NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Environmental Alarmism, Then and Now

July 12, 2012

Forty years ago, a multinational group of business leaders, politicians and intellectuals known as the Club of Rome made the case for arresting the rate of economic growth. In their keynote publication, The Limits to Growth, they argued that ever-increasing consumption and depletion of the world's finite resources would inevitably lead to overextension and eventual catastrophe, says Bjørn Lomborg, director of Copenhagen Consensus Center and adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School.

From the point of view of the club's members, the exponential growth of the human population would exhaust natural resources, leading to crisis and subsequent unparalleled human misery. If the loss of natural resources didn't do humanity in, it would be pollution, and if not pollution, then the inability of the agricultural industry to meet increasing demand.

This alarmism, however, was clearly unfounded. For starters, much of the predictions of the club's tome have failed to come to pass. But more importantly, their fears for the loss of basic human commodities failed to account for human ingenuity and innovation. These forces constantly create new pathways to production and new means for the extraction and use of resources.

  • Before 2012, they concluded, the world would exhaust supplies of aluminum, copper, gold, lead, mercury, natural gas, oil, silver, tin, tungsten and zinc -- 12 of the 19 resources they examined.
  • These predictions relied upon contemporary estimates of known and recoverable reserves around the world, and allowed for only marginal improvements in efficiency that would lower rates of consumption.
  • That these materials are all in relatively abundant supply to this day speaks to human progress in the last 40 years in discovering new deposits and using scarce resources more intelligently.

The experience of mercury in particular is instructive, as changes in its use over the past 40 years demonstrate the needlessness of the alarmism promulgated by the club.

  • In The Limits to Growth, the authors argued that known reserves of mercury would last only 13 more years, or 41 years allowing for a magical quintupling of reserves.
  • Supporting this prediction, they pointed out that the price of mercury had gone up 500 percent in the previous 20 years -- a testament to its increasing scarcity.
  • Since then, technological innovations have replaced mercury in batteries, dental fillings and thermometers.
  • Mercury consumption has since collapsed by 98 percent, and the price had fallen by 90 percent in 2000.

Source: Bjørn Lomborg, "Environmental Alarmism, Then and Now," Foreign Affairs, July/August 2012.

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