Popular journalism seems to have finally caught up with what the scientists have been telling us for well over five decades about the environment. You really can’t read anything in mainstream news or commentary without coming across articles about such ecological matters as overpopulation, pollution, resource use and climate change. The main topics related to these stresses include human excesses, noticeable changes that affect the day-to-day well-functioning of a society somewhere on the planet or the long-term viability of human life as we now know it.
It has not been an easy matter for science to get to the point where environmental problems are part of the grist of everyday reporting and opinion pieces. The opposition has been fierce, well funded and plays upon people’s primal fears.
Science discovers new ways of thinking about the world. Often, this is unsettling because with a new way of thinking, there comes change, and, with change, comes the possibility of loss. Sometimes the threat of loss may seem monumental, overwhelming, and, perhaps, even apocalyptic.
Change may portend personal dislocation, social change and economic upheaval. No wonder, then, that some people may see some aspects of scientific advancement as a threat. Further, people in authority may feel that a new scientific discovery threatens their very position of power within society.
One historic centuries old example is religion’s well-known and consistent opposition to a scientific explanation for the universe that upended the Christian one. Science told us the Earth was no longer the center of a God-designed universe. To threaten religion’s primacy even more, evolution upended the biblical explanation that humans descended from Adam and Eve. In place of that, science said we descended from other life forms.
Religion freaked out even as the evidence mounted that science was correct.
Still today some clerics today defend their authority over parishioners by still insisting the Bible is the undeniable authority in understanding the functioning of the universe, the origin of humans and the motive of humans in living on the planet. Some use it as a reason to oppose environmental reforms all together. Looking at the idea that informs the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Genesis 1:26 (NIV) gives use the dominion argument:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
Yes, the dominion argument is that God sanctioned humanity with using the earth as we see fit. Environmental science puts forth a different view.
We will come back to science as a threat to the authority of the status quo later.
A Major Environmental Warning from 1972
By the 1960s, science had established, or more precisely, environmental science had developed a proven explanation for the complex way ecosystem earth functioned. This explanation used the idea of population dynamics. Here, population growth, carrying capacity, overpopulation and population collapse—also referred to as a die-off or crash—were part of a pattern of life both in a segment of the environment or even on the planet as a whole.
Bear in mind that as science developed its ideas on population dynamics, earth was in the midst of a population explosion never before seen.
In 1972, the Club of Rome received a report they had commissioned from four MIT researchers— Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III—to study what they called the predicament of mankind. This team published The Limits to Growth (LTG), subtitled A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind.
The researchers described their goal and the predicament they were proposing we fix:
The intent of the project is to examine the complex of problems troubling men of all nations: poverty in the midst of plenty; degradation of the environment; loss of faith in institutions; uncontrolled urban spread; insecurity of employment; alienation of youth; rejection of traditional values; and inflation and other monetary and economic disruptions. (10)
The LTG supplied a new way of looking at these problems, problems they labeled as the world problematique:
It is the predicament of mankind that man can perceive the problematique, yet, despite his considerable knowledge and skills, he does not understand the origins, significance, and interrelationships of its many components and thus is unable to devise effective responses. This failure occurs in large part because we continue to examine single items in the problematique without understanding that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, that change in one element means change in the others. (11)
In other words, each of these elements—poverty, environmental loss, social mistrust, overpopulation, job loss, alienated youth, , etc.—is part of a system, with system defined as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.”
Consequently, instead of studying each of these problems separately from the system, the LTG proposed to study them as part of an environmental system. The way they examined this as a system was to develop a model, which they clarified as “simply an ordered set of assumptions about a complex system.” (20)
This was a new approach at that time in 1972.
Let us look at some of the specifics.
Our world model was built specifically to investigate five major trends of global concern-accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment. (21)
The TLG draws a distinction between their approach and more traditional ones:
The model we have constructed is, like every other model, imperfect, oversimplified, and unfinished. We are well aware of its shortcomings, but we believe that it is the most useful model now available for dealing with problems far out on the space-time graph. To our knowledge it is the only formal model in existence that is truly global in scope, that has a time horizon longer than thirty years, and that includes important variables such as population, food production, and pollution, not as independent entities, but as dynamically interacting elements, as they are in the real world. (21-22)
TLG gives us three observations on how we may address these problems:
- If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.
