________________________________________________________________________ Has the world reached its 'Limits to Growth'? Copyright ) 1997 Nando.net Copyright ) 1997 The Associated Press 'Low-profile' society of scientists, industrialists (December 28, 1997 00:30 a.m. EST http://www.nando.net) -- Our blood ran cold as we sat in the dark that year, millions of moviegoers chilled by the vision of "A Clockwork Orange," of a "horrorshow" future of anarchy and violence. That was Hollywood. The Smithsonian Institution, on the other hand, was the real world, staid and gray. But the future quietly laid out there one winter's day in 1972, by an international team of researchers, was just as frightening. Mankind was headed for a breakdown, an "uncontrollable decline" in population and production, unless it stopped breeding and consuming at such exponential rates, their book warned. Man must learn that there are, as its title said, limits to growth. Doomsaying is as old as the Bible. But when Jeremiah did his dismal work, he wasn't digitized. This team, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had deployed a new tool, the computer, to plot human behavior in an unprecedented way. Its sponsors were an influential brotherhood of industrialists and scientists called the Club of Rome. And they benefited from a twist of history: An oil embargo would soon gridlock industrial economies, reminding motorists and planning ministries alike that the pipelines of plenty can, indeed, run dry. "The Limits to Growth" stirred anxiety and outrage -- and sold 9 million copies in 29 languages, spreading the message that urgent action "is a challenge for our generation. It cannot be passed on to the next." Now that next generation is here. And with the 25th-anniversary year of "The Limits to Growth" in 1997, we can look back on a future foretold, taking stock of how we've done on population, on food production, on going easier on the home planet's resources. One recent assessment, the U.N. report "Critical Trends," reassures the world that "global catastrophe is not imminent." But other voices warn against complacency this millennium's eve. "The story hasn't been entirely told yet," says one of the new generation's global thinkers, Canadian political theorist Thomas Homer-Dixon. Hold on to your seats, in other words. The coming attractions could still include a horror show. ------ From the heights of the century's end, 1972 looks like a distant planet -- a world of 2 billion fewer people, of a million more square miles of forested land, of a half-trillion more barrels of oil in the ground, of a global economy half today's size. Look anywhere and see the changes. Where today 165,000 Malaysians labor in a single giant industrial city, a generation ago farmers tilled their rice paddies. In Arabia, on what were sandy wastes, petrochemical plants and marble palaces now rise. In 1972 in India, the hungry rioted over grain shortages; today India is self-sufficient in food. That year in London the bright lights were dimmed by a coal strike; now much of Europe runs on gas and nuclear power. America, too, was a different world, a younger nation that still laid interstate highway (1,400 miles in 1972), that still sent explorers to the moon, that was introducing compact video cameras for everyman and selling amazing electronic calculators for as little as $60. The year's fiction best seller, a sugary parable, caught the spirit. "The gull sees farthest who flies highest," said Jonathan Livingston Seagull. "... Everything that limits us we have to put aside." But those looking farthest in 1972 were in MIT's computer workrooms, and all they could see were limits. The Club of Rome had asked the four MIT scientists and management scholars to undertake a pivotal study in its project on "The Predicament of Mankind." Financed by the Volkswagen Foundation, the researchers went to work with a complex computer "world model," focusing on trends in population, industrialization, hunger, nonrenewable resources and the environment. Diagrammed on paper, the computer's world system was a rat's nest of crisscrossing lines simulating 100 "feedback loops," cause-effect links. Increasing industrial capital, for example, boosted agricultural capital, which influenced the amount of food grown, which affected mortality in the population. In other words, just about everything influenced everything else. Armed with mountains of data and specialists' advice, the MIT team plugged in the latest human fertility rates, resource use rates and other trends, and let their early '70s computers peer into the future: Population, food production, industrial output all exploded in the generation or two to come, depleting metals, energy and other resources so quickly, boosting prices so sharply, that by the 21st century's early decades industrial indexes sank toward pre-industrial levels, per-capita food production crashed and death rates skyrocketed. The researchers adjusted, hypothesizing better population control, for example, and unlimited resources. But a crash still followed -- if later in the century -- because of ruinous pollution, or eroded land, or other factors. The only solution they could see: "deliberate checks" on economic and population growth. They might as well have titled their work the "Book of the Apocalypse." "Utter nonsense," fumed one anonymous economist in the New York Times' page-one article. Critics scoffed at trying to mimic the world with a computer, and boggled at the notion of a no-growth economy. The Club of Rome team acknowledged their model was imperfect, but said the world's problems were so blatant that the conclusions were unavoidable. "The Limits to Growth" had legions of defenders. The findings were unveiled in the hallowed setting of Washington's Smithsonian, in the presence of a U.S. Cabinet secretary. Columnists and academics seized on its themes. And some themes, after all, were far from radical. In his Nobel Prize lecture two years earlier, American agronomist Norman E. Borlaug declared that science might be able to feed the world, "but the frightening power of human reproduction must be curbed." And that, he now notes with satisfaction, is exactly what happened. Borlaug was one of a dozen scientists, economists and others asked by The Associated Press to look back 25 years