On the 40th Anniversary of the "Limits to Growth"
It's the 40th anniversary this year of the 1972 release of the book "The Limits to Growth" from the Club of Rome, which used computer models to predict that world population growth and economic expansion would cause the Earth to "overshoot" its carrying capacity of finite resources, and eventually lead to overpopulation, mass starvation, smog disasters, pesticide-induced cancers, oceans devoid of fish, massive species extinction, and significant reductions in life expectancy among other inevitable calamities, disasters, and catastrophes.
Ask someone today whether he cares about the environment and what he is doing about it, and you are likely to hear something like, “Of course I care; I recycle.” The caring part is all to the good and a major positive change from a few decades ago. But the recycling part is often just a feel-good gesture that provides little environmental benefit at a significant cost.In other words, Recycling is Garbage, as science columnist John Tierney explained in the New York Times back in 1996, and could also be described as a "fundamentally religious impulse" according to economist Steven Landsburg.
When people think of recycling today, they often think of paper. This, too, is not a new idea; trash has been a resource for centuries, with the extent of its culling and reprocessing depending on the current market prices of the goods in question. Throughout the past century, about 30–50 percent of all paper was recycled, before the advent of public information campaigns or peer pressure.
But now, in the wake of jeremiads such as The Limits to Growth, recycling tends to be seen less as an economic question and more as a matter of personal and civic virtue. Children learn to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” as part of their official moral education. They are told that by doing so, they are “saving trees.” Yet in fact, well-managed forests for paper production in countries such as Finland and Sweden are continuously replanted, yielding not fewer trees but more. Artificially encouraging the recycling of paper lowers the payoff for such forests, making them more likely to be converted into agricultural or urban land. Nor does recycling paper save the rain forests, since it is not made with tropical timber. Nor does recycling paper address a problem of municipal waste: incineration can recapture much of the energy from used paper with virtually no waste problems, and even without incineration, all U.S. municipal waste from the entire twenty-first century could be contained in a single square dump that was 18 miles on each side and 100 feet high.
The effort to recycle substances such as paper and glass, however, consumes money and manpower, which are also scarce resources and could be expended on other socially valuable efforts, such as building roads or staffing hospitals. And so as the price of paper has declined and the value of human work has risen dramatically, today we pay tribute to the pagan god of token environmentalism by spending countless hours sorting, storing, and collecting used paper, which, when combined with government subsidies, yields slightly lower-quality paper in order to secure a resource that was never threatened in the first place.
At the end of his article, Bjorn Lomborg concludes that:
Even though the Club of Rome’s general school of thought has mercifully gone the way of other 1970s-era relics, such as mood rings and pet rocks, the effects linger in popular and elite consciousness. People get more excited about the fate of the Kyoto Protocol (aimed at fighting global warming) than the fate of the Doha Round (aimed at lowering trade barriers) —even though an expansion of trade would do hundreds or thousands of times as much good as feeble limitations of emissions, and do so more cheaply, quickly, and efficiently for the very people who are most vulnerable. It is past time to acknowledge that economic growth, for lack of a better word, is good, and that what the world needs is more of it, not less.