When I was a child, back in 1972, the Club of Rome, a global think tank, released a report titled “The Limits to Growth”. In this report, it warned the world about the possible consequences of unchecked growth. These warnings were based on Malthusian theory, proposed by Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century. Malthus suggested that while populations grow exponentially, food production can only grow linearly, which would eventually lead to global starvation. The Club of Rome extended Malthus’s arguments to include resources like oil, gas, and minerals. Most scientists in the 70s believed that the Club of Rome was right in predicting our economic demise. My childhood and adolescense was marked by a sense of doom, that by the year 2000 global wars over resources were going to be common place and humanity was going to be impoverished and hungry. Few would have guessed that by 2000 we mostly had global peace (especially compared to WWI and WWII) and while population had doubled so had GDP per capita around the world.
As we moved into the 21st century, we realized that the predicted Malthusian catastrophe had been averted. Despite the global population increasing from 3.7 billion in 1970 to 7.8 billion by 2020, surprising and phenomenal advances in technology allowed us to overcome the forecasted food and resource shortages.
Key among these was the Green Revolution. It involved the creation of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, and distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers. The introduction of disease-resistant wheat and rice dramatically increased per-acre yields. For instance, wheat yields in developing countries doubled between 1961 and 1982.
The energy sector also saw significant advancements. New oil and gas extraction techniques such as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and horizontal drilling were developed in the late 20th century. These technologies enabled access to reserves that were previously uneconomical to extract, leading to an unexpected abundance of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel production grew way beyond the most optimistic predictions of the 70s.
In the face of the current global challenge, climate change, many are drawing parallels with the Malthusian predictions of the past. Scientists warn that if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current rate, we risk causing catastrophic climate changes. However, I believe that just as technological advancements got us out of the Malthusian trap, they will also help us tackle climate change.
For instance, the cost of solar photovoltaic modules has fallen by nearly 99% since 1976, thanks to improved manufacturing processes and efficiencies. From 2010 to 2020, the cost of installing solar power dropped from $0.378 per kWh to $0.068 per kWh, making it competitive with traditional forms of energy.
Wind turbines have also significantly improved. Modern turbines are taller, have longer blades, and are more efficient than their predecessors. They can now generate power at a capacity factor of 45%, up from 30-35% in the early 2000s.
Battery technology has improved too, largely driven by the rise of electric vehicles (EVs). The cost of lithium-ion batteries fell by 89% from 2010 to 2020, from $1,160 per kWh to $137 per kWh, making electric cars more affordable.
Meanwhile, nuclear fission has made progress, with several countries investing in small modular reactors (SMRs), which are more flexible and cost-effective than traditional reactors. And while fusion power remains largely experimental as of 2021, the ITER project, a multinational collaboration aiming to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power, is expected to begin plasma experiments by 2025.
Electrification of transportation is another promising development. By 2021, there were over 10 million electric cars on the world’s roads, up from virtually none in 2010. Companies like Tesla, Nissan, and BYD have been at the forefront of this transition, with models like the Tesla Model 3, Nissan Leaf, and BYD Qin becoming increasingly common.
While I think it made sense to think like the scientists of the Club of Rome thought back in the 70s that the world was going to destruction via starvation and resource depletion and that it makes sense that Al Gore, Greta Thunberg and millions of others think that we are on the same path regarding climate change, paradoxically, what scientists consistently get wrong is their own ability to engineer their way out of seemingly unsurmountable technical challenges.
I am confident that just like we can now house, feed, educate and take care of 8 billion people (if there still is over a billion people living in extreme poverty that is out of poor politics and not lack of resources), we will be able to deal with the temporary rise in temperatures as we stop burning fossil fuels. Wind, solar, nuclear and batteries are way on their way to give us the solution we need to avoid climate catastrophe.
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