after "The Limits to Growth." "The dreadful picture of the Club of Rome wasn't followed," the 83-year-old father of the Green Revolution says today. That may oversimplify things in some areas. But when it comes to human reproduction, the news contrasts starkly with 1972's dark vision. "Limits," relying on the best projections available, foresaw the world population almost doubling from 3.8 billion in 1972 to 7 billion in 2000. Instead, it will barely reach 6 billion. Its growth rate has fallen from 2 percent a year to 1.4 percent. "Around the world, people chose to have fewer children," explains Joel E. Cohen, a leading American demographer and author of a definitive end-of-century work on the Earth's "carrying capacity." The key reason Cohen cites: More women worldwide are educated and working, engaged in a life beyond childbearing. "In 1970, for every 100 men economically active, there were 37 women," Cohen said. "In 1990, there were 62 women." Other factors include China's one-child-per-family policy and the flow of international aid for family planning. Today in Bangladesh, for example, 36,000 female "fertility workers" dispense contraceptives in the teeming countryside, where none roved in 1972. But the good news comes with asterisks. Even if overcrowded Bangladesh hits ideal family-planning targets, its population density in the next century will top out at 3,600 people per square mile, triple the number when MIT's computers did their forecasting. If the slowdown in the world population's growth is noteworthy, the improvement in its health has been remarkable. When "The Limits to Growth" was published, worldwide average life expectancy at birth stood at 53 years. By 1995, it had reached 67. Much of the credit for greater survival goes to fuller stomachs -- and credit for that goes to Borlaug and the other green revolutionaries who brought improved seed and advanced farming to the Third World. Global food production almost doubled in the past generation, while cultivated land expanded barely 5 percent. The "Limits" scenarists had feared a population squeeze on farmland. But "so far we haven't run into any land constraint in a global sense," said Nikos Alexandratos, chief global forecaster for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. "Additional production has come from more intensive use of existing land, from higher yields." Said Borlaug, "With the technology we already have available, we'll be able to feed 8 billion people in 2025, the world population they're projecting." But food, too, comes with an asterisk: By FAO estimate, more than 800 million people remain malnourished, people too poor to buy the abundant food that higher yields produce. "That is the problem," Borlaug said. "Equality of distribution." There would be plenty more money to distribute. While human numbers grew just over 50 percent in the 25 years, human economic output doubled. And the global economy didn't just balloon; it took on surprising new forms, "delinking" in part from energy and materials -- producing much more value, especially in services, without digging up or pumping out quite so many resources, in relative terms. In this, the real world confounded the model one. The "Limits of Growth" projections foresaw rapid depletion of minerals. U.S. government data of 1972 indicated only 21 years' worth of copper was left globally, only 15 years of tin, only 13 of silver. Petroleum could run out by 1992. The Club of Rome team knew more reserves would be discovered, but the computer told them it didn't matter -- galloping growth would chew so much raw material so quickly, and prices would rise so sharply, that crisis would inevitably strike. Instead, mineral prices have declined in real terms, and the lifespan of reserves still stretches decades ahead for key metals. "When there's an economic incentive, technology comes through," said economist Marilyn Biviano, "sustainability" chief for the U.S. Geological Survey. In the past generation, miners have penetrated the polar north and under the sea, and made ever-wider use of leaching, the technology of percolating metals out of ores with liquids. But the engineering of extraction is hardly the whole story. Recycling underpins much of today's heavy industry: One-third of the aluminum used in manufacturing, for example, is drawn not from the earth, but from old products. And metals have given way in the age-old process of substitution -- plastic taking tin's place in containers, fiberoptics displacing copper in communications wiring. In the biggest industry of all -- energy -- substitution and efficiencies were spurred by oil price shocks in the 1970s. Fadhil Chalabi, former chief of the OPEC oil cartel, points out a remarkable fact: The established industrial nations burn less oil today than they did in the late 1970s. "They used to ask me whether there would be enough oil supplies to meet demand," the Iraqi-born economist said in an interview from London. "But my question is whether there will be enough demand to use the supply of oil on Earth." After relentless exploration in the Saudi desert, the Arctic and the North Sea, global petroleum reserves are now reckoned at 1 trillion barrels, more than twice the "dwindling" reserves of the early 1970s. Many electric grids, meanwhile, switched over to gas or nuclear power, and we're driving more fuel-saving cars and working in more heat-efficient buildings. "The relationship between oil consumption and economic growth was decoupled," Chalabi said. In the "post-Club of Rome" years, man has simply learned to be lighter, smarter on the Earth. And cleaner? In many ways, air and water pollution has declined in the industrialized northern world since the 1970s. But not in the developing south -- in China alone, 3 million deaths since 1994 are blamed on unhealthy air. And cleaning up downstream and downwind did little to protect against new planetary menaces barely contemplated in "The Limits to Growth." By the late 1970s, scientists determined that man's chemicals were thinning the atmosphere's ozone layer, threatening damage to life on Earth. A 1987 global treaty may help repair it. But on another threat -- global warming -- treaty negotiations are near deadlock. Most scientists have concluded carbon dioxide emissions are warming the atmosphere. Such climate change