Sunday, April 20, 2014
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The Limits to Panic

COPENHAGEN – We often hear how the world as we know it will end, usually through ecological collapse. Indeed, more than 40 years after the Club of Rome released the mother of all apocalyptic forecasts, The Limits to Growth, its basic ideas are still with us. But time has not been kind.

The Limits to Growth warned humanity in 1972 that devastating collapse was just around the corner. But, while we have seen financial panics since then, there have been no real shortages or productive breakdowns. Instead, the resources generated by human ingenuity remain far ahead of human consumption.

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.

Consider recycling, which is often just a feel-good gesture with little environmental benefit and significant cost. Paper, for example, typically comes from sustainable forests, not rainforests. The processing and government subsidies associated with recycling yield lower-quality paper to save a resource that is not threatened.

Likewise, fears of over-population framed self-destructive policies, such as China’s one-child policy and forced sterilization in India. And, while pesticides and other pollutants were seen to kill off perhaps half of humanity, well-regulated pesticides cause about 20 deaths each year in the US, whereas they have significant upsides in creating cheaper and more plentiful food.

Indeed, reliance solely on organic farming – a movement inspired by the pesticide fear – would cost more than $100 billion annually in the US. At 16% lower efficiency, current output would require another 65 million acres of farmland – an area more than half the size of California. Higher prices would reduce consumption of fruits and vegetables, causing myriad adverse health effects (including tens of thousands of additional cancer deaths per year).

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.

The 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 four decades since The Limits of Growth have shown that we need more of it, not less. An expansion of trade, with estimated benefits exceeding $100 trillion annually toward the end of the century, would do thousands of times more good than timid feel-good policies that result from fear-mongering. But that requires abandoning an anti-growth mentality and using our enormous potential to create a brighter future.

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  1. CommentedAli Ilıcak

    water holds the key to our growth and sustainance. all else can be grown and cultured but water remaıns the key to humanıtys success. Wıthout water all lıfe wıll end and we are the only ones that can ruın the equatıon through pollutıon.

  2. CommentedRichard Bell

    If humans were the only creatures on the planet, we might take some comfort in Lomborg's blinkered approach to global problems. Without questioning any of his stated facts, his analysis fails to come to grips with the accelerating rate of extinction across the planet. With our limited lifetimes, we can only begin to guess at the long-term impact of the loss of species after species. It may be true that human ingenuity will triumph over even these species losses, and that one day we will be able to re-engineer the DNC of extinct species. But such a belief is at heart a religious belief, not a scientifically provable one. Lomborg's embrace of a system whose operation is causing an acceleration of species extinction is irresponsible. We should be doing all we can to prevent these species losses, starting with preserving intact ecosystems.

  3. CommentedEdward Ponderer

    As pigeons in a coal mine fall to their final sleep in deep breath of the invisible noxious gas about them, how funny it must be to see the minors run out in panic. All is calm and peaceful to their analysis -- no cage crushing rocks, no climbing cat nor fox...

    Human ego is an amazing power -- it has sent man scaling ever new mountains and crossing sea, in what appeared an unlimited expanse. And then we discovered the world is round -- and human expansion overlapped upon itself into globalization. Interconnections began to arise -- of course telegraph, telephone, radio, television, internet, and wireless communication networks arriving upon civilization as though on cue, were no small part of the acceleration of all of this. Due to our activities, these interconnections do not only cross between different organizational level of Humanity from international to the individual, but cross the boundaries between Humanity and Nature. The whole complex is approaching a state of deterministic chaos in both the economic and ecological sphere -- and the establish of some global homeostasis becomes the crucial call, but it remains an unheeded cry.

    The problem is that ego hasn't diminished to allow proper interconnections between people, but it has grown as we seek evermore to exploit -- our world, other people, and even our families, and finally even our own futures. We do not act out of need, but greed. Endless growth is not a homeostasis of a globalizing, limited world -- but a cancer.

    As the chain smoker or obese individual seeks desperately to rationalize their habit -- how good a physique has the former, how healthy the lungs of the latter -- words and figures are readily available. But the figures for degeneration are there too.

    Whatever the specifics regarding global warming, the fact is that natural catastrophes in general worldwide, according to one German study I understand, increasing at 6% per year in number and/or magnitude. We have increasing cases of animal diseases that transition between species. Toxic, mutagen chemical combinations in the environment in countless combinations are slowly making there effects known in subtle ways -- for example the growing, though still small, preference to normal female over male birth and development. Peak oil is already passed, and if such complications as the sudden drop in plastics manufacture didn't hit as a reaction to the up shoot of oil prices, knocking them back down for a bit, the accelerating statistical rise here too would have been obvious. Regarding shale oil, while plentiful, it already appears that the fracking process may be leading to untold subterranean structural damage leading to earthquakes and worse.

