50 years ago, scientists predicted a societal collapse in the first century of the 21st century. Four scenarios were the most likely when the study was redone a few years ago with updated figures.
The two most likely point to severe economic decline – one of them to full-scale collapse. A brand new book suggests that the latter is most likely.
“The Limits of Growth” was published by the Club of Rome in 1972. It was a pioneering work by MIT University in the USA researchers used computer models to determine exactly where the limits were for growth based on a number of different variables.
Population, industrial production, resource consumption, environmental destruction – everything was tried to be embraced and forecasted for the coming century.
The conclusion was that human activity was about to burst the physical boundaries of our ecosystems forcefully without drastic changes. There were only two ways it could end: A regulated reduction in withdrawals from the planet – or a collapse.
The book gained attention and sold millions of copies. At the same time, it met fierce criticism in some camps and was dismissed as a doomsday prophecy.
But when the magazine American Scientist reviewed how the forecast had fared about ten years ago, it turned out that many of the scenarios matched astonishingly well.
The population, natural resources, and industrial production were astonishingly close to the report’s forecast 37 years earlier.
And not only that: Just a few years ago, the computer model was a rerun, now updated with new numbers, by Harvard researcher Gaya Herrington. The bottom line: If global civilization continues on the current “business-as-usual” track, we will reach a definitive decline in economic growth within the next decade – at worst, a societal collapse around 2040.
It is about steep population, food production, industrial production and welfare declines. And in Gaya Herrington’s view, the most serious scenario is, unfortunately, the most likely.
Here are the four scenarios analyzed in the study.
1. BUSINESS AS USUAL (BAU)
This was the original scenario in the controversial first book on the limits of growth, Limits to growth, from 1972. It was based on the assumptions about how great the earth’s natural resources were at the time. Although we continue to follow the scenario quite closely, it has turned out that the availability of, for example, fossil fuels and other natural resources were significantly greater than what was assumed in 1972.
In BAU, living standards would stop rising while industrial growth slowed due to depleted natural resources. The lack of resources would lead to more and more capital being spent on extracting non-renewable resources. Fewer resources would then be left for food production, welfare and industrial investments.
The scenario was still relevant when an update of the model run was made in 2014. It showed that the world was still following the “business as usual” scenario, and a sharp decline in welfare starting around 2030 was expected.
2. BUSINESS AS USUAL 2 (BAU2)
BAU2 is the updated BAU scenario, with double natural resources included in the calculation. In this scenario, it is not the availability of resources that causes the collapse but pollution, such as the emissions of greenhouse gases or the large amounts of plastic in the oceans. Together with the CT scenario, it is the trajectory that we are following most closely so far.
BAU2 is essentially about how ecosystems break down due to accumulated pollution, including greenhouse gases – i.e. climate change. After a certain point, it affects human health and food production.
In the BAU2 scenario, one can see that if development continues as far, food production will reach its peak within a decade and then begin to fall.
If BAU2 becomes a reality, We will see much more suffering, division, wars for clean water and climate refugees.
3. COMPREHENSIVE TECHNOLOGY (CT)
The CT scenario is the one that is closest to reality. CT can be described as a soft landing for humanity. For that to become a reality, an unprecedented period of technological innovation must be ushered in.
The technological development will help to avoid a direct collapse. However, CT still results in economic decline because the technology costs become so high that there are not enough resources for food production, healthcare and education. In practice, this means that growth slows down even in this scenario – but the collapse does not occur.
But there is a problem: the CT scenario is very optimistic, especially concerning historical figures. It is based on technological advances that reduce emissions by 48 percent by 2040 compared to 2000 levels, which cannot be seen as entirely realistic. Technological development can take unexpected leaps – such as a total solar cell boom or a nuclear power fusion technology breakthrough.
However, the technologist can argue that history is full of ‘technological tipping points’ where innovations disrupted trends and revolutionized society beyond what conventional wisdom thought possible.
CT is the scenario for those who believe in the indomitable ingenuity of humanity, the belief that we can constantly lift ourselves past all the limits that the planet sets.
4. STABILIZED WORLD (SW)
In the SW scenario, humanity releases expansive growth as its ultimate pursuit. Instead, societal priorities shift away from material consumption and industrial growth to various welfare services and technology to reduce pollution and emissions. This avoids collapse and leaves humanity with the highest levels of well-being. However, SW requires the same degree of technological development to reduce various types of emissions and pollution as in the case of CT.
However, SW is the scenario that we are currently furthest away from of the four most likely.
The new “Limits to Growth” study was done at Harvard University, and the researcher used the same computer model 50 years ago – now updated with new data and more advanced analysis.
Which path is most likely?
The researcher said that we are now a few years into the decade where the curves of the scenarios begin to diverge – according to the model, this should happen within the next five years.
But in a new book, “Five insights for avoiding global collapse,” the author lists several reasons BAU2 seems more likely than CT. The first is that the hopeful CT scenario, as said, is fundamentally too optimistic.
In the model, there is no food waste, wars, military spending or space travel that can divert capital away from the productive economy. No strikes, no corruption, no pandemics stealing resources from what is the primary goal.
Secondly, the “tipping points” that the climate and planetary boundaries may face are not considered, for example, the melting ice in Greenland and the Arctic, the rainforest in the Amazon or the release of large amounts of methane from permafrost. If these tipping points are passed, they can lead to self-reinforcing effects in climate systems, such as technological development, regardless of which becomes difficult to manage.
Thirdly, the technological development that must take place is unprecedented compared to how it looked from a historical perspective, and it has also been shown, based on the development of events in recent decades, that this is not the path we are on.
CT was added in response to the criticism the original Limits to Growth authors received for not considering humanity’s capacity for innovation to a high enough extent.