A number of news outlets have reported that a study by Gaya Herrington, Sustainability and Dynamic Systems Analysis Lead in North and South America at accountancy firm KPMG, published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in November 2020, confirms - in the words of Nafeez Ahmed on vice.com - "a famous, decades-old warning from MIT about the risk of industrial civilization collapsing". The new study was reported by Edward Helmore in the Guardian, under the headline “Yep, it’s bleak, says expert who tested 1970s end-of-the-world prediction”. And many media outlets – including The Independent, Live Science, Hindustan Times and others – reported the story under headlines suggesting societal collapse is happening is on schedule.
Herrington’s professional work is described on the KPMG website as providing "large corporate clients and KPMG partners in the Americas with long term risk management and/or business strategy advice". KPMG is one of the “Big Four” global corporate accountancy and consultancy firms – it has annual revenues in the tens of billions of dollars. Herrington does not appear to have a formal post at a University, however her LinkedIn profile shows she has a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics, and a Masters in Econometrics and Operations Research, both from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and a Master's in Sustainability Studies from Harvard University. While the report is available on the KPMG site, it is pointed out there that the "research was not conducted on behalf of KPMG U.S. and its conclusions do not necessarily reflect the views of KPMG U.S."
The article, 'Update to limits to growth: Comparing the World3 model with empirical data' was published in Journal of Industrial Ecology 25(3). The article's reference point is the 1972 book The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind (Universe Books), which was commissioned by the Club of Rome, a longstanding international think-tank dedicated to the analysis of and the search for solutions to the most complex contemporary global crises. The original study, which was carried out by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology including the authors Donella H. Meadows (1941-2001), subsequently Adjunct Professor of Environmental Sciences at Dartmouth, Dennis L. Meadows, Emeritus Professor of Systems Management and director of the project, Jørgen Randers, Emeritus Professor of Climate Strategy, and William W. Behrens (about whom there is little published information), which used data science and systems modelling methods to study interactions between theorised changes in population, birth rate, mortality, industrial output, food production, health and education services, non-renewable resources, and pollution in 12 different scenarios with different assumptions about technological development, amounts of non-renewable resources, and societal priorities. The purpose of the study was to understand the impact of different scenarios on economic, social, and environmental outcomes for human society. There were two updates to the initial publication, both by the original authors (though without Behrens): Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future (1992, Chelsea Green Publishing Co.) and The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004, Chelsea Green Publishing Co.).
Herrington's study, in particular, compared observed 2019 data on the various variables included in Limits to Growth with data checks carried out by Graham Turner in 2008, 2012 and 2014 - with addition of some new scenarios and reference points. Turner – a Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute - had found that, compared to the original model, the world continued to follow a 1972 "business as usual" scenario (pursuing economic growth regardless of environmental and social cost) which indicated "a halt in hitherto continuous increase in welfare indicators around the present day and a sharp decline starting around 2030". Overall, Herrington found that an updated version of the "business as usual" scenario and a "comprehensive technology" scenario "aligned closest most often" with observed data. The revised "business as usual" scenario was based on the finding around 1990 that non-renewable resources were in fact more plentiful than assumed in 1972. So, in Herrington’s version, economic growth was still pursued regardless of environmental or social cost, but the crunch point would come later because there were more non-renewable resources available than previously assumed. The "comprehensive technology" scenario "assumes a range of technological solutions, including reductions in pollution generation, increases in agricultural land yields, and resource efficiency improvement that are significantly above historic averages". Under both of these "closest most often" scenarios, Herrington found "a halt in growth within a decade or so from now". However, while "business as usual" "shows a clear collapse pattern”, “comprehensive technology” has a less pessimistic outcome with “the possibility of future declines being relatively soft landings".
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Herrington's article and other studies in the field is the "stabilized world" scenario – the only one with a positive outcome. This scenario assumes "that in addition to the technological solutions, global societal priorities changed from a certain year onwards" (these include smaller family size, deliberate limiting of industrial output and prioritization of health and education services). While this scenario showed the smallest decline in economic outcomes, it also had "the lowest count for closest fit" with observed data – by implication, therefore, it appears not to be the pathway the world is on. The article concludes with an exhortation, based on the understanding that to some extent dramatic changed personal and social priorities will be important in avoiding societal collapse: "a deliberate trajectory change brought about by society turning toward another goal than growth is still possible. [...] this window of opportunity is closing fast."
