Yep, it’s bleak, says an expert who tested 1970s end-of-the-world prediction. A controversial MIT study from 1972 forecast the collapse of civilization – and Gaya Herrington delivered the bad news through The Guardian.
Why she has such an unusual name? At a UN sustainability meeting several years ago, an economic policy officer came up to Gaya Herrington and introduced himself. Taking her name for a riff on James Lovelock’s earth-as-an-organism Gaia hypothesis, he remarked: “Gaya – that’s not a name, it’s responsibility.”
Herrington, a Dutch sustainability researcher and adviser to the Club of Rome, a Swiss think tank, has made headlines in recent days after she authored a report that appeared to show a controversial 1970s study predicting the collapse of civilization was – apparently – right on time.
Coming amid a cascade of alarming environmental events, from the western US and Siberian wildfires to German floods and a report that suggests the Amazon rainforest may no longer be able to perform as a carbon sink, Herrington’s work predicted the collapse could come around 2040 if current trends held.
Research by Herrington, a rising star in efforts to place data analysis at the center of efforts to curb climate breakdown, affirmed the bleaker scenarios put forward in a landmark 1972 MIT study, The Limits to Growth, that presented various outcomes for what could happen when the growth of industrial civilization collided with finite resources.
Now, with the climate crisis increasing the frequency of extreme weather events and many single events shown to have been made worse by global heating, the Club of Rome, publisher of the original MIT paper, has returned to the study.
“From a research perspective, I felt a data check of a decades-old model against empirical observations would be an interesting exercise,” said Herrington, a sustainability analyst at the accounting giant KPMG that recently described greenhouse gas emissions as a “shared, existential challenge.”
“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.”
Since its publication, The Limits to Growth has sold upwards of 30m copies. It was published just four years after Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb that forewarned of an imminent population collapse. With MIT offering analysis and the other full of doom-laden predictions, both helped to fuel the era’s environmental movements, from Greenpeace to Earth First!.
Herrington, 39, says she undertook the update (available on the KPMG website and credited to its publisher, the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology) independently “out of pure curiosity about data accuracy.” Her findings were bleak: current data aligns well with the 1970s analysis that showed economic growth could end at the end of the current decade and collapse come about ten years later (in worst-case scenarios).
The timing of Herrington’s paper, as world economies grapple with the impact of the pandemic, is highly prescient as governments largely look to return economies to business-as-usual growth, despite loud warnings that continuing economic growth is incompatible with sustainability.
Earlier this year, in a paper titled Beyond Growth, the analyst wrote plainly: “Amidst global slowdown and risks of depressed future growth potential from climate change, social unrest, and geopolitical instability, to name a few, responsible leaders face the possibility that growth will be limited in the future. And only a fool keeps chasing an impossibility.”
Herrington, who as a degree in econometrics from the University of Amsterdam and a master’s in sustainability from Harvard, believes that the field of economic sustainability has to be made into an observable science that can be acted upon.
Her motivation, she says, is for the well being future generations. “I would like ‘the kids to be OK,’ even if none of them were mine,” she says. “I am driven by a passion for sustainability. Always have been.”
The policy officer who approached her at the UN meeting and spoke about the meaning and responsibility of her first name was not necessarily wrong, she adds. “He was right in the sense that my drive has always come naturally to me.”
“The key finding of my study is that we still have a choice to align with a scenario that does not end in collapse.”
The MIT study, Herrington says, was never about making predictions but to show potential paths forward during a time of immense change. Herrington’s review concludes that the 1972 study was essentially on target. The 1972 study’s authors, Herrington points out, were looking for paths toward a stabilized world in terms of economic growth.
She says there is nothing inevitable about its predictions – even now.
“The key finding of my study is that we still have a choice to align with a scenario that does not end in collapse. With innovation in business, along with new developments by governments and civil society, continuing to update the model provides another perspective on the challenges and opportunities we have to create a more sustainable world.”
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.
In the new study, Herrington focused on two scenarios using a range of variables, or markers, including population, fertility rates, mortality rates, industrial output, food production, services, non-renewable resources, persistent pollution, human welfare, and ecological footprint.
Under one, termed business as usual, or BAU2, growth would stall and combine with population collapse. The other, termed comprehensive technology (CT), modeled stalled economic growth without social collapse. Both scenarios “show a halt in growth within a decade or so from now,” the study says, adding, that “pursuing continuous growth, is not possible.”
Sustainability is the answer, she says.
“There is a sustainable way of creating value and prosperity that also has immense economic potential. Doing good can still yield a profit. In fact, we are seeing examples of that happening right now. Expanding those efforts now creates a world full of opportunity that is also sustainable,” she said.
Ironically, the pandemic, she believes, has even shown the world what might be possible.
“We’re totally capable of making huge changes, and we’ve seen with the pandemic, but we have to act now if we’re to avoid costs much greater than we’re seeing,” she said.
