Which old witch? The wicked Limits

New Urban Network

The Limits To Growth
A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind
Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W. Behrens III
Pan Books Ltd., 1972, 197 pp.

The Witch of Hebron
James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010, hardcover, 334 pp., $24

Reviews by Robert Steuteville

I am taking a break from urbanism today to write about two books that I read over the Labor Day weekend. One is nonfiction, nearly 40 years old, and examines trends that will indirectly affect every aspect of the built environment. The other is fiction, hot off the press, and touches upon suburban sprawl. Both deal with collapse.

I read The Limits To Growth, the 1972 bestseller written by a team of MIT researchers and funded by the Club of Rome, for the first time, despite my long awareness of it.

The Limits To Growth has a reputation as a doom-and-gloom treatise that made embarrassingly erroneous predictions of societal collapse. The Limits to Growth is surely gloomy. That it made wrong predictions to date is simply not true.

I looked up false statements about the The Limits To Growth. In a 1989 magazine article and 1993 book called Ecoscam, Ronald Bailey wrote that The Limits To Growth predicted “the world would would run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead, and natural gas by 1993.” This claim subsequently went viral. Google it and you will come up with a boatload of references, including books and articles and even the Congressional Record. This claim is not true. The Limits To Growth is still being mischaracterized today.

The Limits To Growth argues that society is headed for disaster by 2070, if population and the economy continue to grow exponentially. The authors state that by that year, a century after they ran their study, we would run short on key resources like oil, metals, soil, fish, and fresh water, and/or pollute the planet to the extent that a drastic increase in the mortality will occur.

The authors were prescient in recognizing CO2 as a significant pollutant. Long before the global warming theory was widely recognized, The Limits To Growth devotes a chart and a discussion to the issue. The central premise of their work is that we live in a finite world and exponential growth will sooner or later outstrip Earth’s capacity.

Cornucopian optimists fought back hard, arguing that human ingenuity and the constraints of the market would overcome natural limits. They claimed that exponential growth would make human life continually better — for generations indefinitely into the future. This was a popular position in the 1980s and 1990s, and the optimists decisively won the argument in that era.

The Limits To Growth is not a hard read. It is under 200 pages and written in plain English. It would have been easy to debunk false statements made about it repeatedly over more than a decade. For a long time, however, almost nobody — not even environmentalists — wanted to read The Limits To Growth, and detractors were able to say whatever they wished. That raises the question: Is the book still relevant? Let’s take a closer look at how the authors’ forecasts hold up.

We are now 40 years into the 100-year period examined in The Limits To Growth. We have not seriously addressed, let alone solved, the problems described in the book. So how are the arguments holding up? Does pollution potentially pose a threat to economic growth? Check — global warming. Are resource shortages on the horizon? Check — peak oil; fisheries depleted; looming shortages in rare earth elements; regional water constraints; rising food costs and plateauing production. Are population increases in line with those predicted in the book? Check —humankind increased by 3.2 billion in 40 years, nearly equal to the population rise in all of history prior to 1970.

The Limits To Growth is a classic. It is one of the most intellectually honest examinations of exponential economic and demographic growth ever written. Unlike much of the recent work on the 21st Century’s looming crises, it includes refreshingly little political spin. There is nothing in The Limits To Growth to make it purposefully palatable to the political, media, academic, and corporate elite. That probably explains why the book has been too often mischaracterized and ignored for four decades. Of course, if the authors had spun their findings, the writing would have suffered.

The Limits To Growth deserves to be read again and again — but America is mostly not ready, even after all these years, to confront the central issues in the book. We still cling to the same ideals of limitless growth in a finite world, even as these ideals are revealed as hollow.

