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Will Technology Let Us Avoid the Limits to Growth?

Will Technology Let Us Avoid the Limits to Growth?
Reported by
Demi Ajayi

Posted April 23, 2012


On January 26, 2012, the New York Academy of Sciences's Green Science & Environmental Policy Discussion Group was honored to present Will Technology Let Us Avoid the Limits to Growth?. Rooted in the provocative themes of the landmark publication Limits to Growth, coauthored by Dennis Meadows, this meeting explored the current state of technological development and its impact on environmental sustainability. The discussion was led by Thomas Graedel of Yale University's Center for Industrial Ecology and by Dennis Meadows.

Bernard Tuchman of the Green Science and Environmental Policy Discussion Group moderated the event. He set the stage with a general summary of Limits to Growth. Tuchman explained that Limits to Growth, first published in 1972, predicted the trajectory of continued economic growth and its environmental consequences and simulated several alternative economic paths and their associated costs. Assuming that recoverable natural resources are indeed finite, the authors foresaw dire environmental consequences for most possible economic growth trajectories. This bold proclamation sparked a great debate on economic development and sustainability that persists today. Out of this debate, Tuchman explained, has emerged the field of industrial ecology, which employs analytical methods to explore limits to growth. The major goal of this field is to explore the effects of economic and policy actions on resources such as land, water, energy, and mineral resources. Further, it seeks to understand the interdependencies of resources to avoid a situation in which advances in sustainability in one resource sector might lead to setbacks in another sector.

In this discussion, Dennis Meadows primarily sought to elucidate the implications of the paradigm shift needed to achieve the best environmental future possible. He began his presentation by detailing the three points he first contended over 40 years ago concerning economic growth and sustainability: physical growth cannot be sustained on a finite planet, population/industrial growth will not stop without intervention, and, lastly, without intervention, growth will lead to economic and societal collapse. According to Meadows, the first of these points has been so hotly debated that the other points have gone unaddressed. Such gridlock on a self-evident claim, Meadows argued, is a clear indication that we need a shift in our technology habits, meaning, in this case, the culture of technology use and development.

With this context in mind, Meadows went on to frame our understanding of technology and its implications for sustainability. He asserted that technology is often (falsely) defined as an inherently benevolent monolith. Rather, Meadows described technology as a set of often complex methods to convert inputs to outputs of greater value. These mechanisms often require significant infrastructure to be deployed or sustained.

To characterize the effort required to shift our habits, Meadows provided the illustrative example of the habitual task of crossing ones arms. Although it required almost no forethought for audience members to cross their arms in one way, people seemed to have a preference for which wrist crossed over the other, and further, the audience found it that it took deliberate thought to cross their arms so that the other wrist ended up on top. Likening this to current technology habits, Meadows stated that we have developed technology habits without much forethought that have worked, but we will need to change our habits to move decisively to a better future. Meadows further emphasized that from this example we can learn several things about changing technology habits:

  1. It is possible to do so.
  2. The change requires thought to achieve, and it might involve making mistakes.
  3. Breaking with current practice will not be comfortable.

Meadows then argued that in the struggle to achieve environmental sustainability, social factors are in fact more important than technological factors. Using the rise of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere as a case study, he spoke of the greater importance of social factors to curtail emissions since we are able to exert more control on those factors. Social factors, such as the growing global population and the use of energy-expensive technologies combine with technological factors, such as the amount of energy required for each piece of technology and the portion of that energy that comes from fossil fuels, to yield the amount of fossil fuel-generated CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, a number that increased exponentially since the Industrial Revolution. Most current efforts to curb emissions are focused on technical solutions. Meadows cautioned that both social and technical adjustments must work in concert to avoid collapse.

Meadows provided several sobering statistics that reiterated the urgent need to change course. In 1972 we were at 85% of global carrying capacity, a marker that refers to the population size the Earth's environmental resources can sustain, and we are currently accelerating beyond 140% of that capacity. Global consumption of oil has exceeded discovery every year since 1984. This unsustainability is being kept afloat because we are spending down the resource reserves of the last 100 million years. In addition, best estimates suggest that global oil production has plateaued and will soon be on the decline. It is estimated that by 2030 oil extraction rates will have halved from today's rates. Further, the rate of large oil field discoveries has declined: none has been discovered since the 1970s.

Meadows further asserted that it is in fact too late for sustainable development—much more drastic change is needed. He contended that sustainable development is a fantasy in which developed nations are able to maintain an untenable standard of living and of energy consumption while also preserving the environment. Meadows offered a few suggestions to mitigate the stark reality we are facing. We must learn to change our standard of living. Additionally, policy changes must be implemented to serve the better interest of the environment. Meadows argued that the government must invest as much in infrastructure for producing and storing the energy that results from emerging technologies as it has in mature technologies. He concluded by reiterating the need to ensure that our actions are aligned with our rhetoric.

Thomas Graedel, co-author of the textbook Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Engineering, provided a quantitative assessment of technology and sustainable development. Graedel used copper as an example to demonstrate the looming specter of resource exhaustion. Using developing nations' GDP growth predictions and population growth estimates that indicate the world will be home to 9 billion people by 2050, Graedel predicted that if the whole world attained the same copper consumption rates as developed nations, by 2040 about 1.3 petagrams (1.3 x 1015 grams) would be in use, which is approximately the total amount of available copper (1.6 petagrams). Graedel also highlighted modern technology's vast incorporation of natural resources: Cell phones utilize roughly 64 different elements. Consequently a conflict has arisen between performance optimization, through the specialized usage of various elements, and sustainability, as many of these resources are difficult to recover after they have been integrated into complex technologies.

