Donella H. Meadows

Facing the Limits to Growth

Editor's Note: 'Limits to Growth' was first published in 1972. 'Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update' has recently been published by Chelsea Green Publishing. Below you'll find an excerpt from the newly released version, preceded by some reflections by co-author Dennis Meadows on the 30-year journey that has brought the book -- and the earth -- to this point.

It has been a unique experience to live with a book and a thesis for over 30 years -- watching the statements of both critics and proponents slowly evolve in response to the changing world situation.

From 1970-72 I directed a project at MIT, supported by an international group called the Club of Rome. My colleagues and I developed a computer model about the long-term causes and consequences of growth in population and the physical economy of the globe. The research produced three books. One of them, Limits to Growth, caused a huge storm of controversy that has continued until the present. The work pointed out that prevailing policies would almost certainly lead to overshoot and collapse of the global society sometime in the 21st century.

One cannot predict the future with any confidence. But our computer model, known as World3, produce a set of scenarios that showed different possibilities for major global trends out to the year 2100. Most of them manifested collapse. Some of them showed the possibility of sustainable development.

The book was translated into over 30 languages, became a best-seller in many nations, and was eventually voted one of the 10 most important environmental books of the 20th century.

It has also been bitterly attacked, right up to the present. For example a recent advertisement in the Wall Street Journal stated, "In 1972, the Club of Rome published Limits to Growth, questioning the sustainability of economic and population growth. .... the Club of Rome was wrong."

It has been astonishing to me that many politicians and economists can continue to deny the evidence of limits that is announced with ever more frequency and urgency in the daily papers and the evening news. The world's use of materials and energy has grown past the levels that can be supported indefinitely. Pressures are mounting from the environment that will force a reduction. Rising oil prices, climate change, declining forests, falling ground water levels -- all of these are simply symptoms of the overshoot.

It is also a source of sadness for me to see so much energy invested in denial and almost none put into making the changes that would let humanity survive on this beautiful planet in good order more or less indefinitely. For our research clearly points out that feasible changes in cultural norms and goals would let us ease back down to sustainable levels, fulfill basic human needs, and structure an orderly society more or less indefinitely.

Because of the long time horizon involved in our studies, we always realized it would require several decades to get any perspective on the accuracy of our forecasts. Now, three decades later, we are into the 21st century within 20 years of the time when our scenarios suggest that growth will near its end. The basic conclusions are still the same. We have modified our model only a little to reflect some better data about the effects of technology on land yields and birth rates. And we have spent much more time elaborating on the structural features of the global system -- delays, growth, and limits -- that predispose it to overshoot and collapse.

There have also been losses since 1972. One of our four original co-authors, Bill Behrens, dropped out of science to become a builder and alternative energy merchant in northern Maine. And, more devastating, Donella Meadows, our senior author, died unexpectedly of illness in 2001. The most inspiring parts of the book are hers, and we have recognized her contributions by leaving her as senior author on this third edition. (Ed: Donella Meadows wrote extensively for AlterNet. Her archives are available here.)

The first book made an enormous impact. This time we expect much less attention. Iraq, terrorism, and high oil prices are crowding out analysis of longer term issues -- even though they cannot be fully understood unless you see them in the context of an overstressed planet. But there will be widespread use of the book in teaching. And the millions who were educated and inspired by the first edition will find this a useful update.

Limits to Growth

To overshoot means to go too far, to go beyond limits accidentally -- without intention. People experience overshoots every day. When you rise too quickly from a chair, you may momentarily lose your balance. If you turn on the hot-water faucet too far in the shower, you may be scalded.

The three causes of overshoot are always the same, at any scale from personal to planetary. First, there is growth, acceleration, rapid change. Second, there is some form of limit or barrier, beyond which the moving system may not safely go. Third, there is a delay or mistake in the perceptions and the responses that strive to keep the system within its limits. These three are necessary and sufficient to produce an overshoot.

