In 1972, the Club of Rome published an extremely popular and influential neo-Malthusian tract called The Limits to Growth. This apocalyptic warning about over-population, over-consumption, and environmental destruction sold some 12 million copies and was translated into 37 languages. According to the authors of The Limits to Growth, “Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world’s people will be poorer in many ways than they are today.”
How accurate were those predictions? As I wrote on May 4 in the Washington Times, since the late 1960s,
[The] world population has doubled from 3.5 billion to 7 billion, inflation-adjusted average annual income per person has risen from $3,147 to $5,997, and life expectancy at birth has increased from 59 years to 69 years.
The world’s daily caloric intake per person rose from an average of 2,610 in 1990 to 2,790 in 2006…. In sub-Saharan Africa, the caloric intake increased from 2,290 to 2,420 in just 16 years. To put these figures in perspective, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that adult men eat between 2,000 and 2,500 calories a day and women between 1,800 and 2,300 calories a day.
Often seen as hopeless, Africa has made other significant gains. In spite of wars, massive economic mismanagement and the ravages of AIDS, the continent’s population has more than trebled — from 280 million to 854 million — since 1968, and life expectancy has increased from 44 years to 54 years.
According to the latest World Bank research, global poverty is declining rapidly. In 1981, 70 percent of people in poor countries lived on less than $2 a day, while 42 percent survived on less than $1 a day. Today, 43 percent live on less than $2 a day, while 14 percent survive on less than $1.
The world is not a perfect place, but the last four decades have not been too shabby as far as growth and human progress are concerned. Bearing that in mind, a bit of soul-searching at the Club of Rome’s HQ in Winterthur, Switzerland, would have been in order.
Instead, the Club of Rome’s latest offering 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, “raises the possibility that humankind might not survive on the planet if it continues on its path of over-consumption and short-termism.” Released on May 7, the report states that “We already live in a manner that cannot be continued for generations without major change. Humanity has overshot the earth’s resources, and in some cases we will see local collapse before 2052.”
Niels Bohr, the famous Danish physicist, is supposed to have said that “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” True, no one has a crystal ball, but human experience points to growing abundance, not looming disaster. It is a pity that the Club of Rome has learned so little from The Limits to Growth fiasco.