A Far Different Future Sooner Than You Might Imagine


One thing that can be said for the unfolding climate emergency is that it has forced us to see ourselves not as Masters of the Universe but as a species very much subject to the powerful influences of nature, our environment, Spaceship Earth.

It took years to connect the host of modern maladies and thus identify the common threads that run through them: severe storm events of increasing frequency, intensity and duration; megadroughts and megafloods; flash floods and flash drought; species migration; disease and pest migration; the migration of entire marine food chains; killer heat waves; soils degradation; deforestation and desertification; worsening food insecurity; rapidly expanding wildfires now spreading high inside the Arctic Circle; overpopulation; overconsumption; resource depletion, exhaustion and collapse; the freshwater crisis including surface water contamination and the rapid depletion of groundwater aquifers; ocean acidification and sea level rise; terrorism, rebellion and revolution; nuclear proliferation and more.

As you mull them over like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a picture emerges. Almost all of these ills arise, if not entirely then in significant measure, from the same cause - mankind's refusal to live in harmony with the limitations of our very finite planet, the only one we've got, Earth.  We have taken too many liberties, despoiled our faltering host. We have set into motion forces that we can no longer recall.

All of these problems came flooding back as I read a recent Guardian article. It involved a 1972  paper on the limits of growth produced by MIT for the Club of Rome think tank.  Half a century later, researchers led by Gaya Herrington  have dusted off the MIT paper only to find it's still remarkably accurate.

“The MIT scientists said we needed to act now to achieve a smooth transition and avoid costs,” Herrington told the Guardian this week. “That didn’t happen, so we’re seeing the impact of climate change.”

Herrington, 39, says she undertook the update (available on the KPMG website and credited to its publisher, the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology) independently “out of pure curiosity about data accuracy”. Her findings were bleak: current data aligns well with the 1970s analysis that showed economic growth could end at the end of the current decade and collapse come about 10 years later (in worst case scenarios).

Two jarring predictions. One, that economic growth could shut down by the end of the current decade. Two, in a worst case scenario, civilization as we know it today could collapse by 2040.

“The key finding of my study is that we still have a choice to align with a scenario that does not end in collapse. With innovation in business, along with new developments by governments and civil society, continuing to update the model provides another perspective on the challenges and opportunities we have to create a more sustainable world.”

At the same time, she says, the primary concern of the MIT study have been supplanted. “Resource scarcity has not been the challenge people thought it would be in the 70s and population growth has not be the scare it was in the 90s. Now the concern is pollution and how it perfectly aligned with what climate scientists are saying,” she said.

In the new study, Herrington focused on two scenarios using a range of variables, or markers, including population, fertility rates, mortality rates, industrial output, food production, services, non-renewable resources, persistent pollution, human welfare, and ecological footprint,

Under one, termed business as usual, or BAU2, growth would stall and combine with population collapse. The other, termed comprehensive technology (CT), modeled stalled economic growth without social collapse. Both scenarios “show a halt in growth within a decade or so from now,” the study says, adding, that “pursuing continuous growth, is not possible.”

How do we get past our intransigent leadership, slavish disciples of the neoliberal mantra of perpetual exponential growth? How do we effect such a transition in the limited time remaining? How do we do it on our terms? 

Getting out from under the stranglehold of the global trade regime won't be easy. We could, however, redefine the domestic economy and perhaps introduce a circular economy model where that might do the most good. 

At my age there's still a reasonable chance I may live to see the advent of "stalled economic growth." Those just a bit younger may be around to see the post-growth aftermath.  Good luck.


  1. selfishness, self centered and greedy
    embrace that
    it is your humanity
    at survivor default settings
    everything is expendable for your own self interests at criticality 1
    it was an easy game to play
    when there was lots in the pot
    now not so much

    remember potlatch ?
    he who gives everything away is greatest

    1. We definitely have hit it pretty hard, Lungta, and now our options are narrowing.

      This report was produced by a director of KPMG. It was more honesty than I've come to associate with accountancies.

      The idea of a transition to a "circular economy" is uplifting, one remaining option, if we had the courage and vision to take it. That's why I suggest we start drawing clear lines between our domestic economy and global trading. Implement circular economics domestically. There's too much inertia in the free trade world to expect it to make such a radical course correction.

      The pandemic demonstrated the vulnerability in an economy dependent on global supply chains. To work properly these chains have always counted on a significant measure of stability in the "link" economies. As the climate emergency does its work that stability will become harder to maintain.

      This vulnerability in the global order adds to the urgency of steering the domestic economy into a circular model. We have to build capacities in-house whether that be for surgical masks, vaccines or other critical needs.

      If you cannot afford to be without something, ensure you can provide it internally. That may mean reconsidering our food security. Demand cannot be the sole determining factor. Domestic supply might have to prevail.


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