The period during which Limits to growth first appeared at the end of a decade which featured Rachel Carson Silent spring and that of Paul Ehrlich The demographic bomb. It was a period that saw the birth of the modern environmental movement, the passage of the Clean Air Act, the founding of the EPA and a host of dystopias. novels and movies warning of a crowded, overpolluted and resource-poor future. In 1970, Ehrlich made the first of several appearances on Tonight’s show, then hosted by Johnny Carson, where he spoke about the need for mass sterilization and birth permit programs to audiences of a reach no modern show can match.
Both for people who lived through this period and for those born afterwards, the idea that we have reached 2021 – and a world population of just under 8 billion – without falling into a global conflict over dwindling supplies. in oil, or seeing the population drastically reduced from starvation and disease, seems to be a clear signal that all those old books were overkill. Upon closer examination, Ehrlich made a lot of wrong assumptions in The demographic bomb– mainly because he was deeply entangled in a privileged white Western culture that made him reject the idea that everyone would want anything other than to live like him. He has also populated his work with a number of racial stereotypes, which has made academics and the public increasingly suspicious of his work. As for Silent spring, well, we’ve banned DDT, the eagle has made a comeback, so … it’s okay now.
The number of people on Earth has since doubled Limits to growth was first published. There appears to be little sign of the kind of decline in resource scarcity that the job predicts in a world where the amount of materials each person consumes – from food to electronics to automobiles – is still at stake. the rise globally. It is easy to believe that all those old tomes, LTG included, can be safely ignored.
But earlier this year, economist Gaya Herrington of international accounting and consulting firm KPMG took a fresh look at the old book. With decades of new data and much more detailed information than the original MIT team, Herrington found that the scenarios described in the 1972 work were still “closely aligned with observed global data.” In particular, two possible futures matched what she collected in 2020.
One of these scenarios points to a slowdown or even a halt in economic and technological growth over the next two decades. The second scenario is one in which pollution, mainly in the form of greenhouse gases causing the climate crisis, stops demographic and economic growth over the same period.
In the first scenario, the end of growth is followed by a gradual decline in both average wealth and sustainable population size. In the second, there is a devastating collapse. The likelihood of these two scenarios seemed almost equal, and any better outcome didn’t match Herrington’s data as well. “This suggests,” she wrote, “that it is almost, but not yet, too late for the company to change course. “
It’s not as bad as it could be. A previous analysis had suggested that the world would continue on its “business as usual” momentum until about… now. An abrupt and irreversible decline would then begin over the next decade. But resource scarcity (largely related to metals and rare elements that have been heavily mined over the past century) seems less of a threat in Herrington’s assessment. Instead, greenhouse gases pose the greatest threat, leading Herrington to a scenario that isn’t too far removed from past predictions, just lagged about a decade down the line.
However, paper is not quite doomed to fail. There is another scenario called “stabilized world” or SW. This scenario involves rapid global adoption of technologies such as renewable energy, as well as shifting social priorities that encourage downsizing of families, coupled with the focus on the health and education of individuals. This is a trend that has been observed in country after country. Unfortunately, this does not happen fast enough and it does not happen without hindsight, especially in some authoritarian regimes.
The best thing about this SW model is not only that it represents a world that has become “stable”. It is also a world that is stabilizing at a high level, where every person has access to health care and education, and the relative wealth of each individual is high compared to today. This scenario could occur by the middle of the next century.
But to get there is to cross the bottleneck of the next two decades.
Note: I shouldn’t end without mentioning that many scientists, economists, and sociologists have found the models and principles endorsed by the Club of Rome in LTG to be myopic, simplistic, ethnically biased, or all of the above. Many researchers despised the model’s results from the start, and having to readjust the inputs frequently (as has happened several times) did not make the project any more able to predict the future. But it’s an interesting exercise to verify these predictions, and there are real limits to each system.