The literature of collapse

At the same time, the idea of collapse has begun to haunt our subconscious like a bad Freudian dream. A literature of futuristic collapse has sprung up in recent years to deal with the psychological chasm that has emerged from the growing recognition of resource limits and the inability to draw intelligent conclusions from them. One of the foremost authors in this genre is James Howard Kunstler, well known to new urbanists for his critiques of the modern US style suburban sprawl, includingGeography of Nowhere, Home from Nowhere, and The City in Mind. Kunstler also wrote The Long Emergency, a 2005 nonfiction book predicting collapse after the petroleum age.

Kunstler followed with World Made by Hand, a 2008 novel set in post-collapse near-future (no date is mentioned) Upstate New York. Kunstler this month came out with his second novel set in the fictional town of Union Grove, New York, featuring many of the same characters. I read The Witch of Hebron,a lively mid-length page-turner, within a 24-hour period.

In The Witch of Hebron, Kunstler more fully develops his dystopian world. In some ways it’s a lot like the West in the 19th Century. Wilderness has imposed itself on the land. The landscape has become more beautiful. Packs of wolf-coyotes roam the hills. Mountain lions have come back to New York State. Far more dangerous are the ruthless outlaws. Travel is by horse and cart, mounted horse, rivercraft, and on foot. Washington County, a real county on the Hudson where Union Grove is placed, takes a day or three to traverse — depending on whether one owns a horse. Thirty miles has become, once again, a considerable distance.

As the landscape has expanded, the governmental and corporate support services that made life so easy in the last century have disappeared. The media is gone, but individual personalities have filled the void. The book is full of vivid characters who have responded, in good ways and bad, to opportunities presented by crises. A sadistic bandit in the mold of Billy the Kid, for example, roams the faded roads and highways.

Everywhere there are reminders of things that we believe are modern necessities but are obsolete or used for different purposes in The Witch of Hebron. A high school is the home of a religious sect. Parking lots are sites for low-tech industry or taken over by young sumacs. Abandoned big box stores and McMansions are home to mold and small mammals. Five-lane arterial highways are suitable paths for walking or riding horses. The Witch of Hebron weaves commentary on sprawl into the story.

Upstate New York is a good locus for Kunstler’s imagination. Many of the cities and towns had long since past their prime by 1990. The effects of a declining economy, suburban sprawl, urban renewal, and a dispersed society have been in place for decades. It’s not that hard to imagine a few more steps in the decline when the highways, suburbs, and towns revert to more primitive states.

The Witch of Hebron has a good plot and characters worth caring about. That is doubly true if you previously read World Made by Hand. The society described in The Witch of Hebron is appealing in many ways. While life is hard and often brutal, practical knowledge and community have strengthened. Manners and speech have become more formal, despite pop culture references to Bob Dylan and The Wizard of Oz. Some readers may find this odd, but it makes sense in a more lawless world, because taking care of how one addresses others may preserve one’s life.

Kunstler’s vision is an unlikely one for the near future. But that doesn’t make it bad fiction. Stephen King’s The Stand still has tremendous power, even though it takes place in 1990, in a future that is 20 years past. One can imagine that Kunstler’s work will continue to hold power several decades hence even if, as I hope, our economy continues to hold itself together. Still, post-collapse fiction — Kunstler is one of a growing group of writers in this genre — is likely to gain momentum at the expense of Star Trek/Star Wars/Jetsons visions of techno-triumphalism. The list of broken promises from the heyday of science fiction is growing. We have no personal flying machines. Nobody is blasting off to Mars and beyond. Work has not become obsolete. Jetson-styled cities aren’t the norm (aren’t even thought of as desirable). Cheap nuclear energy has not become ubiquitous.

Even as many deny it, the collapse view of the future is becoming more believable. In 2005, just five years ago, almost nobody heard of peak oil. Now the concept is widely accepted. Books such asWorld Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron are giving popular voice to the idea that the future isn’t what it used to be. I’ll make a forecast: Such novels will one day help opinion leaders to feel comfortable fully examining the implications of The Limits of Growth. I hope that prediction comes true before we run smack into the actual limits described in that great book.