1970s paper predicting we’ll hit societal collapse is right on schedule

Upward trajectories for economic and population growth, combined with environmental damage, provide early warning

Gino Spocchia
Saturday 17 July 2021 11:42
Oregon wildfires seen from space in dramatic satellite footage

A decades-old scientific paper predicting the collapse of society by 2050 appears to be right on schedule, according to a new study with stark warnings for continued economic and population growth.

Gaya Herrington, an analyst for accountancy firm KPMG, carried out the independent research for her Harvard thesis and found that a “decline” in standards of living could begin by as early as 2040, and fall to a historic low by 2050.

She wrote of the collapse: “[It] 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”.

Ms Herrington — who works as a lead KPMG analyst on sustainability — looked at 10 factors including population growth, industrial growth and pollution to figure out if society was on course for collapse.

She wrote in the paper that she wanted to take another look at the “limits to growth” theory first thought-up by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, in 1972 because she could not find any examples of it.

That theory, which was widely acclaimed in the 1970s, warned of a collapse of civilisation if society continued on a path of upwards population and economic growth.

The Harvard student wrote that she was “curious to see” if decades worth of data would show whether or not the “limits to growth” theory, and its warning of societal collapse, was on track, “ given the unappealing” nature of it.

Her 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.

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

She wrote of the necessary changes: “[It] will not be easy and pose transition challenges but a sustainable and inclusive future is still possible”.

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

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments