THE STORMING OF THE WORLD
The human family, if it does not change its ways, will finally overcrowd, gut and poison the earth
It may be coincidence, or it may be natural cause and effect, that the most important discoveries of our time are unfolding in the neighborhood of Boston. Nearby, the Pilgrims made their landfall and unwittingly planted the seeds of a Republic with an unimaginable future. From the steeple of Boston’s Old North Church, on the night of April 18, 1775, a lantern told Paul Revere that the redcoats were coming and next day a brief musket volley at Lexington proclaimed the American Revolution. But a far larger revolution, designed to save humanity from itself, has begun in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Cambridge.
Why Cambridge of all places? Because computers at MIT have roughly measured a process threatening to destroy man’s civilized life after 5,000 years of unquestioned advance. Also because the process centres in the United States, which is the first nation to grasp the risk of a planetary suicide more probable than a nuclear war. Thus the original revolution is rounding a vast circle of hope and failure to confront a second and to decide whether any rich society can long endure in a poor world.
So, at least, the computers say but of course they could be wrong. Actually, they are bound to be wrong by a wide mathematical margin when the data fed into them are crude and the figures then regurgitated no more trustworthy. All respectable computers wear, as a cautionary acronym, the letters GIGO, which means garbage-in-garbage-out. Yet even the strongest critics of the MIT investigators, quibbling over the details, cannot deny the broad conclusion — that the human family, if it does not change its ways, will finally overcrowd, gut and poison its tiny fragment in the universe, that what we face is no less than a catastrophic collapse of our planet perhaps within 100 years.
The MIT computers, despite their necessary errors of arithmetic and their inability to reckon man’s stubborn instinct of survival, tell him a truth unique in his experience since he appeared upon the earth. And the truth, however you extrapolate it, makes sad gibberish of our economic folklore, our smug ideologies and, in fact, just about everything we have been taught to believe. Nothing in any accepted political theory, government plan, parliamentary statute or economist’s chart touches, much less proposes to master, this problem of problems. How can such flimsy solutions work when the human dilemma, at bottom, is not economic, political, or definable by computers, statistics or any precise yardstick? Instead, the dilemma is philosophical, moral and, if one dares to use the word in this agnostic age, spiritual, like all things of basic importance. The test ahead of us is not a test of our social apparatus but of ourselves.
It is particularly so for North Americans who have ravened through a continent, built the world’s highest living standard and now find that their success answers none of life’s fundamental issues. While the wealthy passengers in the dining saloon complain about the menu, wines and napery, our ship is beginning to sink. It can still be saved all right, but not by our present methods or morals.
These horrendous notions sit oddly in the pleasant MIT offices where I went recently to talk to the scientists who feed the computers that forecast our end. There the prophets of doom speak in muted voices, all the more chilling for their serenity. Professor Jay W. Forrester is the resident doomsayer-in-chief — a tall, lean man with bony features and hard muscles who might be a composite portrait of a contemporary Pilgrim Father and a small-town business executive. There is nothing fancy about him, except his mind. Nothing in his looks or brisk, computerized speech to indicate that he is a genius, engineer, mathematician and horrified spectator of the human tragedy.
But when, after a calm, professorial discourse, he springs up to scrawl nervous diagrams and graphs across a pad of paper on the wall, you suddenly see the vehement flame of dread burning in him. With computers of his own design he has looked deep into the abyss. Still, he does not despair. Otherwise he would not be working to preserve men from their folly.
The Forrester heresy, in a tentative version sponsored by the absurdly named Club of Rome (a group of leading world scientists, economists, industrialists and civil servants, desperately concerned about the future of man and the earth), is barely two years old but already has launched a furious worldwide argument. This does not surprise or worry the heretic in the least. Once the computers had proved to his satisfaction that all societies are bound for hell in a handbasket, he expected to be denounced as a crackpot. So he is, by men of equal brilliance, by lesser men who do not understand him, and by those who understand him too well and cannot bear to face his facts.
For myself, 1 could not follow his rapid monologue but. drunk on statistics, reeled out of MIT and bought his book. World Dynamics. It baffled and then terrified me. It is surely one of the most significant and shattering books to appear since Marx published The Communist Manifesto, and Darwin his Origin Of Species. Marx argued only that an existing social system was w'icked, and Darwin only that men evolved from lower life forms. Forrester argues that both propositions are becoming irrelevant to the physical crisis of the earth itself.
