The impact of human activity on the ecology of planet earth in wake of exponential per capita consumption is the basic theme of the book under review — The Limits to Growth —and ‘where will that impact lead us to’ is the central question its authors have dealt with. Published in 1972, the book transmitted a loud and clear message that the ever increasing environmental footprint of man in the wake of industrial growth has been stretching the limits of world’s carrying capacity, which is bound to bring about a climatic catastrophe that can be avoided by bringing about fundamental changes in the political organisation of the world. More than four decades after its publishing, the message of the book seems to have common intellectual currency almost across the globe.
The publication of the book in 1970s triggered a debate and international activism on climate change in the decades to follow. Climate change as a phenomenon manifested in global warming, rising sea levels and frequent occurrences of extreme weather is attributed to human activities causing emission of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Catastrophic ecological consequences of climate change demanded the governments to sit together; contemplate on the earnestness of the issue; cooperate with each other and commit steps/actions to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. It led to the initiatives like establishment of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, signing of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change () in 1992, Kyoto Protocol 1997 and Paris Climate Summit 2015.
The world has been seen in the book through the prism of systems analysis. It looks at where we are at in terms of current and potential future resource use patterns and creation of waste and to what extent the planet earth can sustain the environmental degradation in the wake of consumption patterns. According to the book, we are in overshoot mode, a dangerous mode especially in long term since it increases probability of a collapse occurring.
Growth trends in five major areas—(1) population (2) industrialisation, (3) pollution, (4) resource depletion and (5) land availability for food — have been investigated in the book. Through their analysis of the empirical data mainly of United Nations, the authors presented 12 scenarios arranged in three broad groups while linking every component in the model to mathematical equations.
The first or basic scenario called business-as-usual scenario assumed the same economic, social and physical patterns set in from 1900 to 1970 would continue into the future.
Started with the same basic pattern, the six subsequent ‘technological scenarios’, however, assumed that advances in technology would increase the amount of resources available, increase agricultural productivity, reduce pollution, or control population growth. What would happen if either population growth, or industrial output, were stabilised has been looked at in the final set of five ‘stabilization’ scenarios. Only four scenarios avoided overshoot and collapse. These scenarios combined stabilising the human population with measures to restrict industrial output per person, as well as technological solutions like resource recycling and pollution control.
Majority of the scenarios presented in the book show industrial output declining in the 2020s and population declining in the 2030s. Basic premise of the authors is that material growth cannot continue indefinitely due to physical limitations of planet earth. The scale of human activity will eventually transcend the carrying capacity of the environment and result in a sudden contraction. It will lead to decline in the growth of resources essential for survival of human beings and ultimately cause a collapse in population.
The authors argue that if the population and industrial growth continues unchecked, it will severely deplete the world’s nonrenewable resources as well as cause dangerous level of environmental degradation having its implications both on industrial growth and human population. This trend, the authors argue, will lead to the limits of growth on earth that “will be reached sometime within the next hundred years.”
Notwithstanding the fact that the book has clear quantitative erring but we cannot dismiss its quantitative projections which are still valid today. Global warming and predictions for high carbon dioxide emissions are the most valuable insights of the authors. Here we can clearly see the ‘persistent pollution scenario’ increasingly afflicting the globe in twenty first century. In the original formulation of the book, pollution led to civilisational decline and death. Though the issue of global warming is discussed by many environmentalists in same cataclysmic terms, the scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show instead a gradually worsening of the situation.
The course of events following the publication of The Limits to Growth has superficially seemed to support the predictions of the book with remarkable speed. Actually, the events like acid rain and potential inundation of some countries like Bangladesh due to rising sea level provided some test cases that allow a better evaluation of these predictions. What we have observed so far is that the pressures generated by the industrial and population growth and the problems resulting from them are real. But we know that some precautionary measures can possibly help overcoming them. Besides some mechanisms at work should produce a soft landing, if the limits to growth are ever reached.
In the presence of effective environmental sensitisation and sensible public policy, no catastrophe predicted in the book seems to loom in the distant future. We can be even more confident today, after 46 years of experience, than we were in 1972, that these problems can be solved.
Given the fact that the research behind the book was sponsored by Club of Rome, an organisation founded by multinational corporations (MNCs), a critical reader can’t help being skeptical about the whole research process because the MNCs are known as locomotive of economic and industrial growth world over. So in the present age of neo-liberal economy when the MNCs are aggressively fighting for expanding their operations and markets with minimal state regulations across the globe, the book needs to be read between the lines so as to find the motives that pushed these for-profit organisations, MNCs, to sponsor a research on an apparently not-for-profit theme.
The Limits to Growth
Authors: Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Renders, William W. Behrens III
Price: $ 2.75
Publisher:Universe Books, 381 Park Avenue South, New York 10016