49 years ago, Jay Forrester, Emeritus Professor at MIT and the father of Systems Dynamics, upset consumerists by publishing his paper on World Dynamics which spawned the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” report. This report argued there was a limit to how much human activity the planet could sustain and we were nearing it. But technology advances soon to follow appeared to show that humans could vastly increase the capacity of the planet. The report lost credibility and its thinking was dismissed, science would solve the problem.
What the Club’s report had not accounted for was the ability of R&D to stretch the curves, extend what was possible. Modern fertilisers, pesticides, lean manufacturing, hybrid cars, drilling advances all increased and stretched the amount of resources available for human activity: a mindset emerged, that we could "tech" our way out of this headache.
But Forrester's systemic view now looks surprisingly insightful against a backdrop of increasing food insecurity, depleting oil resources, species collapses – the 49 year sigh of relief brought about by technological advances was just a blink of the eye and we are once again wondering how much human the Earth can take.
As we approach 8bn people, our demands on the planet are killing precious habitats, filling the atmosphere with CO2 and the oceans with plastics and chemicals. Global warming and planetary stress cannot be credibly denied, the effects are there to be seen, felt and fled from.
But still we puzzle how we can all get a larger slice of the shrinking pie?
We often hear talk of green progress in terms of electric cars, photovoltaics, AI's ability to do more with less. They of course have a great role to play but must not be allowed to feed a story that we can carry on regardless. Relentlessly consuming, expanding, taking more and more without consequence. If you accept that as some stage we will reach a point where the planet will have nothing more to give then it inevitably leads to a need to recycle the resources we already do have , ad infinitum: a circular economy of reuse.
The impact is profound though – imagine a world without extractive industries, where mining is a museum piece. Whole new industries devoted to reprocessing materials either from returnables or from historic waste sources (landfill, ocean). Businesses rewired from vertical to circular, feeding their own supply chains. Populations fed on harvests fertilised and protected by natural means with minimal chemical usage. Products for life, communities of things. That’s a lot of interests disrupted but also a lot of opportunity.
Every business, every household needs a rethink - the good news is more and more already are from Unilever to Adidas to IKEA – what can you change for good?
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