- It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.
- If the world's people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success. (23-24)
TLG also acknowledges:
These conclusions are so far-reaching and raise so many questions for further study that we are quite frankly overwhelmed by the enormity of the job that must be done. (24)
Addressing population growth, TLG zeroes in one of the reasons for the exponential population explosion in the 20th century:
With the spread of modern medicine, public health techniques, and new methods of growing and distributing foods, death rates have fallen around the world. World average life expectancy is currently about 53 years and still rising. On a world average the gain around the positive feedback loop (fertility) has decreased only slightly while the gain around the negative feedback. loop (mortality) is decreasing. The result is an increasing dominance of the positive feedback loop … (37)
In other words, several elements of the world system have enabled the population to grow exponentially. LTG explains further:
The exponential growth of demand for food results directly from the positive feedback loop that is now determining the growth of human population. The supply of food to be expected in the future is dependent on land and fresh water and also on agricultural capital, which depends in turn on the other dominant positive feedback loop in the system-the capital investment loop. Opening new land, farming the sea, or expanding use of fertilizers and pesticides will require an increase of the capital stock devoted to food production. The resources that permit growth of that capital stock tend not to be renewable resources, like land or water, but nonrenewable resources, like fuels or metals. Thus the expansion of food production in the future is very much dependent on the availability of nonrenewable resources. Are there limits to the earth's supply of these resources? (54)
One of the results of population growth caused by resource us is pollution. LTG points out:
Man's concern for the effect of his activities on the natural environment is only very recent. Scientific attempts to measure this effect are even more recent and still very incomplete. We are certainly not able, at this time, to come to any final conclusion about the earth's capacity to absorb pollution. We can, however, make four basic points in this section, which illustrate, from a dynamic, global perspective, how difficult it will be to understand and control the future state of our ecological systems. These points are: 1. The few kinds of pollution that actually have been measured over time seem to be increasing exponentially. 2. We have almost no knowledge about where the upper limits to these pollution growth curves might be. 3. The presence of natural delays in ecological processes increases the probability of underestimating the control measures necessary, and therefore of inadvertently reaching those upper limits. 4. Many pollutants are globally distributed; their harmful effects appear long distances from their points of generation. (69)
There is no doubt today that the deleterious effects of pollution are everywhere: the air, the water and the soil, all in the form of billions of tons of solid waste. All this not only affects people, but also animals, plants and, on a microscopic level, bacteria and viruses.
In a simple overview of the systemic nature of the problematique, TLG links these issues together:
Of course, none of the five factors we are examining here is independent. Each interacts constantly with all the others. We have already mentioned some of these interactions. Population cannot grow without food, food production is increased by growth of capital, more capital requires more resources, discarded resources become pollution, pollution interferes with the growth of both population and food. (89)
The Crux of the Matter: “A Choice of Limits”
The heart of the problem has to do with the way that we solve social problems:
But the relationship between the earth's limits and man's activities is changing. The exponential growth curves are adding millions of people and billions of tons of pollutants to the ecosystem each year. Even the ocean, which once appeared virtually inexhaustible, is losing species after species of its commercially useful animals. (151)
After demonstrating the crisis facing the whaling industry around 1972, TLG points out that there were agreed upon limits to whaling to preserve the whale population. By extension, then, the report argues:
The basic choice that faces the whaling industry is the same one that faces any society trying to overcome a natural limit with a new technology. Is it better to try to live within that limit by accepting a self-imposed restriction on growth? Or is it preferable to go on growing until some other natural limit arises, in the hope that at that time another technological leap will allow growth to continue still longer? For the last several hundred years human society has followed the second course so consistently and successfully that the first choice has been all but forgotten. (151-153)
TLG make a point that they:
… are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is: 1. sustainable without sudden and uncontrollable collapse; and 2. capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people. (158)
To achieve a stable population, the number births would more or less have to equal the number of deaths. TLG states:
Such a requirement, which is as mathematically simple as it is socially complicated, is for our purposes an experimental device, not necessarily a political recommendation. (159-160)
At the same that TLG discusses socially complicated limits, they acknowledge that:
Technological advance would be both necessary and welcome in the equilibrium state. A few obvious examples of the kinds of practical discoveries that would enhance the workings of a steady state society include:
- new methods of waste collection, to decrease pollution and make discarded material available for recycling;
- more efficient techniques of recycling, to reduce rates of resource depletion;
- better product design to increase product lifetime and promote easy repair, so that the capital depreciation rate would be minimized;
- harnessing of incident solar energy, the most pollution-free power source;
- methods of natural pest control, based on more complete understanding of ecological interrelationships;
- medical advances that would decrease the death rate;
- contraceptive advances that would facilitate the equalization of the birth rate with the decreasing death rate.
