Innovations delay population collapse

Published: 23 July 2015 at 12:53

Dr Aled Jones

New research – Anglia Ruskin experts update and re-run model used in 1972 study

New research shows that society has addressed some of the challenges that led to the prediction in the 1970s of a doomsday scenario of pollution and limited resources leading to human population collapse.

Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute have updated the World3 model, which was used in the ground-breaking 1972 Limits to Growth study.

That study was the first to show that growth which is reliant on the increasing use of resources will inevitably overshoot the limits of the planet, leading to a population collapse.

The model uses sophisticated feedback loops, for example population growth increasing the amount of pollution, which decreases land quality and therefore food production, which in turn affects population growth.

Published today in the open access journal Sustainability, academics at Anglia Ruskin have used new data to fine-tune the World3 model and update the Limits to Growth study to better reflect the situation in the 21st century.

The research confirms that World3 still captures the overarching behaviours of the global system, and the good news is that some aspects have developed in more positive ways compared to the assumptions made in Limits to Growth. The key differences are:

  • Lower productivity of the industrial sector. In 1972 the economy was dominated by big resource-consuming, pollution-producing industry. Today, the industrial sector is smaller and has invested more to clean up its act than Limits to Growth expected.
  • Higher productivity of the service sector. Telecommunications and ICT improvements, and a burgeoning financial sector, have led to massive growth in the service economy since 1972. Capital is more productive than ever before and therefore the economy today is larger than Limits to Growth thought was possible.
  • Agricultural innovation. Technology improvements to increase crop yields and lower soil erosion have enabled us to grow more food than Limits to Growth anticipated.
  • Co-author Dr Aled Jones, Director of Anglia Ruskin’s Global Sustainability Institute, said:

    "The World3 model still tells us a lot about how the world works, although some of the original assumptions were too pessimistic. We have invested more to tackle pollution than was expected, and the boom in services from the finance sector and the digital technology revolution were not envisaged. However, the planetary limits that would cause population collapse still exist. Dr Jones added: “Many questions remain on exactly when planetary limits will be reached and what the consequences will be. When you run the newly-calibrated World3 model forward in time, society still collapses this century based on reasonable guesses of these limits, although there is of course great uncertainty around exactly what these limits are. Growth cannot continue indefinitely if it is based on material consumption, and not grounded in our understanding that the planet has limited land availability and resources. Society has started to address some of the problems outlined in 1972, but we need to learn lessons from what we have already achieved and focus our efforts on avoiding these limits."