Researcher warns world on course for societal collapse

09 August 2021 4 min. read
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The revisitation of a controversial research piece from five decades ago has suggested “the collapse of society” could occur in the next 30 years. Without concerted efforts to boost global sustainability, living standards could notably decline by 2050, according to a the paper originally written in the 1970s.

According to independent research from Gaya Herrington, a scientific paper predicting the collapse of society by 2050 appears to be right on schedule. The KPMG Analyst carried out a study into the report for her Harvard thesis, at the end of which she determined a “decline” in standards of living could begin by as early as 2040, falling to a historic low by 2050.

The study, published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology, looked at 10 factors including population growth, industrial growth and pollution to figure out if society was on course for collapse. Herrington works as a lead KPMG Analyst on sustainability, and decided to take another look at the “limits to growth” theory first thought-up by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1972, because she apparently could not find any examples of it.

Researcher warns world on course for societal collapse

Commissioned by the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth report explored the hypothetical impacts of exponential economic and population growth with a finite supply of resources. The team of 17 researchers used computer simulation to forecast what might happen to society if those themes both came to a head at once. With the world’s human population spiking, and resource scarcity becoming a prevalent theme of the 1970s, the report determined that if current growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continued unchanged, “the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.”

With Herrington seemingly finding this forecast to be on track, she explained that the possible collapse of society “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.” This could include things like falling life expectancy, famine and recurring pandemics. However, she added that she did not believe it was too late to avoid this possible eventuality.

The paper concluded that “continuing business as usual, that is, pursuing continuous growth,” would lead to a decline in standards of living across the West, even with technological adaptions. With a path forward with reduced consumption and waste, investments in infrastructure, and limited population growth, the collapse could be avoided – but admittedly it would “not be easy” to make such a transition. Even so, despite transition challenges, “sustainable and inclusive future is still possible.”

One of the sticking points the original limits to growth theory is its assertions that population growth is inherently linked to climate and societal breakdown. Many experts still point to the fact that the poorest half of the global population, some 3.5 billion people, are responsible for only around 10% of global emissions, yet these are the growing populations which the Club of Rome asserts should breed less for the sake of the planet. Meanwhile, these populations live overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change – unlike the richest 10% of people in the world, who are responsible for around 50% of global emissions.

Writing for Global Justice Now, Hiba Ahmad summarised this in 2019, stating, “Well-meaning Northern climate activists presume the role of planetary guardians, lecturing the people least likely to contribute to climate extinction on family planning for a sustainable future while forgetting the devastating impact Northern lifestyles have had historically and presently on the climate. This helps shift the focus of discussion from unfettered capitalist production to dehumanised, marginalised communities who have limited capacity to deal with the climatic disasters which displace and kill them indiscriminately.”