Limits to Growth Revisited

Oh my God -- we’re doomed.  The UN’s Panel on Climate Change came out with a frightening report earlier this month that we are sitting on a global time bomb, and according to CNN, “time is running out,” without immediate drastic action.  The UN report states that if global temperatures reach 1.5 C above the pre-industrial temperature norm of 1850-1900, the resulting melting of the polar ice caps, rising oceans, and unprecedented ecological disaster will follow.

I read this a few days back on a dark and stormy night while working on my own tome about disaster, the next book in the One Second After series.  One Second After examines what would happen if we were ever hit by an enemy using an Electro-Magnetic Pulse generated from detonating a nuclear weapon in space.  But ecological disaster, which is all but inevitable according to the highly respected UN report, was far more frightening.  Closing off working on my book, I brewed yet another cup of coffee, sat back and pulled out a well-respected study on this existential threat to all mankind.

I started to thumb through the pages of a work that took a team of international experts years to research and has sold well over 12 million copies since publication.

I turned to the chapter on fossil fuels.  The report states we have only about twenty more years of oil out there, we are already at peak oil, which will then start to go downhill and the wells will run dry no matter how much we scramble to get more.  There will be a final rush to pump one more drop of oil even if at the cost of twenty dollars a gallon, but that in turn will accelerate the depletion into a death spiral.  Natural gas will not save us, as we turn to that source as oil runs out, we’ll deplete that as well.  Again, a death spiral. 

Climate is the big one this report.  Despite our feeble efforts to address the radical changes already taking place, the disaster will explode within ten to fifteen years, due in large part to the depletion of farmlands worldwide from the use of toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, soil exhaustion, and encroaching urban population.  The results: famine, disease, and mass starvation then triggering political instability in which hundreds of millions will die.

The list went on and on, a list that would render any sane reader numb with despair.  But me?   I could only smile at it all... You see, the book that I was reading, Limits to Growth, was published more than fifty years ago in 1972.

1972?  I remember it well.  I was in college and still of a mindset that swallowed much of what my young, hip professors were preaching that spring from this new bible.  It was time for the youth of America in post-Vietnam America to mobilize for a new crusade!  And of course, like most such movements, if anyone showed the slightest doubt, they were mocked as deniers and cast out into the darkness of their ignorance. The generation of Peace and Love would now work to Save the Planet!

What was happening in 1972 was an existential rethinking of our relationship to this blue marble floating in space that we now found ourselves trapped on.  The 150-year run of the Industrial Revolution, the emerging wave of the Technological Revolution that prophesied limitless growth, a world going forward into a better tomorrow, crashed on the shores of  environmental despair.

Of course, we believed it.  The model, after all, was based on “experts” belonging to the Society of Rome, a mysterious think tank who were the leaders of this new crusade that absolutely, 100% predicted catastrophe unless we took heed of their Cassandrian warnings.  It was a time to stop growth, stop innovation, stop evil rampant technology, and head to a brave new world teaching us that there had to be limits to growth.    

The dates for some of these predictions were clearly stated in the Limits to Growth: oil will no longer flow by the 1990s if current (1972) consumption continues.  Food by the 1980s will plunge to starvation levels and disastrous famines affecting hundreds of millions will be the new norm. The dying off will be upon us by 1985.  The climate?  Total disaster in the 1990s due to global cooling caused by greenhouse gas and smog blocking sunlight.  Every major resource needed for a high-tech world from copper to lithium will be depleted, leaving our world an empty husk. 

To make it worse, a book published a few years earlier, The Population Bomb, a NYT best-seller by Paul Ehrlich, really sealed our doom.

According to Ehrlich, the planet was already past its “carrying capacity” which in 1970 was 3.5 billion.  If we had any hope of surviving, we needed strict, draconian global government coercion to reverse the population explosion.  Governments had to seize control of the means of reproduction.  How?  To impose mandatory birth control, encourage abortion as good for the planet, convince people to be sterilized and make it anathema to have more than one child.  Countries such as overpopulated India would have to be “cut off,” and left to starve.  Population had to be cut from billions to just 500 million if we were to survive.  There were hints as well, that a nice global pandemic just might be the answer.  And one other thing: Ehrlich clearly saw that the oceans would be dead from overfishing and pollution by the 1980s. 

Limits to Growth and The Population Bomb were the first new-age books of the gospel of despair.

The only fly in the ointment? It didn’t happen as planned.  As 1972 rolled into 1982, the experts just simply pushed back the global drop dead date to the year 2000.  Does anyone remember Phil Donahue in the 1980s and those marches and hands across America, and cool mega-concerts to Save the Planet?  A big difference though, global freezing was out and global warming was in.

When we were still here in the year 2000, just throw in Al Gore receiving the Nobel Prize and telling us 2020 is the new Armageddon date.  Then as 2020 passed we have the sad spectacle of children like Greta telling us, “this time it’s definitely gonna happen by 2032.”

And so it goes with this latest UN Climate Report, accompanied by hundreds of experts like John Kerry and Leo DiCaprio circling the world in private jets to keep plunging us into fear.

So, pick up a copy of Limits to Growth, published in 1972 and as a chaser Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb published in 1968.  …and wonder, just wonder, why after 50 years we still believe disaster is coming in just one more decade, but this time, by God, we’ll get it right.

Image: Club of Rome/Universe Books

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