The limits to growth

Different decades have been obsessed with different doomsdays. From the 1940s to the early 1960s, people worried especially about nuclear war. From the late 1960s on, fears of overpopulation and ecological doom came to the fore. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is still one of the best science fictional imaginings of a planet cracking apart under the stress of overpopulation, a richly detailed piece of world-building. Like all visions of the future, it reflects the time it was conceived in, carrying a sense that the cultural revolutions of the 60s were spinning out of control.

For non-fiction there was The Limits to Growth (1972). Here is Scenario 1 from the book, generated by a computer model of the interaction of population, resources, industry, food, and pollution. Fiddling with the model suggested that it would be very hard to avoid a massive collapse in one form or other. If the exhaustion of resources didn’t get you, pollution would do the job.

limits to growth

The idea that overshoot-and-collapse is a fundamental recurring pattern in human history continues to be influential. Jared Diamond’s Collapse is a recent expression. Yet one of Diamond’s case studies, Easter island, now seems fairly shaky. And the most famous decline-and-fall of all – that of the Roman empire – also doesn’t look much like a Malthusian crunch. (On Rome, in addition to references in my previous blog posts, check out Goldsworthy and the recent book by Harper.)

None of this is meant to suggest that we shouldn’t worry about our ecological future. Rather that we should be thankful that we’re now getting to be rich enough that we can worry less about immediate subsistence threats and more about distant dangers.

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