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  • Writer's pictureStavros Papagianneas

The End of the Road

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

The MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) predicted in 1972 that society will collapse this century. New research shows we are on schedule.

Last July, more than 50 people have died after record-breaking rainfall flooded underground railway tunnels in China, leaving passengers trapped in rising waters. In Europe, devastating floods have hit parts of Belgium and Germany after record rainfall caused swollen rivers to burst their banks. At least 170 people have died in Germany, and more than 40 deaths have been reported in Belgium.

More than 22,000 firefighters were combating explosive wildfires across the West in the US, as homes burned and thousands of residents fled fast-spreading flames. As devastating heat waves sweep swaths of the globe, farmers in Canada were facing a crippling phenomenon: crops were baking in fields. At least three people have been killed on the other side of the planet during violent protests over water shortages in Iran.

Begin August, a heatwave spawned wildfires and caused severe environmental damage across southern Europe. Dozens of villages were evacuated, many houses were destroyed, and thousands had to flee in Greece, Italy and Spain.

Last year, the fires in Australia had killed more than 30 people and an estimated one billion animals, scorching 17.1 million hectares, more than two-thirds the size of the United Kingdom. The fires generated Australia's first climate refugees.

However, a sense of urgency, ambition and consensus on what to do next are mainly absent. The speed of climate action has been brought home by the deadly floods in Europe, fires in the US and sweltering temperatures in Siberia, but countries remain at odds over how to pay for costly policies to reduce global warming.

This month, world’s leading climate scientists delivered their starkest warning yet about the deepening climate emergency, with some of the changes already set in motion thought to be irreversible for centuries to come.

A highly anticipated report by the UN's climate panel warns that limiting global warming to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels “will be beyond reach” in the next two decades. Therefore we need immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy and environment ministers from the Group of 20 wealthy nations have disagreed on crucial climate change commitments in a preparatory meeting in Naples, Italy. The G20 meeting was seen as a decisive step ahead of United Nations climate talks, known as COP 26, in Glasgow in November.

The host, British PM Boris Johnson is, according to environmental organisations, completely absent from the frantic diplomatic preparation required for a successful summit. Not a single British minister was present in the audience when US Climate envoy John Kerry explained the enormous stakes of the summit.

While overpopulation, overproduction and over-consumption are slowly killing the planet an important debate is making surface: who, or what, is to blame for the climate crisis and what we need to do to save Earth.

In the summer of 1970, an international team of researchers at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) began studying the implications of continued worldwide growth.

First, they examined the five fundamental factors that determine and, in their interactions, ultimately limit growth on this planet-population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation.

Next, the MIT team fed data on these five factors into a global computer model. It then tested the behaviour of the model under several sets of assumptions to determine alternative patterns for humanity's future.

The final report (The Limits to Growth) was published in 1972 and concludes that, without substantial changes in resource consumption, "the most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity" in the 21st century.

In November 2020, KPMG Director Gaya Herrington published research in Yale's Journal of Industrial Ecology comparing the World3 model created in the 1970s by MIT scientists. Herrington, a Dutch sustainability researcher and adviser to the Club of Rome, a Swiss think tank, shows that the 1972 MIT study predicting the collapse of civilization was – apparently – right on time.

Herrington objectives were to examine whether the 1972 MIT forecast of global societal collapse occurring around the present time - if humanity did not alter its priorities - was still the case based on the most recent data and whether there was opportunity left to change that trajectory.

She tried to answer questions such as: What happens if humanity keeps pursuing economic growth without regard for environmental and social costs? Can we create an optimal scenario in this day and age of data abundance, or are the impacts of the past few decades too late to change now?

Her research benefited from improved data availability, and included a scenario and two variables that had not been part of previous comparisons. She collected data from academia, (non-) government agencies, United Nations entities, and the World Bank. This was plotted along four MIT scenarios spanning a range of technological, resource, and societal assumptions. The MIT analysis done decades ago has now received stunning vindication.

The two scenarios aligning most closely indicate a halt in growth over the next two decades, which puts into question the usability of continuous growth as humanity's goal in the 21st century. Both scenarios also indicate subsequent declines, but only one - the scenario in which declines are caused by pollution, including greenhouse gas pollution - depicts a collapse pattern.

Although Herrington's work predicts the collapse could come around 2040 if current trends are held, there is maybe still hope. With innovation in business, and 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.

In my new book Embracing Chaos, I analyze why the European Union needs to be more than a one-continent federation and go beyond by forming a much stronger alliance with North America to face global challenges like global warming and pandemics.

Picture Unsplash - Landon Parenteau

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