As for the incentive that would encourage men to produce such technological advances, what better incentive could there be than the knowledge that a new idea would be translated into a visible improvement in the quality of life?
They clarify the social reality of new inventions through history:
Historically mankind's long record of new inventions has resulted in crowding, deterioration of the environment, and greater social inequality because greater productivity has been absorbed by population and capital growth. There is no reason why higher productivity could not be translated into a higher standard of living or more leisure or more pleasant surroundings for everyone, if these goals replace growth as the primary value of society. (177-178)
If there is cause for deep concern, there is also cause for hope. Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible. The way to proceed is clear, and the necessary steps, although they are new ones for human society, are well within human capabilities. Man possesses, for a small moment in his history, the most powerful combination of knowledge, tools, and resources the world has ever known. He has all that is physically necessary to create a totally new form of human society-one that would be built to last for generations. The two missing ingredients are a realistic, long-term goal that can guide mankind to the equilibrium society and the human will to achieve that goal. Without such a goal and a commitment to it, short-term concerns will generate the exponential growth that drives the world system toward the limits of the earth and ultimate collapse. With that goal and that commitment, mankind would be ready now to begin a controlled, orderly transition from growth to global equilibrium. (183-184)
Why the Attacks on Limits in Particular and Environmentalism in General?
The Limits to Growth received strong criticism after its publication. It came in many forms. The Limits to Growth threatened specific groups. As Ugo Bardi explains:
In 1997, the Italian economist Giorgio Nebbia, noted that the reaction against the LTG study had arrived from at least four different fronts. One was from those who saw the book as a threat to the growth of their businesses and industries. A second set was that of professional economists, who saw LTG as a threat to their dominance in advising on economic matters. The Catholic world provided further ammunition for the critics, being piqued at the suggestion that overpopulation was one of the major causes of the problems. Then, the political left in the Western World saw the LTG study as a scam of the ruling class, designed to trick workers into believing that the proletarian paradise was not a practical goal. And this by Nebbia is a clearly incomplete list; forgetting religious fundamentalists, the political right, the believers in infinite growth, politicians seeking for easy solutions to all problems and many others.
So, when Limits came out, no doubt that business, industry, economists, religion, politicians, true believers in capitalism, and even workers thought that limiting growth would diminish their respective claims to authority and, most certainly, their lifestyle. This certainly fits, as asserted earlier in this article, that science is a threat to the authority of the status quo.
One Persistent Critic
Although there were many critics and criticisms, one of the most cogent and insistent came from economist Julian Simon. For example, Simon, in his 1995 Cato Policy Report “The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving,” continued his by then multi-decade rejection of the idea of limits to growth by asserting that [Italics added]:
We have seen extraordinary progress for the human enterprise, especially in the past two centuries. Yet many people believe that conditions of life are generally worse than in the past, rather than better.
I must say that nowhere in any environmental studies have I found that assertion, that “conditions of life are generally worse than in the past, rather than better.” Simon is setting this up as a straw man argument, which he easily demolishes with evidence on the improved living conditions of millions, if not billions, of people in our modern age.
