double-dealing and distributional consequence.  The former is practically a non-issue with those of us concerned with real change and less concerned with espousing a perfect ideological perspective/world-view.  Unfortunately the real world is a messy place full of compromise. The latter remains a problem and continues to be addressed to this day by the international community.

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This entry was posted on 2 November 2012 by in Environmental Sustainability, Idealism, Sustainable Development.

Part of the Problem? or Part of the Solution?

Rampant consumerism.
Widespread unsustainable lifestyles.
Unsustainable business practices.
Damaging and unsustainable travel and transport.
Extensive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
These are some of the problems we face.
Energy crisis.
Financial crisis.
Uneducated and un-empowered.
Environmental damage.
Food and water shortage.
Climate change.
Are you part of the problem,
Or are you part of the solution?

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