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Posts Tagged ‘civilizational collapse

“The idea that there might be limits to growth is for many people impossible to imagine”*…

At some level, we all know that nothing lasts forever…

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…

The report, authored by Donella Meadows and colleagues (working for Jay Forrester and the Club of Rome), was controversial from its release, with many pundits (often with sponsorship of mining, chemical, and petroleum companies)suggesting that the report’s logic’s flawed. But as scientists like Graham Turner of CSIRO observed in “A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality” just after after the turn of the century (summarized and updated here), the MIT team’s projections were alarmingly on track. A new study suggests that the LtG projections are holding still…

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.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.

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. 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. However, she is quoted explaining her project on the KPMG website as follows: 

“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.”

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 [Graham Turner’s update, as above] was completed in 2014. 

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 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.”

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.”…

MIT Predicted in 1972 That Society Will Collapse This Century. New Research Shows We’re on Schedule.” The headline notwithstanding, The MIT team’s study didn’t so much make predictions as it played out a systems dynamics model in order to identify issues that might emerge. And like any model, theirs was rooted in assumptions that could/should have eroded over the last 50 years… which makes the fact that “reality” seems to be tracing the contours thatchy sketched even more notable. Time to revisit those assumptions… Bracing– but important– reading.

[Image above: source]

* Donella Meadows

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As we get serious, we might send systemic birthday greetings to Thomas Samuel Kuhn; he died on this date in 1996.  A physicist, historian, and philosopher of science, Kuhn believed that scientific knowledge didn’t advance in a linear, continuous way, but via periodic “paradigm shifts.”  Karl Popper had approached the same territory in his development of the principle of “falsification” (to paraphrase, a theory isn’t false until it’s proven true; it’s true until it’s proven false).  But while Popper worked as a logician, Kuhn worked as a historian.  His 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions made his case; and while he had– and has— his detractors, Kuhn’s work has been deeply influential in both academic and popular circles (indeed, the phrase “paradigm shift” has become an English-language staple).

“What man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conception experience has taught him to see.”

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

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