In point of fact, these are ideas that TLG agrees with:
With the spread of modern medicine, public health techniques, and new methods of growing and distributing foods, death rates have fallen around the world. World average life expectancy is currently about 53 years and still rising. (37)
Hence, no sensible person, scientist or not, would assert what Simon claims they are asserting. In point of fact, the LTG was quite clear in stating that problems from overpopulation and pollution, plus potential shortfalls of resources, would become paramount well into the future:
…the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. (23)
So, LTG is talking about 100 years from 1972, not as Simon claims. And, LTG does not assert, as Simon says they do, that that life is worse now than in the past.
However, this is not to entirely dismiss what Simon says. He does develop a provocative thesis when he writes:
The most extraordinary part of the resource-creation process is that temporary or expected shortages -- whether due to population growth, income growth, or other causes -- tend to leave us even better off than if the shortages had never arisen, because of the continuing benefit of the intellectual and physical capital created to meet the shortage. It has been true in the past, and therefore it is likely to be true in the future, that we not only need to solve our problems, but we need the problems imposed upon us by the growth of population and income.
Simon clarifies why he thinks increased population is a benefit to mankind:
The most important benefit of population size and growth is the increase it brings to the stock of useful knowledge. Minds matter economically as much as, or more than, hands or mouths. Progress is limited largely by the availability of trained workers. The main fuel to speed the world's progress is the stock of human knowledge. And the ultimate resource is skilled, spirited, hopeful people, exerting their wills and imaginations to provide for themselves and their families, thereby inevitably contributing to the benefit of everyone.
Simon argues that over the long haul things would continue to get better just as they had been doing for the past two centuries:
The process operates as follows: More people and increased income cause problems in the short run--shortages and pollutions. Short-run scarcity raises prices and pollution causes outcries. Those problems present opportunity and prompt the search for solutions. In a free society solutions are eventually found, though many people seek and fail to find solutions at cost to themselves. In the long run the new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen. This theory fits the facts of history.
This is actually fascinating, because when Simon writes that when things go bad, “those problems present opportunity and prompt the search for solutions,” he actually sounds like an environmentalist. And, he would seem to agree with LTG which says “technological advance would be both necessary and welcome...”
On another point, Simon misses the mark when he claims “there is little scientific literature on the relation of population to war.” Actually, according to Steven A. LeBlanc, there is sound evidence that “ecology and warfare intertwined today, just as they have been for millions of years.” LeBlanc explains:
The consequences of environmental stress will be scarce resources, and the consequences of scarce resources will be warfare. (Constant Battles, 12)
Simon, though, seems to go off his rocker in further explaining the need for and the capacity to invent solutions:
We have in our hands now--actually, in our libraries--the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.
No doubt we do have the technology through knowledge in our libraries, but, 7 billion years?
A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps.
Simon presents his argument as a universal for the ages, that we could apply his assertions to when he was writing, to 7 billion years in the future and to our now of 2019. As such, he would, at least up to now, be wrong. There is no indication that we have policy solutions to our current woes of overpopulation, seemingly insidious pollution (such as Roundup causing cancer, CO2 driving global warming or plastic refuse overwhelming both land and sea), and stresses over resource shortages, such as a lack of arable land and lack of water from droughts.
In fact, the very business and technical community that is creating the progress supporting our modern lifestyle is actually doing the opposite of Simon’s prediction that environmental problems would “prompt the search for solutions.” Business, in general, consistently lobbies against environmental action that effectively stops our politicians from taking any meaningful action. As we see today, President Trump is actually repealing environmental regulations.
The Limits to Growth raised key environmental concerns about population growth, pollution, depletion of resources and a deteriorating environment. These were ideas new to the public and new to policy makers in 1972. Today in 2019 they are foundational concepts in biology, ecology and environmental studies. The MIT researchers who wrote TLG studied these problems as part of an ecological system, not, in the then traditional way as isolated events. To top it off, we were given sound policy advice fifty years ago. Instead of listening, we tried to kill the messenger. To this day, it is advice ignored by policy makers.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Marc Cirigliano is a writer, professorn and noted lecturer. Currently a tenured professor of the arts at SUNY/Empire State College, Marc teaches students in a wide array of humanities subjects: art history, music history, Western Civilization, aesthetics, criticism, select areas of literature, and creative writing.