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Rethinking Limits to Growth

When Limits to Growth was published nearly 35 years ago by the Club of Rome, critics scoffed at its interpretations of data, arguing that its view of the world was skewed. Today, however, as we come to realize that “peak everything” is not an illusion, many are rethinking some of the basic assumptions laid out LTG.

Earlier this year, Cameron Smith, a columnist for the Toronto Star, had this to say:

Ever since the Club of Rome published Limits to Growth 35 years ago, the path to global collapse has been mapped. But few paid attention: The threat was far off, the steps toward it seemed easy to accommodate, there was no sense of urgency.

Now, however, a perfect storm is on the not-too-distant horizon. Global warming and “peak everything” are meshing at every turn, and the list of possible consequences is fearsome.

Our friends to the north never cease to amaze us with their powers of perception and awareness to the reality  that surrounds us, but imagine our surprise when the Wall Street Journal opened the same dialog on its front page.

In fact, they point out that one economist who dissed the original argument in Limits to Growth, is now alarmed by the rate at which humans are depleting the world’s resources:

As a young economist 30 years ago, Joseph Stiglitz said flatly [of Limits to Growth]: “There is not a persuasive case to be made that we face a problem from the exhaustion of our resources in the short or medium run.”

Today, the Nobel laureate is concerned that oil is underpriced relative to the cost of carbon emissions, and that key resources such as water are often provided free. “In the absence of market signals, there’s no way the market will solve these problems,” he says. “How do we make people who have gotten something for free start paying for it? That’s really hard. If our patterns of living, our patterns of consumption are imitated, as others are striving to do, the world probably is not viable.”

Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of “The Limits to Growth,” says the book was too optimistic in one respect. The authors assumed that if humans stopped harming the environment, it would recover slowly. Today, he says, some climate-change models suggest that once tipping points are passed, environmental catastrophe may be inevitable even “if you quit damaging the environment.”

Indeed.


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