Overshoot is common, and it exists in almost infinite forms. The change may be physical -- growth in the use of petroleum. It may be organizational -- an increase in the number of people supervised. It may be psychological -- continuously rising goals for personal consumption. Or it may be manifest in financial, biological, political, or other forms. The limits are similarly diverse -- they may be imposed by a fixed amount of space; by limited time; by constraints inherent in physical, biological, political, psychological, or other features of a system. The delays, too, arise in many ways. They may result from inattention, faulty data, delayed information, slow reflexes, a cumbersome or quarreling bureaucracy, a false theory about how the system responds, or from momentum that prevents the system from being stopped quickly despite the best efforts to halt it. For example, delays may result when a driver does not realize how much his car's braking traction has been reduced by ice on the road.

Most instances of overshoot cause little harm. Being past many kinds of limits does not expose anyone to serious damage. Most types of overshoot occur frequently enough that when they are potentially dangerous, people learn to avoid them or to minimize their consequences. For example, you test the water temperature with your hand before stepping into the shower stall. Sometimes there is damage, but it is quickly corrected: Most people try to sleep extra long in the morning after a late night drinking in the bar.

Occasionally, however, there arises the potential for catastrophic overshoot. Growth in the globe's population and material economy confronts humanity with this possibility. It is the focus of this book. The potential consequences of this overshoot are profoundly dangerous. The situation is unique; it confronts humanity with a variety of issues never before experienced by our species on a global scale. We lack the perspectives, the cultural norms, the habits, and the institutions required to cope. And the damage will, in many cases, take centuries or millennia to correct. But the consequences need not be catastrophic. Overshoot can lead to two different outcomes. One is a crash of some kind. Another is a deliberate turnaround, a correction, a careful easing down. We explore these two possibilities as they apply to human society and the planet that supports it. We believe that a correction is possible and that it could lead to a desirable, sustainable, sufficient future for all the world's peoples. We also believe that if a profound correction is not made soon, a crash of some sort is certain. And it will occur within the lifetimes of many who are alive today.

Any population-economy-environment system that has feedback delays and slow physical responses; that has thresholds and erosive mechanisms; and that grows rapidly is literally unmanageable. No matter how fabulous its technologies, no matter how efficient its economy, no matter how wise its leaders, it can't steer itself away from hazards. If it constantly tries to accelerate, it will overshoot.

By definition, overshoot is a condition in which the delayed signals from the environment are not yet strong enough to force an end to growth. How, then, can society tell if it is in overshoot? Falling resource stocks and rising pollution levels are the first clues. Here are some other symptoms:
  • Capital, resources, and labor diverted to activities compensating for the loss of services that were formerly provided without cost by nature (for example, sewage treatment, air purification, water purification, flood control, pest control, restoration of soil nutrients, pollination, or the preservation of species).

  • Capital, resources, and labor diverted from final goods production to exploitation of scarcer, more distant, deeper, or more dilute resources.

  • Technologies invented to make use of lower-quality, smaller, more dispersed, less valuable resources, because the higher-value ones are gone.

  • Failing natural pollution cleanup mechanisms; rising levels of pollution.

  • Capital depreciation exceeding investment, and maintenance deferred, so there is deterioration in capital stocks, especially long-lived infrastructure.

  • Growing demands for capital, resources, and labor used by the 176 World3: The Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World military or industry to gain access to, secure, and defend resources that are increasingly concentrated in fewer, more remote, or increasingly hostile regions.

  • Investment in human resources (education, health care, shelter) postponed in order to meet immediate consumption, investment, or security needs, or to pay debts.

  • Debts a rising percentage of annual real output.

  • Eroding goals for health and environment.

  • Increasing conflicts, especially conflicts over sources or sinks.

  • Shifting consumption patterns as the population can no longer pay the price of what it really wants and, instead, purchases what it can afford.

  • Declining respect for the instruments of collective government as they are used increasingly by the elites to preserve or increase their share of a declining resource base.

  • Growing chaos in natural systems, with "natural" disasters more frequent and more severe because of less resilience in the environmental system.
  • Do you observe any of these symptoms in your "real world"? If you do, you should suspect that your society is in advanced stages of overshoot.

