Meeting growth's challenges

DONELLA H. Meadows, co-author of the original computerized ``Limits to Growth'' study, draws a valuable lesson from the flock of similar projections that have followed her early work. Each can be criticized as biased or simplistic. Yet, despite reflecting conflicting ideologies in diverse nations, they agree on crucial basic points. Long-term disaster is not inevitable, even in the most threatened parts of the world. Humanity has ample -- although not unlimited -- resources to meet its needs. The basic problems are rooted in attitudes and perceptions, and in the social, political, and economic systems that people themselves have developed.

Writing in the current issue of Technology Review, Ms. Meadows sums up the findings by saying: ``We see far too many negative trends to be complacent and far too many positive trends to be hopeless. We mainly see a lot of work to do.''

This is a useful perspective for reviewing the voluminous ``State of the World -- 1985'' report of the Worldwatch Institute. The report can also be criticized as ideologically oriented and incomplete as it makes the case that population pressure is beginning to break down the world's economic and environmental systems. Those who want to do so can find reason to dismiss it as just another example of the institute's well-known preference for strong government intervention, both nationally and globally, to right economic and environmental wrongs. Despite its shortcomings, the report documents many areas where there is indeed urgent work to do.

It is rich with facts and statistics on worrisome environmental trends. These range from acid rain to loss of plant and animal species. You do not have to accept the exaggeration that ``West Germans may soon have to choose between reducing automobile use and sacrificing their forests'' to recognize that Europe, as well as North America, needs to curb acid rain. The alarmist conclusion that ``for many Third World countries, the choice is between an abrupt lowering of birth rates or a possible malnutrition-induced rise in death rates'' should not distract from recognizing how overpopulation burdens many areas.

Although the emphasis seems to fall on threats and disasters, the Worldwatch analysts do find some countervailing trends. For example, they cite gains in population control, food supply, and reforestation in China. Those looking for solutions to specific environmental and ecological problems will find useful examples to follow up.

Thus, as a contribution to the discussion on global challenges, the study has its value. But that value is undercut by the Worldwatch team's inability to come to grips with the basic social and political challenges involved. Confronted with inequities, wastefulness, and mismanagement, which cause much of the misery and environmental decay in a resource-rich world, the team seems unable to identify realistic courses of action. It is of little help to call for ``a thorough overhaul of agricultural, energy, and population policies, aimed at managing resources on a sustainable basis.'' What does that mean in the political and economic terms affecting the Sudan, Brazil, or even the arid United States Sunbelt?

Worldwatch says it intends to make this kind of global study an annual assessment of ``progress toward a sustainable society.'' We hope that next year's installment will focus more strongly on practical measures that can be taken toward that end.

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