The researchers developed a computer model, World3, combining data and theory on global population, food production, industrial output, pollution, and natural resource depletion. The planet’s limits were exceeded within a few decades in every realistic scenario for which they ran a simulation. Among the foreseen consequences was catastrophic population and economic collapse around the middle of this century. As the narrator in the ABC segment explains, the MIT research showed that ‘Earth cannot sustain present population and industrial growth for much more than a few decades’, and that ‘simply cleaning up our car exhausts, and making some small effort to limit our families, probably isn’t enough.’ The research in question formed the basis of international best-seller Limits To Growth, which remains controversial among those who hold the greatest expertise on the complex dynamics of environmental systems: economists. I jest, of course. In my experience, economists tend to see no limit to their fields of expertise, and are undaunted by their lengthy record of failure to predict crises or much of anything. But when it comes to diagnosing what is ailing our overburdened planet, it is not economists we should be listening to, but natural scientists. Are we doomed, as the World3 simulations indicate? It certainly looks that way. Enormous areas of the world are running out of reliable supplies of fresh water, which we need not only to drink, cook and clean, but for agriculture and virtually any productive activity. Even if civilisation survives, things could still go very bad for billions of people. We are becoming locked into ever more dangerous levels of global warming, which could devastate food production and render uninhabitable vast areas of the world, which are currently home to billions of people. Pollution is quite literally killing us. We keep our animal products cheap via unspeakable cruelty, but even less horrid ways of farming livestock are unsustainable because there are so many of us. We are doing a great job at catching every last fish in the ocean. Worldwide, agricultural soils are tired, degraded, eroding away, turning to desert. We have been eradicating the world’s wildlife; even insects are disappearing, with unpredictable consequences for the ecosystems on which we all depend. The World3 simulations were useful because there have never been as many people around, or a global economy as voracious and effective at extracting and using up finite natural resources to keep all these people fed, sheltered, employed, and entertained. While the cracks have been visible for some time, we have not run this real-life ‘experiment’ for long enough to learn how long we have till everything starts falling apart. So far, the World3’s ‘business as usual’ forecasts have been surprisingly predictive. It is no wonder, perhaps, that we see more and more scientists issuing anguished warnings of impending civilisational collapse.
It is tempting to dismiss it all as crying wolf. We are a species of optimists, wired to expect things to be better than they really are, and we like to press experts to provide specific predictions that then have a tendency to not materialise. Until they do. Consider the recent bridge collapse in Genoa. Experts have been warning that corrosion of the structure posed a risk of collapse for decades. There had been so many warnings, in fact, that people came to dismiss them as exaggerations. After all, the bridge was still standing. ‘We keep being told the fairy tale of the collapse of the Morandi bridge’, wrote local politicians in a since-removed 2013 post. Earlier this month the bridge finally collapsed, killing 43 people, causing the evacuation of hundreds more, and leaving a major thoroughfare in ruins.
But is our glass half full outlook on life misplaced? We are 7.5 billion now, double the population during the time of the MIT study. Nearly all of us will consume more if given a chance. After decades of neglect, silence and denial in relation to overpopulation, we are on course to reach 11 billion towards the end of this century, and keep ballooning well into the next one. These demographic trends are not written in stone, and furthermore, tell us nothing about what kind of life people will live. Even if civilisation survives, things could still go very bad for billions of people. Maybe we will luck out. But it is very hard to see what could possibly justify taking such tremendous risks. Technology alone can’t get us out of this mess; there is no app for that. But people can change their minds about how many children to have. We can differentiate between what consumption is nice to have and what we can’t live without. And pursuing economic growth for growth’s sake is suicidal. This planet has limits, and we better not find where they lie.