Tipping Point: The True Story of The Limits to Growth was the culmination of a four-year research effort to understand why humanity ignored the seminal 1972 book The Limits to Growth, and what we can learn from it. Based on late author Dana Meadows' unpublished memoirs and featuring rare original audio recordings, this podcast accompanies Dana and Dennis Meadows and their team of scientists on their mission to educate the world about coming ecological crises and their solutions.
Tipping Point was researched, created, and produced by Katy Shields and Vegard Beyer. Please note that while we have received help from many quarters, the presentation of events and any errors or omissions in this work are our own.
Narration: Katy Shields
Story Editing: Vegard Beyer
Original Music Score: Nora Beyer
Sound Editing: Anna Magdalino
Artwork: Amy Shields
We want to express our gratitude to those who have been instrumental in the making of this podcast. First and foremost, our thanks go to Graeme Maxton for introducing us to Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers. Their generous contribution of time and insight has been invaluable.
We also wish to acknowledge the insights, assistance, support, and feedback we have received from many others, including Diana Wright, assistant to the late Dana Meadows, Marta Ceroni of The Donella Meadows Project at the Academy for Systems Change, Peter Carini of the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College, Robert Braile, Amy Shields, Enrico Cerasuolo and Massimo Arvat of Zenit Arti Audiovisive, Heiko Specking, Anupam Saraph, Chloe Leland, Alexander Greene, Jonathan van Tulleken, Patrick Dickinson, Richard Gilreath of the Smithsonian Institution, Till Kellerhoff, Timothée Parrique, Ana Roman, Matt Maude, Greg Findlay and the terra.do community.
Vegard would like to thank Irene for feedback, encouragement – and your endless patience. Katy – to Reinhardt and our children, for enduring me.
We would also like a thank those who have listened and shared so far (more than 8,000 streams and counting!) and the many positive responses, including (unprompted!) endorsements from author of Doughnut Economics Kate Raworth, Planet Critical Podcast host Rachel Donald, actress and activist Alexandra Dowling, climate journalist Leonie Sontheimer, ecologist and activist Aaron Thierry and many others.
For those who would like to know more about why we made this and what we hoped to acheive, as well as for ways to get in touch, please read on…
Why we made Tipping Point
By Katy Shields
Vegard Beyer and I met in August 2017 at a week-long summer school at the University of Florence. Organised by the international think tank the Club of Rome, it brought together around 100 scholars, scientists, activists and creatives to teach about the link between our economy, human and planetary wellbeing, and what changes could help head off the multiple overlapping crises we seemed to be facing–most notably, the climate crisis.
Neither of us knew much about the Club of Rome and the 1972 report it is most famous for, The Limits to Growth. During the intro session we watched a clip of a 30-year old Dennis Meadows’ present the book’s key findings to US politicians and other dignitaries:
“There are physical limits to growth which, given current trends, are very likely to be encountered even during the lifetimes of our children. The most likely outcome of running into these limits, if we continue to ignore them and instead base our short-term policies on the assumption of continued growth, is that we will overshoot those limits and our system will collapse…”
I was struck by the clarity and foresight with which he spoke, and immediately wanted to learn more about why the work, which seemed to have foreseen the situation we now found ourselves in, had clearly been ignored. My intrigue grew when, at another workshop that week, ecological economist Kate Raworth cited Donella (Dana) Meadows, the book’s author, as a key inspiration for her own work, Doughnut Economics.
The idea to dig into the story niggled away for a while. Around a year later Vegard and I met again at the Club of Rome’s 50 year anniversary conference, in Rome. We heard from Johan Rockström, renowned earth systems scientist and lead author of a new study which warned that humanity was on track to soon breach climate tipping points that could tip us into a Hothouse Earth scenario.
It felt like we were nearing the collapse scenario Dana’s book had warned of, and yet so few people, not least our governments, seemed to have grasped the urgency.
We decided that researching the story of The Limits to Growth could help us understand where we were going wrong as a society. But we could no longer speak with Dana Meadows, who had died tragically early in 2001. A Club of Rome member kindly put us in touch with Dennis, her former husband and director of the MIT project on which the book was based. Dennis had officially retired from public life, but trusted us enough to send a 25-page unpublished account, entitled “History of LTG”, written by Dana (we later found the same document tucked deep in her archives at Dartmouth College–it was intended as a chapter of a later book).
Dana’s story told of two idealistic young technologists, fresh from a life-changing trip to Asia, taking on a project that could save the world. With the help of a crack team of scientists, using a computer model developed by a genius inventor and backed by Italy’s foremost industrialist, they ended up thrust into the global spotlight–only to be attacked by the powers that be.
Ok, that’s our riveting take, but it was certainly an exciting story that carried a critical message for humanity, and one that had been distorted partly thanks to economists whose own work would go on to greatly underplay the risks of climate and ecological breakdown. That injustice alone drove us to start exploring ways to bring the story to an audience beyond those who may already have read the book.
