Deborah MacKenzie, consultant
Forty years ago this spring, three idealistic young computer modellers wrote The Limits to Growth, a book that detailed the first effort to use computers to project possible global futures. And what a projection. Dennis and Dana Meadows and Jörgen Randers created mathematical models of how global population, food, health, industry and resources affected each other, and then extrapolated to see what would happen if booming economic and population growth continued.
The result shocked them: the simulated society collapsed. No technological fix short of abandoning material growth could save repeated simulations from overshooting resource limits and plunging into megadeath and poverty. Partly as a result, the book was met with overwhelming, and largely ideological, derision - but, as I discovered on delving into its history earlier this year, it has never been disproved. Rather the opposite.
This is partly because Limits to Growth was not strictly a forecast, but rather a warning of the kinds of things that can go wrong when you have finite resources and social systems that are slow to react; by the time people realise they are running out of fish, or soil, or a stable climate, it is often too late to change fast enough to save what’s left of that resource. The idea of the book was to get the world to stop in time.
Few listened, and in forty years Randers has turned from the idealist who thought the book would change things, to a grumpy grandfather wondering what kind of world will result instead.
In this follow-up book, 2052: A global forecast for the next 40 years Randers makes predictions based on current data, simpler calculations and a lifetime’s experience analysing global systems.
Read the rest.