Prophet of an end to growth: an update

Dennis Meadows is unrepentant Back in 1972 he wrote "The Limits to Growth," a book based on a study for the Club of Rome. It was highly controversial, sharply attacked for its thesis that a shortage of raw materials and energy would eventually limit economic growth.

Today, eight years later, Mr. Meadows sees proof of his thesis in current events. the United States is threatening to go to war in the Middle East over a scarce resource -- oil. The price of petroleum has risen eight times since 1972 . Prices of other raw materials, such as gold, silver, zinc, and some other metals, have also risen rapidly, to a considerable extent because of scarcity.

As forecast in the 1972 study, many of these materials are coming toward the "midpoint of depletion in their life cycle," he noted in a telephone interview. "Then there is a rapid escalation in cost."

Mr. Meadows regards today's high inflation and unemployment as partly factors of the growing scarcity of natural resources, including water and land as well as raw materials.

Moreover, Mr. Meadows, a professor at Dartmouth College's Thayer School of Engineering, forecasts worse problems for this country and others -- unless intelligent measures are taken to prevent them.

"Real national wealth will decline over the next two or three decades," he warns, assuming no dramatic changes in national policies. Already, he adds, there has been no real gains in incomes over the past decade. "It will become very much more severe in the 1980s and 1990s."

Mr. Meadows's book has sold more than 3 million copies in 35 languages. It is almost constantly being attacked as defeatist.

But to the author, these criticisms often represent a misunderstanding of his arguments. He says the dominant response to any material-limits thesis or evidence has been a call for greater output. When this nation's production of crude oil became inadequate, politicians and oilmen advocated a greatly expanded program of finding new oil or developing synthetic oil.

"What makes this response so frustrating," he says, "is that this country has a rich array of options open to it. We don't have to choose from three brands of disaster."

For instance, the emphasis could be on energy conservation -- even where it is uneconomic by comparative price measures alone, he suggests.The trouble with relying on price signals of shortages is that these come too late for easy adjustments to be made. The oil situation, he notes, is a good example of this.

But Mr. Meadows finds that it is difficult for politicians to urge more planning and adjustments to deal with long-term threats. This is not only because politicians and their constituents generally prefer to be positive than negative. it is also because of the enormous faith in scientific technology. People believe that some new discovery will come to the rescue of their material living standards and, indeed, permit a continuing increase.

Mr. Meadows does not doubt that scientific progress sometimes will devise new ways to provide material resources. He does not doubt, though, that new scientific techniques will be able to keep up with the depletion of resources.

He notes, however, that the "limits thesis" is "not a counsel of despair. It simply says the world is different."

he argues that new policies and styles of living can be just as attractive as , if not better than, the old style, with its heavy consumption of energy and raw materials. Per capita liquor consumption, he notes, has gone up one-third in the last decade. He does not believe that Americans are any better off for this extra intake of alcohol. "The quality of life has been going down in the last 15 years, though material consumption is up."

Mr. Meadows offers some suggestions for dealing with the material limits to growth:

1. The United States should aim to reduce energy consumption drastically, say by 50 percent, to the level of the early 1960s.

2. There should be a major program of land planning. To much prime agricultural land is being used up for shopping centers or new housing developments that sometimes destroy urban cores by taking away their customers.

3. The nation desperately needs a new set of indexes other than profits and sales against which corporate managers can measure their own success or personal worth. These gauges should take into consideration broader interests of society , including social and environmental consequences of corporate behavior.

4. The growth of population in the United States, including that from immigration, should be limited. He said, "The US can't solve the world's population problem alone."

Mr. Meadows has proved to be enough of a prophet to be heeded.

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