Published 40 years ago, the Club of Rome's cataclysmic environmental bestseller The Limits to Growth heralded the imminent end of human progress. Written by five Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists, the book asserted – with relentlessly Malthusian logic – that the world was heading toward global economic collapse. For many people, the assertion made sense. For many people, it still does. An ever-rising world population must inexorably deplete the world's finite resources. Doesn't it?
In a retrospective analysis, U.S. economist Charles Kenny, senior fellow with the Washington-based Center for Global Development, says the world isn't coasting on empty. Quite the contrary, he says. "The biggest concern isn't that the planet is running out of resources – it's having too many for the planet's own good."
According to The Limits of Growth, the world was already – in 1972 – approaching Peak Gold, "the date when global [gold]production was to reach its supposed maximum, afterward and evermore to decline as dwindling reserves were tapped out." Peak Gold would arrive in 2001, Limits said. In fact, hundreds of gold mines, operating on every continent except Antarctica, routinely produce more than 2,000 tons of new gold a year. And that, according to the World Gold Council, is without going offshore, where more gold awaits – reserves conservatively measured in the tens of thousands of tons.
The book's most alarming prediction, of course, dealt with oil – which, it said, would be irretrievably depleted by 2022 – a mere decade from now – at the latest. Yet, "the World Energy Council reports that global proven recoverable reserves of natural gas liquids and crude oil amounted to 1.2 trillion barrels in 2010," Mr. Kenny says. "That's enough to last another 38 years at current usage. Add in shale oil, and that's an additional 4.8 trillion barrels, or a century and a half's worth of supply at present usage rates. Tar sands, including some huge Canadian deposits, add perhaps six trillion barrels more."
The world is awash in oil, Mr. Kenny notes – and in much else as well. Take copper: "The U.S. Geological Survey estimates global land-based copper resources to be three billion tons or more – the equivalent of 185,000 years at current production. That's almost double the estimate of reserves from 11 years ago." Take phosphate, an essential component of fertilizer production: "Estimated global phosphate reserves climbed from 11 million tons in 1995 to 65 million tons in 2010 – equal to 369 years of current production." Take beryllium: We have reserves to last 890 years. Take chromium, lithium and strontium: We have reserves to last more than 1,000 years.
Around about right now, Mr. Kenny says, Limits anticipated that industrial output would begin to decline, falling to the level of 1900 by the end of the 21st century. In fact, he says, the world is "nowhere near such a doomsday scenario." Indeed, the Earth's resources will last far longer than current analysis suggests because "the world economy is becoming increasingly lightweight. Industries consume fewer mineral resources for each dollar of output. As much as two-thirds of global economic activity consists of outputs that don't … weigh anything at all – things such as entertainment, education, finance and health care." This shift toward a lightweight economy parallels the rise of service industries – from a 53-per-cent share of the global economy in 1970 to a 71-per-cent share in 2010.
Yet, despite all the factual evidence to the contrary, Peak Panic persists – and, with it, the expectation of catastrophe. It's a persistent illusion, however disproven by the celebrated 1980 wager between Julian Simon, an optimistic economist, and Paul Ehrlich, a pessimistic ecologist. Mr. Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, a 1968 bestseller, predicted "famines of unbelievable proportions," causing the deaths of "hundreds of millions of people" by 1975. Mr. Simon allowed Mr. Ehrlich to select any five metals, then bet him that inflation-adjusted prices of these metals (copper, chromium, tin, nickel and tungsten) would fall in the next decade (indicating plenty); Mr. Ehrlich bet that prices would rise (indicating shortage). Mr. Simon won – with all five metals.
The Malthusian literature of the 20th century reads retrospectively like the Book of Revelation itself, all madness and mayhem. But reason can't be forever routed. Mr. Kenny, an environmental economist, works principally on economic development in the Third World. (He favours carbon taxes.) His analysis is important – proving as it does that environmentalists aren't necessarily required to embrace the illusions of a doomsday cult.