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Avoiding the Obvious

In 1972, the Club of Rome, an ad hoc group of intellectuals, published The Limits to Growth, a short work that challenged conventional ideas about economic growth. Using computer simulations, the Club of Rome economists reached two major conclusions:

A summary of the report is on the Club of Rome web site. In a finite world, the report's conclusions and its computer analysis seemed, to me at least, both obvious and sensible.

The reaction to the report, however, was both clamorous and enlightening. Critics accused the Club of Rome of doomsaying, bad analysis, insupportable assumptions, and a host of other sins. In fact, the report's central offense was its argument that economic growth on the current model could not continue indefinitely because the resources needed to sustain it would eventually be depleted.

In a world committed to the religion of growth, The Limits to Growth was heresy. That, not statistical or methodological failures, was its real offense. The controversy showed more about the critics than it did about the report. They were growth fundamentalists, and their reaction was more about saving the faith than about seeking the truth.

To an outsider, all this fuss seemed very peculiar. Of course there was only so much oil, iron ore, tin, aluminum, and other vital material in the world. Of course there was only so much arable land. Of course the amount of water was finite. And on and on. Why not begin to plan in the light of these realities? And why did it take so long for the experts to realize that our supplies were limited?

Now we are learning that the Club of Rome was, essentially, right. In the near future, oil supplies will not be able to keep up with demand, and our known reserves may not last out the 21st century. In the United States, we are destroying arable land that we may never replace—thus depleting an essential resource in the name of development. The rain forests of the world, which help to mitigate the effect of greenhouse gases, will be gone entirely by 2030 at the present rate of destruction. The civilization based on growth, which is the only one we in the developed world have ever known, cannot continue indefinitely, and no statistical legerdemain can make our finite world the source of infinite supplies of resources.