It was the early 1970s and the future of human civilisation had never looked brighter. There was only one problem.
A mathematical model developed by a pioneering computer engineer at MIT had predicted something terrifying. Something so terrifying, in fact, that it basically signalled the end of human civilisation on Earth.
The model, based on the work of MIT’s Jay Wright Forrester – considered the father of system dynamics – had been used by four of his students.
The MIT researchers had been commissioned by an elite organisation called the Club of Rome to predict what the future of worldwide growth looked like given finite planetary resources.
It sounds a little bit like the beginning of a disaster movie. And sadly, it sort of is.
The resulting research, The Limits to Growth – the best-selling environmental book of all time, described as “perhaps the most groundbreaking academic work of the 1970s” – did not offer an optimistic view of tomorrow’s world.
The model looked at the five factors considered most likely to impact upon growth on Earth: population increase, agricultural production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation.
Using a refined computer model called World3 – based upon Forrester’s original World1 system – the researchers calculated that upon a ‘business as usual’ trajectory, our society would effectively collapse sometime this century.
One of the reasons the computer model is back in the headlines now is because the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has shared some of its original TV coverage of the research in a new YouTube clip, and it offers a chillingly prescient look at a then-distant 21st century from the perspective of 1973.
Focussing on the World1 computer program running on what was then “Australia’s largest computer”, the segment – which originally aired on 9 November 1973 – breaks down how the model makes some of its predictions, before interviewing members of the study’s backers, the Club of Rome.
“World1 doesn’t pretend to be a precise forecast,” the presenter explains.
“What it does for the first time in man’s history on the planet is to look at the world as one system. It shows that Earth cannot sustain present population and industrial growth for much more than a few decades.”
Most chilling of all is how – in calculations that couldn’t have yet considered human-caused climate change as a variable – the model predicts how quality of life will start plummeting after surges in population and pollution, accompanied by a mass dwindling of natural resources.
At the time of its release, The Limits to Growth was widely and immediately criticised in many quarters, despite its huge sales, and despite the fact many credit it with heralding mainstream awareness of the concept of environmental sustainability.
“The Limits to Growth in our view, is an empty and misleading work,” The New York Times wrote. “Its imposing apparatus of computer technology and systems jargon … takes arbitrary assumptions, shakes them up and comes out with arbitrary conclusions that have the ring of science.”
In the decades since, research has shown that many of the predictions made by this pioneering model are scarily accurate, with some arguing we can “expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon”.