In 1972, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicted that human civilization would collapse in the 21st century. New research shows that we are heading towards this event on schedule and the collapse will occur by 2040.
A notable new study by the director of one of the largest accounting firms in the world has shown that MIT's famous decades-old warning about the risk of industrial civilization collapse is accurate, according to new statistics.
While the world expects economic growth to resume after the devastation caused by the pandemic, the study raises thorny questions about the risks associated with simply trying to return to the "normal" state before the pandemic.
In 1972, a group of scientists from 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, highlighted looming “limits to growth” (PR), which meant that industrial civilization was on its way to collapse in the 21st century due to the overexploitation of planetary resources.
MIT's controversial analysis sparked heated debate and was widely ridiculed at the time by experts who misrepresented its findings and methods. But now the analysis has received startling support in a study written by a senior director at professional services giant KPMG, one of the Big Four accounting firms in terms of global revenue.
The study was published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology in November 2020 and is available on the KPMG website. It concludes that the current trajectory of the development of global civilization leads to a final decline in economic growth over the next decade, and in the worst case can 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 seriously considered the "limits to growth" model. Its author, Gaia Herrington, is the Head of Sustainability and Dynamic Systems Analysis at KPMG in the United States. However, she decided to do the research as a personal project to see how well the MIT model 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 did the research as a follow-up to her master's thesis at Harvard University as an advisor to the Club of Rome. However, on the KPMG website, she explains her project as follows:
“Given the unattractive prospect of a collapse, I was curious to see which scenarios most closely match today's empirical data. After all, the book that described this model of the world became a bestseller in the 70s, and by now we have several decades empirical data that would make the comparison meaningful. But to my surprise, I could not find any recent attempts to do this. So I decided to do it myself."
Under the heading "Upgrading to the Limits to Growth: Comparing the World3 Model to Empirical Data," the study attempts to assess how MIT's "World3" model compares to the new evidence. Previous studies in which such attempts were made have shown that the worst-case scenario of the model accurately reflects the real development of events.However, the last study of this kind was completed in 2014.
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 the ecological footprint. She found that the latest data is most closely aligned with two specific scenarios - BAU2 (business-as-usual) and CT (comprehensive technology).
"The BAU2 and CT scenarios show growth stalling within a decade or so," the study concluded. “Thus, both scenarios indicate that it is impossible to continue to do business as usual, that is, to ensure continuous growth. products and welfare levels during 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 stall and then decline, affecting food production and living standards …" In terms of timing, the BAU2 scenario would see a steep decline around 2040.”
End of Growth?
In the Comprehensive Technology (CT) scenario, the economic downturn occurs around this date with a range of possible negative consequences, but this does not lead to the collapse of society.
Unfortunately, the scenario that was least consistent with the latest empirical evidence 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 investments in health care and education.
While both the business-as-usual and ICT scenarios indicate the end of economic growth in about 10 years, only the BAU2 scenario "shows a clear picture of collapse, while CT suggests the possibility that future downturns will be relatively mild, at least least for humanity as a whole."
Both scenarios now "seem to be pretty closely aligned with more than just observable data," Herrington concludes in his study, pointing out that the future is open.
Window of Opportunities
While the pursuit of continued economic growth for its own sake will be futile, research shows that technological progress and increased investment in public services can not only avoid the risk of collapse, but also lead to a new stable and prosperous civilization functioning safely within planetary boundaries. … But we really only have the next decade to change course.
"So for now, the data is most in line with the CT and BAU2 scenarios, which indicate a slowdown and finally halt in growth over the next decade or so, but World3 leaves open the question of whether the subsequent decline would constitute a collapse." in the conclusion of the study. Although the "stabilized world" scenario "is the least clear-cut, it is still possible to deliberately change trajectory, caused by a turn of society towards a goal other than growth." LtG's work suggests that this window of opportunity is closing quickly."
In her presentation at the 2020 World Economic Forum as a director of KPMG, Herrington advocated agro-growth, an agnostic approach to growth that focuses on other economic goals and priorities.
“Changing our public priorities hardly should be a surrender to grim necessity,” she said. "Human activities can be regenerative, and our manufacturing capabilities can be transformed. In fact, we are seeing examples of this right now. Expanding these efforts now creates a world full of opportunities that is also sustainable."
She noted that the rapid development and deployment of vaccines at an unprecedented pace 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 decisive 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. While the chances of success are slim, Herrington cited "rapid growth" in environmental, social and good governance priorities as a basis for optimism, reflecting a shift in thinking in both governments and business. She said 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.