Chapter 2: At the edge of a precipice

The confluence of disasters and crises (including climate change, poverty, inequality, wars) has brought our planet and the human species to the edge of a precipice.18

It was the year 1972; I had just passed my high school exams and was wondering what to do with my life. My father had given me the book ‘The Limits to Growth’, and I was shocked by what I read. Having grown up in the German ‘Wirtschaftswunder’, the economic miracle, I had never experienced anything but rapid and continuous growth and ever-improving living standards. Nobody expected that this was going to change.   But this book taught us differently: continued growth of the global economy, we learned, would eventually lead to a collapse of the economy and a dramatic decrease in world population. Two of the three scenarios presented by the authors expected this collapse to occur in the middle or the second half of the 21st century while the third scenario showed how this collapse could be avoided. There was a lively debate about the book. However, as technical progress and economic development continued to advance and living standards increased further, the discussion died down.

Four decades later, when I was working on this book, I came across a study that compared the scenarios in ‘The Limits to Growth’ with what had actually happened over the last 30 years. It found that our global development had taken us on a path which was very close to the book’s negative scenarios. This means that we have covered about half the way on a route to major global disaster and that we have lost a lot of time during which we could have adapted our lifestyles to the requirements of a planet with limited resources. The longer we continue to ignore scientists’ warnings and refuse to change, the more the window of relatively cheap and peaceful adaptation closes. It was a sobering experience to find that it had taken me 40 years of professional and life experience to get back to, and understand better, the developments which some visionaries had seen coming so long ago.