A quick “limits to growth” bibliography



At my talk on Saturday night, several people indicated an interest in a bibliography for people who want to read more about “limits to growth” issues. I recognize the need for more information on this subject, but on the other hand, I feel a bit ambivalent about throwing inquiring minds into what is possibly a literary and scientific briar patch. If I try to “improve” the bibliography and explain what each book contains that is of value, the project could spin out of control, and instead of a blog post I might wind up writing another book.

Ideally, before recommending a book to someone I’d try to figure out their interests and understanding of “limits to growth” issues. Everyone is different. I’d ask: have you heard of peak oil? Are you vegan, or vegan-sympathetic? Have you looked at any of the “doomer” web sites? Have you heard of the Club of Rome or read anything from them, perhaps the original book on The Limits to Growth? And so forth.

I decided to limit this to the number of books, articles, or web sites about which I could actually briefly say something, and include both items which are popular and accessible (but also are possibly shallow), as well as items which are academic and boring (but may have the real story). This list is not complete, and the subject is really complex. I hope that this list will be useful to someone out there. Send me an e-mail and let me know.

Peak oil / energy issues

If you don’t know anything about peak oil, you might start with Heinberg and Kunstler, both of whose books are now a bit dated but still explain the basic concepts well. Drilling Down is more technical but ties in the idea of complexity with that of societal collapse in an interesting way. Deffeyes is also dated and also rather technical but explains the basic mathematics behind Hubbert’s ideas (Hubbert is an important peak oil theoretician). Browse the web sites to see if anything grabs your attention.

Deffeyes, Kenneth S. Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.
Heinberg, Richard. The Party’s Over. New Society Publishers, 2005.
Kunstler, James. The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.
Tainter, Joseph and Patzek, Tad. Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma. Springer, 2011.
Web sites:
The Oil Drum web site — http://www.theoildrum.com/ (archived web site).
Ron Patterson’s “Peak Oil Barrel” — http://peakoilbarrel.com/
Association for the Study of Peak Oil USA web site — http://peak-oil.org/

Limits to growth

All of these books are rather academic, but don’t require advanced math or science degrees and explain things clearly. Ugo Bardi explains the whole “limits to growth” controversy very intelligently in The Limits to Growth Revisited, and then in Extracted extends the basic “peak oil” logic to minerals and metals. Vaclav Smil’s book on global catastrophes, despite the title, is decidedly not apocalyptic, but explains why the transition to renewables will be a lot tougher than most people imagine. Harvesting the Biosphere is technical but introduces people to the biomass issues. The Pimentel article puts the limits to growth argument in terms of food and biology.

Bardi, Ugo. Extracted. How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014.
Bardi, Ugo. The Limits to Growth Revisited. Springer, 2011.
Smil, Vaclav. Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years. MIT Press, 2008.
Smil, Vaclav. Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken From Nature. MIT Press, 2013.
Pimentel, David and Pimentel, Marcia. “World Population, Food, Natural Resources, and Survival.” World Futures 59: 145, 167, 2003.

Ecological economics

Daly and Farley is a standard textbook on ecological economics. If you get seriously into this, you pretty much have to read it. However, I would suggest Costanza et. al. (it’s online for free) as a better introduction for beginners. If that’s still too much for you, or you find your enthusiasm for the subject lagging, try popularizations such as Enough is Enough or Supply Shock. Of these I personally prefer Enough is Enough but you might want to check them both out. Jack Manno has an academic book which is really unique and explores the boundaries between economics and non-economics — buying Barbie dolls, versus just playing with your kids.

Czech, Brian. Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution. New Society Publishers, 2013.
Costanza, Robert, Daly, Herman E., et. al.  An Introduction to Ecological Economics. CRC Press, 1997. Available online at http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/150045/
Daly, Herman and Farley, Joshua. Ecological Economics. Island Press, 2004.
Dietz, Rob and O’Neill, Dan. Enough is Enough. Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2013.
Manno, Jack. Privileged Goods. Lewis Publishers, 2000.


The most informative book is the one by Barnosky, who actually has a clue; extinctions have something to do with livestock agriculture. Kolbert is a brilliant writer and her book won the Pulitzer prize, but she doesn’t address the ultimate causes, except to blame humans. Paul Martin’s style is rather arcane, but his book has some interesting sections and is the only exposition of the “prehistoric overkill” hypothesis, that human overhunting initiated the current spate of extinctions. Ward puts extinctions into a geological perspective.

