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Death of a Planet


– Satyapal Anand

The world has got by so far with the pattern of thinkers who think almost wholly about themselves and their personal problems and about those immediately around them, family, friends, pet enemies, work associates or people of their own town, region or country. Very few indeed have our planet as a whole within their horizons and the men, women and children that people it.

There, however, looms ahead the problem of the very survival of mankind which requires a far greater concentration and application of cerebral activity and statesmanlike wisdom than has marked the past or is evident in the world today. This problem, though universal in scope, will directly affect only the younger amongst us, will begin to have an impact on our children, and could profoundly affect he lives of our grandchildren and following generation.

The obvious reference is to the exponential growth in population, in food consumption, in industrialization, in depletion of national resources, in pollution, all interacting in a closed global system. The system is large and consequently considerable development is possible within it; but because it is finite there are limits to such development. Warning lights are flashing that these limits may be reached during the next century.

There is a tendency to look at individual factors of this interrelated system such as population or pollution in isolation, and often only a national or even regional context. Any broader view involves so may complexities, variables and “unknowns” that the mind boggles, and attempt at qualitative extrapolations are shaky at best.

Nevertheless, thinking people have been experiencing increasing concern regarding world developments and have felt intuitively that dangers of quite a different order to those that have faced mankind in the past appear to lie ahead. But because of the involved interrelationships and great complexities, it requires a deep knowledge of interacting systems, dependable statistical data, and powerful computing facilities to achieve quantitatively meaningful interpretations.

The club of Rome: With the advent of systems dynamic as a science and of powerful computers, and with the increasing worldwide availability of statistical data it has become possible to study the interrelationships of complex universal problems and make projections even thought tentative, of developments deep into the next century. The Club of Rome, an informal international group of men interested in fostering an understanding of the interaction of economic, political, natural  and social components of our global system, and specifically concerned about what they have defined as the Dilemma of Mankind, initiated such a study in 1970. The report “The Limits to Growth” by Meadows et at was published in 1972.

We are all familiar with the idea of a model of something that in simplified form and generally on a small scale represents some large of complex concept or project. Architects make two-dimensional models of projects as concepts of real things they want to create. Physicists make physical or mathematical models of the structure of the atom as a mean of getting some conception of highly complex invisible systems. Engineers, economists and systems analysts are some of the professions that apply mathematical models to assist in visualizing and solving practical problems.

At the request of the Club of Rome, a team of systems analysts working under Dr. D.L. Meadows, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where they have access to one of the most powerful computers in the world, have used their wide experience of systems dynamics to model the complex quantitative interrelationships in global developments brought about by man on this planet. This model, like most models, is based on assumptions and on incomplete data; consequently and inevitably it suffers from over simplifications and resultant uncertainties; but it is nevertheless the most comprehensive model yet developed any where and contains the most dependable data that the modelers could glean from the sources at their disposal in 1970.

From 1970 to 2070: Because the study was based on extrapolations of trends in all those factors forming part of the world socio-economics development pattern, it provides a prognosis of what lies in the foreseeable future and beyond for the next hundred years. It is useful to consider the pattern of the important interacting development factors- population growth, food supply, depletion of non-renewable resources, increase in industrial and pollution. They all display exceptional growth, i.e. they all double in particular periods, and double again in the next period of equal length. So, for equal times period of equal length. So for equal time periods we have the exponential progression 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc., expanding rapidly with time. Such a progression has a cardinal characteristic that any figure in the series is equal to the sum of all the previous figures (less one).

Take population growth. Up to the 15th century world population probably – we have no dependable statistics- increased on average at some 02% p.a. At this rate it would double every 350 years, quite a reasonable rate. Man having in the meantime conferred on himself the benefits of food, world population now doubles every 33 years. At this rate the world will have a population of 28 thousand million a hundred years from now, eight times the 1970 figure.

No one knows the future. The projections on population growth are based on the most dependable evidence available that of the immediate past growth rates. All that can be said about them is that they therefore have a high probability of being dependable. There are, moreover. No known factors affecting human population growth which would bring about a drastic departure from past would bring about a drastic departure from past growth rates. Wars, pestilences, famines- factors which in times past have decimated populations- have at most caused only ripples on present day population curves. The pill and all the other contraceptive devices and practices have so far had only very limited global affects, and then only in high income communities, minority areas in the population spread.

