Scanning Retrospective, No. 20

Foresight Snippets – No. 20

[Originally published] January 2002

  • The Limits to Growth and Beyond
  • The Tragedy of the Commons
  • Natural Capitalism Explained

The Limits to Growth and Beyond

Thirty years ago, in 1972, the book Limits to Growth was published and created a storm of controversy over its message: that the world was heading for disaster in the 21st Century because of unrestrained industrialisation, population growth, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and the collapse of food and water supplies. It was praised as prescient, attacked as doom-saying and, later, ridiculed for its “predictions” being “wrong”. But Limits to Growth was never about prediction — real futures work never is — it was really about trying to improve our insight and understanding about what might lie in store for us based on our then-current way of running this planet. Ten years ago, on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Limits, an updated version was published called Beyond the Limits. The authors noted that, from the global data, from the updated and improved computer model, and from all they had learned in twenty years, the conclusions of the first book were still valid, and rather more urgent. In fact they wrote: “The human world is beyond its limits. The present way of doing things is unsustainable. The future, to be viable at all, must be one of drawing back, easing down, healing”. It is now 2002—ten years later. Have we really learned anything from this work?

Source: Preface to Beyond the Limits on-line at The Context Institute

The Tragedy of the Commons

It is interesting to note that maintaining a viable shared resource or “commons” is impossible if laissez faire economic market forces are allowed to govern its use. While this fact has been known since 1833, it was re-stated to a wider audience in a 1968 article in the journal Science by Garrett Hardin. In this article, Hardin outlined the so-called “tragedy” of the commons, using the word “tragedy” in the sense of the philosopher Whitehead: “The essence of … tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the … remorseless working of things”. The tragedy of the commons is that the free-market logic of individual freedom to act in one’s own economic self-interest while making use of a shared commons will inevitably and remorselessly lead to the destruction of the commons, and ruin to all who rely on it. In other words, the freedom to use the commons for self-interest leads to destruction; or, as Hardin put it: “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”. This observation gives one pause when looking to the global economic system and its basic principles of: unrestrained growth; free-market economic self-interest; and using the global commons of Planet Earth as a resource for exploitation. The relentless logic of this equation is therefore clear…

Sources: “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin, Science, v162, pp1243-1248 (1968).
Available on-line at: []
Gene Bellinger’s collection of systems dynamics archetypes

Natural Capitalism Explained

There is a way to regard the global commons in a way which both befits it importance to our survival and also allows it to be developed — appropriately — by those who want to carry on capitalist activity. This approach is called “Natural Capitalism”. In essence, Natural Capitalism suggests that instead of regarding the natural resources of the Earth as “free” (and therefore as a commons in the above sense) we should instead factor into the economics of production the real cost of the resources — the natural capital. In the early period of Industrialism, there was lots of natural capital and skilled labour (human capital) was the limiting factor, so production techniques were highly wasteful of resources. Today, it is the other way around—lots of labour, but declining natural capital. One of the co-authors of the book Natural Capitalism, Dr. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has presented a simplified explanation of the main principles of Natural Capitalism. It is available from the ABC web site below (along with streaming audio).

Sources: Natural Capitalism web site
Amory Lovins (co-author of Natural Capitalism) on ABC Radio National
Rocky Mountain Institute

Foresight Snippets are interesting, intriguing or weird things we find during our strategic scanning which may or may not have direct obvious relevance to Swinburne, but which do provide signals about what the future might be like. Brought to you by the Foresight & Planning Unit.

An archive of the Foresight Snippets and a list of Frequently Asked Questions are available at [deleted].

Copyright © 2002 FPU and Swinburne University of Technology.
Feedback is welcome. Send feedback to [deleted].

NOTE: In all the posts in this series, the original source URLs are left exactly as they were when published 20-odd years ago. This means they will almost certainly be dead links (or good ol’ 404 errors). I do not have the patience or inclination to follow-up or find any archived or re-located versions of those web pages (because, well, life is too short). But, if it really bugs you, I invite you to see if you can find archived or relocated versions of those dead-link pages. And if you do, let me know, and I’ll update these posts with due credit to your detective work.

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