In 1972, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicted that human civilization would collapse in the 21st century. New research shows that we are heading toward this event on schedule and that collapse will occur by 2040.
A remarkable new study by the director of one of the largest accounting firms in the world has shown that the famous warning made decades ago by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about the risk of the collapse of industrial civilization is, judging by new statistics, accurate.
At a time when the world expects economic growth to resume after the devastation caused by the pandemic, the study raises sharp questions about the risks of simply trying to return to “normal” before the pandemic.
In 1972, a group of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came together to study the risks of civilizational collapse. Their model of system dynamics, published by the Club of Rome, identified looming “limits to growth” (LGR), which meant that industrial civilization was on its way to collapse in the 21st century because of overexploitation of planetary resources.
The controversial MIT analysis sparked heated debate and was widely ridiculed at the time by experts who misrepresented its conclusions and methods. But now the analysis has received stunning confirmation in a study written by a senior director of professional services giant KPMG, one of the “Big Four” accounting firms by global revenue.
Limits to growth
The study was published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology in November 2020 and is available on KPMG’s website. It concludes that the current trajectory of global civilization is leading to an eventual decline in economic growth over the next decade and, in a worst-case scenario, could lead to the collapse of society by about 2040.
This study represents the first time that a leading analyst working for a leading global corporation has taken a serious look at the “limits to growth” model. Its author, Gaia Herrington, is head of sustainability and dynamic systems analysis at KPMG in the United States. However, she decided to do the study as a personal project to see how well the MIT model has stood the test of time.
The study itself is not affiliated with or conducted on behalf of KPMG and does not necessarily reflect the views of KPMG. Herrington conducted the study as an extension of her master’s thesis at Harvard University as an advisor to the Club of Rome. On KPMG’s website, however, she explains her project as follows:
“Given the unattractive prospect of collapse, I was curious to see which scenarios most closely fit today’s empirical data. After all, the book that described this model of the world was a bestseller in the 1970s, and by now we have several decades of empirical data that would make the comparison meaningful. But, to my surprise, I couldn’t find any recent attempts to do this. So I decided to do it myself.”
Titled “Update to the Limits of Growth: Comparing the World3 Model to Empirical Data,” the study tries to assess how MIT’s World3 model relates to new evidence. Previous studies in which such attempts have been made have shown that the model’s worst-case scenarios accurately reflect actual developments. However, the last study of this kind was completed in 2014.
Risk of collapse.
In the new analysis, Herrington looks at data on 10 key variables, namely population, birth rate, death rate, industrial production, food production, services, non-renewable resources, persistent pollution, human well-being and ecological footprint. She found that the latter data best fit two specific scenarios, “BAU2” (business-as-usual) and “CT” (comprehensive technology).
“The BAU2 and CT scenarios show a cessation of growth within a decade or so,” the study concludes. “Thus, both scenarios indicate that continuing business as usual, i.e., providing continuous growth, is impossible. Even when paired with unprecedented development and adoption of technology, business as usual, as modeled by LtG, will inevitably lead to declines in industrial capital, agricultural output and wealth within this century.”
Study author Gaia Herrington told Motherboard that in the MIT World3 models, collapse “does not mean humanity will cease to exist,” rather, “economic and industrial growth will stop and then go into decline, affecting food production and living standards…” As for the timing, the BAU2 scenario suggests a steep decline around 2040.
The end of growth?
In the Comprehensive Technology (CT) scenario, the economic downturn comes around this date with a number of possible negative consequences, but it does not lead to the collapse of society.
Unfortunately, the scenario that least corresponded to the latest empirical data turned out to be the most optimistic path, known as “SW” (stabilized world), in which civilization follows a sustainable path and experiences the least decline in economic growth – based on a combination of technological innovation and large-scale investment in health care and education.
While both the business-as-usual scenario and the all-encompassing technology scenario point to the end of economic growth in about 10 years, only the BAU2 scenario “shows a clear pattern of collapse, while CT suggests the possibility that future recessions will be relatively mild, at least for humanity as a whole.”
Both scenarios now “seem pretty closely aligned with more than just the observed data,” Herrington concludes in his study, indicating that the future is open.
Window of opportunity
While pursuing continued economic growth for its own sake would be futile, the study shows that technological advances and increased investment in public services could not only avoid the risk of collapse, but could lead to a new stable and prosperous civilization operating safely within planetary boundaries. But we really only have the next decade to change course.
“So for now, the data are most consistent with the CT and BAU2 scenarios, which point to a slowdown and eventual cessation of growth over the next decade or so, but World3 leaves open the question of whether the subsequent decline will constitute a collapse,” the study concludes. Although the “stabilized world” scenario “is the least clear-cut, it is still possible for a deliberate change in trajectory caused by a societal turn toward a different goal than growth.” LtG’s work suggests that this window of opportunity is rapidly closing.”
In her presentation at the World Economic Forum in 2020 as director of KPMG, Herrington advocated “agrowth,” an agnostic approach to growth that focuses on other economic goals and priorities.
“Changing our societal priorities should hardly be a capitulation to dystopian necessity,” she said. “Human activity can be regenerative, and our productive capabilities can be transformative. In fact, we’re seeing examples of that right now. Expanding these efforts now creates a world full of possibilities that is also sustainable.”
She noted that the rapid development and introduction of vaccines at an unprecedented rate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that we can respond quickly and constructively to global challenges if we choose to act. We need just such a determined approach to the environmental crisis.
“The changes needed will not be easy and will create transition challenges, but a sustainable and inclusive future is still possible,” Herrington said.
The best available evidence suggests that what we decide in the next 10 years will determine the long-term fate of human civilization. Although the odds are slim, Herrington noted the “rapid growth” in environmental, social and good governance priorities as a basis for optimism, indicating a shift in thinking that is occurring in both governments and businesses. She told me that perhaps the most important implication of her research is that it is not too late to create a truly sustainable civilization that works for everyone.