could be an economic catastrophe. One theory holds, for example, that resulting shifts in ocean currents could plunge Europe into a mini-Ice Age. The great preoccupation of the Club of Rome study -- running out of raw materials -- proved not to be the problem, said Kenneth Ruffing, a top economist for the United Nations. "But for a handful of truly global problems, there is a risk that too much temporizing on the political level could lead to major disasters." Some resource problems are also taking on a global look. Man today uses 200 cubic miles more water annually than 25 years ago -- the equivalent of a week's flow over Niagara Falls. Shortages are growing acute. Farmland irrigation is running up against limits. "Water is likely to prove the most important constraint on raising food production," concluded the U.N. "Critical Trends" study. That's bad news for 21st-century agriculture. Since the huge gains of the Green Revolution, global farm productivity has leveled off: Per-capita production of grain has declined by 1 percent a year since the mid-1980s. At the same time, the ocean fish catch seems to have hit a ceiling. Food prices are likely to hold or go higher, staying beyond the reach of hundreds of millions left behind as an economic gap widens. Although income in developing nations doubled in the past 25 years, as East Asian economies industrialized, the wealth of wealthier countries grew much faster. Today the richest 20 percent of the world's population collects 85 percent of world income, up from 70 percent a generation ago. Those who monitor global trends don't see a world system in collapse, as feared by the Club of Rome, but a world splintering between a creative, capital-rich north, and vast swaths of a south where the land is eroded and unproductive, the population hungry and still growing, the politics chaotic, the wars endless, and the migrations monumental. Well-known pessimist Homer-Dixon, of the University of Toronto, points to places from the Pakistan to Haiti where he says things are already breaking down. There are, indeed, limits to growth, he said. "The limits the societies face are a result of a combination of the resources they have available to them and the ingenuity they bring to bear on those resources, not just technology but social institutions." It's an ingenuity race, in other words, that some countries are losing. "The real limits to humankind are sociopolitical," said Gilberto Gallopin, an Argentinian mathematician-ecologist who has helped refine "world modeling" since the 1970s, tracking man and his environment through ever more sophisticated computer programs. The growing rich-poor gap, between nations and within nations, may combine with environmental degradation to inflame "hostility and turbulence and disorder," Gallopin said. "That's the 'barbarization' scenario, which some of us believe is likely to come in the next 20 to 30 years." In a world increasingly interdependent -- in trade, communications, investment -- "barbarization" may victimize more than the south's poor. "It may be the first time in history that the poverty in poor countries is threatening the well-being of people in rich countries," Gallopin said. A quarter-century on, the digital descendants of 1972's computers have come up with a "Clockwork Orange" for the new millennium, a kind of planet-size version of Anthony Burgess' mindless "droogs" attacking civilized "vecks," in a world where civilization is on a serious losing streak. ------ "Comprehensive physical and economic success for humanity may now be accomplished in one-fourth of a century." Thirty years after that pronouncement by the late American futurist R. Buckminster Fuller, success is not at hand. But neither is the breakdown foretold by "The Limits to Growth." "Limits" co-author Donella Meadows today lives on an organic farm in New Hampshire, a biophysicist who writes, teaches at Dartmouth, observes. She says the biggest surprise of 25 years has been the world's greater energy and materials efficiency. And slower population growth has been "gratifying" if "still high." But she finds foreshadowing of today's problems in their MIT computer printouts: the possible stagnation in farm productivity, the peril posed by long-lived pollutants, particularly carbon dioxide. And her gaze, too, is increasingly drawn to the widening human chasm. "It's an illusion to think we can have obscene wealth on the one hand and desperate poverty on the other, and have that be a world anybody -- even the extremely wealthy -- wants to live in," Meadows says. The "limits" mankind confronts, a generation later, are the limits that divide it, between those who see the next millennium as a golden age, and those who don't see how they'll make it to next year. By CHARLES J. HANLEY, The Associated Press ________________________________________________________________________ 'Low-profile' society of scientists, industrialists Copyright ) 1997 Nando.net Copyright ) 1997 The Associated Press (December 28, 1997 00:30 a.m. EST http://www.nando.net) -- The Club of Rome, which sponsored the major 1972 study "The Limits to Growth," had been founded four years earlier in the Italian capital. Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei, who held top positions with both the Fiat and Olivetti corporations, played a major role in organizing the society, which committed itself "to adopt a global perspective in examining issues and situations ... beyond the capacity of individual countries to solve." Its several dozen members included scientists, economists, educators, businessmen and specialists in systems analysis -- from Europe, Japan and North and South America. Early funding came from Italian and West German foundations. The Club of Rome now has 100 members from 52 nations. Its executive committee includes former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers; Yotaro Kobayashi, president of Fuji Xerox; and Nobel-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine of Belgium. Since "The Limits to Growth," it has sponsored 21 other studies in areas including education, energy and governance. "The Club ... tends normally to adopt a low profile," its mission statement says. "... We are sometimes more effective when we work behind the scenes."
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