Doomsday or boomsday?


Disaster warnings can be good early warning systems but they are not iron-clad predictions. What they seldom take into account is the power of innovation.


ISTOCK

The furnaces of Pittsburgh are cold; the assembly lines of Detroit are still. In Los Angeles, a few gaunt survivors of a plague desperately till freeway centre strips, backyards and outlying fields, hoping to raise a subsistence crop. London’s offices are dark, its docks deserted. In the farmland of the Ukraine, abandoned tractors litter the fields: there is no fuel for them. The waters of the Rhine, Nile and Yellow rivers reek with pollutants.

Fantastic? No, only grim inevitability if society continues its present dedication to growth and “progress.”

It’s not the opening script for the Day after Tomorrow. It’s actually the way that in 1972, Time magazine interpreted the predictions from The Limits to Growth, a book by the eminent global think tank known as the Club of Rome. The publication was based on an analysis done for the club by leading academics at MIT.

I’m happy to report that their predictions did not come to pass. But The Limits to Growth definitely put a damper on my teenage years. Imagine my despair to discover that the planet would run out of oil in a few decades. What about the fast cars and joy flights to space I was looking forward to in my adult years?

Like other doomsday prognosticators, despite its computer modelling and extensive consideration of economic, technological and social variables, the Club of Rome got it wrong because they failed to take one important factor into account: innovation.

The authors of The Limits to Growth recommended that we cut back on growth by imposing limits on the production of material goods. Instead, economies everywhere continued to expand rapidly. In its most optimistic scenario the Club of Rome predicted that gold reserves would only last until 2001. By early in the 21st century, even with substantial new discoveries, we would have run out of mercury and silver and be approaching the end of availability for aluminium, copper, lead, natural gas, tin and zinc.

In reality we are not even close to running out of any of these. Instead, resources have been extended through new techniques for prospecting and improved extraction and recovery technologies. The oil and gas industries now drill deeper than previously imaginable, horizontally as well as vertically, in deep ocean waters. They use water, steam and carbon dioxide to push residual oil and gas out of tight rock formations. Related fracking technologies have freed up extraordinary quantities of shale gas, shale oil and coal-seam gas. Peak oil has been delayed, or perhaps indefinitely postponed.

Next time you hear a calamity warning, take it as a clarion call for action.

At the same time, automation and powerful production machinery have lowered the cost of extracting commodities such as iron and coal, and as a result the US composite price of metals and minerals, in inflation adjusted dollars, declined more than 20% from the beginning to the end of the 20th century. Mercury has been replaced in many industries with non-toxic products and the techniques for recycling have improved, resulting in a threefold decrease in global consumption between the 1960s and the present. Not surprisingly, the price has fallen by an even greater multiplier and there is no risk of a supply-side shortage in the foreseeable future.

In the mid-20th century there was genuine concern about impending global famine as the population soared. Again, innovation solved the problem. Improvements in agricultural machinery and new crop varieties such as dwarfed wheat and rice, led to massive increases in yield.

Today there are worrisome predictions about rampant antibiotic resistance, crippling shortages of rare earth metals for our electric motors, bird flu pandemics, and solar flares disrupting our electricity supplies. I’m betting that all of these will be mitigated by products in the pipeline, those still on the drawing board, or some that are just a twinkle in an engineer’s eye.

If models predict a problematic future, let’s take fair warning and implement changes. What we should not do is make hasty decisions. Much better to follow the wise counsel of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: don’t panic. If we panic, we will contrive inferior responses. The Limits to Growth recommended that we slow our economic growth. If we had, hundreds of millions of people would not have been lifted out of poverty and new technologies and medicines would not have been invented. Above all, treat the outputs of modelling programs as warnings, not gospel. As stated by a Danish proverb, prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

The most significant disaster prediction in modern times is the damage that will be wrought by climate change. The lesson from failed doomsday predictions is not that the risks are not real, but that we should invest heavily in innovation to address them. We must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by applying current, emerging and future technologies.

Next time you hear a calamity warning, take it as a clarion call for action to make things better rather than a call to wind back progress.

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