Don’t look now, but some of the world’s smartest people are even predicting the end of the global economic order as we know it, and they’re saying it’ll happen within the next two decades.
According to a group of researchers from the Jay W. Forrester’s institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a computer simulation concluded that the world could suffer a “global economic collapse” coupled by a “precipitous population decline” at current rates of resource consumption.
The research was conducted on behalf of a group known as the The Club of Rome, which bills itself “as an informal association of independent leading personalities from politics, business and science, men and women who are long-term thinkers interested in contributing in a systemic interdisciplinary and holistic manner to a better world.” Founded in 1968, The Club of Rome aims “to identify the most crucial problems which will determine the future of humanity through integrated and forward-looking analysis; to evaluate alternative scenarios for the future and to assess risks, choices and opportunities,” and to help find solutions to “challenges.”
According to the group’s web site, the research project “took into account the relations between various global developments and produced computer simulations for alternative scenarios.”
“Part of the modeling were different amounts of possibly available resources, different levels of agricultural productivity, birth control or environmental protection,” it said.
World still on course for self-destruction
The recent MIT research builds upon an earlier body of work from the same esteemed institution, dated 1972, that some in the scientific community regard infamous. According to a report in the Smithsonian Magazine, a team led by researcher Dennis Meadows used computer modeling for the first time in an attempt to answer “a centuries-old question: When will the population outgrow the planet and the natural resources it has to offer?”
That work was later made into a book titled The Limits to Growth and has since sold over 10 million copies in 37 languages. Essentially it “warned that if current trends in population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continued, that dark time — marked by a plummeting population, a contracting economy and environmental collapse — would come within 100 years,” the Smithsonian Magazine reported.
That work was later supported by data presented in the form of a graph designed by Australian physicist Graham Turner, which purports to show how actual data from the 30-year period between 1970 and 2000 matches almost exactly predictions set forth in Meadows’ work.
Meadows, who retired in 2004 after 35 years as a professor at MIT, Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire, discussed his original research with the Smithsonian on the 40th anniversary of the publishing of The Limits to Growth. He said his team’s “goal was to gather empirical data to test” a theoretical situation showing “the interrelationship of some key global growth factors: population, resources, persistent pollution, food production and industrial activity.”
In describing what he meant by a “collapse,” Meadows said the model assumed a “business-as-usual” approach to pressing issues of overuse and over-consumption.
“In the world model, if you don’t make big changes soon — back in the ’70s or ’80s — then in the period from 2020 to 2050, population, industry, food and the other variables reach their peaks and then start to fall,” he said. “That’s what we call collapse.”
Most of the computer models found steady population and economic growth rates until about 2030. Then, the researchers found, conditions begin to decline, and without “drastic measures for environmental protection,” scenarios began predicting higher likelihoods of population and economic crashes.
But is there a bright spot?
Despite the dire predictions, the research team said not all hope is lost.
The study said “unlimited economic growth” was still very possible, providing governments develop and enact policies and invest in clean- or green-energy technologies that limit the widening of the human ecological footprint.
Others say the situation is not nearly as ominous as the MIT report makes it sound. For instance, the late Yale University economist Henry Wallich, who served a dozen years as a governor of the Federal Research Board, for a time as its chief international economics expert, said once that any attempts to regulate global growth would be akin to “consigning billions to permanent poverty.”
Still, other experts believe the matching trends of the earlier 1972 study and the most recently completed body of work are telling, in that they show a similar trajectory of demise.
“The issue of global carrying capacity is one that is fraught with all sorts of technical, scientific and philosophical problems,” admits Meadows. But he believes now, as he did four decades ago, that sustainable development is not possible.
“When I use the term sustainable development — which I consider to be an oxymoron actually — I am trying to capture the meaning that most people seem to have,” he said. “Either way you use the term, it is just a fantasy. […] We’re at 150 percent of the global carrying capacity.”
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