The "Limits to Growth" Revisited

Since the Club of Rome issued its famous report on the “Limits to Growth” in the 1970's, uninterrupted economic expansion has increasingly made its dire predictions an object of ridicule. And yet the report's basic insight – that we live and work in a finite global ecosystem, with exhaustible resources and capacities – has returned to challenge us again.

Since the Cold War’s end, all kinds of barriers have come down, and the world economy has fundamentally changed. Until 1989, the global market encompassed between 800 million and one billion people. Today, it is three times larger, and growing. Indeed, we are witnessing one of the most dramatic revolutions in modern history, and it is occurring almost unnoticed. From a model applicable to the minority of the world’s population, “Western consumer society” is becoming the dominant economic model of the world, one to which there is increasingly no alternative. By mid-century, the lives of seven billion people might be governed by its laws.

The West has established the economic model of the twenty-first century, with its hitherto unheard of standard of living, and almost all nations and regions are trying to equal it, no matter what the cost. When, in the 1970’s, the Club of Rome issued its famous report on the “Limits to Growth,” the reaction was one of concern. Over the years, however, as the world economy continued to grow without interruption – and, in the current age of globalization, seemingly without limits – the dire predictions of the Club of Rome have become increasingly an object of ridicule. And yet the Club of Rome’s basic insight – that we live and work in a finite global ecosystem, with exhaustible resources and capacities – has returned to challenge us again.

The world is not preoccupied today by the “limits to growth,” but awareness of the consequences of growth on the earth’s climate and ecosystem is becoming prevalent. China, for example, needs annual growth rates of 10% to keep its huge economic, social, and ecological problems under control. There would be nothing sensational about this if China were a country like Luxembourg or Singapore. But China has 1.3 billion people. So the consequences of its economic growth are much more serious.

Global demand for energy, raw materials, and food is increasingly influenced by rising demand in China and India, whose combined population is 2.5 billion. Other large and populous emerging countries in Asia and South America are following in these giants’ footsteps. Steadily rising prices of raw materials, agricultural products, and energy already reflect fears about future shortages.

These undesirable consequences of the expansion of world markets have assumed alarming proportions within a relatively short period of time. China is on course, this year or next, to overtake the United States as the world’s largest CO2 emitter, even though its per capita emissions are only one-fifth or even less of the US level. What will the world look like when China reduces this difference to one-half? And India is following close behind China in its level of carbon emissions.

Will the global ecosystem be able to absorb these additional pollutants without considerable changes in the ecosphere? Obviously not, as a large majority of climatologists are now warning. These basic data have been known for a long time, and only a few deny that rapidly accelerating man-made climate change is occurring. But one might conclude from the bizarre debates we engage in about climate change that what the world needs is a change in its political and psychological mood, rather than a profound social and economic transformation. So, despite grand rhetoric, very little is being done. Emerging countries continue to grow every year. The US has almost totally backed away from the global fight against pollution, and, through uncontrolled growth, solidifies its position as the world’s leading polluter. The same pattern holds true for Europe and Japan, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. In view of this global challenge, the G-8 countries have made a heroic decision: the eight richest industrial countries – which are also the largest polluters – promised to “seriously examine” cutting their emissions in half by 2050. This rhetorical heroism is enough to leave the world speechless. Indeed, it remains to be seen if the European Union will even be able to implement its promise to cut CO2 emissions by 20-30% by 2020. So far, the EU has not really come up with any practical ways to do this.

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But the solution to the challenge of global climate change is as plain as day. The only chance of improvement is to decouple economic growth from energy consumption and emissions. This must happen in the emerging countries, and even more urgently in the old industrial economies.

Such decoupling can occur only if we do away with the illusion that pollution is cost-free. We can no longer get away with subsidizing economic growth and standards of living at the expense of the global environment. Human population has simply become too large to be able to afford it.

Doing away with this illusion requires the creation of a global emissions market – still a very distant goal. It also requires more energy efficiency, which means a reduction of waste in both energy production and consumption. Rising energy prices already point in this direction, but this knowledge has yet to register. Finally, it requires a technological and politico-economic breakthrough in favor of renewable energy, rather than a return to nuclear power or coal. In essence, then, we are confronted by a three-pronged challenge of a new “green” industrial revolution. Coping with this global challenge also offers an enormous opportunity for future prosperity and social justice that we must seize.

Of course, there will be many powerful losers as we make these changes. They are not about to accept their “disempowerment” without a struggle. At the moment, they still seem to have the upper hand, as evidenced by much talk and no action. This is precisely what needs to change.