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How Doomed Are We?

Mankind at the Turning Point: The Second Report to the Club of Rome

by Mihajlo Mesarovic, by Eduard Pestel
Dutton/Reader’s Digest Press, 210 pp., $12.95

Two Cheers for the Affluent Society: A Spirited Defense of Economic Growth

by Wilfred Beckerman
St. Martin’s Press, 238 pp., $7.95

1

The metaphors of pessimism have been appropriated, in the past year or so, by the most prominent of political orators. People like Henry Kissinger now complain in public about the prospects for industrial civilization. President Giscard d’Estaing declares, “When we examine the great curves that project into the future the phenomena of our time, we see that practically all these curves lead to catastrophe.” Fears about the economy and about raw materials, which until recently were expressed only by a few environmentalists, are now commonplace. This new gloom is in large part, of course, a consequence of the recent disturbances which have beset the economies of all industrialized countries. Giscard and Kissinger, seeing recession and wildly unstable prices, scarcity and failures of economic policy, turn to portentous extrapolation.

Under the impact of worsening world situations, public opinion has greatly matured in the past few years,” two executives of the Club of Rome write graciously, presenting their recent Second Report. The Club of Rome is the group of businessmen and scientists who in the early 1970s described a world crisis which they called a “problematique,” and who sponsored, as their first report, The Limits to Growth. This study, which was based on the computer models of a group of systems analysts led by Dennis Meadows of MIT, concluded that, unless immense moral and political reforms take place, the world will face catastrophe within the next hundred years: the “modes of collapse” by which growth would suddenly stop included the depletion of nonrenewable resources, an increase in pollution, and shortages of food.

The views of the Club of Rome attracted widespread attention even before the present recession: executives of the group describe “literally hundreds of conferences,” many translations of The Limits to Growth, an international meeting on growth convened by Giscard d’Estaing when he was Minister of Finance.1 Yet much of this attention was hostile. The Limits to Growth was attacked by a most exalted selection of orthodox opinion. Optimists associated with, among other institutions, the World Bank, Nature magazine, and the British government considered the study. Social and economic forces, the optimists showed, can prevent catastrophe: for example, changes in prices and the progress of technology. The dispute was joined by more and more critics, as well as by exponents of a revisionist pessimism.

For the executives of the Club of Rome, the events of 1974 constitute some form of vindication of their early fears. Looking back, they write that “the energy and food crises exploded in the meantime with such vicious force that they cut short much of the hasty criticism leveled at this exercise [The Limits to Growth].” To put the issue specifically: in the three years since The Limits to Growth was published, while the argument of the book has been increasingly undermined, many of the troubles that the authors feared “well before the year 2100” have come about, from increased malnutrition to chaos in the world metal markets. Dennis Meadows, asked in a recent interview if he still thinks that the limits to growth will be reached soon, answered that “nothing has happened to alter any of the basic ideas of The Limits to Growth. If I had said three years ago that there would soon be an energy crisis, massive famine, beef sold on the black market, formation of cartels, and erosion of environmental standards, most people wouldn’t have believed it.”2

But the issues between alarmists and optimists have not been resolved by the events of the past year. On the one hand, the inflation and scarcity affecting food and oil have almost nothing to do with the difficulties that the authors of The Limits to Growth feared. On the other hand, the stabilizing forces—the price mechanism, for example—to which many optimists allude in their practical arguments against the Club of Rome appear less than dependable.

Beyond these specific questions, however, the issues are of interest for what they show about the preferences shared by the two opposing groups. Both camps have been reticent about describing the policies they favor. Yet there turns out to be a surprising resemblance between the future as imagined by the Club of Rome and the vision of prominent optimists. People in the two groups appear to agree on many issues. They emphasize the importance of coal and the prospects for telecommunications technology; they agree, too, about the virtues of long-term management planning as practiced by the more adventurous of large modern corporations.

2

The optimists have identified many faults in The Limits to Growth. As Professor Carl Kaysen wrote, “The most important question concerns the nature of the limits that enforce the growth ceiling in the model.”3 The important limits to growth, Kaysen argues, are not physical but social, political, and economic, having to do with the costs of using resources and with the possibilities of applying new technology. If catastrophe were to come about, it would be for social and political reasons. The alarmists of the Club of Rome emphasize, for example, the limits to food production imposed by the availability of arable land. But Kaysen observes that “new land can be created by new investment, as when arid lands are irrigated, swamps drained, forests cleared.”