It takes Forrester 128 pages in a book filled with graphs and convoluted equations to explain the input and output of his computers. Since much of this material is filling more books (including The Limits Of Growth, a paperback version of the MIT report to the Club of Rome), I shall not attempt to reproduce it here. But in oversimplified form it can be thus summarized:
Thomas Robert Malthus was right, more than 100 years ago, in foreseeing that limited food must ultimately limit the world’s population, either by sexual restraint or famine. But Malthus could identify only one factor in the grand hypothesis. Because the other factors did not exist in his time “Malthus’ assertion,” says Forrester, “was not erroneous; it was merely incomplete.”
The new, unforeseen factors are medical science, which ignited the population explosion; technology, which depletes the world's resources; and pollution, which flows from nearly all technology and, at some point, will limit population by poisoning it even if man escapes a lethal epidemic of disease or nuclear war in the meantime.
Hence man’s so-called progress is caught in a three-cornered trap more deadly than he yet knows. More deadly because population, depletion and pollution are growing faster than anyone realized until the computers reckoned that speed — crudely, in figures, but undeniably in direction. This type of growth can no longer be measured by simple addition at the rate of 1-2-3-4-5-6. It is “exponential” now and proceeds by “doubling time” at the rate of 1-2-4-8-16-32 and so on.
This dizzy gallop will reach the point of no return much sooner than pessimists of the past expected. For even if the present population growth were cut in half, Forrester claims the relief would be temporary because the consequent “rising quality of life and the reduction of pressures [would] act to start the population curve up again.” Or if man finds, or synthesizes, substitutes for depleted materials his technological success “can merely save us from one fate only to fall victim to something worse, a pollution catastrophe” because technology, with its factories and machines, always emits poisons of one sort or another.
Is there no escape from the trap? Yes, there is, but it necessitates a total, revolutionary’ change in man’s way of life. “Such a path must be toward a non-growing and balanced condition of the world system. The challenge is to choose the best available transition from the past dynamics of growth to a future condition of world equilibrium.”
World equilibrium and non-growth. Those words are printed in cold, matter-of-fact type but their meaning stuns the mind.
To begin with, they mean that the entire economic imperative and, far more importantly, the psychic foundation on which all societies are built must be demolished, the wisdom and central axiom of the ages reversed. Beside this prospect all past revolutions, from ancient Egypt to modern China, are flyspecks on the map of history.
Before he can glimpse the possibility of world equilibrium, the end of economic growth, man must dismiss his lifelong as-
sumptions and, in effect, discard almost everything he has been taught.
All our plans for a brave new world of peace, abundance and justice are sheer moonshine, since they are built on the assumption of steady, rapid and unlimited economic growth. We have always believed it would perpetually raise our living standards, our consumption of goods, our leisure time. It would abolish poverty, unemployment and inflation. It would dissolve the conflicts of class, end the violence of our Western societies, feed the hungry nations, even give them an affluence like ours, and eventually, under a world government, lead us to the promised land.
That assumption is implicit in every political speech of the present election year in the United States and in Canada. It is explicit in the budgets of our federal, provincial and municipal governments, in the reports of the Economic Council, in the marketing plans of all industries, in the wage demands of all labor unions, in the hopes of the poor, the weak and the old, in every man’s personal design for his own future and the security of his children. Economic growth has been the sovereign remedy for all ills that flesh is heir to, our foolproof solution for mankind’s eternal predicament, the alchemist’s secret revealed at last.
Strangely enough, Pierre Trudeau was the first head of government anywhere, as far as I know, to question the primary postulate of civilization. His notable and little-noted speech in Vancouver last year did not go far, to be sure, but at least it suggested, rather gingerly, that the Gross National Product might not be the single deity in the cosmos deserving our worship, that life was not quite measurable in so-called living standards, that the accumulation of goods perhaps could not fully quench the thirst of the human spirit. More recently, his Minister of State for Science and Technology, Alastair Gillespie, told a group of scientists that government and educators must “face [the Forrester] facts squarely, even when they look very black” and that his department “takes these forecasts very seriously.” In paradoxical contrast to both these speeches, however, the Liberal government’s white paper on foreign policy fixed economic growth among the nation’s highest priorities.
