Ten years ago it was argued in the "Limits to Growth," a book sponsored by the Club of Rome, that "the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years." This prediction was based on an extrapolation of data that suggested that: the world is running out of energy resources and food; population growth is out of control; the gap between rich and poor is widening and new technology is mostly hazardous to our health and safety.
It may not have been the intention of the authors to project a gloomy or hopeless future, but for many who read the book, that was the inevitable conclusion.
It is worth asking if these concerns were justified in the light of recent evidence. Almost every demographer in the world would now argue that the population boom of the mid '60s was unique. United Nations statistics suggest that the birthrate is declining almost everywhere, even in the developing nations. Morever, any demographic prediction based on evidence in the '60s is likely to be seriously flawed by its consideration of idiosyncratic events (the "baby boom") as things to generalize from.
On the issue of food, Jean Mayer, a noted expert on the subject, has written, "there is now widespread agreement that the availability of food per person is somewhat greater today than 20 years ago." This is hardly a Malthusian scenario of population growth outstripping food supply, particularly when one notes that the supply of food has been increasing faster than population for almost 15 years.
On the matter of mineral resources, the Council on International Economic Policy Report of 1974 noted increases in the supply of every major mineral with the exception of tungsten. Yet in this one case, the council did not -- in fact, could not -- estimate the tungsten reserves in China because no reliable geological studies had been conducted at that time.
On the matter of fossil fuels the recent reduction of gasoline prices suggests that fuels are much more price-sensitive than the so- called experts suggested in 1973. This is undoubtedly due to the search for energy alternatives and conservation measures dictated by high prices, factors that are a function of the marketplace at work. When one considers the alternatives that will be available in the future, there is some reason to be hopeful about both the supply of energy and its price.
On the matter of gaps between the rich and poor there is every reason to suggest that the trend is in the direction of a gap that is closing rather than widening. The rapid development of many less developed nations in the last 20 years indicates there is a dramatic increase in the number of "middle-class people" worldwide. (By "middle-class," I mean that they are living better than the richest people in the 19th century.)
This evidence doesn't mean that we should do nothing about environmental problems, nor does it indicate that we should be complacent about our economic and social difficulties and squander nature's bounty capriciously. But most people today are far better off than their ancestors, even as they confront new and seemingly intractable problems.
Surely, the transition from an industrial society to what Daniel Bell described as a "post-industrial" one will entail difficulties. But there is every reason to believe we can and will meet the challenge. We will do so when we recognize what the problems are and see the consequences of them. Even Dennis Meadows, one of the primary authors of the "Limits to Growth," recently admitted that one of the things he would now modify from his 1972 study is to "tell the people that the power to change lies with them."
Our future is not inevitable. It is brought about by deliberate choices, by our free will. No statistical extrapolation can take into account human ingenuity and adaptational qualities. Based on the history of the last 10 years there are good reasons for being hopeful about the future and for having faith in mankind's ability to survive and prosper. This is not a sermon of hope; it is a dispassionate analysis of the facts that has optimism as its byproduct, just as the "Limits to Growth" had pessimism as its byproduct. Not only is optimism better for you, but in this case any other conclusion would be misleading.