    The Next Revolution: Sustainability

    It is as impossible now for anyone to describe the world that could evolve from a sustainability revolution as it would have been for the farmers of 6000 BC to foresee the corn and soybean fields of modern Iowa, or for an English coal miner of AD 1800 to imagine an automated Toyota assembly line. Like the other great revolutions, the coming sustainability revolution will also change the face of the land and the foundations of human identities, institutions, and cultures. Like the previous revolutions, it will take centuries to unfold fully -- though it is already under way. Of course no one knows how to bring about such a revolution. There is not a checklist: "To accomplish a global paradigm shift, follow these 20 steps."

    Like the great revolutions that came before, this one can't be planned or dictated. It won't follow a list of fiats from government or a proclamation from computer modelers. The sustainability revolution will be organic. It will arise from the visions, insights, experiments, and actions of billions of people. The burden of making it happen is not on the shoulders of any one person or group. No one will get the credit, but everyone can contribute. Our systems training and our own work in the world have affirmed for us two properties of complex systems germane to the sort of profound revolution we are discussing here.

    First, information is the key to transformation. That does not necessarily mean more information, better statistics, bigger databases, or the World Wide Web, though all of these may play a part. It means relevant, compelling, powerful, timely, accurate information flowing in new ways to new recipients, carrying new content, suggesting new rules and goals (rules and goals that are themselves information). When its information flows are changed, any system will behave differently. The policy of glasnost, for example -- the simple opening of information channels that had long been closed in the Soviet Union -- guaranteed the rapid transformation of Eastern Europe beyond anyone's expectations. The old system had been held in place by tight control of information. Letting go of that control triggered total system restructuring (turbulent and unpredictable, but inevitable).

    Second, systems strongly resist changes in their information flows, especially in their rules and goals. It is not surprising that those who benefit from the current system actively oppose such revision. Entrenched political, economic, and religious cliques can constrain almost entirely the attempts of an individual or small group to operate by different rules or to attain goals different from those sanctioned by the system. Innovators can be ignored, marginalized, ridiculed, denied promotions or resources or public voices. They can be literally or figuratively snuffed out. Only innovators, however -- by perceiving the need for new information, rules, and goals, communicating about them, and trying them out -- can make the changes that transform systems. This important point is expressed clearly in a quote that is widely attributed to Margaret Mead, "Never deny the power of a small group of committed individuals to change the world. Indeed that is the only thing that ever has." We have learned the hard way that it is difficult to live a life of material moderation within a system that expects, exhorts, and rewards consumption. But one can move a long way in the direction of moderation. It is not easy to use energy efficiently in an economy that produces energy inefficient products. But one can search out, or if necessary invent, more efficient ways of doing things, and in the process make those ways more accessible to others.

    Above all, it is difficult to put forth new information in a system that is structured to hear only old information. Just try, sometime, to question in public the value of more growth, or even to make a distinction between growth and development, and you will see what we mean. It takes courage and clarity to challenge an established system. But it can be done.

    Donella Meadows Celebrates Earth Day from Beyond the Grave

    Editors Note: Donella Meadows died on February 20, 2001. The following is excerpted from her story about writing The Limits to Growth in 1972. Limits was translated in 26 languages and sold more than 9 million copies.


    I was one of the team of people at MIT who wrote a book that created a worldwide burst of media foreboding. It began as a small report to the Club of Rome. Within a few months we were reading headlines like those above with complete astonishment.

    We didn't think we had written a prediction of doom. We had intended to issue a warning, but also a vision. We saw, with the help of the computer, not one future but many, all possible, some terrible, some terrific.

    In the introduction to The Limits to Growth we listed three main conclusions, one of danger, one of hope, and one of urgency. The press picked up only the first and the third:

    If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years.

    It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future.

    If the world's people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.

    You wouldn't think such simple conclusions would stir up much of a fuss, but the fuss was incredible. The storm went on for years. It inspired conferences, studies, books of denial, and books of affirmation and elaboration. Eventually, like all media-generated storms, this one settled back down.

