Yes, it’s dark, says expert who tested 1970s end-of-the-world prediction

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AAt the United Nations meeting on sustainable development several years ago, an economic policy official came to see Gaya Herrington and introduced himself. Taking his name for a riff of the Gaia hypothesis of Earth as an organism by James Lovelock, he remarked, “Gaya – it’s not a name, it’s a responsibility.

Herrington, a Dutch sustainability researcher and advisor to the Club of Rome, a Swiss think tank, has made headlines in recent days after writing a report that appeared to show that a controversial 1970s study predicting the collapse of civilization was – apparently – just in time.

Coming amid a cascade of alarming environmental events, from wildfires in the western United States and Siberia to flooding in Germany and a report suggesting the Amazon rainforest may no longer be able to function as carbon sink, Herrington’s work predicted that the collapse could occur around 2040 if current trends held.

Research by Herrington, a rising star in efforts to put data analytics at the center of efforts to curb climate degradation, confirmed the darkest scenarios put forward in a landmark 1972 MIT study, The Limits to Growth, which presented various findings on what might happen when the growth of industrial civilization encountered limited resources.

Now, with the climate crisis increasing the frequency of extreme weather events and many isolated events that have been made worse by global warming, the Club of Rome, editor of the original MIT article, has returned to the study.

“From a research perspective, I thought checking data from a decades-old model against empirical observations would be an interesting exercise,” said Herrington, sustainability analyst at the giant. KPMG accountant who recently described greenhouse gas emissions as a challenge. “

“Scientists at MIT have said we need to act now to achieve a smooth transition and avoid costs,” Herrington told The Guardian this week. “It didn’t happen, so we are seeing the impact of climate change. “

Since its publication, The Limits to Growth has sold over 30 million copies. It was published just four years after Paul Ehrlich’s demographic bombshell, which heralded an imminent population collapse. With analysis of MIT’s offer and the other full of catastrophic predictions, the two helped fuel the environmental movements of the time, from Greenpeace to Earth First !.

Herrington, 39, says she undertook the update (available on KPMG’s website and credited to its editor, the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology) independently “out of sheer curiosity about the accuracy of the data. “. His conclusions were grim: the current data fits well with the analysis from the 1970s which showed that economic growth could end at the end of the current decade and that the collapse would occur about 10 years later (in the worst case scenario). ).

The timing for Herrington’s article, as global economies grapple with the impact of the pandemic, is very prescient, as governments largely seek to bring economies back to normal growth, despite strong warnings. that continued economic growth is incompatible with sustainability.

Earlier this year, in an article titled Beyond Growth, the analyst clearly wrote: Will be limited in the future. And only a fool continues to chase after an impossibility.

Herrington, who holds a degree in econometrics from the University of Amsterdam and a master’s degree in sustainability from Harvard, believes the field of economic sustainability needs to be transformed into an observable science that can be acted upon.

Her motivation, she says, is for the well-being of future generations. “I would like ‘the kids to be okay’ even if none of them were mine,” she says. “I am driven by a passion for sustainable development. I have always been.

The politician who approached her at the UN meeting and told her about the meaning and responsibility of her first name was not necessarily wrong, she adds. “He was right in the sense that my motivation always came naturally to me. “

The MIT study, Herrington says, was never intended to make predictions, but to show potential paths to follow during a time of immense change. Herrington’s review concludes that the 1972 study was essentially on the right track. The authors of the 1972 study, Herrington points out, were looking for ways to a stabilized world in terms of economic growth.

She says there is nothing inevitable in her predictions – even now.

“The main conclusion of my study is that we always have the choice to align ourselves with a scenario that does not end in collapse. With innovation in business, as well as new developments in governments and civil society, continuing to update the model offers another perspective on the challenges and opportunities we have in creating a more sustainable world.

At the same time, she says, the primary concern of the MIT study has been supplanted. “Scarcity of resources was not the challenge people thought it would be in the 1970s and population growth was not as frightening as it was in the 1990s. Now the concern is pollution and how which it corresponds perfectly to what climatologists say ”, she declared.

Technological advancements simply mean that we go further and deeper to extract fossil fuels, and despite some efficiencies, consumption and emissions have only increased. The authors of MIT, she points out, predicted it.

“They said that even if we innovate ourselves due to the scarcity of resources, we would probably see an increase in pollution due to these adaptations unless we also limit our continued search for growth,” he said. she declared.

In the new study, Herrington focused on two scenarios using a range of variables or markers, including population, fertility rates, death rates, industrial production, food production, services, non-resources. renewables, persistent pollution, human well-being and the ecological footprint. ,

In one case, called business as usual, or BAU2, growth would stagnate and combine with population collapse. The other, called Global Technology (CT), modeled stalled economic growth without social collapse. The two scenarios “show a halt in growth within ten years”, the study indicates, adding that “pursuing continuous growth is not possible”.

Sustainability is the answer, she says.

“There is a sustainable way to create value and prosperity that also has immense economic potential. Doing good can still bring profit. In fact, we are seeing examples of what is happening right now. The expansion of these efforts now creates a world full of opportunity that is also sustainable, ”she said.

Ironically, the pandemic, she believes, has even shown the world what might be possible.

“We are quite capable of making huge changes, and we have seen it with the pandemic, but we have to act now if we are to avoid costs much greater than what we are seeing,” she said. declared.

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