Graedel proceeded to explore technology's role as an aid and/or hindrance to sustainability with a focus on food, water, energy, climate change, and non-renewable resources. Resources on earth are unevenly geographically distributed. Generally, resource-poor regions compensate by attaining "virtual deposits" by importing resources from other regions. These virtual resources allow sustenance of populations that might otherwise be unsustainable. One consequence of virtual deposits is that exporters bear the environmental penalties of extracting the resources that other regions enjoy. Moreover, utilizing virtual resources cannot forestall global resource exhaustion in the long run. Graedel specifically pointed to the looming water crisis and to the decline in oil production as critical indicators of this resource scarcity.

Renewable-energy technologies often require the incorporation of rare materials, creating a new set of challenges in pursuing alternative energy technologies. This figure shows the staggering increase in the quantity of metals needed for renewable energy technologies to replace fossil fuels and meet demand in 2030. For example, the 2030 demand for Tellurium is expected to be nearly an 1800-fold increase on 2008 demand. (Image courtesy of Thomas Graedel)

Graedel also provided an enlightening look into the development of more sustainable technology. One option would be to generate solar energy in areas of high solar insolation, such as North Africa. However, despite the theoretical potential of this alternative, renewable energy still faces great challenges. Beyond the limited efficiency of the technology itself, manufacturing renewable technology also requires the use of rare metals, which introduces a new set of issues. Graedel ended the panel discussion by stating that our current technology will not get us to sustainability. Agreeing with Meadows, Graedel concluded that both new technology and new behavioral change—reducing our energy and resource consumption—are needed.

A lively question and answer session followed the panel discussion. Several questions sought to dig deeper into how to improve public engagement with sustainability efforts. Graedel believed quantifying resource limitations would compel change. Meadows differed, stating that the problem is not a lack of knowledge, but rather a general lack of interest. Instead, Meadows suggested that we focus on understanding the social systems that ultimately govern action, and that we seek to solve global problems on a local scale. Several questions addressed potential energy alternatives, including solar energy and hydrofracking for natural gas. Addressing solar energy, Meadows aptly pointed out that solar energy serves primarily as an electricity source thus would not be able to replace the liquid fuels heavily used in transportation. Both Meadows and Graedel agreed that hydrofracking was, at best, a short-term solution with long-term consequences.

Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.

Presentations available from:
Dennis Meadows, PhD (The Limits to Growth author)
Thomas Graedel, PhD (Yale University)

Books & Journal Articles

Dennis Meadows

Meadows DL. Alternatives to Growth: A Search for Sustainable Futures. Cambridge: Ballinger; 1977.

Meadows DL. Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing; 1992.

Meadows DH, Meadows DL, Randers J, et al. The Limits to Growth. New York: Signet; 1972.

Meadows DL. The Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update. White River Junction (Vt): Chelsea Green; 2004.

Sweeney L. The Systems Thinking Playbook: Exercises to Stretch and Build Learning and Systems Thinking Capabilities. [Durham N.H.]: University of New Hampshire; 1995.

Thomas Graedel

Erdmann L, Graedel TE. Criticality of non-fuel minerals: a review of major approaches and analyses. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2011;45(18):7620-7630.

Fiksel J, Graedel T, Hecht AD, et al. EPA at 40: bringing environmental protection into the 21st century. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2009;43(23):8716-8720.

Graedel TE, Cao J. Metal spectra as indicators of development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2010;107(49):20905-20910.

Graedel TE, Klee RJ. Getting serious about sustainability. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2002;36(4):523-529.

Reck BK, Chambon M, Hashimoto S, Graedel T. Global stainless steel cycle exemplifies China's rise to metal dominance. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2010;44(10):3940-3946.


Dennis Meadows, PhD


Dennis Meadows was on the faculty of MIT, Dartmouth College, and the University of New Hampshire from 1969 until becoming Emeritus Professor of Policy Systems in 2004. During 34 years as an academic he directed two major university centers for public policy. His diverse work earned him tenure in schools of engineering, management, and social sciences. He co-authored 10 books and created strategic planning games that are used around the world to teach adults principles of more sustainable resource use. The books have been translated into approximately 35 languages. One of them was selected as the most important book on the future to be published in the German language in 2006. He has received numerous honorary doctorates from American and European universities for his contributions to environmental education. Among his many awards were the Japan Prize and the Hungarian Presidential Medal of Honor.

Thomas Graedel, PhD

Center for Industrial Ecology, Yale University
e-mail | website | publications

Thomas Graedel is Professor of Industrial Ecology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. His research is centered on developing and enhancing industrial ecology, the organizing framework for the study of the interactions of the modern technological society with the environment. His textbook, Industrial Ecology, coauthored with B. R. Allenby, was the first book in the field and is now in its third edition. His current interests include studies of the flows of materials within the industrial ecosystem and evaluations of the criticality of metals. He was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering in 2002 for "outstanding contributions to the theory and practice of industrial ecology."

Demi Ajayi

Demi Ajayi is a second year PhD student in Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University where she works in the Optical Nanostructures Laboratory. Her research currently focuses on studying energy transfer properties of quantum dots for solar energy applications.