The original Limits to Growth presented a similar apocalyptic call: “Taking no action to solve these problems is equivalent to taking strong action […] A decision to do nothing is a decision to increase the risk of collapse” (p. 183). The book emphasised the need for something more than technological or technical solutions, in effect it looked for a social vision which could be subscribed to by the world population: a “long-term goal that can guide mankind to the equilibrium society and the human will to achieve that goal” (p. 184). This was articulated in the epilogue to the original book – a commentary by the Club of Rome Executive Committee - which looked for “the initiation of new forms of thinking that will lead to a fundamental revision of human behavior and, by implication, of the entire fabric of present-day society” (p. 190). This is perhaps starting to emerge in popular social and environmental movements, which propose ways of living that coincide neatly with the Limits to Growth diagnosis. Though a more bleak mechanism is perhaps evident in developing environmental strategies implemented by some authoritarian governments.
As Susannah Crockford observes in an article in the Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements (CDAMM), “the use of mathematical models and precise prediction is important in millenarianism. The day and the hour of the end can be calculated. When estimating what will happen in the near and distant future, scientific prediction is a form of prophecy”. To that extent, work in this area might be understood as something like a prophetic tradition within environmental millenarianism. Crockford tracks the scientific calculation of environmental disaster back to Svante Arrhenius in 1896, and highlights the scientific theme emerging in earnest in the 1960s and 1970s – around the time the Club of Rome was formed and Limits to Growth was published. Limits to Growth in 1972, with its updates in 1992 and 2004, and a lively periodical debate around data and verification, could thus be seen as a corollary of distinct prophetic traditions within religious, millenarian and apocalyptic movements more generally. This is not to suggest that the Limits to Growth discourse should be dismissed as unscientific; clearly researchers active in the field are scientifically rigorous, mathematically expert and committed to the systematic testing and re-testing of data and results. Ruth Woods, Ana Fernandez and Sharon Coen (2010) have cautioned about the use of “religious metaphors by UK newspapers to describe and denigrate climate change”. Rather, we might simply observe that the movement may share salient characteristics with plainly religious forms of apocalypticism and millenarianism. Indeed, when the conclusions of studies delineating the scientific evidence for an impending human catastrophe make a call for a new global system of values adequate to the near complete transformation of established human patterns of behaviour, they enter a contentious territory where an understanding of religious history and the psychology of religion may be more instructive than data science if they are to have a positive outcome.
CenSAMM. 2021. ‘Prophets and Prophecy’. In J. Crossley and A. Lockhart (eds.) Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements. www.cdamm.org/articles/prophecy.
Crockford, S. 2021/2017. ‘Environmental Millenarianism’. In J. Crossley and A. Lockhart (eds.) Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements. www.cdamm.org/articles/environmental-millenarianism.
Herrington, G. 2020. ‘Update to limits to growth: Comparing the World3 model with empirical data’. Journal of Industrial Ecology 25(3): 614-626.
Meadows, D.H., D.L. Meadows and J. Randers. 1992. Beyond the limits: Confronting global collapse, envisioning a sustainable future. Post Mills: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Meadows, D.H., D.L. Meadows and J. Randers. 2004. Limits to growth: The 30-year update. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Meadows, D.H., D.L. Meadows, J. Randers, W.W. Behrens III. 1972. The limits to growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. New York: Universe Books.
Turner, G.M. 2014. Is global collapse imminent? Parkville, VIC: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.
Turner, G.M. 2008. A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality. Global Environmental Change 18(3): 397–411.
Turner, G.M. 2012. ‘On the cusp of global collapse? Updated comparison of The Limits to Growth with historical data’. GAIA 21(2): 116–124.
Woods, R., A. Fernández and S. Coen. 2010. ‘The use of religious metaphors by UK newspapers to describe and denigrate climate change’. Public Understanding of Science 21(3): 323-339.
Alastair Lockhart is Academic Co-Director of CenSAMM and a Fellow of Hughes Hall at the University of Cambridge. His recent book Personal Religion and Spiritual Healing: The Panacea Society in the Twentieth Century (SUNY Press) uses the archives of the Panacea Charitable Trust to examine the religious ideas of spiritual seekers around the world from the 1920s to the 1970s.