UN Recast Limits to Growth As “Planetary Boundaries”

There is only so many times you can cry wolf before people start to wonder whether disaster truly looms.

A United Nations panel of heads of state and environmental ministers on Monday warned that the world can no longer afford to ignore the ecological impact of growth and “must define what scientists refer to as planetary boundaries” beyond which human activity could wreck the planet.

The secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said, “We need to chart a new, more sustainable course for the future, one that strengthens equality and economic growth while protecting our planet.”

A report that was released by the group drafted fifty specific policy proposals. Among them, a recommendation that environmental and social costs be somehow factored into how the world measures economic activity and a revised measure of wealth that goes beyond the “narrow” calculus of gross domestic product.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Exactly forty years ago this year, the Club of Rome, a group of notable academics and industrialists, predicted in a study titled The Limits to Growth that population growth, industrialization and resource depletion would ultimately inhibit the global economy’s ability to expand.

The Limits to Growth echoed the predictions of Thomas Robert Malthus who, as early as the eighteenth century, before the Industrial Revolution changed the world forever, advocated population controls to prevent people from reproducing at an “unsustainable” rate.

Even if the Western world has seen only growth since, Malthusianism never died. There was Thomas Friedman last year, writing in The New York Times that the planet was on the verge of crossing a red line on growth, climate, resources and population “all at once.”

We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies. The economy is going to have to get smaller in terms of physical impact.

Friedman proposed to move away from “consumer driven growth” toward a model that is “happiness driven,” based on people “working less and owning less.”

See where this is going? When supply appears to stall, the natural instinct of liberals is to equalize and ration. Just as Malthus couldn’t envision the world ever breaking out the “trap” he had set, today’s environmentalists cannot imagine that man will ever survive on anything but existing resources.

The supposed finiteness of supply conveniently serves their larger purpose which, as President Barack Obama so neatly put it, is to “spread the wealth around.” If there’s less to go around, they argue, we should all suffer equally. Or, as Margaret Thatcher said, they “would rather the poor were poorer, provided the rich were less rich.”

We have been warned for decades that industry and overconsumption will wreck the planet by nearly the same people who believe that demand drives growth and economies should be flooded with cheap money if there’s a contraction yet here we are, despite the recent downturn, in an age of abundance.

There is only so many times you can cry wolf before people start to wonder whether disaster truly looms on the horizon.

Time and again, human enterprise, ingenuity and technology propel us toward higher standards of living. In those parts of the world that are economically freest, people enjoy more and more diverse food than ever. There is an ample supply of natural resources to fuel our cars and power our factories for generations to come, if only governments would allow companies to drill and extract.

There is a mistaken belief that because resources are finite, so is growth. This confuses the engine of economic expansion for the mere presence of resources which would be perfectly useless if not man learned to make use of them. He, specifically his mind, is what makes progress.

If there is less coal, we’ll drill for more oil. If there is less oil, we will switch to using more natural gas. If there is less gas, we will certaintly find ways to make wind and solar profitable. (Hint: subsidies aren’t helping! Actually, they discourage innovators from improving the technology.)

The fact that we’ll add more people to the world population than ever before over the next decades is not to say we should grow at a slower pace and consume and produce and work less. There is nothing romantic or “happy” about living in hunger and poverty, Mr Friedman. We should work harder instead! The Earth may be limited but the human capacity to create and improve is not.