All we need is futures resilience – The Limits to Growth revisited

06 September 2023 – Humanity’s clock is ticking painfully loud. As never before in the history of human beings, today we face existential risks including the potential of human extinction. Two such risks stand tall: Climate Change and Artificial Intelligence (AI) with its promise of improved wealth and wellbeing and its perils of abuse and loss of control. Are we able to learn before the tipping point surprises us? 

It has been 50 years since the publishing of The Limits to Growth sent us a clear message of the futures to be if we followed pathways paved with limitless material growth and did not change our systems and behaviour. The message was not taken seriously. And yet, it was a pioneering early warning and wake-up call—heavy food for thought about the futures to come.  Change is evident, and its pace keeps giving us ‘futures shocks’ and crises hatched from unexpected events. Its directions, though, could still be influenced with a vision and a shared strategy to act upon. So far, both are missing, since there is no global governance nor consciousness for global futures.  

Revisiting The Limits to Growth means realising that if we want to survive, we have to live within the limits of the spaceship Earth.  Shocks, risks and crises are all part of the rapid change. Let us embrace them with systematic, proactive, forward-looking orientation and concrete pioneering acts to turn towards futures resilience. This starts by acknowledging that humans are part of nature, not above, and technology should serve the purpose of maintaining nature’s health alongside human wellbeing. We need pioneers and visionary leaders to harvest concrete action from the seeds that The Limits to Growth has sowed.  

We are prisoners of the past and present. So, why not become pioneers of the future? Breaking out of this prison and tackling the risks of climate change and AI requires transformation in our relationships with nature and technology. One solution is renewable energy transition and de-learning emissions generation, continued fossil fuels use and the abuse of natural resources. We also need to re-learn how to live in partnership with nature, not exceeding its limits. Doomsday rhetoric as such, leads to a cul-de-sac. Let us honestly identify emerging threats, even existential risks. At the same time, there should always be pathways, strategies and solutions for avoiding and overcoming such risks. We have the choice of harnessing the positive potential of AI to combat climate change, thus turning both these existential risks into existential harbingers of hope.   

Besides affecting the future of work, AI also raises various kinds of other ethical problems as discussed for example in the Work/Technology 2050 study by the Millennium Project.  A key issue seems to be the role of AI as a co-worker or co-learner beside human beings, instead of an AI technology replacing human beings. A realistic utopia is having AI as a trustworthy personal digital twin following high ethical and social standards.  Combatting climate change would be the number one priority. 

Rebuilding on the heritage of The Limits to Growth, The Club of Rome could become a forerunner of responsible introduction of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence, the next stage after Artificial Narrow Intelligence).  In the Real Estate and Sustainable Crisis Management in Urban Environments (RESCUE) research project funded by the Academy of Finland, the development of AI is proposed to be utilised for identifying and analysing possible crises and their impacts on sustainable land use and urban space. New policies and recommendations will be sought to develop futures resilience for cities, while preserving the natural environment and combatting climate change.   

Today we are living in a VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), with its fertile soil for risks and crises.  Climate change, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic and with politically motivated violence is an example of an ongoing, hybrid three-fold crisis. Are we already in a ‘crisis society’? Revisiting The Limits to Growth means avoiding ‘ostrich politics’, not trying to hide and look the other way but embracing this uncertain world of crises with determination to become futures resilient. This is not happening automatically – we need to learn to learn in diverse new ways, using creativity and convoluted consciousness.   

A new treaty with nature could be concluded, based on a new kind of economic, technological and ethical union where Nature is a stakeholder. Pentti Malaska, the first Finnish member of the Club of Rome, emphatically claimed “Nature always wins – either with or without humans.” Such a new nature partnership could be taken to environmental education in schools to strengthen environmental awareness and futures thinking, drawing from The Limits to Growth. Linear growth thinking, relying on depleting natural resources should be urgently replaced by neo-growth thinking where economic growth minimises the waste of natural resources, building on immaterial growth.   

It is a learning process where the role of technology should be seen as that of a mediator between human beings and nature, not as an instrument for exploiting nature. Nature has been able to create a conscious being with knowledge—a human being. Now it is the turn of humans to regenerate themselves as wise beings. This requires a map of knowledge for navigating in the landscape of eco-consciousness. All the necessary knowledge for adopting wise attitudes to nature and technology is already at hand. What is needed is the will for change and futures resilience. 

Let us transform ‘Limits to Growth’ into ‘No limits to learning’ to change and reinvent ourselves as human beings, learning from crises to achieve new consciousness, acting before the crises overwhelm us. This is the kind of futures resilience we owe to future generations. 

This article is a follow-up to Heinonen’s chapter in Limits and Beyond, a collection of essays from world-renowned thinkers, scientists, and economists from across the globe, grappling with the most acute issues of our time. Published on the 50th anniversary of The Limits to Growth, it explores what we have learned and where do we go from here. 

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