    Later, people who remembered Limits began asking me: Is this it? Are we running into the limits to growth? Were you right after all?

    The question "Were you right?" bothered me. It is the wrong question. One can only be right or wrong if one has made a prediction. We didn't do that. We offered a choice, and people heard a pronouncement of doom.

    Since we wrote Limits the human economy has more than doubled its physical presence, from vehicles to electric power plants to garbage. At the same time there has been great erosion of the planetary resource base. Species, forests, wetlands, soils, and habitats have been lost, buffers and degrees of protection have decreased, options have narrowed.

    I have spent the past twenty years immersed in statistics that describe this decline. I've watched them unfold. I've presented them to classes and to audiences many times and in a calm tone of voice. I haven't cried over them. I haven't yelled in outrage.

    That's because of psychic numbing, I'm sure. I haven't been hit all at once, as I was the first time I saw the birth rate graph. Watching the numbers slowly get worse is like watching a child grow up -- or a better analogy would be watching someone die of a wasting disease.

    Exponential growth of population and physical capital, exponential depletion of resources and degradation of the environment are not necessary to the human condition. But collectively we have been behaving as if they were. Growth is still the pattern of the human system. As yet no corrective processes have been strong enough to stop it. But there are signs of such processes. The good news is that some are coming from human ingenuity and restraint. The bad news is that some are coming from environmental breakdown.

    I've grown impatient with the kind of debate we used to have about whether optimists or the pessimists are right. Neither are right. There is too much bad news to justify complacency. There is too much good news to justify despair.

    I am not afraid of the challenge of easing the throughput of human society back down within its limits -- I think that can be done fairly easily and even with considerable benefit to the human quality of life. I am afraid of what the world might do with the idea that we are beyond the limits. I have already experienced the hostility, denial, and ridicule engendered by the idea that there are limits. I would expect more of the same from the idea that those limits are already exceeded.

    Even worse than denial or ridicule would be simpleminded, uncritical, hysterical acceptance. I can see the headlines now:

    Beyond the Limits: Collapse is Coming


    Beyond the Limits: Population, Standard of Living Must Be Cut

    Those are the two worst possible conclusions to jump to. The first confuses trend with destiny again, leaps at prediction, denies choice. The second recognizes only the most dramatic, conflictual, and violent of the possible responses to a state of overshoot.

    To ease my fear, to set the record straight, to forestall the destructive headlines, let me write my own headlines in even larger type:

    Overshoot Does Not Mean Collapse


    Material and Energy Throughput Must Be Cut, But Not People, Not Living Standards, Not the Dream of a Better World

    Memorial Services will be held for Donella Meadows on April 22 in San Francisco, Widbey Island, WA; Talaquoa, OK; Washington D.C.; Boston;, and Hanover, NH. For more information on these services and on continuing the work she began, go to

