When the “Club of Rome” 40 years ago came with its warning about environmental catastrophe, unless we change and discuss a new path to world development, we all listened. The book, Limits to Growth, is the most sold book ever on environmental issues. Other books followed, such as Mankind at the Turning Point in 1974 and The First Global Revolution in 1993. When the new report titled Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Limits to Growth came recently, there were fewer enthusiasts, yet many sober readers, partly because the book came before the Rio+20 meeting that was just held. The author of the book is Jorgen Randers, a Norwegian Management Professor and Environmentalist, who was also member of the team 40 years ago. But the new book is not as much about the past as it is about the future, our globe and the people on it up to 2052, i.e. another 40 years on.
There is financial and economic crisis in the West and the world today. Even in Germany, the growth is just about one percent, and in other countries it is zero and sometimes slightly below. But isn’t that all right in the developed Western countries where there is no population growth? Yes, one would think so! The problem is rather to find ways of changing the economic paradigm so that zero growth is sustainable. The problem is to find ways of sharing and re-circulating the resources that are used in the tremendously rich countries. And seen in an international perspective, the problem is to find fairer and less exploitative relations with the trading partners in the middle and low income countries, not least in Africa and Asia. In the developing countries, growth is needed and also much fairer systems for taxation and redistribution of wealth to reach the poorer masses.
A lot has been achieved in the environmental sector since 1972, but still much remains to be done, not least in America, China and other larger resource tigers and grand polluters. We have not yet “tamed” the capitalist economic system to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. Well, except for that extreme exploitation and pollution (if known by people) are not politically correct and acceptable any more. Then the capitalists also bow to moderation because they would otherwise not sell their products and be members of the good society.
The new book is more positive than the author himself had thought it would be when he embarked on the project. Instead of seeing more of the environmental doom and gloom that Professor Randers had feared, which he had also worried about all his life, he admits in the book that the data in his studies were much more diverse and the scenarios varied. The studies predict that the world population will not grow beyond eight million, i.e. another billion to what we are today. It will reach its peak in 2042 or so, the book predicts. Some world regions and countries will do well, with new success stories, while others will be trapped in anarchy and failure. The book also predicts that in the second half of this century, there will be more violent climatic conditions and global conflicts. But there will be no collapse of the world’s ecosystem.
The predictions, or we should rather call it future research with a vast amount of figures and statistics, do not really make a pleasant reading. There is major failure in the way humankind manages to organise its societies and be custodians of all God’s creations. When two-thirds of the planet’s people will be poor - in spite of there being enough food, but many will not have money to buy what they need - then we must, indeed, worry about today and tomorrow. The “two-thirds society” is also common in the West, according to other studies. But there it is the two-thirds who will have enough and be satisfied, while one-third may fall outside the mainstream society. That too is, indeed, a shortcoming of how we people manage to organise our societies, share and comprehend everyone.
Professor Randers blames the short-sightedness of politicians for our difficulties in approving and managing change. Politicians are elected for short terms, often just for four to five years, or even a decade. Hence, few care for the long-term solutions; and if they do, they will be out of power anyway by the time any effects of their decisions can be seen, and by then, only a few may remember who it was who took the decisions. Nobody has yet come up with viable, practical proposals for political systems that make elected representatives take long-term responsibility.
Universities, scientific organisations, idealistic foundations and even religious and ethical organisations do have long-term perspectives. However, most of the staff in such organisations are not elected, but hired on contracts or in lifelong tenure. Yet, they should be given credit for often being principled and be included in Randers’ debate about new and more responsible political systems. And then, ordinary people in various kinds of interest organisations must also be listened to. But this is not a complete system; it is just preambles to it.
What about Pakistan’s future? Unfortunately, we don’t find specific predictions in the book - neither good nor bad. The book is at macro-level, leaving the debate about the future of specific countries to ourselves. More detailed studies are required. But can we deduct certain broad forecasts from the study?
Generally, I would suggest Pakistan will do all right, probably better in the long-term than in the short-term. The population growth will stagnate in Pakistan, too, partly due to more people living in urban settlements and having better access to information and education in general, and indeed about gender issues and religious values. I believe that in the longer term, Pakistan’s family system, although probably loosened a bit, will still be a strength for the people. China as the world’s current “production hub” is likely to become more expensive due to higher salaries and other costs, leaving room for neighbouring countries, including Pakistan to take some of its space for some time.
Wishful thinking? Maybe, but also likely. Furthermore, the better educated and informed Pakistanis will also improve the political system and its civil service, including tax collection and government help to the poor, not only relying on the family and the religious system. Natural disasters may happen, and cannot be avoided. Yet, the preparedness and response can be improved to mitigate and prevent their worst consequences. That is a key aspect of the Club of Rome’s studies and Professor Randers’ new book. I hope many will read the book to become better informed and gain a less fatalistic and more positive world outlook. And we should all work to find economic models that do not require everlasting growth. We must admit that there are limits to growth. We need a world with less growth and more development for all. You and I may not see it, but our grandchildren have to. In the meantime, we should work for moving in the right direction. That is the least we can do!
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.