So how worried should we be? There's no shortage of frightening studies that tell us we're headed for a climate tipping point—we've covered them here at Going Green. But we've heard warnings about imminent environmental collapse before, and they haven't yet been right, as the Danish economist and environmental contrarian Bjorn Lomborg points out in an essay in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs.
Lomborg looks back to an influential 1972 report called The Limits to Growth, by the Club of Rome—a blue-ribbon collection of business leaders, scholars and government officials convened at the time by the Italian tycoon Aurielo Peccei. Based on forecasts drawn from computer models developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Club of Rome predicted that the world was about to hit a wall on vital natural resources like food and energy, even as it was choked by pollution. A TIME magazine story on the report, headlined "The Worst Is Yet to Be?", captured the grimness, laying out a nightmarish scenario of mass starvation, deindustrialization and general collapse—all to happen within our lifetimes.
Obviously that hasn't occurred. On the whole, humanity is significantly healthier and wealthier than it was 40 years ago—especially in developing nations like China and India, which have seen hundreds of millions of people lifted out of abject poverty. The Club of Rome predicted that the world would effectively run out of vital natural resources like aluminum, oil and natural gas; nothing of that sort has happened either, and some of those resources have actually become less expensive. While there are still 1 billion people who go to bed hungry each day—a number that has crept up recently after falling for years—global calorie availability since the Club of Rome report has increased by more than 25%. "Over the past 40 years," Lomborg writes, "the fraction of the global population that is malnourished has dropped from 35% to less than 16%, and well over 2 billion more people have been fed adequately." When famines and mass starvation do occur, as they have recently in parts of Somalia and Sudan, war and political unrest bear more of the blame than farming failures or environmental degradation.
...To those who fear that we might be standing on the brink of planetary collapse, concentrating on clean-burning stoves might seem like straightening the pictures while the house burns down. But if there's one lesson we can take from Rio, it's that top-down problem solving isn't an option any longer. Maybe the best we can do for now is try to solve the small problems—and hope that the big ones are less big than we fear.
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