A 20th-Century Doomsday Book

Neely Young

Limits to Growth is a small book with a giant idea — outlining a doomsday forecast for our planet.

I purchased the book Limits to Growth in 1972 as a curiosity. Recently I pulled this book from my library after I read an Associated Press story quoting a British Petroleum (BP) news release stating the company only had oil reserves to last 40 years.

Clearly our country has to reduce its dependency on oil and other natural resources. BP’s news release prompted this column as well as Georgia Trend’s three part series by Senior Editor Jerry Grillo — beginning in this issue — examining energy in Georgia and exploration of alternative fuel.

The message of Limits to Growth is sobering. It addresses the limits of our world’s interlocking natural resources including oil, natural gas, coal, copper, gold, top soil — which gives us the ability to raise food to feed ourselves — and the entire global ecosystem. Its conclusion: The world in which we all live probably cannot support present rates of economic and population growth much beyond the year 2100.

The book was written as a result of a conference held in April 1968 in Rome to study and discuss a subject of staggering scope — the present and future predicament of man. Out of this conference grew The Club of Rome, an informal organization made up of 30 individuals from 10 countries, including educators, humanists, scientists, economists, industrialists and national and international civil servants. They met at the instigation of D. Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist.

As a result of the conference, an international team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began to study the implications of continued worldwide growth. The MIT team fed data on five growth factors into a giant mainframe computer, creating a model that tested nonrenewable resource depletion (oil, coal and other fossil fuels), population increase, industrial output, agricultural production and pollution generation. They tested the model’s behavior under many sets of assumptions to determine mankind’s future.

Limits to Growth is the report of their findings.

The book created quite a reaction, both pro and con. During that time, I followed much of the debate by reading articles in news magazines, newspapers and other news outlets all across the country. I saved many of those articles.

Time magazine ran an essay in 1972 titled “Can the World Survive Economic Growth?” According to this article, the MIT study’s main villain is “exponential growth” calculated at a regular annual percentage. Investors know that if you invest $100 at 7.5 percent, that $100 will double in 9.6 years. It’s called the “Rule of 72.” To find out how long it will take to double your money at a certain percentage take the number 72 and divide it by the percentage you are to receive.

If Georgia’s population today is 8 million and the state has a growth rate of 4 percent, to find out how long it will take the state to double in population, divide 72 by four. The answer is that Georgia’s population will reach 16 million in the year 2024 — 18 years from now. The Georgia office of management and budget actually expects our state population to be almost 12 million by 2025.

No matter which figure you use, it means lot more people will be using imported oil, energy and our highways in the future. The exponential growth model can be applied to the rest of the United States as well as China, India and the balance of the world’s population.

According to the Time article, the MIT Club of Rome model calculated in 1970 used a more modest growth rate of 2 percent, and figured the world’s industrial output expands at about 7 percent a year. The team fed the computer model masses of data on industrial growth rates, population, farm yields and constructed feedback loops to gauge the effects of change on variables such as world birth rates and oil and natural gas supplies.

The study predicted that during the lifetime of children born at that time, the world would begin running out of natural resources such as coal, oil and metals. For lack of them, industries would collapse by the mid-21st century. The inability to produce enough fertilizers, pesticides or medicines, meant famine and illness would kill much of the human race. It was a doomsday prophecy.

Norman Cousins, editor and author, said of the book, “The most important business on earth, quite literally, is the business of planetary planning.” It was the first study of this nature.

The book’s dire predictions drew many detractors, including Professor Wilfred Beckerman who argued that the doomsayers did not take into account how the market system can motivate public and private enterprise to develop successful alternatives. In a forceful rebuttal penned in 1977, Beckerman questioned the use of exponential growth, saying the use of linear rates would slow down the growth rates, but only for four or five years beyond their projections.

Today, almost 40 years later, we are at war in the Middle East to protect our homeland from religious terrorists and in part to stabilize a region that has oil reserves that should last only another 100 years, according to recent estimates.

A story in the June 2004 National Geographic magazine addressed the question of oil — where it is and how much is left. It quoted David Green of Oak Ridge National Laboratory as saying oil production will peak around 2040. Oil is clearly reaching its limits to growth.

Coal is plentiful but isn’t a good source for utility companies to use to generate electric power because of environmental restrictions. Natural gas is plentiful, but its cost, like that of oil, has skyrocketed.

Beckerman says the market system can work to develop alternatives to the doomsday theory.

Georgia Trend will examine the energy situation in a three part series on energy and alternative fuels. The first installment, in this issue, concerns the recent attempt by AGL Resources and others to establish by legislative act a funding source to build another gas pipeline to carry more natural gas from the Georgia coast.

In November, the second installment will address Georgia Power’s proposal to expand its nuclear facility, Plant Vogtle, in southeast Georgia. The series will conclude with a story on alternative energy sources including corn- and pine-based ethanol fuels and wind power. Atlanta-based GE Energy is a leader in wind turbine manufacturing.

The Club of Rome is still around 40 years after its landmark book. An Internet search will turn up information on it, as well as on other organizations that present a rosier prediction for the future. The Club of Rome doesn’t get much press today, but many experts agree its predictions will come to pass if we don’t change the way we produce material goods. The question is how long will it take for our natural nonrenewable resources to run out.

Some say the peak is already here. Either way, as the National Geographic article noted, “Time is short.”

Neely Young is editor in chief and publisher of Georgia Trend.

Contact him via e-mail at publisher@georgiatrend.com.

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