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Beyond the Limits.

Twenty years ago, a book called The Limits to Growth produced shock waves among economic and business leaders by claiming, contrary to long-held assumptions, that industry could not go on growing forever. Written by three scientists and commissioned by the respected Club of Rome, the book argued that continued growth of population and consumption might outstrip the Earth's natural capacities, and that the resulting environmental decline posed a looming threat to the quality of life - and possibly even to life itself.

To avert this threat, said authors Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers, societies had no choice but to slow their growth, consume less, have fewer children, and conserve the natural environment.

The Limits To Growth entered public awareness at the end of the most rapid phase of economic growth the world has ever experienced. World economic output quadrupled from $3 trillion shortly after World War II to almost $12 trillion in 1972. At least in the West, growth and consumption became guiding cultural principles. Up to that point, there had been little cause to question whether growth would go on indefinitely.

Since publication of that seminal book, public awareness of the issues it raised has exploded. People throughout the industrialized world have mobilized to recycle, conserve energy, reduce pollution, and take other actions to protect the health of the environment.

Yet, many measures of environmental health have not improved: industries continue to shirk environmental protections, more people measure self-worth by how much they own, and in the poorest regions, birthrates rage far higher than the prospects for decent livelihoods.

Other problems persist. The advocates of unrestrained growth have never moderated their opposition to messages of the sort found in The Limits to Growth. And, largely impervious to the debate about environmental constraints, governments have retained economic growth as the goal that eclipses all others.

It is against this backdrop that the authors who created such a stir two decades ago have issued an arresting sequel, Beyond the Limits. The new volume reinvigorates the argument, and in some respects raises the stakes. It does not make any major changes in the original thesis, but restates the original case persuasively - and with updated figures and information. What may be most significant is that 20 years of debate about nature's limits on economic growth, and 20 years more experience and data, have only strengthened the authors' convictions.

Their critics - especially economists of many stripes - accuse Beyond the Limits, along with its predecessor, of failing to acknowledge potential improvements in technology, which they believe will ride to humankind's rescue. They have brushed off the book's message with sanguine reassurances about the Earth's abundance of mineral supplies, or the huge new markets that will result from putting as many people on the planet as reproduction will allow. But those critics have largely missed the major points of the books.

Beyond The Limits is not a forecast of global disaster, as some have claimed, but rather a call to action to prevent disaster. Governments and marketplaces can be turned to the advantage of environmental and economic health by favoring long-term management over depletion through incentives, for example. Yet few government incentives favor such solutions as solar energy, wind energy, low-input agriculture, agroforestry, or reductions in packaging.

Beyond the Limits is not hostile to technological solutions. But it does argue that technology will not replace the capacities of nature - what the authors call "environmental services" - whether of soil to produce food, or of the atmosphere to block harmful radiation and stabilize the climate. Instead, technology will succeed by complementing environmental services.

Where economic activity undermines those environmental services, the benefits received by people will be diminished - livelihoods win be jeopardized, food supplies may become inadequate, public health may suffer, and the original goals of economics will have been confounded.

A paradigm for success in averting this kind of battering is the Montreal Protocols, the international agreements to reduce depletion of the ozone layer by phasing out chlorofluorocarbons. Under the agreements reached in the mid-1980s, the world's use of ozone-depleting chemicals was cut drastically and continues to decline. The authors describe the agreements' success as a case of coming back from beyond the limits. If use of CFCs had not fallen, societies would pay a far heavier price in future skin cancers, cataracts, reduced crop yields, and damage to marine food chains. As it is now, much of the damage has been averted (even though some will continue because existing CFCs will move slowly upward through the atmosphere for many years).

The Montreal Protocols do not have to be an isolated case. From agreements to stop overfishing to treaties on green-house gas emissions, to action against soil erosion, air pollution, and misuse of fresh water, environmental problems can be solved. To do so will secure the long-term health of economies, livelihoods, and health around the world. The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last summer was one step toward taking such actions. Continued cuts in military spending in the United States and the former Soviet republics likewise will make a difference. These and other steps may bring us back from beyond the limits.
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Author:Kane, Hal
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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