When researchers revisited a damning report from the early 1970s that predicted global collapse within the coming century, they reached a worrying conclusion: their decades-old data was proving to be surprisingly accurate. Worse still, the planet was still heading down the same path with little sign of change on the horizon.
In 1972, a team of scientists from MIT used a computer model to look into the future of humanity after receiving a commission from the Club of Rome, an international group of leading academics, scientists, business leaders, and politicians.
The report – The Limits To Growth – used a system dynamics model known as World3 to look at the complex interactions between the human population, industrial output, pollution, food production, and Earth’s natural resources.
It found that a “stabilized world” scenario – in which global collapse was avoided and living standards remained stable – could be possible, but dramatic shifts in priorities and societal values were required. If unfettered economic growth continued without regard for the environment, it could produce a global society wracked by food shortages and plummeting human welfare.
Ultimately, World3 showed that a “business as usual” scenario would most likely bring around the collapse of global society within the 21st century.
"Taking no action to solve these problems is equivalent to taking strong action. Every day of continued exponential growth brings the world system closer to the ultimate limits of that growth. A decision to do nothing is a decision to increase the risk of collapse," The Limits To Growth reads.
Collapse, in this context, doesn’t mean humanity would be thrown into extinction like the dinosaurs – instead referring to the total stagnation of industrial growth and a significant decline in human welfare.
The work attracted a bunch of criticisms and controversy, but another look at the data suggests that the model’s prediction, so far, has been surprisingly on track.
As reported in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in November 2020, Gaya Herrington, a director for the accountancy firm KPMG, looked at how the empirical data over the past decades lined up with the report’s predictions.
Using the new data, she looked at four different possible scenarios: two different “business as usual” scenarios, a “stabilized world,” and “comprehensive technology,” in which humanity is able to innovate its way out of environmental constraints using technological development.
Both "business as usual" scenarios sparked a global collapse within the 21st century, one through the depletion of natural resources and the other through pollution, climate change, and/or environmental devastation. Comprehensive technology was able to avoid a total collapse within the century, although eventually declines in human welfare were caused due to the rising cost of technology.
The stabilized world scenario, in which the world has dramatically changed societal values and priorities, saw the human population stabilize by the end of the 21st century and living standards maintained.
Above all, Herrington's work argues that the 50-year-old forecasts were surprisingly accurate, and it appears the world is still not on a path to a stable world. If there's one glimmer of hope, the work does suggest that a stabilized world and an optimistic future are still within our grasp. However, to achieve this, radical changes will be needed.
“Hidden behind a seemingly ambiguous outcome of two best fit scenarios that marginally align closer than the other two, hails the message that it’s not yet too late for humankind to change course and alter the trajectory of future data points,” Herrington wrote in a LinkedIn post describing her work.
“We have another choice. Although SW [stabilized world] tracks least closely, a deliberate trajectory change is still possible. That window of opportunity is closing fast."
An earlier version of this article was published in July 2021.