Is It Apocalypse Now?

Slip the floppy disk into your Macintosh. Your mission: explore how the future of the world can unfold, without bringing the planet to the brink of apocalypse. The screen shows a rat's nest of loops describing 225 measures, from fertility to soil loss to industrial capacity. Hidden deep in the software are the equations relating them. Now choose your poison. Cut the same 42 million acres of forests that are being taken today; your world has no forests in 47 years. Click. Make your hungry people work the soil more intensely; land fertility, which fell only 5 percent from 19 70 to 2000, plunges 12 percent per year in 2040. Click. By the year 2020 reserves of minerals and other resources have shrunk to just 30 years' worth. Crop yields plummet billions starve. Industrial output per capita crashes; the "rich" live at the level of 1900. By 2100 your world has collapsed.

It's not a very jolly video game. More like Malthusian Nintendo, it is a sophisticated simulation called World3 whose dire scenarios have spurred dozens of scientific meetings and international symposiums over the past year. Now the warnings of World3 have become the specter that haunts the Rio summit. Neither a brainless extrapolation of current trends nor a prediction, World3 lays out possible futures and how they'd change if factors such as pollution control, fertility rate or crop yields changed. Its sobering conclusion: humankind is using resources and dumping waste at rates the planet cannot sustain. "If changes are not made," says Donella Meadows of Dartmouth College, one of the authors of the book "Beyond the Limits,"* describing World3, "then our computer model foresees collapse within 50 years."

If this sounds familiar, that's because the three authors of "Beyond the Limits" also helped produce the notorious 1972 report "Limits to Growth." Its warning that population and growth might tip the world's economic or biological life-support systems into collapse within 100 years was greeted with as much ridicule as reflection. Few thought its doomsday scenario possible. Few took it seriously. But then a funny thing happened. From fisheries in the North Atlantic to crop yields in Africa to timber harvests in Asia, exactly the sort of collapses foreseen in "Limits" came about. These harsh facts of life have made for some strange bedfellows. From the private sector, the Business Council for Sustainable Development-48 CEOs from firms such as Du Pont, Chevron, Nissan and Mitsubishi, led by multimillionaire Swiss industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny--declared that the world must "change course" or face a collapse of the systems that sustain life. From government, an anxious Robert McNamara, former head of the World Bank and secretary of defense, warned in December that the earth cannot tolerate its rising population and increasing pressure on resources. And from the developing nations, Shridath Ramphal, former secretary-general of the Commonwealth, predicted that "unless we bring ourselves to accept the need for global and far-reaching change, we are headed for catastrophe."

Can that be? Economists, who know all about wrong forecasts, criticize World3 for its hubris in plotting the 21st century's population, industrial capacity, pollution and other indicators. Some argue that technology will stave off apocalypse: once scientists invented fiber optics, for instance, a single ultrathin fiber could replace 625 copper wires and it didn't matter a whit to telecommunications if earth ran out of copper. What invention can't cure, argue economists, markets can. If governments would only scrap policies that encourage ecostupidity--subsidies for cutting virgin forest in Oregon and Brazil, for growing rice in California, for raising cattle in Amazonia--the planet might be saved. But World3 does assume perfect markets. It also allows for pollution abatement, crop improvement and resource substitution. The outcome is the same. "As long as there's continued pressure for growth, and delays in reacting to limits, the system tends to [collapse]," says systems analyst John Sterman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It doesn't depend on the numbers."

But it's not just a matter of numbers. World3's scenarios depend on the mathematical equations containing the numbers. The outcome will be different if, say, soil loss is proportional to crop yield rather than proportional to crop yield times 100. "The scenarios are spun out of a mathematical model that has little to recommend it," says MIT's Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics. Economists who build scenarios "spend most of their time trying to verify that A is connected to B in the way the model says. There isn't any reason to believe this model has done that. My view is that it's bad science."

Rather than arguing about cyberland, those who take World3 seriously prefer to make their case in the real world, where natural systems are already collapsing. Between 1985 and 1989 (the last available figures), food production per capita fell in 94 countries. In parts of the United States and elsewhere, crop yields per acre are declining because of air pollution and the buildup of salt and chemicals. The global fish catch fell (by 4 million tons) in 1990, for the first time in two decades. Oysters in Chesapeake Bay, once so plentiful that they could filter all the bay's water in three days, now number a mere 1 percent of their 1870 population; it takes the survivors one year to filter the bay. Thailand had to ban commercial logging in 1989 when its forest cover fell from 29 percent in 1985 to 19 percent in 1988 and landslides from the denuded hills cost 40,000 people their homes; the Philippines has suspended logging in most provinces. Canada predicts that within 16 years all the old-growth forests of British Columbia will be gone; its wheat belt has lost half its organic material and is eroding badly, costing farmers $500 million to $900 million in lost crops. "For the first time," says James Gustave Speth of the World Resources Institute, "human numbers and impacts have grown so large [that] they are eroding on a global scale the natural systems that support life."