Barnosky, Anthony. Dodging Extinction. Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth.  University of California Press, 2014.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Henry Holt, 2014.
Martin, Paul S. Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America. University of California Press, 2005.
Ward, Peter. Under a Green Sky. Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future. Smithsonian, 2007.

Environmental veganism

Alas, this is one section where I can aspire to something approaching completeness. I haven’t yet had a chance to look at The Sustainability Secret (from the makers of “Cowspiracy”), but it looks very promising.

Akers, Keith. A Vegetarian Sourcebook, Section II. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1983.
Anderson, Kip and Kuhn, Kegan. The Sustainability Secret: Uncovering the Largest Environmental Challenge to the Future of the Human Race. Earth Aware Editions, 2015.
Anderson, Will. This is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology. Earth Books, 2012.
McWilliams, James. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. Little, Brown and Company, 2009.
Oppenlander, Richard. Food Choice and Sustainability: Why Buying Local, Eating Less Meat, and Taking Baby Steps Won’t Work. Langdon Street Press, 2013.
Oppenlander, Richard. Comfortably Unaware: Global Depletion and Food Responsibility . . . What You Choose to Eat Is Killing Our Planet. Langdon Street Press, 2011.
Rao, Sailesh. Carbon Dharma: The Occupation of Butterflies. Createspace, 2011.
Smil, Vaclav. “Eating Meat.” Population and Development Review 28(4):599–639, December 2002.
Web sites:
A Well Fed World — https://awellfedworld.wordpress.com/
Comfortably Unaware web site — https://comfortablyunaware.wordpress.com/
Compassionate Spirit (this web site) — http://www.compassionatespirit.com/
Cowspiracy web site — http://www.cowspiracy.com/
Green Vegans — http://www.greenvegans.org/
Truth or Drought — http://www.truthordrought.com/

Social and political considerations

If we have hit the limits to growth, will industrial civilization collapse? The books by Diamond, Orlov, and Wright are the most accessible and “popular” books. Tainter wrote the classic academic work on societal collapse, although it is quite academic. (See also the book he co-authored above, Drilling Down.) Turchin’s books look at cycles of history; Secular Cycles is extremely academic, but fortunately you only have to read the first and last chapters, which are the least dry, to get the basic point. Craig Dilworth argues that human history is a succession of Malthusian traps; technology gets us out of one, only to get us into the next.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books, 2005.
Dilworth, Craig. Too Smart for Our Own Good. The Ecological Predicament of Humankind.   Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Orlov, Dmitri. Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects. New Society Publishers, 2008.
Tainter, Joseph. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Turchin, Peter. War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires.
Plume, 2007.
Turchin, Peter and Nefedov, Sergey. Secular Cycles. Princeton University Press, 2009.
Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress. Da Capo Press, 2005.

Climate change

Hansen’s book doesn’t address agriculture, just presents the basic science. Goodland and Anhang argue that livestock is responsible for 51% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and “Chomping Climate Change” is a web site dedicated to furthering this thesis. Ruddiman’s book argues that, because of land use (and cows), climate change was already underway even before the industrial revolution started.

Goodland, Robert and Anhang, Jeff. “Livestock and Climate Change,” WorldWatch Nov.–Dec. 2009. Online at http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6294
Hansen, James. Storms of my Grandchildren. The Truth About The Climate Catastrophe And Our Last Chance To Save Humanity. Bloomsbury, 2009.
Ruddiman, William F. Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate. Princeton University Press, 2010.
Web site:
Chomping Climate Change website — http://www.chompingclimatechange.org/

Doomer web sites

Convinced that we’re all doomed, and that the end is near? These web sites may push you over the edge.

The Automatic Earth — TheAutomaticEarth.com (Nicole Foss)
Cassandra’s Legacy — http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.it/ (Ugo Bardi’s web site)
Club Orlov — http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/ (Dmitri Orlov’s web site)
Our Finite World — OurFiniteWorld.com (Gail Tverberg)

Good luck and let me know of any questions you have (or possibly, a book or web site to be added). Some of this stuff is totally boring, but has some good information — you have to love the subject to get into it. I tried to insure that everything on the list has some redeeming value, and that the list was short enough to be useful.

3 thoughts on “A quick “limits to growth” bibliography

  1. Noelene Sanderson

    Thank you, for this list. No, unfortunately I haven’t read any of the books. I”d better start looking!! I have seen Cowspiracy, and so far, some of your Compassionate Spirit’s blog-postings. All very valuable and interesting. Thanks.


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