    Why Kosovo Is a Battleground Again

    Surprised citizens are flooding Congress with calls asking how this Kosovo mess came about and why we're involved in it.When I heard that, my first thought was, "Where has everyone been?" This storm cloud has been darkening the horizon for weeks, as genocide broke out in Kosovo and negotiations dragged to a predictable impasse in Paris.My second thought was, "Not weeks, years." From the first violence in Yugoslavia in 1990 everyone who knew anything about Serbia feared it would spread to Kosovo and from there to other countries. Our State Department's explicit and now failed policy was not to let that happen.I felt a surge of annoyance at the American people for paying so little attention to the world, followed by a surge of annoyance at the American media for informing us so well about trivial things and so poorly about crucial things. Then came a wave of understanding toward my fellow citizens. If I hadn't spent much of my foolish youth in Yugoslavia (mainly kayaking its white-water rivers), I wouldn't know its history either. I wouldn't prick up my ears every time Bosnia, Serbia, or Macedonia comes on the news. I wouldn't be overwhelmed with grief as such a beautiful place descends into barbarism. And I -- a pacifist -- wouldn't be thinking, "finally, way too late, but better late than never, they're going to blast Milosevic to smithereens."I don't know that they're going to do that, of course, and I'm horrified at my own barbarism. Hate is catching and long lasting. That's why Kosovo is such an inflammable place."I do not think you will understand [Kosovo], because it is very personal to us Serbs, and that is something you foreigners will never grasp," says Rebecca West's Serbian friend Constantine in her romantic travelogue "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon." "It is too difficult for you," says Constantine. "We are too rough and too deep for your smoothness and your shallowness."Kosovo is sacred to the Serbs because it is their Gettysburg, their Waterloo, their Pearl Harbor. Constantine calls it "the plain where the Turks defeated us and enslaved us, where after five hundred years of slavery we showed that we were not slaves."The battle of Kosovo was fought in 1389. Six hundred years later it lives in poetry, song and legend. Kosovo is mostly settled by Albanians now, but it is the emotional heart of Serbia.The great post-war leader Tito brought the Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and Bosnians to see themselves as Yugoslavs and to be proud of their diversity. When I was kayaking there, during Tito's time, the place was poor but peaceful. Orthodox Serbs who used the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet lived next door to Catholic Croats or Muslim Bosnians and Albanians with no problem. Until ten years ago when Slobodan Milosevic came along.Alarmed residents of Belgrade warned the world loudly and clearly in 1989 about everything that has now come to pass. I remember shuddering as they described what Milosevic was broadcasting on the state-owned media. It was ethnic hatred. It was rabid nationalism. It was indistinguishable from Hitler's first speeches as he was revving up the populace and establishing himself in power.It has never been hard to figure out Milosevic. Peter Maass in his 1996 book "Love Thy Neighbor," described him this way. "He looked me in the eye for ninety minutes and told one lie after another.... It was as though I pointed to a black wall and asked Milosevic what color it was. White, he says. No, I reply, look at it, that wall there, it is black, it is five feet away from us. He looks at it, then at me, and says, The wall is white, my friend, maybe you should have your eyes checked."Those of us, and there were many, who heard the warnings then -- they were not secret, they were in the media -- have been watching the script unroll ever since, watching the denial, the appeasement, the delays, the tide of atrocities advancing through Croatia and Bosnia toward Kosovo. As I watched and tried to speak out, I kept remembering Alfred North Whitehead's definition of tragedy: "the remorseless working of things."It is hard for me to support violence of any kind, ever. I suspect, as many do, that the kind of high-tech violence NATO is now wreaking on Milosevic's military installations will not stop him; it is certainly not protecting the people of Kosovo from Milosevic's bands of by-now-well-practiced thugs. I have no idea what can stop this tragedy, now that it has come so far.But I do have a few suggestions for a calmer time, when we try to learn the lessons of this disaster. We didn't learn from Hitler; maybe we can learn from Milosevic. Genocide announces itself in advance. The time to intervene is when government-sponsored hate-talk starts, not after millions of people are homeless or dead.We should not perpetuate the twisted language of dictators. (It is not "ethnic cleansing," it is "genocide.") We should not ferry brutes in limos to negotiations, treat them with respect, and expect them to stop being brutes. (Why is Milosevic the one glaring omission on the indictment list of the War Crimes Tribunal?) We should recognize that if there is any legitimate use of arms and armies, it is to protect innocent people from the misuse of arms and armies, even those of their own nation.(Donella H. Meadows is director of the Sustainability Institute and an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)

    What Can We Really Do About Sprawl?

