The U.S. Doom and Gloom Obsession

June 20, 2013

We often hear how the world as we know it will end, usually through ecological collapse. Indeed, more than 40 years after the Club of Rome released the mother of all apocalyptic forecasts - "The Limits to Growth" -- its basic ideas are still with us. But time has not been kind to these ideas, says Bjørn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

"The Limits to Growth" warned humanity in 1972 that devastating collapse was just around the corner. But, while we have seen financial panics since then, there have been no real shortages or productive breakdowns. Instead, the resources generated by human ingenuity remain far ahead of human consumption.

Unfortunately, the report's legacy remains: We have inherited a tendency to obsess over misguided remedies for largely trivial problems, while often ignoring big problems and sensible remedies.

  • The genius of "The Limits to Growth" was to fuse worries with fears of running out of stuff. We were doomed, because too many people would consume too much.
  • Even if our ingenuity bought us some time, we would end up killing the planet and ourselves with pollution.
  • The only hope was to stop economic growth itself, cut consumption, recycle and force people to have fewer children, stabilizing society at a significantly poorer level.

The authors of "The Limits to Growth" predicted that before 2013, the world would have run out of aluminum, copper, gold, lead, mercury, molybdenum, natural gas, oil, silver, tin, tungsten and zinc.

  • Instead, despite recent increases, commodity prices have generally fallen to about a third of their level 150 years ago.
  • Technological innovations have replaced mercury in batteries, dental fillings and thermometers.
  • Oil and natural gas were to run out in 1990 and 1992, respectively; today, reserves of both are larger than they were in 1970, although we consume dramatically more.
  • Within the past six years, shale gas alone has doubled potential gas resources in the United States and halved the price.

As for economic collapse, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that global gross domestic product per capita will increase 14-fold over this century and 24-fold in the developing world.

Obsession with doom-and-gloom scenarios distracts us from the real global threats. Poverty is one of the greatest killers of all, while easily curable diseases still claim 15 million lives every year -- 25 percent of all deaths. The solution is economic growth. When lifted out of poverty, most people can afford to avoid infectious diseases. This will create massive improvements in health, longevity and quality of life.

Source: Bjørn Lomborg, "The Limits to Panic," Project Syndicate, June 17, 2013.

 

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