How Doomed Are We?

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

by Mihajlo Mesarovic and 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


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…

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