Limits to Growth 25 years later

Twenty-five years ago a small group of scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a computer model at the behest of the Club of Rome to predict what would happen in the next generation. The report based on that computer model, Limits to Growth sold over 9 million copies worldwide, generated numerous books, editorials and commentaries devoted to its apocalyptic predictions of catastrophe. Looking back today, as the Associated Press did in an excellent survey of the report, we know the report wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

It’s useful to take a look at some of the predictions Limits to Growth made which were accepted uncritically by environmentalists and others and compare that to what really happened.

Limits to Growth Prediction Reality
1. World population would hit 7 billion in 2000 World population will barely reach 6 billion by 2000
2. The world would run out of farmland to feed the rising population Agricultural production almost double while cultivated land increased only 5 percent
3. The world could run out of oil by 1992 Total oil reserves are twice as large (at 1 trillion barrels) than when Limits to Growth was published
4. The world would run out of copper, tin and silver by 2000 There is enough of each natural resource to last for the foreseeable future and mineral prices have actually declined in real terms

Of course at the time critics spoke out against the forecast made in Limits to Growth and the sort of draconian actions for which its proponents argued. But they were dismissed with the typical environmental arguments — “it may be wrong, but can we take that chance?”; or “it’s wrong and irresponsible to claim that natural resources such as oil will be in larger supply in the future, etc.”

But don’t think those who think we’re headed for the apocalypse will see the errors of their way. Like some religious cult which keeps rescheduling doomsday when their appointed god fails to appear, so extreme environmentalists and others will continue to claim we are doomed unless we follow their One True Path.

Elite environmentalists doom a world to hunger

When I’m not updating my webpages I try to make a living as a freelance writer. This is a piece aboutone aspect of population issues which the DetroitNews published on November 21, 1997.

Extremist environmentalism kills.That was the message of Norman Borlaug when he testified before Congressthis summer. It remains to be seen if anyone was listening.

Although Borlaug toils away inobscurity, he is one of the few genuine heroes of the 20th century. Oneof only three living Americans to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (HenryKissinger and Elie Wiesel being the others), Borlaug earned the awardfor rescuing literally hundreds of millions of people from starvationin what became known as the Green Revolution.

After World War II, world populationsurged. Many environmentalists predicted the world would soon run outof food leading to mass starvation. Alarmists such as biologist Paul Ehrlichpublished books claiming hundreds of millions of people would starve todeath in the 1970s and 1980s no matter what action the world took.

What Ehrlich didn’t foresee wasBorlaug and the power of the human mind to solve even the most pressingproblems.

Using grants from nonprofits suchas the Rockefeller Foundation, Borlaug set to teaching farmers in developingnations how to increase their crop yields using a combination of modernfarming techniques, sensible use of fertilizers and hybrid crops.

While Ehrlich and other environmentalistspointed to India as a nation that would never become self-sufficient infood production, Borlaug spent the 1960s in India and neighboring Pakistanintroducing a high-yield variety of dwarf wheat to farmers.

India’s production of wheat hassince increased almost six-fold, and it became self-sufficient in cerealproduction in 1974. In fact, for a brief period during the 1980s, Indiaeven began exporting wheat.

These dramatic changes weren’tlimited to India; worldwide, grain output has more than doubled since1950, even though total crop land remained static.

But a funny thing happened in the1970s. Faced with their failed predictions and the success of the GreenRevolution, environmentalists changed tactics. Rather than argue the worldcouldn’t produce more food, environmentalists began contending that theworld shouldn’t produce more food.

According to this new view, humanbeings are not precious individuals, but greedy consumers of importantnatural resources. By preventing mass starvation, the Green Revolutionallowed world population to increase and, in the eyes of environmentalists,further accelerated the horrible damage done to the Earth by human beings.

Environmentalists launched publicrelations campaigns against even limited use of pesticides, inorganicfertilizer, hybrid crops and other farming technology in the parts ofthe world that need it the most, such as Africa. By and large, privateand government organizations bowed to the pressure.

“Afraid of antagonizing powerfullobbying groups,” Borlaug told Congress, “many internationalagencies have turned away from supporting the science-based agriculturalintensification programs so urgently need in sub-Saharan Africa. The resulthas been declining food security and accelerated environmental degradation.”

The World Bank abandoned farmingprojects in Africa, and most European nations stopped selling inorganicfertilizers to developing nations there. As a result, African farmersare among the most inefficient in the world and even those fortunate enoughto be in newly democratic nations find themselves without access to modernfarm technology. Africa could easily make the transition in food productionthat Asia and India made if only environmentalists would get out of itsway.

