The Wilson Quarterly

Forty years ago, it would have been impossible to escape The Limits to Growth (1972). The report, issued by the Club of Rome, an international group of world leaders in business, government, and academia, argued that the depletion of economic, social, and environmental resources would lead the world economic system to collapse around 2010. That frighteningly persuasive vision helped the book sell more than 12 million copies in dozens of languages.

Now that the world is safely past its predicted expiration date, it’s clear the authors got the story “spectacularly wrong,” writes Bjorn Lomborg, the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001). Yet its influence abides. The book, Lomborg writes, “helped send the world down a path of worrying obsessively about misguided remedies for minor problems while ignoring much greater concerns and sensible ways of dealing with them.”

The Limits to Growth used computer models to determine the interrelated trajectories of change in five basic components of growth — population, agricultural production, natural resources, industry, and pollution. Technological advances might momentarily avert disaster in each area, the models showed, but negative trends would implacably resume. If the world were to escape this cycle, the authors argued, consumption and birthrates would have to be sharply reduced.

The study overlooked the most important resource of all: “people, and their ability to discover and innovate,” Lomborg writes. Take mercury, which the Limits authors fingered as a dangerously dwindling resource. Today we barely use it, having found better materials to put in thermometers and batteries. The report’s predictions that the world would exhaust its supplies of natural gas, oil, copper, and other natural resources have all proved false. And forget mass starvation — the ranks of the malnourished have dropped from 35 percent of the world’s population when the report came out to 16 percent today.

The most insidious effect of The Limits to Growth was not misinformation, Lomborg says, but the way it galvanized public attention around “worst-case environmental-disaster scenarios that make rational policymaking difficult.” Misplaced anxiety about pollutants has led the developed world to embrace organic agriculture despite its expense and inefficiency. Recycling has become a fetish even though it “provides little environmental benefit at a significant cost.” Meanwhile, indoor and outdoor air pollution, which contributes to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, excites little attention.

What people need to understand is that poverty poses a far greater threat to quality of life than the challenges cited by the Limits authors, and “economic growth is one of the best ways to prevent it,” Lomborg argues. An expansion of international trade has more potential to enhance human well-being than the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. In the end, he says, the benefits of economic growth vastly outweigh its limits.

THE SOURCE: “Environmental Alarmism, Then and Now” by Bjorn Lomborg, in Foreign Affairs, July–Aug. 2012.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Charles O'Rear

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