Give your world twice the natural resources you thought it had. Assume that technology decreases pollution-per-unit-of-GNP; assume that crop yields increase sevenfold in a century. Pollution stays lower than before. Industry grows 20 years longer than in your first run; so does population, topping 9 billion by 2050. But the incredible agricultural intensity causes galloping soil erosion. Agriculture and pollution control draw so much capital that industrial output peaks in 2035. Billions starve. The economy collapses.

Although averting doomsday is not explicitly on the Rio agenda, it informs everything that is. That's because the numbers are so scary. Population, according to the United Nations, will increase 2.4-fold (to 13 billion) by 2100. If consumption grows at just two thirds the rate of the past 25 years, it would quadruple in 70 years. In 2100, the world economy, by these modest projections, would be producing 20 times-20 times-as much as it is today. Can that be sustained? Says McNamara, "The answer is almost certainly no."

The easy solution-let Malthus, the Grimmest Reaper, take care of the poor-won't work. Desperate people chop down forests for firewood, leaving so few trees that local and perhaps even global weather patterns change. They overcultivate land until it gives out, permanently lowering the planet's ability to feed its passengers. Helping the poor to escape their misery through development has only a little to do with charity and everything to do with self-interest. "Poor people can be stopped at borders," Mahbubul Haq, an adviser to the United Nations, told The Wall Street Journal. "But poverty can't be stopped. Poverty travels in the form of drugs, terrorism, global warming and AIDS." The solution, according to the Business Council, is to put "the developing regions of the world, where 90 percent of future population growth is expected to occur ... on a sustainable path. [Otherwise], their problems will affect the more prosperous areas of the globe."

As gloomy as this sounds, the apocalyptic vision is, like Scrooge's visit from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, not a glimpse of what the future will be, but only of what it might be. The authors of "Beyond the Limits" are surprisingly upbeat. "We think the human race is up to the challenge," they write. "We think that a better world is possible and that the acceptance of physical limits is the first step toward getting there." The prescription:

The bomb is still ticking: in the time it takes you to read this sentence, 18 babies will have been born around the world. But it's ticking considerably more slowly. In 1970, world population was growing 2.1 percent annually; in 1990, it grew only 1.7 percent and is now 5.4 billion. By almost all accounts, population must stabilize at around 8 billion. China, Thailand, Singapore and Costa Rica have all gotten a grip on their once skyrocketing populations. Will other high-fertility countries do the same? Maybe, but they're angry about being expected to shoulder the burden. The have-nots point out that the North, which has 25 percent of the world population, consumes 70 percent of the planet's energy, 75 percent of its metals, 85 percent of its wood. "One child in the West consumes as much as 125 in the East," says Maneka Gandhi, India's firebrand environmentalist. As a result, she says, "nearly all the environmental degradation in the East is due to consumption in the West." There will be no real brake on population growth as long as despair--over astronomical infant-mortality rates that make each birth a crapshoot, over eking out a living from garbage heaps and the unforgiving land-drives women to bear five, six, seven and eight children.

Eliminating that despair, especially by lowering infant-mortality rates and raising the status of women, is how Europe, America, Canada, Japan and other nations managed to cap family size. It's called the demographic transition. If history is any guide, it will take a few generations for lower death rates to dampen birthrates. Demographers say we don't have that much time: the developing world must slash its population growth within the next 20 years. One model is China's draconian one-child policy; couples who have more children are fined as much as $2,000 and can be fired from their jobs (although controls are more lax in rural areas). Another is Costa Rica's more benign approach. The Caribbean nation provides near-universal access to birth control (in a nation where 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and local church officials regularly denounce contraception), boasts a literacy rate of 93 percent and produces billboards and condom packages advising, "Have only the number of children that you can make happy." As a result, Costa Rica slashed its fertility rate from 7 to 3.5 children per woman in just 25 years.

"The most daunting environmental challenge," says Michael Deland, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is meeting the needs of those 8 billion without running the planet into the ground. That requires avoiding the mistakes of the past. It requires developing with different technologies from those that got America and Europe where they are today. If the technologies that brought acid rain and ozone holes along with sports cars and food processors are applied throughout the developing world, they will cause "truly catastrophic impacts on global climate, human health and the productivity of natural systems," says WRI's Speth.

The only way to fuel development is to wean industry from nonrenewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels, improve farm methods so soil isn't washed away and depleted, and slash pollution-per-unit-of-production within 20 years. Technology exists, or can be imagined, for all this. Japan already uses just half the energy that the United States does to produce one unit of GNP. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment estimates that half of all industrial pollutants could be eliminated with existing technology. The Department of Energy says that hydropower, biomass, solar and geothermal power could meet 28 percent of the nation's energy needs. There are already prototype solar electric and hydrogen cars. "Developing countries need to learn that they don't have to grow the way the industrialized nations did," says Mohamed El-Ashry of the World Bank.

