The Best Books On Living Within Limits

Giorgos Kallis Author Of Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care
By Giorgos Kallis

The Books I Picked & Why

The Limits to Growth

By Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows

The Limits to Growth

Why this book?

This is the definitive classic that launched the modern debate on ecological limits. Meadows and her colleagues at MIT ran a global computer model, "World3", for the Club of Rome and produced the first detailed simulations of population, industrial output, food, resources, and pollution. Either we slow down economic and population growth, they argued, or they will come down crashing on their own, and it won’t be pretty. Debates about the specifics of the model and the accuracy of its prophecies still rage. And the book was relatively thin on how to smoothly slow down, what this would entail, and how would it ever be possible within capitalist systems that are bound to either grow or collapse. Love or hate the book and its message (and I myself am ambivalent), this is a book everyone interested in the question of limits, must-read.


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The Dispossessed

By Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed

Why this book?

We scientists are very bad at imagining what different worlds could look like. This is why we need science fiction writers. The Dispossessed are the best depiction in my view of what a world whose people have voluntarily chosen to live within limits could look like, with all its beauties and snares. Le Guin grew up in the house of the father of modern anthropology Alfred Kroeber, and her science fiction is unique in describing full alternate modern worlds that have elements of the egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies anthropologists studied. The anarchist planet of Anarres in The Dispossessed looks a lot like the ‘original affluent' societies described by anthropologists - societies living extremely simply and frugally for our standards, but abundantly from their perspective, with lots of time for leisure and play. The beauty of the Dispossessed is that it tries to think what this could look like in a modern set-up – and to present it not idealistically as a utopia, but as an ambiguous dystopian utopia, where the contradictions of the human condition are not resolved, only taken a different, tenuous path. 


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The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism

By Thomas Robertson

The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism

Why this book?

This is a brilliant intellectual history of US environmentalism and its rooting on what in the 1960s was seen as a global ‘population bomb’. The global population kept growing in the 1980s and 1990s, but slower, and the bomb has, for the time being at least, been defused. It is time for environmentalists like myself to reflect on the legacy of our roles as prophets of unrealised doom, and this book helps us get the historical record right. Paul Ehrlich is a key figure in this story of overpopulation scare, that was not a marginal academic debate, but one that made it into the political mainstream, and around which Ronald Reagan fashioned his persona, as the ever optimist who unlike Jimmy Carter, did not succumb to limits of growth, and the pessimism of Ehlrich and his likes. What I learned from this book is that unless environmentalists develop a positive vision around the need to live within limits, of limits as freedom and not as punishment, we will never go far in convincing our fellows citizens about the need to limit growth.


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The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure

By Michel Foucault

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure

Why this book?

Michel Foucault had a variety of interests and wrote about many different topics – ecology and limits to growth were definitely not among them. I have found this book super useful though in thinking about what I call self-limitation, the processes through which individuals and collectives voluntarily craft the limits of their action and their power. Foucault’s book analyses how ancient Greeks perceived sexuality, and how they managed their bodies and desires. For the Greeks mastery over one’s wants was seen as key to personal freedom and development. Sexual freedom was part and parcel of the self-regulation of sexual desire. I can´t say I understand everything Foucault writes, but this is definitely one of his clearest books, with a more American style short prose than his previous labyrythical French writing. Reading about a civilization that was so similar, but also so different from ours, and how it regulated without suppressing desire, freed my imagination about other worlds that can be, worlds where voluntary limitation can be liberating, and not controlling.


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The Limits to Scarcity: Contesting the Politics of Allocation

By Lyla Mehta

The Limits to Scarcity: Contesting the Politics of Allocation

Why this book?

This edited volume questions the notion of scarcity, which is the lynchpin of modern economics. Ever since Malthus’s Essay on Population at the turn of the 19th century, there is a myth that human wants are unlimited (and illimitable) and that the world is too small for all of us and our needs. Economists invented this myth to justify capitalism´s perpetuation of inequality and poverty amidst plenty, constructing an ideology of limitless growth as the only possible response to our predicament of this supposed universal and eternal scarcity. The contributions to this volume reveal how this ideology of scarcity plays out till our day, and elites invoke scarcity and limits to control the bodies and desires of marginalized groups. 


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