The Next 200 Years: A Scenario for America and the World.
by Herman Kahn, William Brown, and Leon Martel.
Morrow. 241 pp. $8.95.
RIO: Reshaping the International Order. A Report to the Club of Rome.
by Jan Tinbergen.
Dutton. 325 pp. $10.00.
These two books are the newest entries into the debate over whether economic growth ought to be intentionally curtailed. The book by Herman Kahn and his associates is largely a response to the first two reports of the Club of Rome (Mankind at the Turning Point and The Limits to Growth), both of which had predicted world catastrophe unless radical reforms were introduced to limit the use of the earth’s resources. RIO is the Club of Rome’s third report. It continues the prophetic and pessimistic tone of its predecessors and reaches many of the same conclusions, but the emphasis of the new report is different. Whereas the first two reports regarded growth as the paramount evil, and economic inequality between nations as secondary, the new report has moved to the forefront the issue of the gap between rich and poor nations, with anti-growth sentiment taking up the rear. Whether this signals a fundamental change in the outlook of the Club of Rome is, however, another question.
The Next 200 Years is a short non-technical review of the evidence against the “neo-Malthusian” argument that population, pollution, and waste will make environmental disaster and economic collapse inevitable. The most striking of the neo-Malthusian conclusions (and one which, according to opinion surveys, is now widely believed by the American public) is that we are literally running out of mineral resources and fuels. This contention, Kahn and his associates show, is based on simplistic and misleading assumptions.
Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of the first Club of Rome report, had argued that, with the exception of iron, the earth’s potential reserves of most mineral resources would last no more than from 17 to 137 years: aluminum, for example, would be exhausted within 49 years. But, Kahn notes, aluminum comprises some 8 per cent of the entire earth’s crust, or roughly two million trillion tons. How could Meadows have arrived at such a startlingly low figure? As Kahn reconstructs it, Meadows’s projection was based on a nine-year-old estimate of known reserves of bauxite, the high-grade ore which is now our primary source of aluminum. Meadows not only ignored larger estimates made in later documents, but neglected to mention that other sources of aluminum are available even if we should run out of bauxite. Indeed, the 1973 U.S. Geological Survey, a document used elsewhere by Meadows, concludes that “the nation has virtually inexhaustible potential resources of aluminous materials other than bauxite.” As for other resources, Kahn and his associates conclude that the supply is probably inexhaustible for the twelve metals that constitute more than 99.9 per cent of world demand (iron, copper, zinc, chrome, lead, nickel, tin, etc.). Moreover, for the relatively scarce metals like gold, silver, and mercury, recovery and recycling are technically feasible and (increasingly) economically attractive.
Kahn also argues (following projections made by the UN and many demographers) that population growth will not continue to accelerate (as the limits-to-growth documents had envisaged), but will decline and eventually reach an equilibrium at between 15 and 30 billion. The reason for this leveling-off will not be famine and pestilence, but rather the effects of economic and technological development. In pre-industrial society, birth rates were determined largely by local conditions; later, with improvements in public health, a rapid rise in population became possible. But in mature industrial states birth rates have now declined dramatically; in some countries, birth rates have fallen below the level needed to maintain equilibrium. Many demographers and economists believe that the same kind of “demographic transition” is occurring now in developing countries as well.
As for energy and food—two more of the Club of Rome’s hypothesized limitations to further growth—their supply is more a matter of the price we are willing to pay for them than of a fixed limit based on world resources. The earth still has huge reserves of fossil fuels; shale oil alone could probably meet world energy needs, according to Kahn’s estimates, for perhaps four hundred years. Moreover, fusion and solar power, both of which, scientists believe, will become economically feasible within a century, would each be capable of supplying the world’s energy needs indefinitely.
Similarly, Kahn argues that food production is constrained much more by technology, capital, and social organization than it is by fixed resources like land and water. Perhaps only one half of the arable land in the world is now used for food production; four to five times that amount could probably be made arable. In all, Kahn estimates that, without assuming technological breakthroughs, the adoption of known techniques such as multi-cropping, improved use of fertilizers, irrigation, and the use of high-yield plant varieties could increase food production by a factor of at least twenty, and perhaps much more. Whether this will be done, particularly in the developing nations most in need of such change, is another issue, but it can be done.
Given the expressed desire of the Club of Rome to stimulate discussion concerning world poverty, it would have been most useful if its third report had come to terms with the analysis offered by Kahn and other serious critics. But the report does not even try; it considers no criticisms and weighs no new evidence. In fact, RIO is intellectually not a serious document at all, but rather more in the style of a campaign platform, drawn up, at a dear cost in consistency and logic, to satisfy the various constituencies of its authors. It was prepared by a committee of twenty-one members carefully chosen (according to the preface) to achieve a balance among “the First, Second, and Third Worlds.” As it turned out, the Second World, that is, the Communist powers, declined to participate. How well Jan Tinbergen, the coordinator of the committee, has been able to accommodate the conflicting views of the other participants cannot be ascertained from the document itself, but fourteen of the twenty-one have chosen to write individual dissenting opinions, which are appended to the report.
The RIO group was formed at the suggestion of the Club of Rome for the purpose of elaborating on the program of the “New International Economic Order” called for by the Sixth Special Session of the UN General Assembly. Following the declarations of that Assembly, the report reaches eighty-three “medium-term” recommendations on a long list of subjects, from ocean management to arms control. The recommendations include proposals to insure high prices for commodities exported by developing countries, to “democratize” the operations of the UN Security Council, to encourage the formation by developing countries of commodity cartels (“producers’ associations”), to phase out national-reserve currencies and replace them by paper assets “created by joint decisions and used . . . with emphasis on the financing of development in the Third World,” and to require all (rich) nations to contribute .7 per cent (later one per cent) of their gross national product to foreign aid.