It is easy to sneer at this ambivalence but hard to convince any nation that economic growth for the world as a whole is nearing its final limits; impossible, in politics, to preach a limit on living standards and get elected. Can you imagine a candidate running for office on the platform of one bicycle in every garage?
Only from concerned non-elected individuals are we likely to hear such courageous doctrines. One of them, Sicco Mansholt, the new president of the European Economic Community Commission, shocked his colleagues recently by saying, “I don’t pay much attention to Gross National Product. In all our states this has been something sacred. But it’s the devil. We must think instead in terms of the happiness of our people. This means Gross National Happiness. It’s essential that our commission examine this problem to produce guidelines for the future to overcome this diabolical growth.”
Perhaps the world will listen to Mansholt though an academic like Forrester is often written off as a crank. But it is not listening yet. It has hardly pondered, for instance, the fact that the United States, with one-eighteenth of the world’s population, now uses about a quarter of its goods and services. With a population estimated at about 300 million by the end of the century, it expects to double its per capita consumption.
Where, leaving aside the consequent pollution, will it get the necessary raw materials? What does the insatiable appetite of this economic Moloch portend for Canada which owns more natural resources, per capita, than any other nation? What conflicts of interest must face Canadians as a result of our neighbors’ plans to eviscerate the remains of the continent? How can we keep enough of our wealth for our own exponentially growing needs against the ravenous demand made by nations next door and overseas?
And how relevant is our debate on nationalism, internationalism, tariff protection, free trade and the rest to the physical, not to mention the political and philosophical facts? How will Americans and Canadians behave if they cannot maintain their present style of life, not to mention the more prodigal style so long promised by their governments? How will they respond if they once suspect that the apex of their living standards, reckoned in consumption, may be close, as the apex of the American standard, reckoned in terms of contentment, was passed some time ago?
These are daunting questions, seldom asked in what we are pleased to call practical politics and, if asked in the ivory towers of learning, seldom heard outside, and never answered. But are the questions valid? Or have the doomsayers been talking weird twaddle, to make our flesh creep? Have the computers perpetrated the biggest lie since the days of Dr. Goebbels? Some responsible authorities think so.
The alleged fallacies of the Forrester thesis are well summed up by the London Economist. Speaking with an infallibility that any Pope would envy, The Economist finds that the reports from Cambridge represent “the high-water mark of an old-fashioned nonsense, because the MIT team has pumped into its computer so many dear, dead assumptions... and is thus in danger of discrediting the germ of truth that should make more considered researches of this sort worth while.”
As The Economist recalls, various disasters predicted with absolute certainty in the last generation did not occur. Nor will the disaster predicted now. Pollution can be forestalled, when London has cleansed its grimy air and the once toxic Thames breeds fish again. If raw materials are depleted, substitutes can be created, metals extracted from barren rock and new matter put together, molecule by molecule. There is no limit to man’s resources if he uses his unlimited genius.
Other authorities even more learned than The Economist take a similar optimistic view. The attack on Forrester is becoming as ferocious as his heresy.
The critics argue, first, that his data are meaningless since they accept unknown and unknowable factors as definitely established. Who. for example, can foresee China's future population when the existing figures are inaccurate in the range of some 50 million? Or its rate of industrialization, and hence pollution, when no one knows the plans of its government?
Again, Forrester assumes exponential growth in population, pollution and depletion but allows for no accompanying developments in the discovery of new resources or in devices to control the poisons of technology.
One of the most penetrating critiques of the MIT theory was written by Herbert Inhaber, an erudite adviser to the Science Council of Canada. While admitting that the world may be moving toward holocaust, he says that Forrester has failed to prove it. Since the computer’s inputs are mere guesses, so are the outputs.
The world’s resources, Inhaber agrees, may be totally exhausted in 250 years, as Forrester anticipates, but they may not, depending on a multitude of imponderables. Just vary the data by a minute fraction and you can prove anything about man’s fate. Rather than taking on the whole world, Inhaber suggests, “it might be appropriate to take on City Hall.”