A 1972 study predicted the collapse of society in the 21st century. We are on schedule
A 1972 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicted that rapid economic growth would lead to social collapse closer to the middle of the twenty-first century. A new study shows that we are, unfortunately, moving precisely on schedule.
This is stated in the Vice article.
A new study shows that the famous MIT warning of 1972 about the risks of collapse of industrial civilization is confirmed by new data. At that time, the systemic dynamic model defined the so-called “growth limits,” according to which industrial civilization collapsed somewhere in the twenty-first century due to overexploitation of the planet’s resources.
The controversial analysis has sparked debate, distorted to ridicule – but is now confirmed by data released by KPMG, one of the “big four” audit firms.
In November 2020, the KMAG report was also published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology (Yale University), also available on their website. The main conclusion is that the current trajectory of global civilization is heading towards the final end of economic growth (nowhere to grow). In the worst case, it may even cause the collapse of industrial society closer to 2040.
This is the first time a top analyst working for a mainstream corporation is seriously considering a “growth limit” model. The lead author, Guy Herrington, heads KPMG’s Sustainability and Dynamics Systems team.
Her research was not conducted on behalf of KPMG – she decided to take it to test how the MIT model, first published fifty years ago by the Club of Rome, has stood the test of time.
Previous studies that have attempted to do so have also found that the scenarios set out in the MIT model reflect the current state of affairs. The last such study was completed in 2014. Since then, we continue to follow the schedule.
Even if humanity completely stops emissions right now, the Arctic will still heat up by 5 degrees.
Risk of collapse
A new analysis by Herrington examines empirical data on ten key indicators:
· population of the planet;
· fertility rates;
· mortality rates;
· industrial production;
· food production;
· non-renewable resources;
· social security, welfare.
The ecological footprint of humanity
The latest data most closely matches the two scenarios from 1972’s “Growth Limits”: BAU2 (“business as usual”) and CT (“comprehensive manufacturability”).
Both scenarios show that it is impossible to do business as usual – pursuing constant growth. Even paired with unprecedented technological developments, “business as usual” will inevitably lead to a decline in industrial capital, agricultural production, and welfare levels in the twenty-first century.
Collapse does not mean that “humanity will cease to exist,” but that “economic and industrial growth will cease. Then there will be a decline that will harm food production and people’s living standards.” The BAU2 scenario (business as usual) shows a sharp drop in living standards closer to 2040:
BAU – Business As Usual
Green: industrial production
The end of growth?
In the “comprehensive technology” (CT) scenario, the economic downturn also begins around 2040 with several possible negative consequences – but this does not lead to the collapse of society:
CT – Comprehensive Technology. The same color symbols
Unfortunately, according to the latest empirical data, we are furthest from the optimistic scenario of SW (stabilized world), in which civilization embarks on a reproducible, ecological and sustainable path with the most negligible losses, based on a combination of technological innovation and extensive investment in education. and public health system:
SW – Stabilized World. The same color symbols
Although the “business as usual” and “comprehensive technologies” scenarios show the end of growth around 2040, they are very different.
BAU2 shows a collapse with a declining population due to hunger and rising pollution. Instead, CT shows the possibility of a “soft fall,” at least for humanity as a whole.
Both scenarios are the closest to today’s data – but which of them humanity will follow is not yet clear: it will depend on recent decisions because so far, we are on both graphs, which almost coincide before the fall.
Focus on the pursuit of economic growth for its own sake will be in vain – but technological solutions and increased investment in the welfare system, public services will help not only to avoid collapse but also to create a sustainable civilization that would operate safely within the resources of the planet.
“At this stage, the data are most consistent with the CT and BAU2 scenarios, both showing a slowdown and eventually cessation of growth. However, the question remains whether the fall will collapse,” the study said.
The “stabilized world” scenario is farthest from us, and only a deliberate change of trajectory to goals other than growth can lead to it. This window of opportunity closes quickly.
At a presentation at the 2020 World Economic Forum, Herrington argued for the need to focus on economic goals and priorities other than “growth.”
“Changing society’s priorities should not be a capitulation to a gloomy necessity. Human activity can be reproduced, and our production capabilities can be transformed. We already see this begin to happen. Increasing efforts in this direction can create a world full of opportunities and sustainable (sustainable)”.
Likely, the path that humanity will take over the next ten years will determine the long-term fate of human civilization. We are razor-sharp, but there is a marked “rapid rise” in priorities for the environment, public welfare, and “good governance” in many countries, which gives some optimism – at least noticeable changes in thinking. It has already reached many governments and many entrepreneurs. And perhaps it is not too late to create a genuinely sustainable civilization that would work for everyone.The Club of Rome publications are all about predictions of the future. Curious about what future studies are? Take a look here!