The "Limits to Growth" Revisited

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.