A controversial 1972 MIT study, The Limits to Growth, predicted the collapse of civilization – and new research confirms the gloomy scenarios.
Amid a cascade of alarming environmental events, from wildfires in the west of the U.S. and Siberia to flooding in Germany [as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, Uganda, China, India and Turkey] and a report suggesting the Amazon rainforest may no longer be able to act as a carbon sink, a new study predicts collapse around 2040 if the current trends continue.
While “the world” looks forward to a recovery in economic growth after the devastation caused by the Corona pandemic, research raises urgent questions about the risks of trying to simply return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
In 1972, a team of MIT scientists came together to study the risks of civilizational collapse. Their system dynamics model, published by the Club of Rome, identified threatening “limits to growth,” which meant that industrial civilization was well on its way to collapse sometime in the 21st century due to massive exploitation and overuse of planetary resources.
The controversial MIT analysis sparked heated debates and was widely derided at the time by experts who misrepresented the results and methods. But the analysis has now received validation from a study by Gaya Herrington. Gaya Herrington is a Dutch sustainability researcher and consultant of the Club of Rome.
The study was published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology in November 2020 and is available on the KPMG website. It concludes that the current business-as-usual path of global civilization is headed for the ultimate decline of economic growth within the next decade – and in the worst case, could trigger societal collapse by around 2040.
Given the unappealing prospect of collapse, I was curious to see which scenarios were aligning most closely with empirical data today. After all, the book that featured this world model was a bestseller in the 70s, and by now we’d have several decades of empirical data which would make a comparison meaningful. But to my surprise I could not find recent attempts for this. So I decided to do it myself.Gaya Herrington, Director Advisory, Internal Audit & Entrprse Risk
Titled “Update to limits to growth: Comparing the World3 model with empirical data,” the study attempts to assess how MIT’s “World3” model compares to new empirical data. Previous studies that attempted to do this found that the model’s worst-case scenarios accurately reflected real-world developments. However, the last such study was completed in 2014.
Herrington’s new analysis examines data on 10 key variables, namely population, fertility rates, mortality rates, industrial production, food production, services, non-renewable resources, persistent pollution, human well-being and ecological footprint. It found that the most recent data were most consistent with two particular scenarios, “BAU2” (business-as-usual) and “CT” (comprehensive technology).
“The BAU2 and CT scenarios show a growth stop within about ten years,” the study said. “Both scenarios thus show that a continuation of business-as-usual, i.e., continuous growth, is not possible. Even combined with unprecedented technological development, business-as-usual would inevitably lead to a decline in industrial capital, agricultural production and wealth levels within this century.”
Study author Gaya Herrington points out that collapse in the MIT World3 models “does not mean that humanity will cease to exist,” but that “economic and industrial growth will cease and then decline, affecting food production and living standards… In terms of the time frame, the BAU2 scenario shows a steep decline starting around 2040.”
The scenario least consistent with the most recent empirical data, the most optimistic path, known as ‘SW’ (stabilized world), in which civilization follows a sustainable path and experiences the smallest declines in economic growth – based on a combination of technological innovation and widespread investment in public health and education.
“The MIT scientists said we needed to act now to achieve a smooth transition and avoid costs,” Herrington told the Guardian this week. “That didn’t happen, so we’re seeing the impact of climate change.”
At the same time, she says, the primary concern of the MIT study have been supplanted. “Resource scarcity has not been the challenge people thought it would be in the 70s and population growth has not be the scare it was in the 90s. Now the concern is pollution and how it perfectly aligned with what climate scientists are saying,” she said.
Technological advances have meant simply that we go farther and deeper to extract fossil fuels, and despite some efficiencies, consumption and emissions have only increased. The MIT authors, she points out, predicted as much.
“They said that even if we innovate ourselves out of resource scarcity, we would probably see an increase in pollution from those adaptations unless we also limit our continued search for growth,” she said.
Nevertheless, Herrington believes it is not too late to create a truly sustainable civilization (whatever that may be). In her view, technological progress, increased investment in public services, and Agrowth (agnostic approach to growth) can lead to “a new stable and prosperous civilization operating safely within planetary boundaries. But we really only have the next decade to change course.”
There is, of course, no reason to believe that collapse can be prevented. The civilization that began about 10,000 years ago accounts for only a tiny fraction of human history, and every civilization in those 10,000 years has collapsed at some point through striving for power and growth, which is inherent in every civilization. Our present industrial civilization will soon come to an end as well – but at the expense of the earth and with as much suffering and death among humans and animals as possible.
P.S. Read Desert.