As Borlaug notes, it is the heightof hypocrisy for those living among plenty in the West to deny those inAfrica access to fertilizer and pesticide. “(Environmentalists have)never experienced the physical sensation of hunger,” Borlaug said.”They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washingtonor Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developingworld, as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizerand irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back homewere trying to deny them these things.”

Borlaug, now in his 70s, workswith Jimmy Carter’s Global 2000 project to raise crop yields in Africa.He’s achieved some success in Ethiopia, but widespread success in conqueringhunger will occur only when governments and international agencies standup to extremist environmentalists and reject their elitist and unscientificdogma.

Leave-ing malnutrition behind

A group of scientists thinks it might have a solution to ending the endemic malnutrition problems of hundreds of millions of people — they need to eat their alfalfa. Extraordinarily rich in protein, alfalfa is also very cheap to grow. According to an Agence France-Presse report, alfalfa is full of beta-carotene, iron, magnesium, folic acids and other important nutrients. The alfalfa can be dried and shipped in a leaf-like form around the world.

Now that the drying and processing technique has been perfected, scientists are awaiting a large scale research project to see if alfalfa can be mass produced and processed in developing nations to alleviate malnutrition.

Does Fasting Help?

Before Thanksgiving the local leftists here decided to raise money for Oxfam by bringing in a speaker who made an extraordinarily stupid claim — that the reason people starve in the developing world is because people eat so much food in the developed world. Carol Fenley, an advocate for homeless people who took her children and moved into a homeless shelter after a religious epiphany more than a decade ago, claimed that people starve around the world because of the developed world’s focus on “excess” and that the “enemy isn’t Iraq or Communism, it is our own greed.”

During the question and answer period I asked Ms. Fenley to elucidate how greed and excess, rather than xenophobic Communism, caused famine in North Korea. Or how greed and excess were responsible for Ethiopia’s continuing problems. Her answer each time was that she was not an expert on the international food situation, leaving one to wonder then how she concluded greed and excess were the cause of food shortages in the developing world.

Of course it is the internal policies of the governments of the developing world which are responsible for most of the suffering in those nations. Skipping dessert will do nothing to free North Korea of totalitarianism or end decades of madness in Ethiopia. Which brings me to the main lesson. Like many activists, Fenley places her faith in action, saying, “doing nothing guarantees absolutely nothing.” But doing nothing is often better than doing something out of ignorance of the facts merely to satisfy our psychological desire to see some activity.

No Future for North Korea?

In an op-ed piece for Scripps Howard New Service, Amos A. Jordan and Jae H. Ku of the Center for Strategic & International Studies predict North Korea’s latest round of famine and economic disaster may bring down dictator Kim Jong Il. Jordan and Ku write,

Economic woes are so deep, starvation so prevalent and his [Kim Jong IL] policies to overcome the problem so disastrously inadequate that his ousting is increasingly probable.

According to Jordan and Ku, North Korea’s economy has declined for seven straight years and although adverse weather in 1995-7 partially accounts for the specifics of the current famine,

there is a persistent shortfall of up to two million tons of grain that is largely a result of structural inefficiencies, lack of incentives, and inadequacies of resource inputs.

Meanwhile John Yale of World Vision International is one of the few people from the West to get a first hand look at conditions in North Korea. In Associated Press report Yale described what he saw on a recent trip to North Korea,

We saw people scavenging for food in fields that had already been harvested, looking for left-over roots — children, older people, even men in uniform.

Satellites increase crop yields

One way not mentioned in the above suggestions is using satellites to perform what is being called precision farming. William J. Hudson of the Pro Exporter Network wrote a highly informative piece about precision farming in the Nov. 20, 1997 issue of Intellectual Capital. As Hudson describes it,

The first commercialized technology available to farmers along this line is called precision farming, which involves the use of detailed field maps and soil sampling, followed by the application of nutrients by variable rate spreading equipment (sometimes with the aid of GPS systems) — with a goal of putting the exact mix of nutrients next to plants and the soil types, which ill maximize their uptake and leave nothing behind.

This will potentially allow farmers to get higher crop yields while using even less fertilizer. All that’s needed now is more satellites. Several other private companies are working on programs that should have satellites in orbit by 2005 and by 2010 the full extent of their effects should be known according to Hudson.