The weakness of the alarmists’ argument is particularly clear in the case of food. The authors of The Limits to Growth describe themselves as Malthusians, and they make the same mistakes that Thomas Malthus made. The argument of modern optimists is in fact the argument that William Hazlitt used against Malthus, soon after the Essay on the Principle of Population was published in 1798: “Mr. Malthus wishes to confound the necessary limits of the produce of the earth with the arbitrary and artificial distribution of that produce according to the institutions of society, or the caprice of individuals, the laws of God and nature with the laws of man.”4

Not only are the “necessary” limits to food production as ill-defined in the 1970s as they were in the 1790s, but the food now being produced is also distributed most arbitrarily among nations, as well as among people, pets, and cattle. Last year, for example, at the time of the “massive famine” Meadows mentions, close to a third of all the grain produced in the world was consumed as animal feed. Hazlitt himself used the example of animal food as an argument against Malthus, and his words can be recommended to contemporary critics of beef consumption and pet nurturing. He wrote that

If [Malthus] means that the wants of the poor arise from the impossibility of procuring food for them, while the rich roll in abundance, or, we will say, maintain their dogs and horses etc., out of their ostentatious superfluities, he asserts what he knows not to be true.

Dogs and horses, Hazlitt wrote, “eat up the food of the children of the poor.”

The oil crisis of 1974 had as little to do with natural limits as did the food crisis. Meadows acknowledges that the recent oil shortages were caused by political decisions. In their original study, he and his co-authors wrote, farsightedly, that in metals and oil, “the political question may arise long before the ultimate economic one.” But Meadows now argues that “the Arab action was made possible by a physical reality: dwindling oil and gas reserves.” He does not explain how this prospect of lower reserves affects the political power and determination of oil corporations or of oil-exporting countries. Even in the United States, where oil is increasingly scarce in a geological sense, scarcity is local: according to a recent announcement, the Sohio Corporation’s Alaskan oil will not be needed on the West Coast and will therefore be moved to Texas.5

Propositions about natural limits cannot explain the present disturbances. Yet the optimists are often less convincing when they consider the real world and the future. Will the new investment that Kaysen mentions be found? Will the swamps be cleared?

Professor Wilfred Beckerman of the University of London has been for at least four years one of the most strenuous of optimists. In his new book Two Cheers for the Affluent Society he assembles a compendious selection of arguments against, to use his word, the “eco-doomsters.” He explains that “favorable social and economic feedbacks” prevent environmental disaster: “Essentially these safety mechanisms represent society’s responses, in one way or another, to the growth of some ‘bad,’ whether it be pollution or the increasing use of some material.” His book is of particular interest to the extent that he suggests a politics of optimism, rushing in where other critics hesitate.

Beckerman argues what might be called the strong optimists’ position. He believes that the crisis which environmentalists fear can be avoided; that it will be avoided; and that it will be avoided because of the more or less routine activities of governments and corporations which are more or less like existing governments and corporations. He rejects the political neutrality implied in phrases like “favorable feedbacks,” “safety mechanisms,” and “society’s responses.” “Society,” in most of his examples, is British or American society as it is now constituted. He writes that

we have surveyed the main ways in which exponential growth of “bads” has in fact been brought to a halt in the past, and the ways in which the process is likely to continue in the future…. These responses take diverse forms; in some cases they are mainly the introduction of governmental policies, as with the rapid spread of measures to control pollution during the last few years…. In other cases, these favorable feedbacks take the form of automatic market responses to changes in the demand and supply of raw materials.

The real-life responses that Beckerman describes cover many situations. He is optimistic about the application of economic theory to public policy (“it just happens that money is a convenient unit, or numeraire“), and about recent economic policies. He writes that “mass unemployment has been eliminated, and the pre-war trade cycle, which was the cause of so much anxiety and misery, has been replaced by, at worst, minor fluctuations around a high and generally rising level of economic activity.” (His book was completed, he notes, very early in 1974.)

The energy situation, he considers, is less than terrifying: “For there is general agreement among the scientists that, taking energy as a whole, the longer term prospects are, if anything, more favorable than they have ever been in the whole previous history of mankind.” Optimistic, therefore, about an “ultimate” technology based on plentiful energy, he looks ahead briskly: “Even though it may be impossible at present to mine to a depth of one mile at every point in the earth’s crust, by the time we reach the year AD 100,000,000 I am sure we will think up something.”

Beckerman devotes a long and interesting part of his book to the economics of pollution. He is optimistic about the will of US politicians to implement the Clean Air Act, and about the fertilizing properties of “a certain amount of air pollution.” But he is sometimes rather casually cheerful. In making the important point, for example, that economic growth is probably a necessary condition for reducing rates of growth of population, he writes that “the phase of rapidly rising population that the underdeveloped countries are now experiencing corresponds to a similar phase that the developed world passed through at various stages over the last fifty years or more.”

  1. 1

    The Club of Rome Answers Its Critics—And Pushes On,” War/Peace Report, May/June 1973.

  2. 2

    Business Week, May 12, 1975.

  3. 3

    Carl Kaysen, Foreign Affairs, July 1972.

  4. 4

    William Hazlitt, Political and Philosophical Essays, 1807.

  5. 5

    Business Week, June 2, 1975.

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