A denuded planet: The exponential growth of population is only one interacting component of our global system. We are depleting non-renewable natural resources like ores and fossil fuels, also at exponential rates. The MIT team, using the latest world statistics available, have shown that, at current exponential rates of the use of known reserves, we will run out of aluminum in 31 years, copper in 21 years, iron in 93 year, tin in 15 years, natural gas in 22 year, petroleum in 20 years, coal in 111 years and so on.

Undoubtedly large new deposits of all these commodities will be found, and so extend their periods of use. The earth has tremendous resources, e.g. in unexplored regions, at deeper that yet exploited levels, and under the oceans. But its resources are not unlimited. And new discoveries may not extend them for very long because of he exponentially accelerating exploitation. For instance, the MIT team has calculated that if actual reserves were five time known reserves the –prodigious quantities indeed- it would extend years, copper by 27 years, iron by 80 years and coal by 39 years.

Going two steps further, still using present exponential rates of exploitation, I have calculated that for aluminium the time of depletion for 20 times known reserves would be 75 years from now; the corresponding figure for petroleum would be 81 and 120 years. These figures provide dramatic evidence of the efforts of exponential growth in exploitation. The conclusion that can be drawn is that if exponential growth in usage of these commodities continues as heretofore, most of the non-renewable natural resources on which our way of life today so largely depends, will be dissipated between the years 2000 and 2100.

Whose birthright?: Each person of the world’s exploding population has a birthright to a share in world resources. Increasingly the less privileged seek, even demand, that what the more privileged have, should also be theirs. The majority of the privileged don’t not agree but of late the truth is dawning upon them. In years to come they may tend increasingly to agree and to seek ways of sharing the earth’s riches and the products of an expanding technology with the under-privileged. This has so far hardly been marked by spectacular success. But if it had, what effects would it have on non-renewable resources?

It is said that one quarter of the world’s population has three-quarters of its wealth. If all the world’s have nots became haves overnight, the rates of consumption of raw materials would be about three times the present rates. If exploitation at three times the current annual consumption started in 2000 AD, but the percentage growth rate for each commodity remained as at present, taking just two examples: known resources of aluminium, instead of being depleted in 31 years as calculated by the MIT team, would be depleted in 17 years: known resources of petroleum would last less that nine years instead of 20.

The inevitable byproduct of increasing agricultural urban and industrial development to meet the needs and want of an expanding world population is pollution through solid, liquid and gaseous waste products. This has shown rapid exponential growth; examples are: mercury in sea fish which has recently increased in some waters to levels dangerous to man, and deposits of airborne lead decreasing in successively deeper layers of the Greenland icecap. Already the oceans, previously considered an infinite sink, are showing the strain of man-made pollution. Although countermeasures are being applied in many countries, the choice facing an expanding world society will be between increasing average living standard with material increases in pollution, of less pollution with very much lower standards. The MIT prediction is that a very considerable increase in pollution will occur over the next century, countermeasures notwithstanding.

The demand for food is growing exponentially. This can be met as long as increased acrage of land can be found, improved food producing strains of plants and animals developed, and the sea food of the oceans further exploited. The Club of Rome study shows that, even with much improved yield, the limit to world food production will be reached in the first half of the 21st century, whereafter world population will decrease dramatically due to mainutrition and famine. Thus the much discredited prognosis of Malthus made in 1798 could become reality before the year 2050, or within 50 years from-now.

It is rather depressing tale. It concerns what more and more thinking people regard as the most important world problem of our era, and one, more over, which individual countries can ignore only at their peril. It, therefore, requires urgent attention from individual governments as well as from those who aspire to world government, from universities, from research establishments, from organized industry and commerce, from the professions, from the communication media.

The statistics, the systems dynamics approach, the model technique are available. The skeptics should provide their own model for the future, showing the growth they expect and the quality of life of the peoples in the next century and explore why these depart from the extrapolations of the past. Or if they believe that man will find solutions to these, how this will come about and what authorities or agents will in fact intervene and by what process they will achieve their ends.

It is possible to avoid a catastrophic fate for mankind. But this will require a revolution, in the political and economic thinking of today and fundamental changes in man’s sense of values. The government, all governments, will have to introduce effective measures to stem population growth. This factor overshadows all others and profoundly influences each of them. Secondly, a new socio-economic ethic based on a value system different form that at present enthroned, one that has quality of life as criterion, will have to be universally adopted. This includes an appreciation of the importance of the natural environment, not only from the aesthetic point of view, but as essential to survival.