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Report predicts ‘societal collapse’ from 2040 onwards – but what does that actually mean?

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Report predicts ‘societal collapse’ from 2040 onwards – but what does that actually mean?

A prediction from scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1972 suggesting that we’ll face “societal collapse” by 2050 seems to be right on track, a new study from KPMG has found.

Gaya Herrington, sustainability and dynamic system analysis lead at KPMG, used a world simulation model that analysed the world’s progression over the past 49 years to prove or disprove MIT’s theory.

So what did Herrington’s research find out?

Where did the 1972 prediction come from?

The prediction originated from a 1972 reported titled: “The Limits to Growth: a report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind.”

It was written by authors Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III, representing a team of 17 researchers.

They were able to make this prediction using a simulation program called World1, which looked at different data from as far back as 1900 all the way up to 2060.

Since its publication, some 30 million copies of the book in 30 languages have been purchased, according to the Wilson Center.

a castle on top of a brick building: iStock-1085786516.jpg

Why is the 49-year-old prediction being re-visited?

Herrington decided to revisit the decades-old prediction due to her curiosity.

She said in the study announcement: “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.”

What factors were researchers looking at in the new study?

Herrington looked at 10 factors - ranging from population growth, industrial growth, and pollution to figure out if society was on course for collapse.

Here are the 10 factors in full:

  1. Population
  2. Fertility (birth rate)
  3. Mortality (death rate)
  4. Industrial output per capita (p.c.)
  5. Food p.c.
  6. Services p.c.
  7. Non-renewable resources
  8. Persistent pollution
  9. Human welfare
  10. Ecological footprint (EF)

Was the new study able to prove MIT’s original predictions?

Using the same model as researchers in 1972, but the third version of the simulation called World3, Herrington found that a “decline” in living standards could start as early as 2040, and fall to a historic low by 2050.

She said 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.

What does ‘societal collapse’ actually mean?

Although the term “societal collapse” sounds like the end of life itself, Herrington highlights in her report that this isn’t necessarily the case.

On the topic of societal collapse, she wrote: “[It] does not mean that humanity will cease to exist”. Instead it refers to how “economic and industrial growth will stop, and then decline, which will hurt food production and standards of living.”

Is it possible to change our paIth to avoid ‘societal collapse’?

Short answer – yes, according to Herrington.

A path forward with reduced consumption and waste, investments in infrastructure, and limited population growth, were an alternative that would avoid the collapse,

Though she notes that it “will not be easy and pose transition challenges” but adds: “A sustainable and inclusive future is still possible”.

The study was published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology .    

Reference: Indy 100: Sinead Butler

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