A half-century A few years ago, a small group of esteemed thinkers calling themselves the Club of Rome got together to ruminate on a thorny question: what if humanity continued to consume the world’s finite resources as if they were unlimited? Their efforts generated the now famous 1972 paper “The limits of growth” in which they modeled what might lie in wait for mankind.
It was not a pretty picture. The world, they predicted, was well on its way to surpassing its capacity to sustain continued growth at some point in the first half of this century. Business as usual – burning resources while polluting the environment and pumping out carbon – would lead to a ‘sudden and uncontrollable decline’ in food production, population and industrial production by the end of the 21st century. Or more simply, a global meltdown.
Fast forward 50 years, and humanity is still in deep trouble. In 2020, econometrician Gaya Herrington revisited and updated modeling the Club of Rome to see if we veered away from that terrible trajectory and found that we barely moved the needle. But as long as we are still on this disastrous path, all hope is not lost. WIRED sat down with Herrington to find out what she thinks could happen, how humanity can safeguard its future, and how we have a chance to step up and not just survive, but thrive.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
WIRED: How would you describe humanity’s current chances of avoiding global collapse?
Gaya Herrington: Very succinctly, we are at a now or never time. What we do in the next five to ten years will determine humanity’s levels of well-being for the rest of the century. There are so many tipping points approaching, in terms of climatein terms of biodiversity. So change our current paradigm, or our well-being must decline.
You cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. We don’t have the ability to keep growing indefinitely. It’s that simple.
When you revisited the work of the Club of Rome, you saw that we have not changed course in the past 50 years. If we continue as we are, what is the next step?
Everything is interconnected. We are very interdependent, so our economy is 100% rooted in society, and our society is 100% rooted in nature. In a system, when it starts to break down, you can see it start to flicker. So you have social crises, governance crises, a rise in populism and political violence, loss of trustworthy– and of course we have the environmental crises now – the flood and the droughts.
These are warning signs, because the system is always trying to balance itself, to maintain itself. But you don’t want to get to the tipping point. You want to account for flicker.
Ignore them and, in general, the world would be a lot less stable and pleasant, as things like clean air, clean water, and nutritious food will be harder to come by. It is difficult to predict accurately for any location, as we have never experienced this situation before, but some parts of the world would become uninhabitable and we would experience more intense and frequent weather disasters and crop failures. Mass migrations would most likely increase in size and frequency.