Attacking Margaret Atwood: Are Limits to Growth Real?

From www.thetyee.ca [TheTyee.ca]
On Oct. 24, in the Ottawa Citizen, columnist Dan Gardner attacked Margaret Atwood for "slack, lazy writing" and mocked Maclean's editor Ken Whyte for not grilling her more thoroughly or "fact checking" her environmental opinions.

Gardner refers to his target as "Margaret F*ing Atwood," whose status as a "celebrity intellectual" protects her from the sort of tough editing that he endures whenever he submits a column. Canwest widely reprinted the attack, published a week later in the Vancouver Sun.

What did Atwood say that so riled Mr. Gardner? First of all, she suggested in reference to the economic crisis that we need "fair regulations" and that there were important things in life "unconnected to money." Worse, in the Maclean's interview, she referred to the 1972 Limits to Growth report written by Harvard biophysicist Donella Meadows and her colleagues, the Club of Rome.

Gardner says, "If this were a writer of lesser stature, Mr. Whyte would have followed up with, 'the 1972 report of the Club of Rome? You mean the one that said world supplies of zinc, gold, tin, copper, oil and natural gas would be completely gone by 1992? You mean that report?'"

The glitch regarding Gardner's rigorously edited column is that the Club of Rome book says no such thing.

'Irresponsible nonsense'

Conventional growth economists and conservative pundits routinely ridicule The Limits to Growth, although few provide precise critique of the content. Within a week of its publication, in Newsweek magazine, Yale economist Henry C. Wallich dismissed the book as "a piece of irresponsible nonsense."

"There are no great Limits to Growth," U.S. president Ronald Reagan declared in 1985, "when men and women are free to follow their dreams." He added later, "because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder."

This inspiring Reaganism serves as the official neo-con rebuff to any talk of environmental limits, paraphrased by Margaret Thatcher, two U.S. Bush administrations, and by the Harper government in Canada. Danish anti-environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg simplifies it: "Smartness will outweigh the extra resource use." Dreams. Ideas. Smartness. These powers of human imagination will obliterate physics and biology.

Cassandra revisited

Last spring, as the world economy soared, The Wall Street Journal reported nagging commodity shortages in "New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears," an essay referring to 19th century economist Thomas Malthus. Although the business journal documented the social impact of scarce energy, water, arable land and critical resources worldwide, they hedged: "Now and then across the centuries, powerful voices have warned that human activity would overwhelm the earth's resources. The Cassandras always proved wrong. Each time, there were new resources to discover, new technologies to propel growth."

We might note, first, that the authors misread the Cassandra myth. In the Greek story, Apollo lusts after Cassandra, beautiful daughter of Trojan King Priam, and bestows upon her the gift of prophecy. However, she spurns the deity's advances, so Apollo takes revenge with a curse that no one will believe her. This is not a tale of erroneous predictions, but rather blundering humanity ignoring the truth.

In addition to sleeping through the classics, certain economists may also have skipped calculus and natural science classes. High school biology students know that bacteria in a petri dish or fruit flies in a jar will grow until they exhaust available nutrients, and then perish. The same thing happened to humans on Easter Island. There are zero cases in nature of endless growth. None.

In real ecosystems, growth has only two futures: stability or collapse. "All growth after maturity," explains Dr. Albert Bartlett, emeritus professor of physics at Colorado University, "is either obesity or cancer." We live on a vast planet, whose bounty appears at times almost infinite, but human enterprise has reached the scale of the earth itself, and we now witness a big difference between dreams and physical stuff such as oil, trees and fish.

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