While yesterday’s article may have been optimistic about the future, today’s article will deal with a far more grimdark scenario. In 1972, MIT created a project called “Limits to Growth” to predict when industrial society would collapse, using a computer and system dynamic modeling to look at how society would fare in the future. It evaluated five topics mainly, the first of which was innovation, the second of which was population growth, the third of which was food production, the fourth of which was industrial output, and the fifth of which was pollution. While hundreds of other variables were factored in, the five topics mentioned in the previous sentence were paid attention to the most. The MIT scientists created thousands of different scenarios, as they understood the limits of their technology and knowledge, and essentially wanted to cast a wide net in order to have a greater chance of being accurate. Each of these scenarios had different variables tweaked to create different forecasts, with things like the rate of discovery of resources, rate of recycling, and levels of global trade being tweaked to yield different results. All of these scenarios, interestingly, predicted a global decline by 2040. The five main scenarios that the project highlights all fell within the standard of deviation and were seen to be the most plausible scenarios. Below, we’ll talk about some of the scenarios and their projected outcomes.
The first outcome, which was the most optimistic, is called the Comprehensive Technology Scenario, and the model assumes that innovation occurs at a constant rate. In the Comprehensive Technology Scenario, the human population stagnates in 2040, industrial output begins to fall as we make more efficient use of available materials, and while pollution and the destruction of land do affect food production, more advanced technologies make up for the shortfall in traditional farming resources. The more efficient use of resources in the Comprehensive Technology Scenario means that resources are never reduced to the breaking point, and pollution over time declines. Society in this scenario wouldn’t collapse, but our living standards would not continue to grow. The next scenario, called the Stabilized World Scenario, is set in a world where innovation kept its current rate, but recycling was subsidized to the point that it became economical, and we invested in renewable energy resources to the point that they became the primary producers of energy. It is worth noting that because climate change was not the concept that we know it as today back then, with far fewer people knowing about it, it is not factored in here. Interestingly, because the Stabilized World Scenario leads to a voluntary reduction in industrial output, it puts the least strain on resources. Looking at the graphs, the Comprehensive Technology Scenario seems very similar to the Stabilized World Scenario and while society declines after 2040, it is not the collapse that we’d fear. Of all the models, these were the two models that the researchers identified as the most optimistic.
Because reducing industrial output and limiting pollution goes against the interests of industry, in both capitalist and Blanquist-“Leninist” systems, it’s not probable that the Stabilized World Scenario could have ever come about since the material incentives in the short-term are not there. Additionally, states that do engage in environmentalism would put themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace, making it unlikely for a state to sustain such costly projects for very long. The next scenario I’ll talk about is the worst one, and it tracks exactly along our current society’s trajectory, to the point that in 2021, one of the original scientists on the “Limits to Growth” project, Gaya Herrington, confirmed that society is following the model talked about next to the letter. This model is dubbed the “Business-As-Usual” model and presents a scenario in which innovation continues at a decreasing rate, recycling programs never catch on, and green energy resources continue to stay a cottage industry. Pollution in this scenario is never addressed, causing it to grow exponentially, and interestingly, industrial output reaches the highest of any of the other models, before plummeting. A drop in food production, most likely due to agricultural land mismanagement and pollution, leads to declining birth rates and shortages in developed countries and famines in poorer countries. Easily accessible resources are consumed to the point that industrial output falls as a result, and in addition, the lack of new workers in developed countries further hinders industrial output. In this scenario, a total collapse of civilization occurs, and it is worth reiterating again that this is the most accurate scenario so far.
The Limits to Growth report has drawn critiques, from the fact that the calculations were done using computers with less processing power than a pregnancy test*, to the fact that critical things like global warming were never factored into the equation. According to economist Giorgia Nebbia, the critiques to the LTG model comes from at least four sources:
- individuals and organizations who saw LTG as a threat to their business or industry
- professional economists, who felt that the scientists lacked the credentials to speculate about economics
- the Catholic Church, which did not appreciate that overpopulation could be a problem
- Those on the political left, who argued it was a ploy to make out post-scarcity to be unfeasible
As you can see from the critiques above, most of the people had a vested interest when it came to criticizing Limits to Growth. While the first point listed above is obvious, the second point is not so much. Because of how intangible economics as a discipline is, and due to the fact that it serves more as propaganda than as an exact science in a capitalist science, the encroachment of the Limits to Growth study on the field of economics may have been seen as a threat. As we’ve seen in the case of the Medallion Fund, which only employs mathematicians and physicists despite being the highest performing hedge fund in history, you don’t need financial professionals and economists to predict economic trends. The third point, concerning the Catholic Church, makes sense due to the prodigious birthrates it benefits from in developing countries, which allows it to enjoy a growing membership that would be threatened should policies take into consideration Malthusian limits. The fourth point concerns the Marxists and other socialists who have never grown beyond the notion that progress is always inevitable; for them, the notion that things aren’t inevitable, that transitions require more than inaction and patience to accomplish sometimes, shakes their entire worldview. While everyone offers up points here, it’s always good to take into account the context and the critics’ own incentives.
To its credit, the frightening accuracy of the “Business-As-Usual” model shows that the LTG wasn’t all smoke and mirrors, and if you were to look at it after taking into consideration power dynamics and material incentives, it’s not very surprising. Should this collapse of civilization happen, it might pose an existential threat to humanity, given our dependence on supply chains and our lack of skills related to foraging and agriculture. Furthermore, for the survivors of such a scenario, they’d have to contend with a world wracked by destabilized climates, depleted fauna and flora populations that could otherwise be consumed, and the fact that all easily accessible energy resources had already been used up. The idea that humans would be stuck in a damaged biosphere, with the inability to form an industrial society again as easily, is frightening. The possibility of this being the case within a century, regardless of what anyone reading this does, is also frightening. At the moment, dialectical materialists are possibly just along the ride, as we hold no power over and within any of the industrialized countries on Earth today. We gave socialism a pre-emptive shot, it failed, and as industrial society falls apart, we’ll have to contend with the possibility that the feudal model may re-emerge as the most efficient system in the future. In the next article, which we will dub World 4, DMSG will go into detail about how dialectical materialism could survive such a collapse, as a philosophy dependent on the continual, upwards progression of society is challenged by a regressing society. This may all be speculation and things can always change but part of me writing the next article is just for the sake of fun.
*I am not aware of the specifications of the computers used for Limits to Growth in 1972, I just know that pregnancy tests can run Doom.