Forty-one years after publication of the infamous Limits to Growth, Bjorn Lomborg offers this excellent piece, The Limits to Panic:
... But the report’s fundamental legacy remains: we have inherited a tendency to obsess over misguided remedies for largely trivial problems, while often ignoring big problems and sensible remedies.
In the early 1970’s, the flush of technological optimism was over, the Vietnam War was a disaster, societies were in turmoil, and economies were stagnating. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring had raised fears about pollution and launched the modern environmental movement; Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 title The Population Bomb said it all. The first Earth Day, in 1970, was deeply pessimistic.
The genius of The Limits to Growth was to fuse these worries with fears of running out of stuff. We were doomed, because too many people would consume too much. Even if our ingenuity bought us some time, we would end up killing the planet and ourselves with pollution. The only hope was to stop economic growth itself, cut consumption, recycle, and force people to have fewer children, stabilizing society at a significantly poorer level.
That message still resonates today, though it was spectacularly wrong. For example, the authors of The Limits to Growth predicted that before 2013, the world would have run out of aluminum, copper, gold, lead, mercury, molybdenum, natural gas, oil, silver, tin, tungsten, and zinc.
Instead, despite recent increases, commodity prices have generally fallen to about a third of their level 150 years ago. Technological innovations have replaced mercury in batteries, dental fillings, and thermometers: mercury consumption is down 98% and, by 2000, the price was down 90%. More broadly, since 1946, supplies of copper, aluminum, iron, and zinc have outstripped consumption, owing to the discovery of additional reserves and new technologies to extract them economically.
Similarly, oil and natural gas were to run out in 1990 and 1992, respectively; today, reserves of both are larger than they were in 1970, although we consume dramatically more. Within the past six years, shale gas alone has doubled potential gas resources in the United States and halved the price.
As for economic collapse, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that global GDP per capita will increase 14-fold over this century and 24-fold in the developing world.
The Limits of Growth got it so wrong because its authors overlooked the greatest resource of all: our own resourcefulness. Population growth has been slowing since the late 1960’s. Food supply has not collapsed (1.5 billion hectares of arable land are being used, but another 2.7 billion hectares are in reserve). Malnourishment has dropped by more than half, from 35% of the world’s population to under 16%.
Nor are we choking on pollution. Whereas the Club of Rome imagined an idyllic past with no particulate air pollution and happy farmers, and a future strangled by belching smokestacks, reality is entirely the reverse.
In 1900, when the global human population was 1.5 billion, almost three million people – roughly one in 500 – died each year from air pollution, mostly from wretched indoor air. Today, the risk has receded to one death per 2,000 people. While pollution still kills more people than malaria does, the mortality rate is falling, not rising.
Nonetheless, the mindset nurtured by The Limits to Growth continues to shape popular and elite thinking. ...
... Obsession with doom-and-gloom scenarios distracts us from the real global threats. Poverty is one of the greatest killers of all, while easily curable diseases still claim 15 million lives every year – 25% of all deaths.CommentsThe solution is economic growth. When lifted out of poverty, most people can afford to avoid infectious diseases. China has pulled more than 680 million people out of poverty in the last three decades, leading a worldwide poverty decline of almost a billion people. This has created massive improvements in health, longevity, and quality of life. ...
The key issue here is innovation. Think in terms of a continuum. At one end is the ape from the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first human ancestor discovers the idea of using a large bone as a tool for manipulating his environment.
Further along the continuum might be simple tools like hammers and plows. They are extensions of the human body. Then come machines. Human beings are no longer wielding tools but are directing and servicing machines. Next there is artificial intelligence, where computers are able to make some decisions for us, as well as doing repetitive dehumanizing work. Finally, at the other end, might be something like the replicator in Star Trek, where you simply state your wish and a device rearranges atoms to create the desired object.
The problem with the Limits to Growth mentality is that it is locked into a current point along the continuum. It correctly observes that there is a fixed amount of resources in the world but it incorrectly assumes that economic growth means increased use of a materials at rate proportional to the rate of economic growth. To get the depletion date for a resource you calculate the quantity of a material known to exist, calculate annual present usage of the material, project a rate of economic growth, and subtract the projected annual usages from the total.
Total Resource/Current Annual Resource Usage = Years to Depletion (Increase economic growth and the years to depletion shrinks.)
Since the material quantities are fixed, the only variable is economic demand. Consequently, economic growth … whether the result of escalating wants and needs per capita or from increasing population … is unsustainable. (Similarly, take the current level of pollution and multiply it times the rate of economic growth to see how polluted the world will be.) Human innovation is nowhere in sight!
But we are not frozen at a point on the continuum. Human creativity is constantly changing the equation. Here is how.
First, in the short run, there is productivity. As demand for a natural grows it becomes more profitable to go after previously unconsidered deposits of that resource. For example, copper is everywhere but it varies in its accessibility and quality. Quality accessible cooper is the first to be used. But as demand increases, new techniques are invented for finding cooper, accessing deposits, and processing cooper. The Limits to Growth report estimated available cooper in the world in 1972 and projected we would run out of cooper by 2000. Today, not only have we not run out, but we are using more annually and the amount of available cooper has grown magnitudes larger.
Second, economizing. Figuring out how to do twice as much (sometimes much more) with the same resource changes the equation. Household appliances today use less than half the power they did forty years ago and often have features that were not imagined then.
Third, substitution of less plentiful resources with more plentiful resources, especially renewable resources. It is true that over a long time horizon that cooper would one day be depleted barring changes in consumption. But as productivity and economizing gradually lose their ability to keep cooper plentiful, the price of cooper will begin to rise. Recycling cooper will become more attractive. But even more likely is replacement of cooper by other alternatives. Think how much of our communication now is done with sand (fiber optics are made from silica) versus cooper (our old phone lines.) Furthermore, virtually everything made of nonrenewable resources can eventually be made using renewable resources.
Fourth, nanotechnology. We are in the beginning stages of manipulating matter at the molecular level. Nanorobots, about fifteen times the size of an atom, that can disassemble molecules and assemble atoms into new molecules. 3-D printers are already “printing” a range of items, including human tissue and organs. Scientists are developing printed food for long-term space voyages. Something akin to a replicator is not that unthinkable. The range of materials we can use for particular applications, our ability to manipulate matter at the molecular level, and our flexibility at forming matter into useful forms continues to evolve.
A finite stock of materials is not a limit to economic growth. That is not to say to we are without challenges. While many resources can be made more plentiful over time it is true that the very near term there can be shortages and injustices. Extraction of raw materials without adequate consideration for environmental impact could lead to horrific consequences. I’m not making the case that everything will magically take care of itself. I’m making the case that opposition to economic growth based on static zero-sum perceptions of the world that sees inevitable depletion of resources or over-pollution is groundless.