At first glance, RIO appears to be a significant departure, perhaps a repudiation, of the limits-to-growth position. For one thing, the new report discreetly concedes that previous accounts of shortages of mineral and energy resources may have been exaggerated. For another, although the laundry-list of recommendations does include calls for environmental improvements, gone is the certainty of previous reports that pollution constitutes an imminent threat to the world’s well-being. (“While the rich world is concerned about the impact of its pollutive activities . . . the poor world is concerned about the pollution of poverty. . . .”) Moreover, the principal recommendations of the report are concerned not with slowing economic growth, but with increasing the wealth and power of the poor.
Yet all this may be more a change in plumage than in underlying argument. The report is pro-growth for the developing countries, but it is still anti-growth for the rest of the world. According to the authors, growth in rich nations has become a Pandora’s box, creating enormous waste that deprives the poor of their rightful share of the world’s wealth. They call for the rich nations to abandon their growth “philosophy” (as the report calls it), and to reduce production and consumption—including, especially, meat consumption—to a level commensurate with their share of the world’s population rather than with their share of wealth. “Ultimately,” the report concludes of the rich nations,
they must aim to construct their policies on a series of “maxima” which define an appropriate style of civilized living in a world of deprivation and declare that all consumption beyond that fixed by the maxima is not only waste but a conscious action against the welfare of large numbers of poor and disprivileged, their own children, and the prospects for a peaceful world.
If this conclusion is anything more than intentional obfuscation, it is a return to the zero-sum logic of previous Club of Rome reports. Why else the assertion that today’s consumption hurts both the poor and the generations of the future? Why, for that matter, the ceiling on meat consumption in the West? The implicit assumption here is that grain utilized in the production of meat for the rich countries would have otherwise found its way to those who need it in the developing world. If this were true, it would indeed be a strong argument for reducing meat consumption in the West.
In fact, however, if Americans stopped eating meat, demand for grain would fall, prices would drop, production decline, and less grain would reach the market. As Kahn and his associates suggest in The Next 200 Years, it is entirely possible that high meat consumption by the rich has helped the poor nations. The huge grain surpluses produced by the U.S. and made available to the developing world either through the market or in aid programs were to some extent a product of the high demand induced by meat-eating. Even the agricultural technology now used to help developing countries improve their food production may be traced in part to the high demand brought on by American tastes for meat and by other “wasteful” proclivities.
RIO’s principal recommendations aim at transferring resources and power to the developing nations, particularly by means of foreign aid (“concessional assistance”). The main rationale for increased foreign aid is that it will help keep the peace by reducing injustice and, with it, the likelihood of armed conflict. Unfortunately, neither history nor the course of current events offers much hope that as nations grow rich they become more pacific. On the contrary, wealth provides the means to acquire armaments that had previously been limited in number and scope. Moreover, it is far from clear that foreign aid actually leaves the recipient better off. The most successful cases of economic development in this century—the Soviet Union and Japan—have made their way without foreign aid and in the face of international hostility. What was “taken” from the rich nations was knowledge, technology, information, capital, and—eventually—mutually beneficial trade relations.
In contrast to the RIO report, Kahn and his associates cite foreign aid as the last in a list of ten factors that may help speed economic development for the poor nations. The reason for their low estimate is not only that the amount of such contributions is inevitably small in comparison to needs, but also that there is little reason to believe that aid is beneficially integrated into the development process. On the contrary, it is possible that foreign aid retards economic development by misdirecting government policies, breeding corruption, and creating an attitude of dependence.
In the end, what separates the authors of RIO from Kahn and his associates is more than disagreement on mineral resources, food, or foreign aid. Kahn sees that current economic institutions have created great wealth; RIO’s authors see great poverty. Kahn emphasizes that the next two hundred years will lift the developing nations from impoverishment; RIO’s authors stress that the future shows no promise of eliminating the disparity between the rich and poor. Kahn believes that current economic and political institutions are capable, with adjustments, of coping with the problems of the foreseeable future; the RIO authors believe that radical, indeed revolutionary, change is necessary. These views reflect a fundamental difference in the political and moral predispositions of their holders.
The Next Two Hundred Years performs a valuable service by critically scrutinizing anti-growth attitudes and arguments. But it may be doubted whether the book will find much favor. Over half the American population, according to opinion surveys that Kahn quotes, now believes that continued “wasteful” consumption in the United States will bring a decline in future living standards and that the disparity between the size of the U.S. population and its relatively large consumption of minerals is harmful to the rest of the world. Moreover, to judge by the reaction of the press and popular journals, predictions of catastrophe and calls for radical transformations in the international order suit the mood of many contemporary intellectuals.
When the reports of the Club of Rome were aimed primarily at avoiding an alleged ecological disaster, their insistence on limits-to-growth may have had a certain internal logic. But if the development of poor nations is now the primary consideration, the anti-growth bias is seriously misplaced. For it is the “wasteful” consumer-oriented economies of the rich nations that have created the boom market in basic commodities—fuels, metals, and other natural resources—which now sustain many developing countries. And it is the economic requirements of industrial growth in the Western economies that have created vast wealth among poor nations where there was none before—the oil riches of the Arab world are only the most obvious example. By reducing demand for these commodities, low-growth policies would retard rather than aid economic development of the poor. The failure of the authors of RIO to come to terms with this fundamental consideration is a failure especially for the poor nations, for they will bear most heavily the consequences of the policies here prescribed.