Heading towards collapse: two major warnings

6 August 2021

Updates to two landmark environmental studies were published in recent weeks: one examines the accuracy of the Club of Rome’s predictions in their bestselling 1972 book ‘Limits to Growth’, the other is a reiteration of the 2019 ‘Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency’. Needless to say, neither update offers good news we must act fast to avert disaster.

Burnt forest

Breaching limits

Limits to Growth, which is based on a mathematical model developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), concluded that if humanity kept pursuing economic growth, our society and environment would experience catastrophic collapse within the 21st century. A 2014 analysis found that the world was sadly still following the harmful “business-as-usual” scenario, which would result in stagnating welfare around the present day and a sharp decline beginning around 2030. The new study by Gaya Herrington of KPMG (who is speaking at Population Matters’ 2021 Conference in October), just published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, found that observed global data shows we are still on the “business-as-usual” track, which will eventually become impossible, either by design or disaster.

“Even when paired with unprecedented technological development and adoption, business as usual would inevitably lead to declines in industrial capital, agricultural output, and welfare levels within this century.” – Gaya Herrington

Whilst the exact timing and steepness of humanity’s downward path is impossible to predict, an increasing number of red flags from both humanitarian and scientific experts support the assumption that hard times lie ahead. In Population Matters’ 2020 report on the Sustainable Development Goals, we showed how many of their progress indicators are getting worse instead of better. For example, extreme poverty will not decrease this year due to population growth eclipsing economic growth in the poorest nations. The number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition is increasing again, as is the number of women with an unmet need for modern family planning. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated many crises, including through a surge in gender-based violence and child marriage.

Environmental tipping points

We are faring even worse on the environmental indicators, with global emissions continuing to increase and biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction happening faster than ever before. An alarming increase in catastrophic climate events, from wildfires to floods to heatwaves and a slowing Gulf Stream, all bolster the dire warnings from 50 years ago and reiterated over the decades.

Recent calls to action include a 2021 paper by leading ecologists showing we are headed towards a "ghastly future", and the Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, first published in 2019 and now signed by close to 14,000 scientists from around the world. The authors, led by ecologist Bill Ripple, published an update last month in BioScience, re-emphasising the urgency of the crisis based on recent alarming events. There have been some positive developments, including record high divestment from fossil fuels, but the overall picture is grim. For example, the number of livestock has reached a record high despite a temporary swine fever-induced decline in per capita meat consumption, destruction of the Amazon Rainforest reached a 12-year high, and the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide all reached record levels, despite the short-lived drop in emissions due to the pandemic.

“A major lesson from COVID-19 is that even colossally decreased transportation and consumption are not nearly enough and that, instead, transformational system changes are required, and they must rise above politics.” – Ripple et. al, 2021

The only way out

Importantly, the update of the Warning also highlights the interconnectedness of all environmental crises:

“Global heating, although ruinous, is not the sole symptom of our present struggling Earth system but is only one of the many facets of the accelerating environmental crisis. Policies to alleviate the climate crisis or any of the other threatened planetary boundary transgressions should not be focused on symptom relief but on addressing their root cause: the overexploitation of the Earth. For example, by halting the unsustainable exploitation of natural habitats, we can simultaneously reduce zoonotic disease transmission risks, conserve biodiversity, and protect carbon stocks.”

The authors repeat the 2019 Warning’s call for transformative change in six areas, including ending and ultimately reversing human population growth by empowering women and removing barriers to family planning.

In her paper also, Herrington points out the urgent need to tackle the root cause: “a deliberate trajectory change brought about by society turning towards another goal than growth is still possible. That window of opportunity is closing fast.” We have no time to lose.

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