Biography of a Book

The title of this post evokes the title Paul Eggert, a textual studies scholar, gave to one of his works, Biography of a Book: Henry Lawson’s While the Billy Boils, about a key publication in Australian literary history.

The biography of a book includes its birth–conceived by the author and midwifed by the editor and publisher who package and distribute it–and the “life of its own” that signals the transformation from something expressed by the author to something interpreted by the reader. The book’s life is made up of many little details involving marketing, translation, reception, revision, and other aspects. For the biographer of a book, it is not only the text (or “content” as we call it in the digital age) that is of interest but also the material form of the work and the consequences of the decisions made regarding the production of the book. The best biographers take a life-and-times approach, providing the temporal, geographic, social, and cultural contexts to help explain the impact of the person or book whose life is being recounted, or, more accurately, constructed.

With few exceptions, the secondary literature surrounding the 1972 edition of The Limits to Growth has addressed the authors’ ideas, methods, and interpretations, that is, the texts. As Jonathan Rose has written, “The problem with focusing on texts is that no one can read a text–not until it is incarnated in the material form of a book.” (“The Horizon of a New Discipline: The Invention of Book Studies,” Publishing Research Quarterly 19 (2003): 13.) (Among book historians, “book” is construed to include many forms of printed material such as periodicals and technical reports.) The book carries and presents the text and its accompanying graphics, shaping its reception among people who have read it and those who haven’t, as Priscilla Coit Murphy shows in her What a Book Can Do: The Production and Reception of Silent Spring.  James Secord, a historian of scientific communication, illuminates the importance of book history to the history of science and particularly to the communication of knowledge to expert and non-expert readers in his book Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Environmental historian Andrew Kirk, in Counterculture Green, examines the role of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a hard-to-classify form of underground publication, in shifting the American environmental movement from a focus on wildlife preservation to a focus on the interplay of ecology and technology. Another helpful framework is provided by Suzuette Soomai and Bertrum MacDonald in their discussion of the complexity of environmental information forms and flows that governmental and non-governmental scientists and policy makers use (“Information Matters: Global Perspectives about Communication at the Science-Policy Interface,” pp. 275-80 in The Future of Ocean Governance and Capacity Development (Brill, 2018)).

The Limits to Growth has had an eventful life, and it isn’t dead yet. The book summed up the findings of a research project commissioned by the Club of Rome, a small but influential group of scholars, industrialists, and other thought leaders concerned about the future of the earth. The research pioneered the use of computers to simulate scenarios of the future. The research team used different assumptions and input different data to understand possible outcomes. On page 23 of the 1972 edition came the assertion that launched a worldwide discussion:

“If the present growth trends . . . continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

As Ugo Bardi writes in The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer, 2011):

“The book generated enormous interest and the debate on its validity raged. Some recognized it as a milestone in human thought, while others dismissed it as a worthless exercise based on flawed assumptions. . . . The negative opinion about LTG appears to be still prevalent today. However, there are also evident signs of a reappraisal in progress.” (p. 2)

Google Books Ngram Viewer

A look at the occurrences of the two titles Silent Spring and Limits to Growth show that both received a great deal of attention when first published and that attention tapered off over time. Limits to Growth never received the enormous attention given Silent Spring, but the book has continued to be discussed, and, as Bardi says, to be reappraised.

Moreover, the book’s title has been adopted as a commonly used phrase, even when the book itself is not being cited or discussed. How do we know? Google’s ngram viewer searches are case sensitive. The chart below shows that the phrase “the limits to growth” began to be used after the book’s release and that it has continued along the same trend line as the book, though with more occurrences than the book title.

Google Books Ngram Viewer

While there is no doubt that The Limits to Growth has had an impact, there’s still a lot to understand about how that impact developed. A big part of the story involves the material form of the book, its dissemination, and its reception, including the ongoing appraisal and reappraisal of its methods and findings.

Doubling time

“Exponential growth leads to surprisingly large numbers in a short time,” Professor Kenneth E.F. Watt wrote in chapter 1 of his book The “Titanic” Effect: Planning for the Unthinkable (Dutton, 1974).

An environmental scientist and zoologist on the University of California-Davis faculty, Watt explained that exponential growth resulted from increases by a fixed percentage year over year, in contrast to linear growth which increased by a constant amount. The example was compound interest on savings; you can make a lot more money over time by putting your dollars in an account that earns 2% annually than you can by putting the same amount of dollars in your sock drawer. Watt wrote: “Exponential growth is often described in terms of ‘doubling times.’ . . . doubling occurs in a remarkably short time when exponential growth rates are high.” (pp. 8-9)

The chapter was included in the transcripts of a series of hearings on “Growth and Its Implications for the Future” held before the Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and the Environment of the House of Representatives Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries in 1973 and 1974. As chair of the subcommittee, Congressman John D. Dingell (D-Michigan) wrote the foreword to the transcript of the first hearing, in May 1973, where he discussed the significance of the findings reported in The Limits to Growth, which had been published the year before. Dennis Meadows, who led the research team at MIT whose work resulted in the publication of the book, gave testimony at the hearing and the entire text of the book was included in the appendix to the transcript.

The book, aimed at an audience of policy makers and other educated readers, explained exponential growth for an audience whose literacy was solid but whose numeracy might not be. The book’s lead author, Donella Meadows (she and Dennis were married to each other), used “a French riddle for children” to illustrate the concept; the riddle was repeated in the French edition of the book.

As Watt said, “doubling occurs in a remarkably short time,” and, as Meadows wrote, the suddenness of the end, the 29th day when the limit is reached, takes us by surprise.

Doubling time applies not only to population growth, resource depletion, and other elements discussed in The Limits to Growth but also to the current pandemic.

For example, in Arizona, in July 2020, covid19 cases are doubling about every four weeks.

Having my own numeracy issues, I found an online calculator to gauge when Arizona might reach the limit of infections, the limit here referring to the point where there isn’t a single Arizonan left for the virus to infect. I input the current number of cases, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the doubling rate of 28 days (4 weeks), and the total population estimated at 7.4 million.

The calculator shows that it will take 163 days for the number of cases to equal the number of Arizonans, and during the last bleak month, December, everyone who doesn’t already have covid19 will get it.

Clearly, I’m going for shock value here. It’s highly unlikely we’ll reach that point because other factors are at play and they will slow the rate of exponential growth. The factors include mask wearing, social distancing, handwashing, quarantining, and all-around getting with the program, people. What we might want to aim for is such a long doubling time that most of us can remain virus-free long enough to get to a time when vaccinations grow at exponential rates that outrun the infection rates.

Although the 1972 edition of The Limits to Growth is outdated (although still influential, but more about that later), at least one truism from its production and reception persists: most politicians and policy makers still don’t understand exponential growth or its implications and the ones who do don’t have the power or the will to overcome resistance and denial.