Is there really any evidence that the world could be on the edge of an environmental breakdown due to the overconsumption and misuse of resources?

Many scientists certainly think so; and what's more worrying for us,they believe that technological advance can only ever be a part of the answer to these problems. This contradicts the widely- held view that catalytic cconvertors and desulphurisation equipment are likely to reduce pollution significantly.

One recent study, 'Beyond the Limits', uses computer modelling to try to predict what the likely effects of our current life-style will be. As a basis for their research the authors took current figures on rates of growth for population, resource use and pollution. They then constructed a computer model and fed in figures for estimated levels of non-renewable resources, land available for growing, the ability of the Earth to absorb pollution, and other limiting factors. Also in the programme was information regarding the way all these factors interact, for example the time delays before effects of pollution occur. The programme was then run several times with differing conditions or 'scenarios' imposed.

What follows is vastly simplified, but illustrates the point. In scenario 1, which assumes that everything goes on as it is, collapse (ie sudden, uncontrolled decline in population and output) occurs largely because of loss of non-renewable resources. So, in scenario 2, it is assumed that the estimates of available quantities of non-renewable resources in scenario 1 are only half the correct values. In scenario 2, the collapse- precipitating factor is not primarily resources running out but pollution, which massively decreases land fertility. So, in scenario 3 it is assumed that pollution abatement technology makes a successful decrease in pollution levels; but this time population grows until it is too high to be fed. In scenario 4 technology to increase land yield of food is assumed ... and... land erosion causes a collapse. And so on...

The only scenario in which collapse does not occur combines a limit to material production and population, AND technologies increasing efficiency of resource use, decreasing pollution, controlling erosion and increasing land yields.

While scientists can never predict exactly what will happen in the future, they can usefully show us the LIKELY consequences of our actions and the general DIRECTION in which the planet is heading. We can then draw conclusions and take action based on their findings. [Global Excess]

'If current predictions of
population growth prove
accurate and patterns of
human activity on the planet
remain unchanged, science
and technology may not be
able to either prevent
irreversible degradation of the
environment, or continued
poverty for much of the world"
The Royal Society & The US
Academy of Sciences

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