    We are beginning to take high risks in such matters, and like the financial interests that did so in the purely economic sphere with catastrophic results -- so in general the matter is based upon the immediate self interests of a few put above the general good.

    The choice is life as an all for one and one for all whole, or Murphy's law in an every man for himself disintegration.

    I hear the word of Dr. Lomborg, I hear the limited the immediate selected facts that he presents. And I can't help but recall an originally series old Twilight Zone episode, "The Old Man in the Cave."

    After that terrible ultimate war which has not yet come to pass and hopefully never will, a small community of survivors is warned that certain foodstuff are contaminated, and despite great deprivation, they must not eat them. A certain military commander and his rag-tag group of soldiers come upon this community, and wish to take leadership. Warned about the contaminated food, the commander opens a can and swallows. Moment later his eyes bulge, he chokes, and collapses. The people approach, and he opens his eyes, and laughs -- you fools! There is nothing wrong with this food! The community soon freely indulge themselves. Not moments later, but perhaps days later -- they are all dead.

  4. CommentedSteven Wartofsky

    The revolutionaries of the past built their analyses, critique and recommendations for action based always on hope and optimism for the future. Never on despair.

    While it is always wise to recognize constraints and realities, we as a species have, since 9/11, become old and worried.

    There may be facts Mr. Lomborg has missed, and he will learn, over time. However, there is also the importance of hope and optimism, and the conviction that problems can be solved, are not as big as they may seem, and may in fact be solvable, or even in the process of being solved as we speak.

    We are, at the start of the 21st century, undergoing massive changes in production, distribution, and capital accumulation. We don't yet understand where it's all going to go. However, the advent of huge information databases, increasingly complex AI and science, increasingly interconnected networks of communication, exchange, production and distribution, means that the objective and well-managed allocation of all resources for a balanced planetary existence, for all life, starts to come into view.

    We are just at the beginning. We may have a future where all exchange and production is managed by robots and software intelligence; where information is free, nearly infinite, and enabling anywhere you live on the planet; where the choice of what you want to do, when, for how long, and with whom, will become easy, flexible and changeable. We could abolish poverty, slavery, hunger, lack of basic resources (electricity, water, housing) and ecological damage all in one, fell swoop. It's starting to look possible. Increasingly, we will discover how it all works, and create a global system all can participate in independently, and intelligently. That may be closer than we currently think.

  5. CommentedAnil Bozbiyik

    "Paper, for example, typically comes from sustainable forests, not rainforests. The processing and government subsidies associated with recycling yield lower-quality paper to save a resource that is not threatened." I don't see how a person considered an expert can make such a misleading, unsubstantiated claim. Deforestation throughout the world continues to be an enormous threat to animals and plants that live in those forests in the first place, and more generally to everyone through carbon emissions. It has not stopped since that report has been written, if only its pace is slowed. But until deforestation of virgin forests is stopped, ignoring the irreplaceable ecosystem-wide losses and claiming it as 'not a threatened resource' is not consensus seeking, it is simply ignoring the facts and misleading the readers.

  6. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    The only limits that we can pose for ourselves is our limiting imagination that constrain us to believe that the world would be enfeebled by the pressures of want that supply would not be able to cope with; had it been true the prices of soft commodities from Aluminum to crops and foods would have reached the hilt. On the contrary they are just as subdued (inflation adjusted) as two decades ago, driven more by supply factors than demand factors. But doesn’t the solution lie as Bjorn says in the last paragraph in the removal of poverty and which from the infinite world of negation gets just a passing treatment by the vagaries of poverty line estimates, which is one way of de-humanizing the very cause of poverty alleviation? I find it odd that the merchants of free markets do not give this very elementary piece of evidence more than the passing respect it deserves and if they did the prospects of trade would have grown many folds showering more benefits to the merchants themselves.

    Capital deepening in those shores where Capital is already surplus and capital flight from those areas where surplus labor is perennial is the biggest remiss of our times.

  7. CommentedTooraj Arvajeh

    I have worked with many waste management companies including waste paper recycling plants. My observation has been that recycling resources is very profitable and creates innovation and jobs. A good example of resource recovery is Denmark's leading edge Kalundborg Eco-Industrial Park (home country of the author). Good governments support basic research and if there has been any support from the government in resource recovery was to promote innovation. The author dismisses this important aspect of government. In my opinion what Bjorn is good at is that he magnifies the problems associated with emotional aspects of environmental movements and then he proposes his simplified solutions by creating either/or arguments like his priority lists. This is incorrect scientifically.

  8. CommentedLeo Arouet

    A simple vista ud. tendría razón, sin embargo, se presentan varias barreras y obstáculos para su visión futura: la degradación ambiental, inestabilidad política y finitud de las recursos.

    Con respecto a la degradación y contaminación veamos a China como país que es espejo de muchos más países.

