In the spring of 1972, a slim book called The Limits to Growth dropped like an intellectual bomb on the developed world’s most optimistic assumptions about itself. Peppered with computer-generated graphs and written in clear, dispassionate language by a team of MIT graduate students led by two young scholars, Dennis and Donella Meadows, the book delivered a seemingly extreme argument, which ran as follows: If 1970 rates of economic growth, resource use and pollution continued unchanged, then modern civilization would face environmental and economic collapse sometime in the mid-twenty-first century. Yes, collapse—as in massive human die-offs.
It was a message that many people in the industrialized world already seemed to feel intuitively. They could see it—or thought they could—in the ever-faster pace of change embodied in highways, smog, telecommunications, jet travel, tasteless frozen TV dinners, urban riots, youth rebellion, and the bloody spectacle of a high-tech military fighting low-tech guerrillas in Vietnam. For many people, the world was moving too fast and in the wrong direction, and The Limits to Growth seemed to prove that point scientifically.
The book sold 12 million copies, was translated into thirty-seven languages, and remains the top-selling environmental title ever published. In many ways, it helped launch modern environmental computer modeling and began our current globally focused environmental debate. After Limits, environmentalists, scientists and policy-makers increasingly thought of ecological problems in planetary terms and as dynamically interconnected.
It is worth revisiting Limits today because, more than any other book, it introduced the concept of anthropocentric climate change to a mass audience. And now, forty years on, we are finishing another year full of indications that the economy and nature are badly out of balance: summer Arctic sea ice shrank to its smallest-ever recorded area; heat-trapping atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have reached an alarming 400 parts per million; the first seven months of the year were the warmest and driest on record in the United States; Superstorm Sandy flooded and smashed $45 billion worth of infrastructure in a swath stretching from Ohio to New York City and beyond; and drought has pushed food prices to politically dangerous heights.
Launched with great fanfare and a massive transatlantic PR effort, Limits combined the glamour of Big Science—powerful MIT computers and support from the Smithsonian Institution—with a focus on the interconnectedness of things, which fit perfectly with the new countercultural zeitgeist. Limits was also the culmination of a steadily building environmental awareness. In the early 1950s, the Cuyahoga River had ignited. As late as 1966, a smog inundation in New York City killed several people and sickened thousands. Three years later, a massive oil spill hit the beaches of Santa Barbara. There were consciousness-raising books like Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, and that first photograph of Earth shot from space, showing a vulnerable-looking “blue orb in a sea of blackness.” And, finally, the massive Earth Day demonstrations of 1970. Limits could hardly have arrived at a more opportune time.