Limits to Growth

Regardless of the terms we use to measure it, the developmental achievements of the world over the past few millennia have been so enormous as to qualify for the epithet ‘infinite’. Global population, the crudest of measures, has multiplied 60,000 times since early man first took to cultivation. If we had adequate measures to reflect qualitative and as well as quantitative improvements, we would find that the same order of magnitude is applicable to developments in the fields of agriculture, governance, commerce, production, technology, information, education and science. Coupled with the fact that the rate of global development has been and is still accelerating, does this permit us to conclude that the potential progress of humanity is without limits?

Faced with this prospect, even the most optimistic minds feel uncomfortable, for mind delights in the contemplation of finite possibilities and feels at sea in a field without boundaries. In defense, it calls forth age-old mental habits of skepticism and pessimism and quickly garners evidence and arguments to support a contrary conclusion. The most obvious is the fact that the highest level of accomplishments are presently enjoyed by only a small portion of the human race, leaving the vast majority of people at levels far below the average level of human achievements – some even little better off than their primitive ancestors. The second is the common-sense argument that any attempt to extend today’s peak level of accomplishments to the rest of humanity would inflict an intolerable burden on the limited resources of the planet and the carrying capacity of the environment. A third is that in cataloging the achievements of modern society we cannot afford to overlook the serious problems that mitigate if not negate the benefits of development and that with further aggravation could prove overwhelming.

There is truth and merit in all these points, provided they are viewed in proper perspective. Early hunting tribes would have been fully justified in concluding that growth of world population beyond 10 million people would tax global game and fish reserves to the point of exhaustion and therefore was both undesirable and impractical, because they did not anticipate the development of cultivation and animal husbandry. Early agricultural communities would have been fully justified in concluding that the limited productivity of their cultivation methods and the limited amount of land placed severe restrictions on the growth of population beyond 300 million. They could not foresee the discovery of systematic crop rotation and sparsely populated, new continents of fertile soil capable of feeding a population ten times this number and, according to one estimate, as much as eight times the world’s current population. Residents of early cities with population densities exceeding by 50% the most densely populated urban areas in the modern world would have been justified in concluding that the squalor, limited water supplies, accumulation of pestilent sewage, and rampant spread of disease limited cities to a maximum of 100,000 residents. They could not envision the development of the sophisticated urban organization and infrastructure that now enable populations of more than 1000 times this size to enjoy modern amenities, good health and long life in large metropolitan areas of the most advanced industrial countries.

Every major social advancement seems to generate new problems equal or greater in magnitude than those that it overcomes. The agricultural technologies utilized to increase food production have given rise to depletion and contamination of soil and water resources. The medical technologies employed to reduce infant mortality and prolong life expectancy have given rise to the population explosion. The manufacturing technologies employed to meet the rising material expectations and demands of nearly six billion people have polluted the land, sky, rivers and oceans. Surely it is correct to assume that consumption of natural resources on the scale and with the intensity practiced by industrialized nations over the past five decades is unsustainable. New and improved methods must be found; new styles of life must be introduced. The physical pressure of a degraded environment and the economic pressure of rising fuel and material costs, as well as the political and social pressure generated by emerging populations will compel it. But these are precisely the types of pressures that humanity has faced in every earlier period of its development. They have spawned the intellectual, organizational and technological innovations that have brought the world to its current peak levels of achievement. The drastic reduction in pollution achieved by some industrial nations in response to insistent pressure from environmental groups over the past two decades illustrates this capacity. Dutch scientists have already proven that the amount of water required to produce one kilogram of vegetables is only 1.4 litres compared to actual current water consumption levels by the world’s farmers of 100 to 1000 times this amount. Israeli farmers routinely demonstrate vegetable yields 30 times higher per acre than the average achieved in many developing countries. Automobile manufacturers are already capable of producing commercial vehicles that generate almost zero air pollution. The visible pressure of overcrowded and polluted cities has given rise to greater awareness and growing concern, the mechanism that the collective will of society utilizes to compel alterations and improvements in human behavior.

But even if all the problems that threaten populations today or limit their further progress were removed, the human mind would still be left with a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction. This arises because the course of human development pursued up until now seems so fraught with waste, error, exaggeration, injustice and imperfection. No matter how resourcefully we have tackled the problems of the past, surely the blind stumbling method of social progress is doomed to reach or exceed tolerable limits sooner or later.

This argument would be quite compelling if humanity were forced to continue to rely on the methods that it has employed up to this time. Humankind has evolved over millennium by a long slow process of unconscious development. One of the central characteristics of this unconscious process is one-sidedness and imbalances. This arises out of the tendency of mind to divide and dissect every phenomenon into smaller and smaller parts and to formulate ways to deal with each of these parts separately with little or no comprehension of what ramifications these isolated actions will have on the health, stability and integrity of the whole. The initiation of unidimensional strategies arising from this tendency is the essential source of the problems that plague modern society -- population, pollution, poverty, crime and social isolation.

It would be naïve to assume that solutions to all present and future problems will be found in technology, unless we extend the meaning of the word beyond current usage to include the entire domain of know how which humanity applies to carry out the activities of its social existence. For we have been at pains to show that even in the past, the attribution of human progress primarily to advances in physical technologies is a facile assumption and inadequate explanation. Development is the process of organizational development, of which the development and application of mechanical technologies forms a significant expression. But the essential factor in that process is not technology, it is human beings. The progressive growth of human awareness and understanding, of the capacity for conception and organization, of the ability for skilled and coordinated execution, of the enjoyment of self-discovery of human potentials and self-expression of human resourcefulness in and through the collective social life are the essence of development.

The theory contends that humanity is entering a new stage of development in which the mental consciousness plays a far more powerful and determinative role. This has created the possibility and the opportunity for humanity to replace the slow and stumbling process of unconscious social development with a more conscious, rapid and integrated method that is free from the excesses, insufficiencies, frequent setbacks and dead ends that have characterized human progress until now. The essential prerequisites for this significant change include a thorough re-examination of humanity’s past experience and present activities from the perspective of a comprehensive theory of the development process. Once this is done, we could proceed with greater preparedness and confidence to ask What are the limits?