    In my mind St. Louis is the poster city for sprawl. It has a glittering, high-rise center where fashionable people work, shop and party. Surrounding the center are blocks and blocks of empty lots, abandoned buildings, dying stores, a sad wasteland through which the fashionable people speed on wide highways to the suburbs. In the suburbs the subdivisions and shopping centers expand rapidly outward onto the world's best farmland.When I imagine the opposite of sprawl, I think of Oslo, Norway. Oslo rises halfway up the hills at the end of a fjord and then abruptly stops. What stops it is a huge public park, in which no private entity is allowed to build anything. The park is full of trails, lakes, playgrounds, picnic tables, and scattered huts where you can stop for a hot drink in winter or cold drink in summer. Tram lines radiate from the city to the park edges, so you can ride to the end of a line, ski or hike in a loop to the end of another line and ride home.That is a no-nonsense urban growth boundary. It forces development inward. There are no derelict blocks in Oslo. Space no longer useful for one purpose is snapped up for another. Urban renewal goes on constantly everywhere. There are few cars, because there's hardly any place to park and anyway most streets in the shopping district are pedestrian zones. Trams are cheap and frequent and go everywhere. The city is quiet, clean, friendly, attractive and economically thriving.How could we make our cities more like Oslo and less like land-gulping, energy-intensive, half-empty St. Louis? There is a long list of things we could do. Eben Fodor, in his new book "Better Not Bigger" (the most useful piece of writing on sprawl control I've seen) organizes them under two categories: taking the foot off the accelerator and applying the brake.The accelerator part comes from widespread public subsidies to sprawl. Fodor lists ten of them, which include:- Free or subsidized roads, sewer systems, water systems, schools, etc. (Instead charge development impact fees high enough to be sure the taxes of present residents don't go up to provide public services for new residents.)- Tax breaks, grants, free consulting services, and other handouts to attract new businesses. (There's almost never a good reason for the public to subsidize a private business, especially not in a way that allows it to undercut existing businesses.)- Waiving environmental or land-use regulations. (Make the standards strong enough to protect everyone's air, water, views and safety and enforce those standards firmly and evenly.)- Federally funded road projects. (The Feds pay the money, but the community puts up with the sprawl. And where do you think the Feds get the money?)Urban growth accelerators make current residents pay (in higher taxes, lower services, more noise and pollution and traffic jams) for new development. There is no legal or moral reason why they should do that. Easing up on the accelerator should at least guarantee that growth pays its own way.Applying the brake means setting absolute limits. There are some illegal reasons for wanting to do this: to protect special privilege, to keep out particular kinds of persons; to take private property for public purpose without fair compensation. There are also legal reasons: to protect watersheds or aquifers or farmland or open space, to force growth into places where public services can be efficiently delivered, to slow growth to a rate at which the community can absorb it, to stop growth before land, water, or other resources fail.Fodor tells the stories of several communities that have limited their growth and lists many techniques they have used to do so. They include:- Growth boundaries and green belts like the one around Oslo.- Agricultural zoning. Given the world food situation, not another square inch of prime soil should be built upon anywhere.- Infrastructure spending restrictions. Why should a Wal-Mart that sucks in traffic force the public to widen the road? Let Wal-Mart do it, or let the narrow road limit the traffic.- Downzoning. Usually met with screams of protest from people whose land values are reduced, though we never hear objections when upzoning increases land values.- Comprehensive public review of all aspects of a new development, such as required by Vermont's Act 250.- Public purchase of development rights.- Growth moratoria, growth rate limits, or absolute caps on municipal size, set by real resource limitations.Boulder, Colorado, may be the American town that has most applied growth controls, prompted by a sober look at the "build-out" implications of the city's zoning plan. Boulder voters approved a local sales tax used to acquire greenways around the city. A building height limitation protects mountain views. Building permits are limited in number, many can be used only in the city center, and 75 percent of new housing permits must be allocated to affordable housing. Commercial and industrial land was downzoned with the realization that if jobs grow faster than housing, commuters from other towns will overload roads and parking facilities.All that and more is possible in any city. But controlling growth means more than fiddling at the margins, "accommodating" growth, "managing" growth. It means questioning myths about growth, realizing that growth can bring more costs than benefits. That kind of growth makes us poorer, not richer. It shouldn't be celebrated or welcomed or subsidized or managed or accommodated; it should be stopped.(Donella H. Meadows is director of the Sustainability Institute and an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)

