George Mitchell: A father of sustainability

Legend has it that, when the shocking MIT study called The Limits to Growth was published in 1972, George P. Mitchell, who died last week at 94, bought hundreds of copies and sent them to every member of Congress and the President.

“I read the book and it just impressed the hell out of me,” Mitchell said. “It was a first wake-up call.

Mitchell threw himself into the global conversation, which had been cranked up by the Club of Rome, the sponsor of the MIT study.

He quickly became involved with the MIT team, including Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows, and Jurgen Randers. Beginning with them, Mitchell organized the first of The Woodlands Conferences, which occurred in Houston at The Woodlands in 1974. It was called “The Limits to Growth: The First Biennial Assessment of Alternatives to Growth.”

For a guy from Galveston who had made a fortune in Houston, the idea of some limits or alternatives to growth was a pretty revolutionary concept. Growth, Mitchell realized, appeared to be setting global society up for “overshoot and collapse” sometime in the 21st century. The general timeline shows things falling apart around 2050.

Scientists who have looked at the actual data in the 41 years since The Limits to Growth was published, as well as the authors of the study, say the scenario has been playing out as projected and there is little indication that society will put on the brakes soon enough to prevent calamity.

“How well humankind manages earth’s resources, environment, and population will determine whether civilization advances or dies in coming years,” Mitchell said.

At the second conference, in 1977, Mitchell said “We knew that the Limits to Growth slogan was not exactly right. Because we knew there had to be limits on some growth, but not limits on other growth. And what we were seeking was the sustainability of our societies. This was the first time I ever heard of the expression.”

Mitchell lays claim to some degree of authorship of the sustainability language, including the term itself.

Mitchell acknowledged that the term sustainability was already in use, but talked of the concept of “sustainable societies” as the idea that emerged from his conferences.

“After about two or three conferences I began to realize what we’re really seeking was the nature of sustainable societies, he said. “How could you establish sustainable societies when you have a rapid population growth?”

Mitchell felt the goals should be much more about higher quality than about more quantity. He preferred the word “development” to “growth.”

“Sustainable societies are those that are capable of reaching and then sustaining a decent quality of life for their citizens, he said. To achieve sustainability in the world there must be a balance between things like environmental degradation, deforestation, desertification, food availability, and other resources for the amount of people we have.”

On April 14, 1992 I saw and heard the authors of The Limits to Growth in a C-SPAN press conference talking about their new study, Beyond the Limits, which looked at what had happened in the 25 years since The Limits book was published.

I happened to be at the beach at Mustang Island and was standing in the doorway of the condominium we had rented, watching my youngest son and a couple of his friends running along the top of the dunes, whooping and hollering with their youth and their joy and their optimism.

And suddenly I was hearing what the scientists were saying: Things don’t look good, things actually look a little black, 2050 or so should experience overshoot and collapse, first in well-to-do urban areas and I thought: those kids are doomed.

I quite my job and dove into sustainability then. Very quickly, I learned about The Woodlands Conferences and George P. Mitchell. But it has taken me until now to put some energy into honoring one of the fathers of sustainability.

Sometimes I think it’s ironic that the first global discussion of sustainability happened in Houston. And then I think that maybe it’s a good omen. Maybe we’ll begin to realize that George Mitchell was right about sustainable societies, as he was about a lot of other amazing things.

< Go Back

© 2012-2024 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.