Can poor nations afford green tech? One of the most contentious issues at Rio will be the feeling of developing countries that "they are suffering for our growth," says Maurice Strong, secretary-general of the Earth Summit. "They have the attitude that they didn't create these problems." America and Europe burned so much coal and oil to fuel their industries that the atmosphere may be reaching the limit of its capacity to absorb the emitted carbon dioxide without falling into a disastrous greenhouse effect; the rich chopped down so many trees to feed their furnaces and build their houses that those remaining are but a fragile fire wall between the world and disastrous weather patterns. So the poor are demanding that the rich ante up. India will argue in Rio that the industrial nations must pay the difference between the cost of development under the proposed new accords and development without. The price tag may be $70 billion a year, on top of the current $54 billion in foreign aid. (The developing nations themselves have pledged to kick in at least $280 billion, says Strong.) That's one twelfth the world's $900 billion-a-year military spending. Alternatively, it's 140 percent of the $50 billion net flow from poor to rich countries because of debt.

Such numbers have led the Republican right to fume that Rio will produce the Marshall Plan From Hell, with billions going down a Third World hole. In fact, the "Sustainable development" aid should line the coffers of multinationals that have something environmentally benign to sell. Also, developing nations account for just over one third of the U.S. export market. If they grow out of abject poverty, business could boom.

And there are greenbacks to be earned on the green market. The White House's Deland estimates that the market in environmental goods and services-everything from smokestack scrubbers to waste disposal-comes to $200 billion a year. While the United States balks at contributing a few million dollars to a sustainable-development fund, and thus alienates countries that might buy such goods, former Japanese prime minister Noboru Takeshita is reportedly pushing Japan to kick in one quarter of the total requested-as much as $25 billion a year. "Japan will take the initiative in this cause," says Takeshita.

There is no lack of ideas for how to spend the money. A $180,000 solar-energy project in Argentina, sponsored by the Argentine and German governments, will supply energy and running water to rural dwellers who would otherwise burn polluting gas' "Solar energy," says German engineer Helmut Geipel, "is a step from the last century right into the next." Farther south in Patagonia, the World Wildlife Fund is helping ranchers replace their 22 million sheep with guanaco, relatives of the Andean llama. The sheep uproot so much grass that they turn 1,200 to 1,900 square miles into desert every year. The guanaco, whose wool is more valuable, don't tear out their lunch by the roots.

In Peru, another WWF project helps the Yanesha Indians cut strips of forest. Reseeded by birds, bats and wind, the strips grow back and yield 60 times as much wood per acre as conventional logging. Sustainable-development money has also brought solar water heaters to Nepal, so villagers no longer have to cut the Himalayan forests for fuel wood (box, page 37). It can also buy refrigerators that do not use ozone-destroying gases, such as the 300 million units destined for China (box, below).

If the developing nations don't get what they want in Rio, there's talk of environmental blackmail. The Third World can opt to grow any way it pleases. If that means spewing out gases that destroy the ozone layer over the Riviera and Malibu, tough luck. If it means burning all their coal, and thus altering the climate patterns that keep wheat growing in Kansas and Saskatchewan and Australia, too bad. There is ample precedent. India and China dragged their feet over phasing out chemicals that destroy the ozone layer until they got cash-$50 million in 1991-to help them meet the new standards. "Those who make $200 a year should not pay so that those who make $ 10,000 a year can breathe clean air," says Edward Kufuor of Ghana, former chairman of the Group of 77 developing nations.

Green tech requires cleverness. Cleverness is not enough. What's needed is wisdom. That's where insatiable, or at least unsated, consumption comes in. Meadows calculates that the planet can support 8 billion people with about the standard of living of Western Europe in 1990. But no higher. That means no aspiring to ever more-cars, gadgets, the toys of affluence. No more-and more-stuff. To a society that equates growth with all that is good, this vision is wrong, impossible to achieve, cruel or naive. What happens to a business that does not grow? How does an economy absorb new workers, be they immigrants or fresh college graduates? "The notion that we can or should put some kind of a limit on economic growth seems to me neither necessary nor practical," says MIT's Solow.

Those who take seriously the threat that growth poses to humankind's life on earth naturally disagree, arguing that a sense of "enough" is crucial. But more than that, they argue that it won't be such a bad life at that. Their vision is perhaps best captured in a cartoon. In it, two men stand on a street corner in a haze of fumes as cars whiz by and wall-to-wall people jostle them; they say how glad they are for their high standard of living--without which they could not enjoy such a high quality of life. Says the Business Council, "[there must be] changes in the measurements of progress to include indicators of quality as well as quantity." Life can get better as people get more education and healthier. Meadows calls it "smart development rather than dumb growth." It is the path away from the world of World3. Ours may be the last generation that can choose it. "If we fail to pull off the environmental revolution, to reverse the environmental trends undermining our future," says Lester Brown of the WorldWatch Institute, "future generations may not have the chance." It's getting later, but it's not too late yet.

Give couples no more than two children. Rein in demand so industrial output per capita is about equal to South Korea's in 1990. Invent technologies that cut pollution 90 percent over a century. Population levels off at 7.7 billion, average life expectancy is 80 years, services per capita are twice what they were in 1990. Pollution falls after 2040. Congratulations: you have saved your world.

*By Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers. 300 pages. Chelsea Green. $19.95.