MIT predicted in 1972 that society will collapse this century. Spoiler: we’re on schedule

By Alma Fabiani

Published Jul 17, 2021 at 09:06 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

A quick glance at the news of the day will have most definitely made you go, “Oh, we’re doomed” at some point. Now imagine having to scour the internet for news every morning at least, if not many times a day. With some of the most recent events that have been happening worldwide, you can understand why people might think the end of the world is near. And as it turns out, they might be onto something.

In 1972, a team of MIT scientists got together to study the risks of civilisational collapse. Their system dynamics model published by the Club of Rome identified impending ‘limits to growth’ (LtG) that meant industrial civilisation was on track to collapse sometime within the 21st century, due to overexploitation of planetary resources.

At the time, the analysis generated heated debate, and was widely criticised by experts who misrepresented its findings and methods. But the analysis has now received vindication from a study written by a senior director at professional services giant KPMG, one of the largest accounting firms in the world as measured by global revenue.

As the world looks forward to a rebound in economic growth following the COVID-19 pandemic, the research, which was originally published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology in November 2020 and is now available on the KPMG website, raises urgent questions about the risks of attempting to simply return to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’.

“It concludes that the current business-as-usual trajectory of global civilization is heading toward the terminal decline of economic growth within the coming decade—and at worst, could trigger societal collapse by around 2040,” reports VICE.

This new study is the first time a top analyst working within a mainstream global corporate entity has taken the ‘limits to growth’ model seriously. Its author, Gaya Herrington, is Sustainability and Dynamic System Analysis Lead at KPMG in the US. However, she decided to undertake the research as a personal project to understand how well the MIT model stood the test of time.

Herrington performed the research as an extension of her Master’s thesis at Harvard University in her capacity as an advisor to the Club of Rome. However, she is quoted explaining her project on the KPMG website as follows: “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.”

Titled ‘Update to limits to growth: Comparing the World3 model with empirical data’, the study attempts to assess how MIT’s ‘World3’ model stacks up against 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 study of this nature was completed in 2014. So, what do we know about how the study’s findings apply to 2021?

Herrington examined data across ten key variables: population, fertility rates, mortality rates, industrial output, food production, services, non-renewable resources, persistent pollution, human welfare, and ecological footprint. She found that the latest data most closely aligns with two particular scenarios, ‘BAU2’ (business-as-usual) and ‘CT’ (comprehensive technology).

Both scenarios show a halt in growth within a decade or so from now, the study concludes. In other words, continuing business as usual, “that is, pursuing continuous growth, is not possible,” she explained. “Even when paired with unprecedented technological development and adoption, business as usual as modelled by LtG would inevitably lead to declines in industrial capital, agricultural output, and welfare levels within this century.”

Although these new findings do not mean that humanity will cease to exist, they reveal that economic and industrial growth will stop, and then decline, which will hurt food production and standards of living. “In terms of timing, the BAU2 scenario shows a steep decline to set in around 2040,” Herrington told VICE.

Unfortunately for us, the scenario which was the least closest fit to the latest empirical data happens to be the most optimistic pathway known as ‘SW’ (stabilised world), in which civilisation 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 study further finds that technological progress and increased investments in public services could not just avoid the risk of collapse, but lead to a new stable and prosperous civilisation operating safely within planetary boundaries. But it’s crucial to highlight that we really have only the next decade to change course.

“A sustainable and inclusive future is still possible,” concluded Herrington. So what are we waiting for?

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