John Sommers II / Reuters Large fields of corn growing in fields in Louisville, Kentucky, August 26, 2009.

Environmental Alarmism, Then and Now

The Club of Rome’s Problem—and Ours

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Forty years ago, humanity was warned: by chasing ever-greater economic growth, it was sentencing itself to catastrophe. The Club of Rome, a blue-ribbon multinational collection of business leaders, scholars, and government officials brought together by the Italian tycoon Aurelio Peccei, made the case in a slim 1972 volume called The Limits to Growth. Based on forecasts from an intricate series of computer models developed by professors at MIT, the book caused a sensation and captured the zeitgeist of the era: the belief that mankind's escalating wants were on a collision course with the world's finite resources and that the crash would be coming soon.

The Limits to Growth was neither the first nor the last publication to claim that the end was nigh due to the disease of modern development, but in many ways, it was the most successful. Although mostly forgotten these days, in its own time, it was a mass phenomenon, selling 12 million copies in more than 30 languages and being dubbed "one of the most important documents of our age" by The New York Times. And even though it proved to be phenomenally wrong-headed, it helped set the terms of debate on crucial issues of economic, social, and particularly environmental policy, with malign effects that remain embedded in public consciousness four decades later. It is not too great an exaggeration to say that this one book helped send the world down a path of worrying obsessively about misguided remedies for minor problems while ignoring much greater concerns and sensible

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