Another Canadian, Maurice F. Strong, sees perhaps more clearly than any world citizen that these problems, whatever their dimensions, cannot be solved by City Hall or any nation acting alone. As the chief guru and organizer of the United Nations conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm, Strong warned that “the environmental issue is moving out of the ‘motherhood’ stage to the point where it has become the most pervasive, profound and revolutionary issue that man has ever faced. It requires us to confront such fundamental issues as the possible limitations to growth, the purpose of growth, the control of technology, the utilization of the world’s resources and the distribution of its opportunities.”
In other words, pollution and depletion, like disease and war, recognize no national boundaries, no City Hall. When a few large nations can foul the oceans and the atmosphere, the human future will be saved by concerted international action or not at all.
Amid this galaxy of positive dangers, a negative danger now appears — the possibility of panic. As it was put to me by one of the most eminent scientists in the United States, the cry of wolf, repeated too often and too loudly, may reduce man to despair or apathy and then no democratic government will be able to do much about the positive dangers.
This is exactly what happened, at the nadir of the cold war, in the American government’s plan for air raid shelters. Regarding annihilation as certain if the nuclear balloon went up, the public refused to build shelters. So it may refuse to protect the environment if it is convinced that the cause is hopeless. Or if government sets impossible standards for clean air and water, the public will turn cynical and abandon even possible goals.
We may be sure, anyway, that if the doomsayers exaggerate, some powerful vested interests of management, labor and politics will try to minimize the dangers, from honest or dishonest motives. The greatest danger of all is that we shall argue about the peripheral minutiae and dodge the central facts. How can the ignorant, blindfolded traveler find his way through such an unexplored jungle of contradictions, strewn with booby traps? It won’t be easy, but some dim, preliminary guideposts may help him.
The first records the obvious fact of arithmetic that man has been living recently on his capital and running it down at a rate that would quickly bankrupt any business concern. Whether the day of reckoning comes at the end of this century, or the next, or later, it will surely come at some point, for us or our heirs, unless the process is arrested.
Another guidepost, its figures indistinct but decipherable, tells us that the cost of saving our environment, if we can, will be high enough to knock the budgets of all the great nations into a shabby cocked hat. They must pay for anti-pollution in taxes that will enforce drastic changes in current priorities.
A third guidepost explodes our sleek myth of Christian charity. We like to think that the living standard of the poor peoples will rise steadily toward the average of the industrialized world as they learn our technological tricks and meanwhile receive some moldy crumbs of foreign aid from our table. Even this flattering unction laid to our Western soul is pious humbug. Just pause for a moment and consider its meaning.
If, tomorrow morning, the poor nations found themselves as industrialized, affluent and ravenous as we are, the world’s assets and environment would literally be destroyed before nightfall. At half or a quarter of our consumption and pollution rate, those nations would make the Cambridge computers look insanely optimistic.
For physical, if for no other reasons, this won’t happen. The poor (with the exception of areas owning special assets like petroleum and metals) will remain poor by our standards and are likely to become poorer, even in the minimal necessities of life, unless their population is soon restrained by plague, contraception or starvation. To these peoples, though not to the West, food is the supreme necessity and increased food supplies cannot keep abreast of the present birth and death rate much longer.
As the approaching crunch was outlined to me at Cambridge by a scholar more experienced in the world of business and less passionate in heresy than Forrester, “You, or your children, had better get used to reading in the paper that millions of men, women and children are starving, somewhere, every day.”
If so, the news will probably be read in the well-nourished nations like Canada with stoic fortitude, as we lately read the news of Bangladesh. The smallest misfortune close to home touches our pity and claims our succor. Far away and massive, it is only a bloodless statistic. But there will be worse news, touching our own safety, if hunger and want produce more wars among the poor and eventually involve the great powers.
It may sound reassuring to suppose that, if resources dwindle and pollution increases, the rich societies will survive better, at least, than the poor. On the contrary, says Forrester, the rich societies will suffer most because they are so complex and brittle, so dependent on affluence and so unaccustomed to hardship which the poor have always accepted as the law of life. Being hard, they need little to survive. Being soft, we need much, and demand more.
At the same time, no one can doubt that the poor nations will try to industrialize whether we help them or not. Why should we suppose that, to protect our welfare, they will be content to remain poor, especially when we are urging them to imitate us and become rich? Or why should we suppose that humanity, divided into quarreling fractions, can begin to deal with an indivisible problem that defies all man-made frontiers? When a physical if not a moral commandment mocks the sovereignty of nations, can we hope that joint terror will bring them together where reason has always failed?
