Society is right on track for a global collapse, new study of infamous 1970s report finds

A fire blazes in Australia
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Human society is on track for a collapse in the next two decades if there isn't a serious shift in global priorities, according to a new reassessment of a 1970s report, Vice reported

In that report — published in the bestselling book "The Limits to Growth" (1972) — a team of MIT scientists argued that industrial civilization was bound to collapse if corporations and governments continued to pursue continuous economic growth, no matter the costs. The researchers forecasted 12 possible scenarios for the future, most of which predicted a point where natural resources would become so scarce that further economic growth would become impossible, and personal welfare would plummet.

The report's most infamous scenario — the Business as Usual (BAU) scenario — predicted that the world's economic growth would peak around the 2040s, then take a sharp downturn, along with the global population, food availability and natural resources. This imminent "collapse" wouldn't be the end of the human race, but rather a societal turning point that would see standards of living drop around the world for decades, the team wrote.

Related: How much time does humanity have left?

So, what's the outlook for society now, nearly half a century after the MIT researchers shared their prognostications? Gaya Herrington, a sustainability and dynamic system analysis researcher at the consulting firm KPMG, decided to find out. In the November 2020 issue of the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology, Herrington expanded on research she began as a graduate student at Harvard University earlier that year, analyzing the "Limits to Growth" predictions alongside the most current real-world data.

Herrington found that the current state of the world — measured through 10 different variables, including population, fertility rates, pollution levels, food production and industrial output — aligned extremely closely with two of the scenarios proposed in 1972, namely the BAU scenario and one called Comprehensive Technology (CT), in which technological advancements help reduce pollution and increase food supplies, even as natural resources run out.

While the CT scenario results in less of a shock to the global population and personal welfare, the lack of natural resources still leads to a point where economic growth sharply declines — in other words, a sudden collapse of industrial society.

"[The BAU] and CT scenarios show a halt in growth within a decade or so from now," Herrington wrote in her study. "Both scenarios thus indicate that continuing business as usual, that is, pursuing continuous growth, is not possible."

The good news is that it's not too late to avoid both of these scenarios and put society on track for an alternative — the Stabilized World (SW) scenario. This path begins as the BAU and CT routes do, with population, pollution and economic growth rising in tandem while natural resources decline. The difference comes when humans decide to deliberately limit economic growth on their own, before a lack of resources forces them to.

"The SW scenario assumes that in addition to the technological solutions, global societal priorities change," Herrington wrote. "A change in values and policies translates into, amongst other things, low desired family size, perfect birth control availability, and a deliberate choice to limit industrial output and prioritize health and education services."

On a graph of the SW scenario, industrial growth and global population begin to level out shortly after this shift in values occurs. Food availability continues to rise to meet the needs of the global population; pollution declines and all but disappears; and the depletion of natural resources begins to level out, too. Societal collapse is avoided entirely.

This scenario may sound like a fantasy — especially as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels soar to record highs. But the study suggests a deliberate change in course is still possible.

Herrington told the rapid development and deployment of vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to human ingenuity in the face of global crises. It's entirely possible, Herrington said, for humans to respond similarly to the ongoing climate crisis — if we make a deliberate, society-wide choice to do so.

"It's not yet too late for humankind to purposefully change course to significantly alter the trajectory of [the] future," Herrington concluded in her study. "Effectively, humanity can either choose its own limit or at some point reach an imposed limit, at which time a decline in human welfare will have become unavoidable."

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Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon Specktor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest,, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.