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New limits to growth revive Malthusian fears

Justin Lahart, Patrick Barta and Andrew Batson, Wall Street Journal
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.

Today the old fears are back.

Although a Malthusian catastrophe is not at hand, the resource constraints foreseen by the Club of Rome are more evident today than at any time since the 1972 publication of the think tank’s famous book, “The Limits of Growth.” Steady increases in the prices for oil, wheat, copper and other commodities — some of which have set record highs this month — are signs of a lasting shift in demand as yet unmatched by rising supply.

… But economic forces alone may not be able to fix the problems this time around. Societies as different as the U.S. and China face stiff political resistance to boosting water prices to encourage efficient use, particularly from farmers. When resources such as water are shared across borders, establishing a pricing framework can be thorny. And in many developing nations, food-subsidy programs make it less likely that rising prices will spur change.

This troubles some economists who used to be skeptical of the premise of “The Limits to Growth.” As a young economist 30 years ago, Joseph Stiglitz said flatly: “There is not a persuasive case to be made that we face a problem from the exhaustion of our resources in the short or medium run.”

Today, the Nobel laureate is concerned that oil is underpriced relative to the cost of carbon emissions, and that key resources such as water are often provided free. “In the absence of market signals, there’s no way the market will solve these problems,” he says. “How do we make people who have gotten something for free start paying for it? That’s really hard. If our patterns of living, our patterns of consumption are imitated, as others are striving to do, the world probably is not viable.”

Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of “The Limits to Growth,” says the book was too optimistic in one respect. The authors assumed that if humans stopped harming the environment, it would recover slowly. Today, he says, some climate-change models suggest that once tipping points are passed, environmental catastrophe may be inevitable even “if you quit damaging the environment.”

One danger is that governments, rather than searching for global solutions to resource constraints, will concentrate on grabbing share.
(24 March 2008)
Submitted by EB staffer Lisa Baker.

Other material is available from links at the original article, such as a discussion between two academics on Limits to Growth.

Before claiming that the Limits to Growth was “wrong,” journalists and economists should read: Cassandra’s curse: how “The Limits to Growth” was demonized by Ugo Bardi.

The WSJ is receving kudos from today’s DrumBeat on The Oil Drum:

The WSJ is rapidly becoming my favorite doomer newspaper. Last week they ran an article about impending financial market meltdown and a situation potentially rivaling the Great Depression.

Actually there’s a [email protected] of good (i.e. interesting) articles in the WSJ today. Most days I skim thru it in 5 minutes. Today, I spent well over 1/2 hour and am still not done. Biofuels, Cuba, bamboo, idiotic lead editorial, plus much else.

>> I read the article and it basically said nothing new.
It’s not what they are saying is new — it’s that they are dealing with it that is new.


Passover as If Earth Really Matters

Arthur Waskow, The Nation
The traditional Passover Haggadah teaches that in every generation some pharaoh will arise to destroy and that in every generation, every human being–not just every Jew–must look upon herself or himself as if it is we, not our ancestors only, who must go forth to freedom.

In this generation, what pharaoh do we face, what freedom must we seek, what action could we take–not only Jews but all of us who face the dangerous pharaohs?

This year, the first Seder of Passover falls on Saturday night, April 19; Earth Day occurs three days later, on April 22. The environmental focus of Earth Day–which has softened a great deal over the decades–could be sharpened in connection with Passover and its reminder about contemporary pharaohs. Passover intertwines human freedom with the renewal of the earth: in the moment of spring, when new grain, new lambs and new flowers rise up against winter, not only a community of oppressed human beings but the earth itself rises up against pharaoh (in what we call the “plagues”).

Today the global climate crisis threatens the whole planetary web of life, and there are some institutions–pharaohs–that make the crisis worse. They are bringing on us all the plagues of today–rivers undrinkable, frogs dying, the Great Lakes drying, hurricanes worsening, glaciers melting, polar bears drowning, seacoasts rising, droughts consuming.

There is a close relationship between our individual profligate consumption of coal and oil and the behavior of these pharaohs–Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Auto. They seduce us into our addictions while claiming that global “scorching” does not exist, or that if it does it is not the result of human misdeeds, or that even if it is, it will cost our economy too much to change. All this is the behavior of pharaohs protecting their power and wealth by making their products into our idols.
(24 March 2008)