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The limits of growth

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A nebulous international group, The Club of Rome, comprised of 30 individuals – civil servants, economists, educators, humanists, industrialists, and scientists from 10 countries, in the spring of 1968, met in the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome on the initiative of one Dr. Aurelio Peccei, a visionary industrial economist.

The published objective of the gathering was to deliberate on the present and future challenges of sustainable development on planet earth.

Two years following, specifically in the summer of 1970, a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers was commissioned to study the preliminary consequences of undifferentiated growth of human activities across the globe.

The results of the study were published in 1972 under the title: “The Limits of Growth”.

The 211-page Report is a veritable food for sober reflections for the G20 countries and the less developed countries alike.

It is humbling for me to observe that the 10-point preliminary conclusion of the Report encapsulates much of the global issues I had raised in some of my earlier articles; namely: Refugees crisis: Chickens coming home to roost; The eclipse of economics; The apex bank’s fault lines; etc.

Part of the Report’s preliminary conclusion is reproduced below:

1) “We are convinced that realisation of the quantitative restraints of the world environment and the tragic consequences of an overshoot is essential to the initiation of new forms of thinking that will lead to a fundamental revision of human behavior and, by implication, of the entire fabric of present-day society.

It is only now that, having begun to understand something of the interactions between demographic growth and economic growth, and having reached unprecedented levels in both, man is forced to take account of the limited dimensions of his planet and the ceilings to his presence and activity on it.

For the first time, it has become vital to inquire into the cost of unrestricted material growth and to consider alternatives to its continuation.

2) We are further convinced that demographic pressure in the world has already attained such a high level, and is moreover so unequally distributed, that this alone must compel mankind to seek a state of equilibrium on our planet.

Under-populated areas still exist; but, considering the world as a whole, the critical point in population growth is approaching, if it has not already been reached.

There is of course no unique optimum, long-term population level; rather, there are a series of balances between population levels, social and material standard, personal freedom, and other elements making up the quality of life.

Given the finite and diminishing stock of nonrenewable resources and the finite space of our globe, the principle must be generally accepted that growing numbers of people will eventually imply a lower standard of living – and a more complex problematique.

On the other hand, no fundamental human value would be endangered by a leveling off of demographic growth.

3) We recognize that world equilibrium can become a reality only if the lot of the so-called developing countries is substantially improved, both in absolute term and relative to the economically developed nations, and we affirm that this improvement can be achieved only through a global strategy.

Short of a world effort, today’s already explosive gaps and inequalities will continue to grow larger.

The outcome can only be disaster, whether due to the selfishness of individual countries that continue to act in their own interests, or to a power struggle between the developing and developed nations.

The world system is simply not ample enough nor generous enough to accommodate much longer such egocentric and conflictive behavior by its inhabitants.

The closer we come to the material limits to the planet, the more difficult this problem will be to tackle.

4) We affirm that the global issue of development is, however, so closely interlinked with other global issues that an overall strategy must be evolved to attack all major problems, including in particular those of man’s relationship with his environment.

With world population doubling time a little more than 30 years, and decreasing, society will be hard put to meet the needs and expectations of so many people in so short a period.

We are likely to try to satisfy these demands by overexploiting our natural environment and further impairing the life-supporting capacity of the earth.

Hence, on both sides of the man-environment equation, the situation will tend to worsen dangerously. We cannot expect technological solutions alone to get us out of this vicious circle.

The strategy for dealing with the key issues of development and environment must be conceived as a joint one.

5) We recognize that the complex world problematique is to a great extent composed of elements that cannot be expressed in measurable terms.

Nevertheless, we believe that the predominantly quantitative approach used in this report is an indispensible tool for understanding the operation of the problematique. And we hope that such knowledge can lead to a mastery of its elements.

Although all major world issues are fundamentally linked, no method has yet been discovered to tackle the whole effectively.

The approach we adopted can be extremely useful in reformulating our thinking about the entire human predicament.

It permits us to define the balances that must exist within human society, and between human society and its habitat, and to perceive the consequences that may ensue when such balances are disrupted.

6) We are unanimously convinced that rapid, radical redressment of the present unbalanced and dangerously deteriorating world situation is the primary task facing humanity.

Our present situation is so complex and is so much a reflection of man’s multiple activities, however, that no combination of purely technical, economic, or legal measures and devices can bring substantial improvement.

Entirely new approaches are required to redirect society toward goals of equilibrium rather than growth.

Such a reorganisation will involve a supreme effort of understanding, imagination, and political and moral resolve.

We believe that the effort is feasible and we hope that this publication will help to mobilize forces to make it possible.

7 This supreme effort is a challenge for our generation. It cannot be passed on to the next.

The effort must be resolutely undertaken without delay, and significant redirection must be achieved during this decade.

Although the effort may initially focus on the implications of growth, particularly of population growth, the totality of the world problematique will soon have to be addressed.

We believe in fact that the need quickly become evident for social innovation to match technical change, for radical reform of institutions and political processes at all levels, including the highest, that of world polity.

We are confident that our generation will accept this challenge if we understand the tragic consequences that inaction bring.

8 We have no doubt that if mankind is to embark on a new course, concerted international measures and joint long-term planning will be necessary on a scale without precedent.

Such an effort calls for joint endeavor by all peoples, whatever their culture, economic system, or level of development.

But the major responsibility must rest with the more developed nations, having propagated the growth syndrome, they are still at the fountainhead of the progress that sustains it.

As greater insights into the condition and workings of the world system are developed, these nations will come to realize that, in a world that fundamentally needs stability, their high plateaus of development can be justified or tolerated only if they serve not as springboards to reach even higher, but as staging areas from which more equitable distribution of wealth and income worldwide…”

The Limits of Growth is another reminder to the world in general, and the developing nations in particular of the inherent catastrophes in extant development models.

•Nkemdiche, an engineering consultant, wrote from Abuja.


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