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Update on an old warning: Beware the coming shortages

Dennis Meadows warned 32 years ago that the world would run short of resources within a century, putting the planet at risk of expanding hunger as well as economic and social disaster.

Today, that danger is more imminent, says Mr. Meadows, one of the authors of "The Limits to Growth," a book published in 1972 and now just updated.

Within 30 years, world living standards could start falling, Meadows predicts. "We are living on borrowed time." The rising expense of protecting the rising population from starvation, pollution, soil erosion, and shortages of nonrenewable resources will cut into the capital available for boosting industrial output, Meadows says.

His book, coauthored with Donella Meadows, his late wife, and Jorgen Randers, was a publishing sensation, selling 30 million copies in 30 languages. But the book was widely scorned, especially after the food and oil shortages of the mid-1970s turned into surpluses.

The critics, though, were often ignoring the 100-year timetable the authors used.

"The Club of Rome [which commissioned the book] got the whole picture right," maintains Matthew Simmons, a prominent Texas oil consultant.

In their update, the authors note, humanity has "squandered the opportunity" to correct its current course over the last 30 years.

The entire world, rich and poor, faces political and economic turmoil likely to arise from a grim situation.

Signs of global trouble are brewing:

• The gap between rich and poor nations is 10 times what it was 30 years ago. During the 1990-2001 period, 54 countries already experienced declines in per capita gross domestic product. This gap could help keep terrorism going, warns Meadows.

• Demand from prospering China has caused shortages of oil and metals. If 9 billion people on earth were to consume materials at the American rate, world steel production would need to rise fivefold, copper eightfold, and aluminum ninefold. It's not possible or necessary, the authors hold.

• World food production per capita peaked about 1990. Total food production will stop growing about 2020, predicts Meadows. A global assessment of soil loss, based on studies of hundreds of experts, has found that 38 percent, or nearly 1.4 billion acres, of currently used agricultural land has been degraded. Key aquifers in the US, China, and India are drying up. This will hit farm output.

• In 1972, the world's population was less than 4 billion. Today it is 6.4 billion and headed toward 9 billion by 2050, the United Nations projects. Meadows maintains the planet can sustain only 2 billion people at a Western standard of living.

"The 'population bomb' hasn't fizzled," he says. "It has already exploded."

Because of their wealth, Americans and inhabitants of other rich nations will likely "buy their way out" from the worst aspects of looming disasters, he says. "The US will be pretty well off."

But he expresses concern that the US will not tackle seriously such universal problems as climate change, depletion of the world's fisheries, or nuclear proliferation. "The quality of public discussion has declined over the last 30 years," he says.

Using computer models, Meadows generates one hopeful scenario where society adopts a desired family size of two children and sets a fixed goal for industrial output per capita, adopts technologies to abate pollution, conserves resources, increases land yield, and protects agricultural land. Then the resulting society of nearly 8 billion people can live with high human welfare and a continuously declining footprint on the ecology.

But this has to be done soon, he insists. The problem is that people tend to ignore the impact of events with consequences they perceive as far in the future. They look to the now.

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