Forty years ago, a shocking report tagged economic growth as the catalyst for environmental collapse. Now, a new article claims the world's responses to that forecast failed to make things better.
Today, not only have the predictions in the Club of Rome’s 1972 “Limits to Growth” been proven wrong, but they have also sent the world down the wrong path of dealing with environmental and economic challenges, according to Bjorn Lomborg in Foreign Affairs. He argues that behavior responses to supposed environmental limits—like recycling and buying organic food, for example—have diverted attention from what actually improves people's lives: economic growth.
“Limits to Growth” (PDF), which sold more than 12 million copies worldwide, argued that the pursuit of economic growth would ultimately collide with the planet’s finite limits on population, pollution, non-renewable resources and food production. Economic growth, coupled with an increasing population, would mean that “as each person consumes more food and products, meeting the total demand requires an enormous input of resources,” it argues. The result: inability to meet resource demand, and a collapse of the economic system when the natural habitats, fresh water, clean air, precious metals and fossil fuels run out.
But the dire predictions were tied to more than non-renewable resources. The “Limits to Growth” model predicted that “as population and production explode, pollution does, too, crippling food production and killing off three-quarters of the population,” reports Lomborg. Even if technology and conservation were to extend resource access, growth would soon hit one of the other finite limits. The only hope, it said, was to stop economic growth itself.
The problem now, argues Lomborg, is two-pronged: First, he argues, the predictions of the “Limits to Growth” model were “spectacularly wrong.” Second, the world, and especially the environmentalist community, responded to this alarmism by doing the wrong things—surface, micro--level changes in our everyday lives rather than looking at ways to diminish macro-level problems.
What did “Limits to Growth” get wrong? A whole lot, according to Lomborg. First, he says that predictions about limits to resource availability, pollution and agricultural output have proven largely inaccurate. The main problem with the predictions, Lomborg writes, is that the authors of the report “overlooked human ingenuity.” Among the miscalculations, he argues, are the following:
1. Resources didn't run out. The report predicted that before 2012 the world would exhaust supplies of 12 of the 19 non-renewable resources it examined. But the amount of known reserves of many, including mercury, gold, copper, oil and natural gas have increased due to new discoveries, new technology and decreased consumption (often due to new technology). For such resources, discovery or conservation has outpaced consumption.
2. Food production accelerated. Rates of malnourishment have dropped from 35 percent to 16 percent over the past 40 years, while 2 billion more people are being fed adequately. While malnutrition still exists, arable land and agricultural production have not come close to hitting a ceiling, due in large part to innovation increasing agricultural output.
3. Certain threatening pollution trends have halted. Specific pollutants, including DDT, lead, mercury and pesticides, which were predicted to spike in the report, “haven’t gotten more deadly, and the risk of death from air pollution is predicted to continue to drop” due to environmental regulations, Lomborg says.
The second problem with “Limits to Growth,” Lomborg argues, is that while its three primary predicted drivers of collapse have proven incorrect, it shaped how people think about environmental policy and behavior in a way that led to responses that actually do little to help, and in fact exacerbate problems by focusing away from economic growth.
Supposed solutions are often just “feel-good gestures that provide little environmental benefit at a significant cost,” writes Lomborg. Recycling paper cuts demand for tree farming, he says, tree farming which replants trees because it's profitable to do so. Without that demand, those forests are more likely to be turned into slash-and-burn farming tracts. Organic farming is less efficient and so drives up agricultural costs, which lowers consumption of healthy produce for those who can't afford it.
What should we have chosen to focus on for well-being instead? Lomborg puts it in simple terms, writing that “poverty is one of the greatest of all killers, and economic growth is one of the best ways to prevent it.” Painting growth as the antithesis of improved well-being, as he argues that “Limits to Growth” did, caused people to see growth as the core problem, rather than an important part of the solution.
Alarmism, he said, creates a lot of attention but makes realistic policy solutions hard to achieve. For example, “Limits to Growth” and other publications directed significant attention to specific pesticides like DDT, but led to little action on the broader issue of air pollution. He compares the alarmism triggered by “Limits to Growth” to crying wolf: real, dangerous wolves exist, but they are often overlooked due to false cries. For much of the world, the wolf at the door isn't environmental cataclysm—it's old-fashioned poverty.
Over four decades, reactions spurred by reports like “Limits to Growth” have led to a broader questioning of the values of pursuing economic growth.
That is not to say that economic growth has not been pursued at all. It has, aggressively. While Lomborg acknowledges the rise of the global middle class, without which we would have seen no massive improvements in health, longevity and quality of life for billions of people worldwide, his argument that solutions have focused largely away from growth is incomplete.
Environmental efforts were spurred by reports like “Limits to Growth,” but have not existed void of a concurrent focus on growth. But he is correct that there are still large segments of the global population who will benefit from continued growth.
Instead of holding onto perceptions that growth is bad, it’s time to renew collective views that hold growth central to solving the world's toughest problems. After all, Lomborg says, the loud cries of wolf sounded by “Limits to Growth” have proven false, and “it is past time to acknowledge that economic growth...is good, and that what the world needs is more of it, not less.”
RESPONSE: Foreign Affairs response by John Sulston (subscription only): "Growth, Interrupted: Why the Planet Needs More Than Just Economic Development"