Flourishing within natural limits

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By: Cody Boteler, Senior Editor

A book published in 1972, “The Limits to Growth,” used computer modeling to show that, under a “business as usual” scenario, global civilization was headed for collapse.

The idea makes sense. Earth is a closed system, meaning there are no inputs or outputs, and we have made a habit of using nonrenewable resources. We don’t get new material magically delivered to Earth. Outside of the occasional meteorite, what we’ve got on this planet is all there is.

In response, Brian Fath, a professor in the biology department, in a team with other scientists, worked on a book called “Flourishing Within Limits to Growth.”

The book was published in July.

Our global footprint and the resources we use have already overshot our biocapicity, the absolute amount we can use on this planet, Fath said in a book talk Wednesday.

“Meaning that we’re, essentially, borrowing from future generations to survive at our current standard of living today,” Fath said.

The authors worked with the same modeling system from the 1972 book, with some adjustments.

“We need to work out ways to incorporate what nature does into this model and into human society,” Fath said.

One point that Fath made was that there are “no trash cans in nature.”

Meaning that nothing really goes to waste. Everything in the natural world serves a purpose. There are no landfills. Nature uses what it needs, reuses what it can and doesn’t use what it doesn’t need.

People can talk about recycling all they want, but it won’t be enough. Yes, recycling is important, but more importantly, I think we need a culture shift where we just don’t use as much. We eat too much. We produce too much trash. We drive our own vehicles too often. We don’t reuse enough and we definitely take too much for granted.

Fath also pointed out the majority of interactions in nature are mutualistic. While people like to think of nature as savage and brutal, there’s actually a lot of cooperation out there.

That’s another attitude we need to adapt. People act like economics is a zero-sum game – if I have more money, you’ll have less money. But that just isn’t the truth of how economics works. A growing economy is good for everyone. A rising tide lifts all ships, and all that.

To emulate living a bit more like nature, the team behind the book made some modifications to the model that they ran.

The new model accounted for a reduction in resource use, investment in pollution abatement, a “revenue neutral” green tax and a ten percent investment in education and research. Under this new model, the team found a global society that wasn’t facing imminent collapse.

I won’t say that one book put together by one team is enough to be a definitive work, or that the model should be taken as gospel. But I will say that Fath made a lot of really, really good points when he spoke about his work. As we currently exist, we just might be screwed. In fact, we probably are.

So let’s make some changes. Let’s use less. Let’s appreciate what we’ve got instead of constantly seeking more things.

I’m proud of Towson University on this front. We’re making the right moves. We’re working on bringing solar to campus and we have composting at big dining locations. This is a pretty bike-friendly campus. I can’t wait to see what else we do.

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