Life, Limits and You Are Here

(Dateline – Sol 3) One of my life changing moments was reading the book Limits to Growth (1972) when I was in high school. It wasn’t an “ah ha” moment like reading the Milgram experiments. It was, as later in life I learned to call it, a paradigm shift.  One which would shape my life over the coming decades in ways from where I lived to what I studied and how I came to view the the human experience.

The book used state of the art statistical methods with the best available data to test the Maltusian Catastrophe postulate that there are limits to population growth as said here by Malthus.

…the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.  – Malthus 1798, Chapter 1[1)

Or even more simply put, human population will someday outgrow the available food sources. The authors of Limits to Growth expanded food to mean resources in general.  The premises were simple.

  • Population will continue to grow geometrically.
  • Resources are finite.

While the first point is debatable and somewhat under human control, the fact is that human population continues to grow.  Human population on Planet Earth passed 4 billion in 1974 and is expected to pass 7 billion in 2012.  That is a doubling rate of approximately 50 years.  With one exception, the Chinese One Child Policy, government policy rarely addresses population growth.  Yet even in China, under what most would consider a draconian policy, population continues to grow at the rate of one additional New York City per year.

EarthriseWhat amazes me, is that the second point is debated, heavily. I understood emotionally that there were limits to our resources here on Earth when I saw the now famous photo from Apollo 11 of the Earth rising from the surface of the moon shown here on the right.  The book Limits to Growth gave that notion a rational frame for me.  Now if that image doesn’t do it for you, below it is a photo of the Earth taken from Mars by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit.  The photo is in black and white, because the Earth is not recognizable in the color shots.  Additionally, the image was magnified by a factor of two.


Have you ever looked at Mars from the Earth? We live on a small dot in the sky. So, in what rational universe can the resources available on the Earth be anything but limited?

So, there were three things that came out of my reading of Limits to Growth: an interest in statistical modeling, an interest in understanding the dynamics of closed systems, and the beginnings of an understanding of how daily life affects the “big picture” which affects daily life and on and on in a closed system all of it’s own.

But the paradigm shift was more personal.  It was the beginning of my understanding that there are limits in life.  This was articulated in my political career by Jeannette Rankin who said, “You take people as far as they will go, not as far as you would like them to go”.

There are limits to what we can do and what should have been incredibly obvious to Americans after Vietnam is staring us right in the face today. There are limits to what we can do as a nation and as a people. There are consequences to the decisions we make as a nation and as a people.  We are bumping hard against our limits and need to stop pretending that we do not have limits.  Let’s take the national situation and state it in daily life terms. The backyard is filled with trash (pollution), the house is falling down (infrastructure), the checkbook is overdrawn (deficit) and the kids can’t afford to go to college (both the cost and relevance of education) and even those who did, are having a hard time finding a job (both recession and changing economy).  On top of all of that, we are in a shooting feud with our neighbors (two land wars in Asia).

It is time to take a hard look at who we are and where we are going. And if you don’t agree with me because “America is the greatest nation on the Earth”.  Then I suggest you take a closer look at the photo of the Earth up above as seen from Mars.

How big of a magnifying glass do you need to see an American flag?

An Essay on the Principle of Population” by T. R. Malthus. 1798.

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