ENVIRO NOTES: Growing beyond our fragile world

In its 1972 book, the Club of Rome asserted that the world was in danger of running out of resources at some unspecified future time.

In its 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome asserted that the world was in danger of running out of resources at some unspecified future time.

After a short spell of popularity, that book was severely criticized because of some specific data errors and because it took so little account of mankind’s ingenuity and ability to make substitutions for scarce material or to develop alternatives; the replacement of copper or lead pipes with plastic plumbing fittings is one simple example of effective substitution.

Now, an Italian chemist, Ugo Bardi, has written a rebuttal to those criticisms.

In The Limits to Growth Re-visited, he points out that the original book did not forecast when catastrophic shortages would occur, as some critics alleged, but only that they loomed in the future, possibly a distant future.

Looking at today’s world as a realist and not a Cassandra, it’s not hard be persuaded by that original thesis.

The populations of the developing worlds of Asia and Latin America are increasing steadily. Not only that, but as their affluence increases, they seek to emulate the developed (=western) world’s standards of comfortable living. That strains the earth’s capacity to supply the raw materials, which make that living standard possible and also its capacity to absorb the associated inevitable wastes.

Can you imagine the developed world voluntarily lowering its living standards so that the developing world will have a less demanding target to aim at?

Instead, the developed world lives by the mantra of continuing growth.

Can growth continue indefinitely, without limit or constraint?

One can blow up a balloon to its maximum size; forcing in more air or gas beyond that will cause the balloon to burst. Does the analogy hold for socio-economic systems? It seems the Pope thinks so.

We’ve more than once been told that ‘peak oil’ has been reached but extended exploratory drilling, better extraction techniques and fracking postpone the day when oil will run out, just as the critics of Limits to Growth predicted.

It’s still a finite resource, however, and with China’s daily import volume now around six million barrels, the world price rose to around $150 per barrel before dropping for geo-political reasons.

By encouraging growth, we’ve allowed ourselves to become dependent on oil. And now, quite apart from the fiscal implications of that high price, we face the attendant pollution problems caused by burning fossil fuels.

A large proportion of our oil consumption goes to the transport sector, one that already has the technology to reduce oil consumption, with consequent environmental benefits: move more goods by rail instead of in trucks; promote electric-powered or flexible-fuel vehicles; or, perish the thought, consume less.

We could, perhaps should, collaborate with China and India to develop cost-efficient alternative energy production – nuclear, geothermal and solar sources especially.

We can hardly expect those countries to accept standards lower than ours so that we can escape the costs of our profligacy.

One Chinese student is reported as asking: “Why should China have to restrict its energy and worry about the environment, when America and Europe got to consume all the energy they wanted when they were developing?”

How do proponents of continuing growth respond to that searching question and Ugo Bardi’s forecast?

The summary of the recent NASA ‘Human and Dynamical [HANDY] development model reads: “The fall of the Roman empire, and the equally advanced Chinese Han and Indian Maurayn and Gupta dynasties, as well as many Mesopotamian empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”

Are we different?

Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly on the environment for the Peace Arch News. rmstrang@shaw.ca