We initially thought of making a documentary. Then we learned one already existed, The Last Call (2013) created by two Italian filmmakers. Perhaps not surprisingly, given their origin, their film focused mostly on the role of Aurelio Peccei and the Club of Rome. While it contained some insightful interviews with Dennis Meadows and former MIT team members, and even one of Jay Forrester’s last public interviews, since it was made following Dana’s death, it lacked similar footage of Dana and the people she had inspired, like Raworth, whose work had only emerged in the last few years.
Should we make another documentary delving more into Dana’s character and legacy? We spoke to a few filmmakers in our networks. The advice was always the same: engaging documentaries need ample footage. We learned that Dana’s former assistant, Diana Wright, had helped to curate an archive of all of Dana’s personal and professional writings and recordings, now held at the Rauner Collection at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. I decided to book a flight to Boston.
Dana’s archive is a veritable treasure trove, and we uncovered many more details about her life and the story of The Limits to Growth. From her travel diaries with Dennis along the hippie trail, to notes from their first presentation to the Club of Rome, to her early drafts of The Limits to Growth and literally stacks of feedback–good and bad–to letters of complaint MIT faculty and others, to attempts to publish their update, Beyond the Limits, 20 years on, to her correspondences with their many critics–not least the economist Bill Nordhaus.
But after a week of round-the-clock digging, it was clear there was simply far too little audio-visual material to make a compelling documentary. We conducted more research and spoke with former friends and colleagues, but uncovered little more.
Still we felt there was a story worth telling, so our thoughts turned to making a historical drama in the vein of Hidden Figures or The Trial of the Chicago 7. We wrote a draft script and secured some discussions with production companies, including a few with Oscar-winning credentials. There was significant interest–but all told us it would help to have the rights of the characters to tell it. And after Dana, the most important character was Dennis.
Dennis politely but firmly declined to cooperate. He reasoned there was far too little drama, and was concerned we’d need to invent too much to make it work. We could sympathise: they’d had the truth about their work so distorted, if a drama took too many liberties, it may do little to further their cause. But we remained convinced their story was dramatic enough to stay close to the truth (and one could argue that documentaries are not always entirely factful).
Then the Covid pandemic struck. The shuttering of most film studios stalled our plans for a televised series, but it was a boon for the podcast format. One podcast we had both loved was Amy Westervelt’s Drilled. Written in true-crime style, she created an engaging suspense of how the fossil fuel industry used the tricks of the tobacco industry to sow doubt about the dangers of global warming.
Maybe this format could also work for Dana’s story? We wrote up a half-hour script, and I did a read-through for some fellows at an online climate course where I teach. Almost none had heard of The Limits to Growth; they overwhelmingly agreed we should pursue the project.
We sought more feedback from our network. Ecological economist Tim Parrique, who had studied the dynamics of growth in-depth, suggested we add more about their model and the pioneering science of systems dynamics. A few months later the script had gone from a 30-minute pilot to a 100-minute miniseries. I visited Vegard in Berlin and we made a first take; later his sister, composer Nora Beyer, created a moving soundtrack.
We had originally hoped to release it during the 50 anniversary year of the book’s publication in 2022, but we underestimated our own capacities alongside our other committments. The landmark Beyond Growth Conference in May 2023, which brought together some 4,000 scholars, thinkers, politicians and activists from across Europe, felt like the right moment. My sister Amy, a graphic designer, did the artwork and connected us with an excellent sound editor. As we released the first two episodes, I travelled to Brussels to see what I could gleam for the epilogue, re-writing the final part from my seat at the back of the EU Parliament’s Hemicycle.
Future plans and working with us
So where do we go from here? Ironically, we’ve now received several statements of interest in making a televised version. We are excited about the possibility of realising our original vision. While having our own IP may make this more feasible, there are no doubt still challenges to putting this on screen. We are also considering further podcasts and content on some of the themes we uncovered. And, especially since we are entirely self-financed, we remain open to offers to help promote the work we have made here.
If you would like to support us in any way, please reach out at enquiries(at)tippingpoint-podcast.com.
Further reading and resources
If you are interested in exploring some of the themes of our podcast, here are some resources which helped inform our story:
Donella Meadows Project, a digital archive of many of Dana’s writings and recordings curated by The Academy for Systems Change (formerly Dana’s Sustainability Institute)
Rauner Collection’s full Donella Meadows archive at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire
Beyond the Limits recording of the official launch, C-SPAN, April 15th, 1992
Limits to Growth Revisited, Ugo Bardi (2011)
The Last Call, Zenit Arti Audiovisive (2013)
Collision Course, Kerryn Higgs (2016)
Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth (2017)
Update to Limits to Growth, Gaya Herrington (2020)
The New Economics: A Manifesto, Steve Keen (2021)
Breaking Boundaries: The Science of our Planet, Netflix documentary starring David Attenborough and Johann Rockström (2021)
Earth4All: A Survival Guide for Humanity, Club of Rome (2022)
Beyond Growth conference recordings at the EU Parliament in Brussels, May 15-17th 2023