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The warning we are ignoring

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 9 November 2018

We seem to be so happy trashing the planet that we ignore the warning about the dangers ahead.

I have just returned from the 50th Anniversary Conference of the Club of Rome, held at Rome. Half a century ago this think tank was established. The Duke of Edinburgh called it the "conscience of humankind"

Its two founders Aurelio Peccei (an Italian industrialist) and Alexander King (a British scientist and administrator) were concerned about the environmental impact of high economic growth. They commissioned the 1972 pioneering computer study of what could happen if the current economic growth rate was maintained.


A success of The Club of Rome is that "environmental" issues are now so top of mind. The "environment" is not mentioned in the 1945 United Nations Charter and the first UN environment conference occurred after The Club's controversial 1972 computer-based study The Limits to Growth was published. It is the biggest selling environment book in world history: nine million copies in 36 languages. (The three young authors waived their royalties because they could never imagine the report being a best seller!)

The Limits to Growth reported that global ecological limits (related to resource use and emissions) would have a significant influence on global developments in the 21st century. Today's current concerns of environmental problems and resource scarcity were therefore identified.

The book warned that the problems could be so large that humankind would have to divert so much effort to solving the problems that the quality of life could suffer.

This global best-seller did not provide "predictions" as such. It sketched 12 alternative scenarios (six pessimistic and six optimistic) on how the planet could be impacted by the high rate of economic growth, resource depletion and environmental destruction.

There were four key messages: (i) planet Earth has finite resources (ii) the level of consumption would need to be reduced (iii) there are various "limits" because the resources will not run out at the same time but will vary one from another, and (iv) that there would be social decline (the world will not suddenly "collapse" by hitting an environmental brick wall but will gradually become degraded).

Ironically conventional economic indicators may distort our perception of the level of danger. Gross domestic product (GDP), the measure of economic activity, for instance, will actually increase as the climate gets worse.


For example the Dutch will spend more money building dykes to keep out the North Sea and so Dutch GDP will increase, while the potential quality of life will decrease. (65 per cent of Dutch land is already below sea level).

Back in 1972 the economy was booming and life seemed good – and so the book was out of keeping with the mood of the times. But now the warnings seem accurate.

Some progress is being made. The "environment" now receives more attention in international politics and the media. The Nobel Prize for Economics has been awarded to economists who have done research on climate change. Renewable energy sources are coming down in price.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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