Club of Rome Still Predicting the End of the World

Recently, Vice published an article titled MIT Predicted in 1972 That Society Will Collapse This Century. New Research Shows We’re on Schedule. The title is misleading, as though the study was undertaken by two MIT economists, it was published by The Club of Rome, whose “one hundred full members [are] selected from current and former heads of state and government, UN administrators, high-level politicians and government officials, diplomats, scientists, economists, and business leaders from around the globe,” according to Wikipedia. Sounds a lot like the World Economic Forum, the elite group that meets annually in Davos.

As the world looks forward to a rebound in economic growth following the devastation wrought by the pandemic, the research raises urgent questions about the risks of attempting to simply return to the pre-pandemic ‘normal.’

Sounds suspiciously like the World Economic Forum’s “Build Back Better” slogan, part of their pitch to world leaders to take advantage of the pandemic to push their green agenda, a message taken up by Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, and Justin Trudeau, among others.

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

And their model was roundly criticized. Even the kindest reviewers who accepted the thesis that the limits to growth would someday be reached criticized the methodology. The paper was published by the Club of Rome, not in a peer reviewed scientific journal.

But the analysis has now received stunning vindication from a study written by a senior director at professional services giant KPMG, one of the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms as measured by global revenue.

What were the motivations of this director? Were they scientific, monetary, or ideological?

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 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.

This doesn’t seem unreasonable.

The study represents 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 United States. However, she decided to undertake the research as a personal project to understand how well the MIT model stood the test of time. The study itself is not affiliated or conducted on behalf of KPMG, and does not necessarily reflect the views of KPMG.

So it was not undertaken by the company for a fee.

Herrington performed the research as an extension of her Masters thesis at Harvard University in her capacity as an advisor to the Club of Rome.

Ah, so again, this is being driven by the elite Club of Rome.

“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.”

Out of what motivation? Scientific curiosity? What is Herrington’s advisory relationship with the Club of Rome?

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. 

Only seven years ago. Again, the study was actually the 33rd report to the Club of Rome, though this 2014 study was purportedly peer reviewed.

Herrington’s new analysis examines data across 10 key variables, namely 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). 

BAU2 is a scenario where we continue business as usual. The 2 indicates the fact that it was updated from the original BAU scenario due to there being significantly more resources feasibly retrievable than the original estimate. CT is a scenario where in addition to business as usual, there is high technological improvement and adoption.

“BAU2 and CT scenarios show a halt in growth within a decade or so from now,” the study concludes. “Both scenarios thus indicate that continuing business as usual, that is, pursuing continuous growth, is not possible. 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.”

Makes sense. The current droughts, which are in some part due to human caused CO2 emissions, will likely lead to decreases in agricultural production in some parts of the world. What’s telling is that these two scenarios, with their radically different outcomes (BAU2 predicts a collapse, whereas CT predicts that growth will slow gradually) are essentially the same in 2020, twenty years after the model’s original, broken BAU scenario was updated. This means that the predictive power of the model is still largely untested.

Study author Gaya Herrington told Motherboard that in the MIT World3 models, collapse “does not mean that humanity will cease to exist,” but rather 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.”

Again, this seems plausible. Given the rate of electrification, is BAU2 realistic, given that it’s predicting business as usual as it was in the 1970s?

In the comprehensive technology (CT) scenario, economic decline still sets in around this date with a range of possible negative consequences, but this does not lead to societal collapse, with future declines being relatively soft landings, at least for humanity in general.

This seems more plausible to me. None of the Internet, vehicle electrification, artificial intelligence, or lab grown meat, were part of the 1970s BAU. With artificial intelligence, technological improvements will only accelerate. As for adoption, if you can’t afford real meat, you will eat lab grown meat; if you can’t afford to drive a gas powered car, you will drive an electric.

Unfortunately, the scenario which was the least closest fit to the latest empirical data happens to be the most optimistic pathway known as ‘SW’ (stabilized world), in which civilization 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.

