‘Disaster threatens the world’ was the headline on the front page of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad on August 31, 1971. The opening sentence was grim: “If the world carries on as we are doing now, there will be a huge catastrophe within a few decades.” The article was a worldwide scoop, based on a draft version of a report entitled The Limits to Growth that had been circulated confidentially among the Dutch press. The report had been commissioned by an illustrious fellowship that would go down in history as the Club of Rome.
But what ‘huge catastrophe’ was looming over the world? In one word: growth. Due to the combination of a growing world population, growing use of raw materials, and growing levels of pollution, we were heading towards the collapse of our human civilization, unless we took drastic steps to curb growth. The Club of Rome used a five-parameter World Model which they entered into a computer—then a mysterious and awe-inspiring novelty—in order to calculate various future scenarios. Each time the mighty machine spit out the same disturbing answer: we have to stop growth, or we’re doomed.
This urgent message shocked the world, but wasn’t entirely new. In 1967, the brothers William and Paul Paddock predicted that “Famines, greater than ever in history” would ravage underdeveloped nations within the next decade, as suggested by title of their book, Famine 1975! Even more influential was the American butterfly biologist, Paul R. Ehrlich, and his 1968 mega-bestseller The Population Bomb. His opening sentence: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Over and lost, is what Ehrlich meant. Catastrophe was inevitable, whatever the world might try to do about it. Like the Club of Rome, Ehrlich also foresaw the imminent depletion of basic resources and, in another book written a few years later, the “end of affluence.”
And then there was another huge environmental problem that put the entire planet at risk: the growing hole in the ozone layer caused by gases called CFCs that were used as propellants in aerosol cans and as coolants in refrigeration equipment. When Sherwood Rowland, the chemist who discovered the gaping hole in our planetary sunscreen, returned home one fine day in 1974, his wife asked how his work was going. He replied: “It’s going very well. It just means, I think, the end of the world.”
Tidings of doom
The world started to take these dire warnings from prominent environmental thinkers and scientists very seriously. More than thirty million copies of Limits to Growth were sold worldwide. Paul Ehrlich was invited on The Tonight Show more than twenty times to launch into his apocalyptic monologues. After the first Earth Day in 1970, an editorial comment in The New York Times warned that environmental pollution and depletion of the Earth’s resources were steering humanity towards “intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.” In her Christmas speech in 1988, the Dutch Queen Beatrix spoke unequivocally about the possible extinction of all life, emphatically referring to the Club of Rome: “Slowly the earth dies and the unimaginable, the end of life itself, becomes imaginable.”
And yet, amazingly, we’re still here! Contrary to predictions of gloom and doom, in the last 50 years environmental pollution has decreased sharply (certainly in rich countries), global poverty has fallen faster than ever before, mass starvation events just didn’t happen, and raw materials actually became cheaper and more abundant. In 2021, the planet feeds far more mouths than the catastrophists ever imagined would be possible.
Should we thank the Club of Rome because we took their warnings to heart? Is this a case of a “self-defeating prophecy” where someone predicts a major disaster that doesn’t occur precisely because people actually listen to them?
Not quite. Humanity has never radically changed course in the way that the Club of Rome would have liked. The global economy continued to grow, the world continued to deplete finite resources, and there was no mass birth control (except in some countries, with catastrophic humanitarian consequences). Everyone was scared out of their pants for a while, but in the end, politicians and other policy makers carried on with business as usual. Economic growth was indispensable for prosperity and for social security and pensions. After all, who cares about the end of the world when the end of the month (or of the electoral cycle) is in sight?
In reality, humanity figured out solutions that almost no catastrophist at the time had foreseen. Take the threatened worldwide shortage of food. This was averted, not by suppressing the birth rate, or by eating more frugally and redistributing food, but by spectacularly increasing agricultural productivity. While Paul Ehrlich preached on The Tonight Show about the impending food catastrophe, savvy scientists were busy developing solutions. In a backwater in Mexico, the agronomist Norman Borlaug put in years of painstaking work to develop new and better varieties of wheat, corn, and other crops. The combination of fertilizers, modern irrigation, and tractors resulted in a minor miracle: agricultural yields doubled everywhere, and in Mexico they were multiplied by a factor of six. The Club of Rome’s warning that by the year 2000 there could be a “desperate land shortage,” even with optimistic assumptions about land use, turned out to be utterly wrong. So did the fatalism of Paul Ehrlich, who announced to anyone who would listen that a country like India could never feed itself and who wanted to make food aid dependent on drastic birth control. Twenty years later, India was a net exporter of food, thanks to Borlaug’s Green Revolution.
Or consider the depletion of resources. The Club of Rome’s computer models completely ignored the price mechanism, which is the lubricant of any free-market economy. If a raw material temporarily becomes scarcer, producers are given an incentive to search harder for that substance or develop alternatives, and consumers are incentivized to use it more sparingly. All three of those things happened at the same time. Just as capitalists like to save on labor costs by increasing productivity per worker, they also like to save on material resources. The less they need, the bigger the profit.
