01-09-2013 | Professor Meadows

Innovation Patterns | Dennis Meadows

DER SPIEGEL: Professor Meadows, 40 years ago you published "The Limits to Growth" together with your wife and colleagues, a book that made you the intellectual father of the environmental movement. The core message of the book remains valid today: Humanity is ruthlessly exploiting global resources and is on the way to destroying itself. Do you believe that the ultimate collapse of our economic system can still be avoided?

Dennis Meadows: The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.


  1. What is true in the US isn't true in Germany, or in China, India or any number of other rising countries.

    Take Germany, which has had a serious power crisis over the last few years. Germany decided to begin shutting down it's nuclear plants almost overnight after Fukushima.

    This destroyed several German industries that have been established for decades overnight because the cost of power rose to be one of the highest in Europe due to shortages. Other's who could squeeze out small gains had to modify their technology to be more energy efficient.

    Environmentalists fill a strange niche in this ecosystem - when you protest or delay the building of new reactors you only use the old ones, or rely more on coal plants.

    So you end up with old reactor designs that don't have passive safety standards to protect against meltdown during power outages or breaches, while also requiring more maintenance and more fuel. All of which means more jobs, but less overall efficiency.

    Fukushima was built in the 1960's, designs that old were supposed to be decommissioned in 30-40 years. In the case of Fukushima many of the issues weren't just with the age of the design, but also with falsification of records, lying and inaction.

    On the upside, Germany is leading the world in solar adoption. It will be several years until solar can provide for German energy needs no matter how much austerity they enforce. Was this crisis caused by "the solar cartel", or panic and willful ignorance?

    The thing is, no one can "stop" the technological progress across the world. But it can certainly be slowed down.

    The reactors move to India, China and even the US. Same thing happens with GMOs, stem cells, aerogel or any other technology you want to bring up. Sometimes distribution is too difficult or costly, or it can be outright blocked by a cartel. Sometimes there are legal countermoves like with stem cells, other times you just move shop to a more enterprising district, or in the case of WikiSpeed the business model is so outdated that you can beat competitors just by not being ancient.

    But the macro-pattern is still towards individual empowerment, decentralization and internationalization.

    There will be periods that are without a safety net, that's what I see. Many people don't have a clear direction now that we have more freedom and less guidance from traditional institutions. As more power gets pushed to the individual and to small groups, it will depend on whether they want proactive change.

  2. Another secondary effect of no new plants being built - most old designs (with the exception of France) only run their fuel cycle once, which creates a lot more waste to be recycled. Newer closed fuel designs burn and recycle the fuel, in some cases without leaving the reactor, which dramatically reduces waste.

    I would be much more afraid for the future if I was a citizen of Japan or Germany.

  3. Absolutely. Was just reading some astoundingly good demography in Grant's Interest Rate Observer after work this evening, the synchronicity here is stunning considering I scheduled this actual post over a week ago.

    You've provided some great supplementary brainfood here, much appreciated.