    El primer problema que enfrenta China es el insuperable nivel de degradación ambiental. La mayor parte del agua y aire están fuertemente contaminados. 320 millones de personas no tienen acceso al agua. El 70 por ciento de los ríos está altamente contaminado. Hace poco, una densa nube de humo y bruma oscureció varias ciudades como Pekín, Shangai, Chengdu y Zhengzhou, y que ha abarcado la mitad del país. En el 2012, la polución ha causado la muerte de 8,572 personas.

    El siguiente problema: El modelo de desarrollo. El modelo de desarrollo que sigue China es insostenible ambiental y socialmente. China ha hecho énfasis en la exportación de productos que su misma gente no puede consumir. En este caso, es profundamente dependiente de sus exportaciones e inversiones que representan el 30 y 40 por ciento del crecimiento del PBI. Por lo tanto, en este nuevo gobierno se ha visto obligada a volcarse a fortalecer la demanda interna de su gente. Posee, también una atención sanitaria pésima y una educación muy costosa que muy pocos chinos se pueden permitir.

  9. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    Innovation changes the situation but there are threats. Ignoring the threat makes it more dangerous. Fossil fuels ARE limited. Pollution IS a bad thing. Man made climate change is REAL. We are losing bees.

    All Malthusian dooms have been averted. So far!

  10. CommentedAndrew Thacker

    If the self-inflicted dilemmas our species has inflicted upon itself, and the ecocide which we inflict upon the plant were not serious enough ... we have a a class of people who have figured out that they can grant themselves fame, money and influence merely by taking contradictory and controversial points of view.

    We have a world where to ignore and contradict the truth, to be shocking, is a way to become very wealthy ...

    Mr Lomborg is the academic equivalent of a radio shock-jock. The more outrageous and controversial his publications, the more famous, influential and rich he gets I dare say.

  11. CommentedRandall Marshall

    I think this is exactly the sort of article that one would expect a young, naive business PhD to write; the tragic part is, you don't know what you don't know - you should have consulted people that DO know, like, oh I dunno, maybe an ecologist or two?

    Arguably, the reason population growth is starting to flatten is exactly because of pollution and limited access to resources You mention this in the article, but don't bother to look up proposed mechanisms why it's happening.

    Every commodity is grossly up in cost over the last 50 years. The fact that you have to go back 150 to per-industrialization speaks to the distortions you have to use to prove your desired points. Peak oil is accepted by every major industry expert; the only question is when will it happen, or has it happened already.

    Also, way to totally not mention global warming! ...I bet you don't' believe in that either, hm?

    The Limits to Growth got it spot on, and I disagree with almost your entire article. which has no citations or references, and is entirely an opinion piece. I wish you were right, but the vast bulk of studies say you're wrong.

  12. CommentedJeffrey Scofield

    Would Bjørn care to include a more inclusive analysis of specific regions. For example:

    1) Is the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem stable or unstable? How many of the factors which leach to a decimation of this ecosystem are caused by unchecked human consumption?
    2) 90% of large ocean predatory fish stocks have been depleted as a result of overfishing.  Does Bjørn choose to ignore this data because it doesn't impact populations or income, or does he ignore it because it doesn't immediately impact him due to the location of his residence and considerable wealth?
    3) Is the air quality in Beijing better than it was in 1972?

    And focusing on GDP as a single metric ignores inequality, which has risen in advanced industrialized countries in recent decades.  Indeed over hundreds of counties throughout the US have actually seen life expectancy cease to grow, or actually decrease over the last decade.

    Again Bjørn presents the same argument he always does.  This is his writing style in a nutshell:

    Environmentalists are wrong become some of them are extreme.  Instead of looking at the inclusive solutions to mitigation and adaptation, buy my argument of a false dichotomy pitting poverty vs mitigation. And don't pay attention to the places where ecological damage has been wrought and inequalities have been exacerbated. So cross your fingers because we can always hope that some future technology will sustain enough of us enough to ignore the ecological consequences of overconsumption which has exacerbated poverty on many local and regional levels.

    It gets tiring.  Instead try to write an article which actually highlights the real ecological consequences which human consumption has caused and how those economies affected are paying the price. But maybe that job is better suited to a qualified ecologist, not an ideologically constrained economist.

  13. CommentedLinda Jamin

    Of course the naive, the stupid and the complicit prefer to avoid any mention of the war against the global poor that the US military intelligence industrial complex is already waging. Thank goodness we didn't stunt empire by limiting economic growth and having fewer children. Our grandchildren have been born into a Brave New World. The planet's resources have been indexed and will be appropriated by the empire as necessary.

  14. CommentedShane Beck

    You do the math- US middle class consumption + European middle class consumption + Chinese middle class consumption + Indian middle class consumption + possibly Brazilian middle class consumption divided by one finite planet of resources does not go. If anything the problem is even worse since the Club of Rome based it upon 1972 consumption rates. But go ahead and believe that the current global system is working well despite systemic crises such as the GFC.