    The New American Dream Home

    On the cover of the newspaper's Sunday magazine section, THE NEW AMERICAN DREAM HOME invites us to enter its softly lit, splendidly arched, mostly glass, double front door.An arrow points to the "KITCHEN: Adjoining 'great room' and eat-in nook give busy families space to congregate; a countertop personal computer lets the cook fetch recipes or the kids do homework."Then there's the "MASTER BEDROOM: A dual-sink vanity gives two-career couples space during the morning rush; a jetted tub and separate sitting room create a cozy retreat.""OFFICE: Careerists and telecommuters want it wired for computer modem, cable, internet access, phone, fax.""GARAGE: Many two-car families add a third bay where they store the bikes, the barbecue, the tools."You can't look at that perfect house without imagining the perfect family living inside. Big house equals happiness. They've been selling us that dream for decades. When I was a kid, my family drove around glitzy subdivisions, and I fantasized how wonderful it would be to live in a house like that.According to the Sunday supplement, the dream homes I was seeing back then were a lot smaller:Mid-1940s - 1200 square feet, 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, small living room and kitchen, median price $7500. [That was 2.7 times the median family income of $2685 per year.]Mid-1970s - 1600 square feet, fireplaces, air-conditioning, larger kitchen, 2.5 baths, median price $39,300. [3.3 times the average household income of $11,800].Mid-1990s - more than 2000 square feet [the one in the picture is 4340], 3 baths, 9-foot ceilings, many more windows, much bigger kitchen, median price $133,900. [4.15 times the average income of $32,265 -- the dream house becomes ever more inaccessible].The magazine lists more wonders -- granite countertops, his and her walk-in closets, fireplace and TV in every bedroom, media room, exercise room, special wine cooler in the kitchen, and "computers in every room so family members can e-mail one another rather than shout." [I guess you would have to shout with such a huge house.]The purpose of this article, of course, is to practice the great American art of making us dissatisfied with what we've got. This particular piece even tells us, without the slightest hesitation, what we want:"WHO YOU ARE: couple over 35, kids in middle or high school. WHAT YOU WANT: one or two stories, four or five large bedrooms, separate formal living and dining areas.""WHO YOU ARE: childless couple over 50, self-sufficient, active leisure life. WHAT YOU WANT: one story, two or three large bedrooms, large master bedroom/retreat, guest suite, formal and informal dining, three-car garage." [What's that bedroom/retreat a retreat from? The empty rest of the house?]It's easy to make fun of this pretentiousness, but something in us does get hooked, as one can see by driving around today's glitzy subdivisions. Private palaces sprout like mushrooms on 5-acre lots, spreading over prime farmland, leveling forests. I see each of them as a standing demand for water and energy [imagine the heating bill for those high ceilings and huge windows; imagine the gas for mowing those acres of lawns!], plus roads, plowing, garbage pickup, sewage disposal. My friends from other countries, who carry on satisfying lives in one-fourth or one-tenth as much house, ask me what social or community failure drives us to surround ourselves with so much built space?I'm sensitive on this issue, because I'm beginning to design my own dream home. What I want bears no resemblance to what the magazine so smoothly assumes. I keep my recipes on 3 by 5 cards, not a computer, and my clothes don't need a room of their own. I want a house that can function when the fossil fuel era is over, a house that doesn't trash the planet to be built and maintained, a house the average teacher, mechanic, farmer, librarian, secretary, painter -- even newspaper columnist -- can afford. An article about my Dream Home would read:SPACE: Compact but gracious; enough for privacy, but not enough to accumulate piles of unnecessary, unused stuff.ENERGY: Little needed because of efficient construction; most energy from the sun; wood backup; no monthly bills.WATER: Low-flow faucets; efficient appliances; graywater recirculated; biological wastewater purification.LAND: Homes tightly clustered; on marginal land, not prime farmland; open space permanently protected and shared by neighborhood; little lawn; lots of garden.MATERIALS: non-toxic, low maintenance, produced sustainably.The good news, I'm discovering, is that there is a whole new profession of "green" designers, architects, builders, and engineers who can help me figure out how to build THAT kind of New American Dream Home.