And environmental pollution? This, too, was solved not by consuming less or having fewer children, but by decoupling consumption from environmental impact, thanks to smart technological innovations. We didn’t drive any less, but instead banned lead in gasoline. We continued to burn oil and coal, but all the while we installed filters on our chimneys and exhaust pipes to remove soot and sulfur. This is not to say that the market solved everything by itself; when there was no economic incentive to fix a problem, governments had to step in with smart legislation. Perhaps the most successful environmental measure ever was the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which phased out the CFCs that had been depleting our ozone layer. Manufacturers sought and found other substances to perform the same functions (such as pressurizing aerosol cans). Everyone continued to spray happily, but without destroying the ozone layer.
New ecological crisis
This litany of failed prophecies is not only fascinating as a historical exercise. Today, we face a new ecological crisis, which 50 years ago appeared on the radar of only a few farsighted climatologists. The Club of Rome devoted at most a few sentences to the ‘greenhouse effect’; Paul Ehrlich was unsure about whether human industrial activity would end up cooling or warming the earth.
Nevertheless, new prophets are appearing to preach the gospel of “less” to save the planet. In his book Less is More, the anthropologist Jason Hickel explicitly advocates the remedy of degrowth: poor countries are still allowed to continue to grow a bit, but rich countries must shrink their economic activity and give up their current levels of prosperity. Climate activists like Greta Thunberg have also spoken out against the “fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
It seems that these intellectual heirs of the Club of Rome have learned nothing at all. Growth is not the problem, but the solution. If we want to bring down global CO2 emissions to zero, we will need technological innovation and massive infrastructure projects. We have to invent a thousand and one low-carbon alternatives to the thousand and one different services that fossil fuels provide to humanity. The only realistic way to fulfill such a Herculean mission is through growth. Growth pays for the necessary innovations and infrastructure works, and growth will be needed to ensure public support for the massive transition.
In fact, “degrowth” would not only be disastrous for everyone, even in rich countries, but it would also hardly bring us closer to the end goal. An economy that stagnates or shrinks will still emit huge amounts of CO2, given current levels of technology. Remember the spring of 2020, when countless economic activities were abruptly shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic? Planes were grounded, people left their cars in the garage and worked from home, and tourism trickled to a halt. Even with that unprecedented global degrowth episode – which no sane person would ever want to experience again – worldwide CO2 emissions fell by a paltry 7 percent in 2020.
In essence, our climate problem is no different from the impending ecological disasters of fifty years ago. Human progress is creating an unforeseen side effect, which we have to address. But the remedy is not to shut down the source of our prosperity; rather, we need to disconnect it from that harmful side effect, by creating more prosperity (in smart ways). The main difference between now and the 1970s is the scope and magnitude of the problem: fixing the hole in the ozone layer could be done by just banning a few substances, but fossil fuels are embedded in every aspect of our economy. The ecological crises of fifty years ago were just warm-ups, dry runs for the really big job. But this time as well, the solution will come from human ingenuity and technology – not from some form of mass impoverishment or radical system change. The forecasters of doom have been preaching about the latter for fifty years now, with little or no success. Which is fortunate, because it is a bogus “solution” anyway that would only make matters worse.
Of all the available technological solutions, nuclear energy is the one that most closely resembles the proven methods that our parents and grandparents deployed to overcome their ecological crises. Splitting atomic nuclei and thereby releasing fabulous amounts of energy is the ultimate example of ‘doing more with less’, of decoupling human prosperity from nature. Because of the enormous energy density of uranium (three million times as much as coal), nuclear energy has only a negligible environmental impact. Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, also do not emit greenhouse gases, but they have a much greater environmental impact, because their infrastructure takes up thousands of square kilometers of land and requires a lot more resources to build. China recently announced that it intends to build 150(!) new nuclear reactors, which will avert more CO2 emissions than half of the current total output of Europe. Frankly, this news has made me more hopeful than any of the messages that reached us from the COP26 conference in Glasgow. What are we waiting for?
The choice before us in the coming decades is clear. If we don’t keep a cool head, we risk wrecking our climate and triggering a sixth mass extinction, after the five previous extinction waves that our planet has undergone (the last one killed the dinosaurs around 66 million years ago). Or we will have to resort to dangerous palliative measures, such as generating a temporary sunscreen of aerosols in the stratosphere that artificially cranks down the global thermostat. But there is another option. If we keep our cool and act boldly and decisively, we will be able to look back in another half a century and breathe a sigh of relief at how, once again, we have averted ecological disaster.
(Next Nature, February 8, 2022. Translated from the Dutch original with the help of Nick Brown).