In 1972, the Club of Rome released the mother of all apocalyptic forecasts, The Limits to Growth, which provided alarming predictions that devastating collapse from overpopulation and resource depletion was just around the corner. In a recent article titled the “Limits of Panic,” Bjorn Lomborg says that many of the basic ideas of the The Limits to Growth are still with us, but that time has not been kind to the alarmist, fear-mongering predictions of economic and environmental disaster. Here’s an excerpt:
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 1960s. 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.
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.