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The Dustbin of History: Limits to Growth

The Dustbin of History: Limits to Growth

According to Darwinism, species that adapt to their environment thrive; those that fail to evolve face extinction. The same is true for ideas. Marxism evolved from the primordial swamp of the Industrial Revolution but lies gasping for relevance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Asian values — fashionable when South Korea and Thailand were economic success stories and the West was mired in recession — lost their luster following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Mutual assured destruction kept the two Cold War superpowers in check but offers little assurance to nations threatened by suicide terrorists. The Club of Rome’s doomsday prophecies of global starvation are now starved for credibility. The threat of the military-industrial complex is taken seriously only in Hollywood films and on conspiracy newsgroups. Dependency theory thrived amidst a backlash against economic imperialism yet withered in a globalized era of free trade and foreign investment.

Are these ideas really doomed to oblivion? Or, for all their flaws, do they still have some relevance? Can they make a comeback? FOREIGN POLICY has invited six notable minds to sort through the dustbin of history and share what they found.


In the book of Genesis, God decreed that there were limits to growth by never allowing the Tower of Babel to reach the sky. In modern times, the task of delineating human aspirations fell to the Club of Rome, which in its 1972 study, Limits to Growth, declared that in a world of finite resources, unlimited economic expansion and prosperity are impossible to pursue.

The international scientists, who at the invitation of Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei came together in the late 1960s to form the Club of Rome, meant well. They were united by their conviction that enormous ecological problems faced humankind and called for extraordinary political measures. At the time of its release, Limits to Growth had a profound impact, spawning alarmist headlines such as "A Computer Looks Ahead and Shudders” and "Scientists Warn of Global Catastrophe." The subsequent 1973 oil crisis, prompted in part by the Arab embargo, made the study seem eerily prescient.

But 30 years later, the Club of Rome’s most dire forecasts have failed to come true. Vital minerals such as gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, mercury, lead, tungsten, and oil should have been exhausted by now. But they aren’t. Due to an exponential increase in population growth, the world should be facing desperate shortages of arable land and rising food prices. Yet food prices have never been lower. And the world’s health should have been undermined by an exponential increase in pollution. People today, however, live longer than ever before, and in Western cities, most pollutants are on the decline, driven down by technological advances and environmental legislation.

The quality of predictions didn’t improve in Limits to Growth’s 1992 sequel, Beyond the Limits, which warned that food per capita would peak in the mid-1990s and then precipitously drop. Yet from 1994 to 2000, the average caloric intake per capita increased more than 3 percent from 2,719 to 2,805 calories per day, or more than double the growth in the previous six-year period.

Tempting though it might be to attribute these faulty predictions to flawed methodology and bad math, their real weakness is the underlying assumption that planet Earth has finite, essential resources (such as oil, water, and grain) for which there are no substitutes. Few resources have turned out to be essential, since the demand for and the availability of the Earth’s resources adjust over time in accordance with technological progress and economic development. In photography, for instance, silver is now dispensable due to digitalization. In telecommunications, silicon fibers have replaced copper wires. Renewable energy (such as solar and wind power) are becoming a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Additionally, the world has improved its ability not only to utilize resources more efficiently but also to locate many more. With today’s technology, it’s possible to find and exploit even low-quality iron ores, thereby expanding the supply for years to come. Likewise, as humans have become better at extracting oil, the world’s known oil reserves have increased significantly in recent years despite a considerable rise in energy consumption. Moreover, as nations have become more wealthy, the overall rate of population growth has declined. Today, the most grievous demographic problem in the West is not a burgeoning population competing for resources and producing waste but a fertility rate that is too low to sustain a vibrant workforce.

In short, there is no natural law dictating an exponential mounting pressure on Earth’s ecological resources. The limit of sustainability is not a static ceiling but is formed and expanded by human innovation and technological progress. This exponential dynamic seems to have outpaced any pressure on the limit. Thus, perhaps the most problematic assumption is the omission of technological progress and human innovation from the model. Only by ignoring these strong dynamic forces can one posit a fixed limit to growth. By contrast, Yale economist William Nordhaus has demonstrated that if the rate of technological progress is included in these calculations, the Earth’s collapse will be avoided by a large margin.

Nevertheless, the idea of limits to growth still retains a hold on the public’s imagination — albeit in a repackaged form. The emphasis has shifted from the exhaustion of energy resources to the environmental consequences of utilizing the many resources available. Global warming, in particular, is often cited as the paramount environmental threat. For instance, the World Wildlife Fund’s "Living Planet 2002" report warns that dumping "excess carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere" is unsustainable in the long term. "The only sustainable solution is to live within the biological productive capacity of the earth."

But this latest version of limits to growth makes an even weaker argument than its predecessor. For starters, global warming does not have remotely the same impact on wealth as would a theoretical exhaustion of essential world resources. The total costs of global warming for the next 100 years are estimated at $5 trillion, which should be compared to the total income of $800 trillion to $900 trillion expected to be generated in the same period. As such, the sheer scale of the problem makes it unreasonable to talk about a limit to growth. Moreover, had the emissions of carbon dioxide posed a real threat to future growth, the global community would be capable of significantly limiting carbon dioxide emissions with the technology currently at hand.

Instead of focusing on limits to growth, humanity would be better served by focusing on the real threats to growth and prosperity: not population growth or mineral exhaustion but corruption, barriers to trade, and war. Unfortunately, history has shown that these sources of human misery have always been in ample supply.