Environment: The Worst Is Yet to Be?

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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 center strips, backyards and outlying fields, hoping to raise a subsistence crop. London's offices are dark, its docks deserted. In the farm lands 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." At least that is the vision conjured by an elaborate study entitled The Limits to Growth. Its sponsors are no latter-day Jeremiahs, but the 70 eminently respectable members of the prestigious Club of Rome. These include Aurelio Peccei, the Italian economist (and former Olivetti chief) who now heads the management firm of Italconsult in Rome; Kogoro Uemura, president of the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations; and Britain's Alexander King, director general for scientific affairs of the Office for Economic Cooperation and Development. It is as if David Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Buckminster Fuller suddenly came out against commerce and technology.

The club was founded by Peccei back in 1968 with the avowed purpose of exploring the large issues confronting society. "We needed something to make mankind's predicament more visible, more easy to grasp," says Peccei. To that end, the Volkswagen Foundation granted the club $250,000 in 1970. Peccei turned to an international team of scientists led by M.I.T. Computer Expert Dennis Meadows and told them to study the most basic issue of all—survival.

Meadows, 29, had studied the new field of "systems dynamics." His mentor was M.I.T. Professor Jay Forrester, the brilliant developer of a computer model that could simulate the major ecological forces at work in the world today. Forrester's model begins with the recognition that all these factors are interlocked. Human population cannot grow without food for sustenance. Since just about all the globe's best land is already under cultivation, farm production can rise only through use of tractors, fertilizers, pesticides —all products of industry. But more industrial output not only demands a heavier drain on natural resources that are scarce even now; it also creates more pollution. And pollution ultimately interferes with the growth of both population and food.

Using this model, Meadows and his team fed M.I.T.'s megacomputer with an array of data ranging from expert opinion to hard, empirical facts —the world's known resources, population growth rates, the incidence of pollution connected with nuclear power plants, etc.

The question Meadows had to answer was: How long can population and industrialization continue to grow on this finite planet? Unlike the doomsday ecologists who predict that man will drown in pollution or starve because of overpopulation, Meadows' system concludes that the depletion of nonrenewable resources will probably cause the end of the civilization enjoyed by today's contented consumer.

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