Sustainability is not a destination

Dennis Meadows, 01 Feb 2010

Physical growth – the flow of materials and energy through our ecosystem – is driven by population growth and by the rising material aspirations of the population.

Swiss Re: How do you feel about the financial crisis and the world’s response to it?

Dennis Meadows: There has recently been enormous interest in the so-called financial crisis. I think a serious mistake is being made. People somehow think the crisis will just go away and they are working very hard to bring the system back to the way it was before.

Already in 1972 our analysis showed that in this period, 2010-2030, the global system would go through a transition from growth to stagnation and probably into decline. And our analysis already showed that if you solve one symptom of the problem – for instance, if you improve food production through agricultural innovation or the like – then pressures simply mount in another area – water scarcity or energy or something like that.

We need to understand that we are in a period that is inevitably going to see pressures against growth – whether they are financial pressures, or resource scarcity or food, or whatever, is in some ways a secondary issue, because one way or the other they are going to rise up.

The planet today is at something like 140% of its possible carrying capacity, far above what can be sustained, and it is going to come down one way or another. As it does those factors that limit our growth are going to be problems.

Many of them are manifest in the insurance industry – as we already see with climate change. This period of crisis should not be unexpected, and it is not temporary. There are going to be a series of these so-called crises until population growth and industrial activity have come into some balance with the limits of the planet, a process that will take decades.

This poses a really interesting problem for the insurance industry because dealing with these issues will take a long-term perspective. The industry has always had a long-term perspective, but it tends to look back, analysing data and the processes that cause insurance losses as if they were static, as if you could predict the future from the past. Our analysis shows that those processes are not static. The insurance industry has to move from looking backwards to looking forwards.

Swiss Re: In terms of the governance, what are the biggest issues?

Dennis Meadows: These problems are going to take a very long-term perspective, because to solve them means making things seem worse over the short term. And this is the dilemma for democratic systems. Because market and democratic systems simply don’t work under these circumstances.

I make the distinction between easy problems and hard problems. Easy problems are those for actions that will solve the problem over the long run also makes things look better in the short term. A hard problem is the opposite, to solve it in the long term, you need to do something that makes things worse in the short term.

If we are going to come through this period in an orderly way we need to develop new methods, governance systems, new indicators, and new political motivations in order to deal with these difficult problems.

Swiss Re: We have for many years been structuring our premiums around the results of natural catastrophe models. But it can be very difficult to justify prices based on this kind of evidence, when people are used to justification based on prior results.

Dennis Meadows: The insurance industry is increasingly going to have to take on the role of educator in this area. In the past, history could take the role of education, but now we are in a period when that is no longer the case – you need to get your clients to understand that the future will be different, and that, in general terms, it is somehow portrayed by these computer models. But, I’ve been trying to persuade people using computer models for forty years, and I well know, it’s extremely difficult.

Swiss Re: How has the understanding of the interrelation of the long-term and the short-term progressed since Limits to Growth?

Dennis Meadows: We have this very perverse situation. We desperately need a long-term perspective in order to make, now, the right decisions for the long term, but because we didn’t before have a long-term perspective earlier, we now plunge into a series of crises, and these crises have the effect of shortening the time perspective. So it’s a vicious circle. People become more and more focused on the short term trying to solve some problem, and then as a result, create the conditions for even more crises in the future.

Swiss Re: Does it reflect a certain lack of values? Do we lack a consistent idea of what we are striving for?

Dennis Meadows: We are now absolutely in a situation where many people have to make sacrifices in the short term in order to ensure security in the longer term.

To do that, it requires a number of things. Firstly it requires confidence in the causal model, it requires trust that you or your kids, or whoever will benefit. Almost nobody is going to make big sacrifices now, for somebody else far away later. That’s not the way we work. We didn’t evolve that way and we aren’t capable of doing it.

That means trust is crucial: trust in the social system, trust in your geographical location. It is made much more difficult by the fact that people move around so much these days, we are no longer bound by the social conventions of our immediate neighbours.

There are no easy answers here.

But there has been a hope, or a fantasy, that somehow we can invent our way out of this crisis: buy some machine, like a Prius, or invent something like an energy efficient lightbulb, which means that we can maintain our current attitudes and habits but it won’t be causing so much damage. But that hope is false, the main reasons for unsustainability are personal habits, behaviours and attitudes, and social relations. As long as those don’t change new technologies will make very little difference. The system is heading for a major, major crisis.

What is sustainability? Actually nobody really knows. The Bruntland Commission which gave some of the first definitions of it, was quite vague, and since then, definitions have become even more diverse.

Because we don’t know what is sustainability, many people focus on something that is clearly unsustainable and try and eliminate it. But it’s a fallacy to think if we finally do away with all those things that are unsustainable we will be left with everything being sustainable. First of all you’ll never get there, and even if you did, it wouldn’t be sustainability. The term ‘sustainability’ is used as though it’s a destination. But it isn’t, its how you make the trip.

Interview by David Bresch at the NORIS conference, Helsinki, August 2009

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Dennis Meadows

Dennis Meadows, Professor of Systems Management

Dennis Meadows is Professor of Systems Management and Director of the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research at the University of New Hampshire.

He co-founded the Balaton Group, a network of around 300 professionals involved in systems science, public policy and sustainable development. His most reknown publication was made in 1972 with a study for the Club of Rome entitled “Limits to Growth”.

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