What all of this means is nothing less than the urgent need to reconstruct world society, to put an end to the anarchy now convulsing it. That task, if it is possible, must cut straight across all our old national certainties, fantasies and prejudices, all our international ideologies of Right, Left and Centre.
The Communist ideologue argues, for example, that private enterprise is responsible for the dilemma because it is based on profit, exploitation and the wastage of resources. If the dilemma were only that simple it could be solved immediately by changing our economic system. But it is not. For Communism is based on the same objective as that of private enterprise (and all the variants between them) with only a different method of ownership, management and distribution. Indeed, Communism’s major complaint is that private enterprise does not produce enough goods, deplete enough resources and distribute enough profits to the people.
All systems with a common purpose, a common expectation and a common faith in wealth as the universal panacea are committing a common assault on the common capital. To the historian of the distant future, if there is one, the current quarrel between systems of ideologies will look rather like a horde of ants fighting for possession of a moldy log as it floats toward Niagara Falls.
This has usually been the mindweather of politics throughout the ages, the rule of a game concentrated on the periphery of things while the essentials are neglected. The difference in our time is that we must play for keeps and the Falls are now within telescopic sight.
In sight also are certain other concerns that politics has long tried to evade, postpone or disguise. Among them, how much additional power must be surrendered by the person to the state when it alone can make rules for its own safety and only a concert of states can make rules for world survival? How much self-discipline will the person enforce on himself to avoid the harsher discipline from above? How much personal liberty can survive the state’s exponential growth?
In short, is modern democracy itself, an invention not yet two centuries old, already in old age and can any free society contain the stresses within it and still remain free?
One thing is beyond dispute — that no culture dependent primarily on the accumulation of riches can long endure or ever has endured. The fate of affluent Carthage before the poor Roman conquerors, the collapse of an affluent Rome before the ragged northern barbarians and, now, the emergence of the poor Chinese to challenge a richer Russia and a still richer West — these historic cycles and reruns of old movies should set us thinking furiously.
But such thinking cannot be done by a computer. We might as well call in an astrologer from Asia or a witch doctor from darkest Africa. No, the thinking must be done inside the solitary skull of each of us if we are to deny the computer’s prophecy.
Filled with that wild surmise, I fled from the ivory towers of MIT to the quiet hill in Virginia where America’s greatest political philosopher built his house, brought his bride and found his grave. Standing on the marble porch of Monticello, I looked across a green valley to the misty Blue Ridge and remembered Thomas Jefferson’s famous credo.
Why, I asked myself, had his Course of Human Events moved so fast in directions that he could not imagine? What had happened to his Self-Evident Truths, now defied in most of the world and even in his own country? How much remained of every human being’s Unalienable Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness when mankind has asserted the ultimate right to despoil the planet? Was Jefferson’s creed still valid in these changed times or disproved and obsolete?
To me it seemed that his credo, if not his hopes, had been confirmed by its violation. The crime against the earth already was bringing punishment upon the guilty and innocent alike. When mankind’s folly threatens its Life, when Liberty is sacrificed to greed and the Midas touch is turned from myth to reality, then the Pursuit of Happiness must fail and begin again on a very different Course.
Yes, but what Course? This is the transcendent question, as practical as it is moral, and now suddenly more urgent than it has ever been in the past. It asks man to reconsider not merely his routine workaday methods but his place, purpose and destination in a universe of harsh penalties and earned rewards stretching from his terrestrial speck to the farthest star.
The question would still be inescapable even if the computers were wrong, even if the planet were in no danger, even if a foolproof political and economic system were devised overnight. Assuming these unlikely miracles, will anyone say that happiness for mankind at large can be found in our present Course? Will anyone say, on the other hand, that we should be less happy if we demanded less immediate wealth in our purses and more in our minds, if life were simpler, safer and saner, if the Gross National Product shrank a little outwardly and men expanded more inwardly, if we knew for sure that our children would not inherit a civilization doomed to be poor, nasty, brutish and short?
At Monticello I could not doubt the answer of any sensible man. For beyond the Blue Ridge lay the richest nation in the world and one of the unhappiest. Who can gainsay Jefferson’s most SelfEvident Truth? In the madhouse of the 20th century who is mad enough to suppose that the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God have been repealed? ■