    How a Public Health Story Becomes an Industry Legend

    If the name Alar means anything to you, it probably means something related to apples and Meryl Streep and hysterical environmentalists.Those mental associations have been nurtured in us by industry-funded public relations groups, who repeat over and over the claim that the "Alar scare" was deliberate hype, which alarmed the public unnecessarily and caused irreparable harm to apple growers. They have made Alar the poster child of maligned chemicals.The media have accepted this legend without question. The New York Times, October 26, 1996: "Alar -- a scare that turned out to be overblown." The San Jose Mercury News, November 14, 1996: "In 1989 the Alar scare cost apple growers an estimated $100 million." The Richmond, Virginia, Times-Dispatch, March 31, 1996: "the bogus Alar scare of 1989." An article by Elliot Negin in Columbia Journalism Review cites 160 references to Alar in 80 different articles published in 1995. "All but a handful present the Alar affair as much ado about nothing."Here's what really happened.In 1968 (before there was an EPA) the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the Uniroyal corporation a license to sell Alar, which is a growth hormone. It holds apples longer on the tree, so growers have more picking time before the fruit drops, and the apples have more time to develop red color. These are economic and cosmetic benefits. We had plenty of apples before there was Alar, and we have them now, though Alar is no longer used.In 1973, five years after Alar was licensed, an article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that a breakdown product of Alar called UMDH causes cancer in mice. This was disturbing news, because Alar degrades into UMDH in the human stomach and when it is heated -- for example, in processing applesauce or apple juice. More studies in 1977, 1978 and 1979 showed UMDH to be a potent carcinogen in mice, rats, and hamsters.By law the EPA should have banned Alar at that point, because cancer-causing agents were not permitted in processed food. But the government dragged its feet. It took five more years to begin proceedings to ban Alar, which by then was used on 38 percent of the apples grown in the U.S. In 1986, with the EPA still dithering, the National Food Processors Association announced that Alar or UMDH had been found in 73 samples of applesauce and 132 samples of apple juice. Gerber even found Alar in its baby food.The EPA finally decided not to ban Alar, but to cut by 50 percent the amount that could legally be contained in apples. That was the recommendation of an eight-member EPA scientific committee, seven of whom were paid consultants to the chemical industry.Others came to their own conclusions. Gerber, Heinz, and Beech Nut stopped using Alar-treated apples in baby foods. Safeway, Kroger, Grand Union, and Giant grocery chains said they would not stock apples treated with Alar. The American Academy of Pediatrics urged an Alar ban. Maine and Massachusetts restricted Alar use. All this happened three years before the "scare."By 1987 citizens' groups, states, and pediatricians were suing the EPA to enforce the law and ban Alar. In that same year the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) began the study that would lead to Meryl Streep and "60 Minutes."The NRDC released its findings two years later in a press conference and a book. It said that children receive higher exposures to chemicals in foods than adults do, because kids eat more fruits and vegetables -- especially apples, applesauce, and apple juice. Also, children are more sensitive to many toxins than are adults. The NRDC study discussed not just Alar, but 23 chemicals, mostly pesticides. The point was: the regulatory process is not protecting us sufficiently, especially not our kids.Knowing the kind of firepower industry would bring to this issue, the NRDC hired a public relations firm to be sure its message was heard. The PR firm and the natural dramatizing instincts of the media did the rest. The producers of "60 Minutes," knowing the mythic power of the tainted apple, from Adam and Eve to Snow White, broadcast an image of an apple marked with a skull and crossbones. A Time cover showed an apple with a prohibiting bar through it. Meryl Streep became a spokesperson for pure food. School boards pulled apples out of lunchrooms and mothers pulled them out of lunch boxes. Uniroyal gave up and voluntarily stopped selling Alar in the U.S.Now what is the story here? Is it about an innocent chemical, falsely accused, or about a government agency failing to protect public health? Is it about an essential technology to make a healthful product or a marginal technology that convenienced producers but endangered consumers? Is it about the exaggerations of environmentalists or of media?Of course you don't get to decide what the story is. Millions of dollars have already been spent to perpetuate the legend of the Great Overblown Alar Scare.

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