In 1972, a group of top scientists from MIT published a ground-breaking book called The Limits to Growth. The researchers, lead by Dennis Meadows, applied the newly created field of systems dynamics to explore what they called the world problematique – the complex of problems affecting the globe including poverty and inequity, environmental degradation, institutional failure and economic disruption.
The scientists had created a systems model called World3 based on five interacting subsystems – population, food production, industrial production, pollution, and the consumption of non-renewable natural resources. The model was created using historical data going back to 1900. World3 broadly reproduced the state of the world in 1970, and generated predictions for key parameters over a 200-year timeframe upto 2100.
They ran World3 simulations of several types – including the Standard Run, Comprehensive Technology and Stabilized World scenarios, encompassing different possible responses to the “world-problem”. Of the 12 scenarios mentioned in the book, 7 ended in “collapse”, with the authors mentioning that “without major change in the present system, population and industrial growth will certainly stop within the next century.”
Limits to Growth, and its two updated sequels, stimulated vigorous critical debate that continues to this day. Despite genuine shortcomings and scathing attacks from powerful interests, the central message was credible and based on rigorous methodology.
The story doesn’t end there, though! Dr. Graham Turner of the University of Melbourne compared the Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality – and found that indeed, we seem to be on course with the “standard run” business-as-usual scenario which sees a global system collapse in the mid 21st-century – and all this without climate change modelled in!
This sounds depressing – but I’ve learned to hold on to a certain optimism that we can learn, we can solve our problems and march towards creating a better world. And that in the process, marvellous oracles like World3 and its descendents will allow us to see, dimly, visions of futures that might be, or not – and which are perhaps in our power to choose.