With new technologies like MRNA vaccines that promise to be able to go after previously hard to treat diseases like cancer and AIDS, major advancements in public health may be on the horizon. Assuming we can keep it free, I see the Internet as a game changer in education, and far more important to the future than the public school system.

While focusing on the pursuit of continued economic growth for its own sake will be futile, the study 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 civilization operating safely within planetary boundaries. But we really have only the next decade to change course. 

In the west, investing more in already inefficient public services will likely make things worse. Government should invest our resources in relatively few common infrastructures–the power grid, the water supply, public transit, emergency health care–and use regulation with a very light touch to guide businesses in the direction of a sustainable economy.

Although the ‘stabilized world’ scenario “tracks least closely, a deliberate trajectory change brought about by society turning toward another goal than growth is still possible. The LtG work implies that this window of opportunity is closing fast.” 

Who is qualified to change our trajectory? Governments? They couldn’t find their asses with both hands. Economists? The same ones who predicted the Population Bomb and Peak Oil? Oligarchs, who will make millions off the green economy?

In a presentation at the World Economic Forum in 2020 delivered in her capacity as a KPMG director, Herrington argued for ‘agrowth’—an agnostic approach to growth which focuses on other economic goals and priorities.  

Ah, the World Economic Forum, supporters of the Green New Deal, social justice, and the idea that we are all systematically racist. The group who wants to use the coronavirus as a justification to create an autocratic New World Order. No thanks.

“Changing our societal priorities hardly needs to be a capitulation to grim necessity,” she said. “Human activity can be regenerative and our productive capacities can be transformed. In fact, we are seeing examples of that happening right now. Expanding those efforts now creates a world full of opportunity that is also sustainable.” 

The resources expended during the pandemic to develop vaccines, keep the populace fed, and keep businesses from shuttering permanently, were not free. We will suffer inflation, devaluing everyone’s savings, for years to come. Expanding deficit spending further is a fool’s game, especially if you believe that there won’t be future economic growth to offset inflation.

She noted how the rapid development and deployment of vaccines at unprecedented rates in response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that we are capable of responding rapidly and constructively to global challenges if we choose to act. We need exactly such a determined approach to the environmental crisis.

Fighting the coronavirus was a fairly clear cut problem. Changing our economies to make them sustainable without triggering a collapse is not. If we allow politicians to rush forward to implement the WEF’s agenda, I wouldn’t bet on positive results.

“The necessary changes will not be easy and pose transition challenges but a sustainable and inclusive future is still possible,” said Herrington. 

On that, we agree.

The best available data suggests that what we decide over the next 10 years will determine the long-term fate of human civilization. Although the odds are on a knife-edge, Herrington pointed to a “rapid rise” in environmental, social and good governance priorities as a basis for optimism, signalling the change in thinking taking place in both governments and businesses. She told me that perhaps the most important implication of her research is that it’s not too late to create a truly sustainable civilization that works for all.

While I agree that awareness of the problems is good, the actions governments are taking are, in many cases, ludicrously bad. As I recently said, not only are Canada and the US subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, the Canadian government recently bought an oil pipeline that is not needed for domestic use. Meanwhile, the eastern part of the country is unable to access oil from the west, so foreign oil is shipped in.

My biggest issue with the Club of Rome’s models are not their shaky assumptions, nor their massive uncertainties. The biggest issue I see is that the model uses global numbers for everything. We are not under a world government. While globalism has done much damage to countries’ abilities to go it alone, that damage can be undone, and with the coronavirus revealing how dependent we have become on China, perhaps it will. While CO2 emissions are global, their negative effects are not equal. Countries like Canada and the US may been able to reach economic stability even if other countries cannot. While instability elsewhere in the world will cause problems for us, I think we are in one of the best positions in the world to navigate what will doubtless be a tumultuous future.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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