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Thursday, July 11, 2024

The Planet Can’t Sustain Rapid Growth Much Longer

Half a century ago, a small group of esteemed thinkers that called itself the Club of Rome got together to chew over a thorny question: What would happen if humanity continued to consume the world’s finite resources as if they were limitless? Their efforts generated the now-famous 1972 paper “The Limits to Growth,” in which they modeled what might lie in wait for humanity.

It wasn’t a pretty picture. The world, they predicted, was on a trajectory to overshoot its capacity to support continued growth at some point in the first half of this century. Continuing with business as usual—burning through resources while polluting the environment and pumping out carbon—would result in a “sudden and uncontrollable decline” in food production, population, and industrial output by the end of the 21st century. Or put simply, global collapse.

Fast forward 50 years, and humanity is still in deep trouble. In 2020, econometrician Gaya Herrington revisited and updated the Club of Rome’s modeling to see whether we’ve shifted off this terrible trajectory and found that we’ve barely moved the needle. But while we’re still on this dire path, all hope is not lost. WIRED spoke to Herrington to find out what she thinks might happen, how humankind can safeguard its future, and how we have a chance to step up and not just survive, but thrive.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WIRED: How would you describe humanity’s chances right now of avoiding global collapse?

Gaya Herrington: Very succinctly, we are at a now-or-never moment. What we do in the next five to 10 years will determine the welfare levels of humanity for the rest of the century. There are so many tipping points approaching, in terms of climate, in terms of biodiversity. So—change our current paradigm, or our welfare must decline.

You cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. We do not have the option to keep growing forever. It’s as simple as that.

When you revisited the Club of Rome’s work, you found that we haven’t changed course over the past 50 years. If we continue as we are, what’s next?

Everything is interconnected. We’re very interdependent, so our economy is 100 percent embedded in society, and our society is 100 percent embedded in nature. In a system, when it starts to break down, you can see it start to flicker. So you have social crises, crises in governance—rising populism and political violencefalling trust—and we have of course, the environmental crises now—the flooding and the droughts.

Those are warning signs, because the system is always trying to balance out, to maintain itself. But you don’t want to get to the tipping point. You want to heed the flickering.

Ignore them, and in general the world would be much less stable and pleasant, because things like clean air, clean water, and nutritious food will be harder to get. It’s hard to predict with precision for any location, because we have never experienced this situation before, but parts of the world would become uninhabitable and we’d experience more intense and frequent weather disasters and crop failures. Mass migrations would most likely grow in size and frequency.

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And of course there will be large inequalities. It’s not the groups that have contributed to climate change and ecosystem breakdown the most that will feel it the most. The people who are clearly causing the most carbon emissions are not necessarily living in the regions that are most affected. Climate change will impact everybody, but we know that Asia is very vulnerable to rising sea levels; we know that Africa is going to have the most desertification.

In your work you analyze whether technology can help us avoid collapse. Is that plausible?

Yeah, so you’re talking about whether we could pursue a “comprehensive technology” scenario [where unprecedentedly high rates of tech innovation come to the rescue].

You hear these arguments a lot, but you don’t really see it in the data. Research clearly points toward a business-as-usual, climate-collapse scenario being what’s actually happening. Take our footprint, for example—we’ve been above Earth’s carrying capacity since the 1970s. And that’s taking in all of our ecological footprint—mining, fishing, farming, logging. Even if we just look at carbon emissions, which has been the focus [of innovation], even there, there’s no absolute decoupling [from the path toward collapse]. There’s a little bit—very tiny, not nearly enough—and we need absolute decoupling. That’s nowhere in the data.

And secondly, and I think this is arguably more important, we don’t want to be following the comprehensive technology scenario in the first place. It’s not the best-case scenario. I hear so often: “Oh, we can innovate ourselves out of this.” Even if we could do that—even if we could, for example, replace bees with robotic ones [to fix a potential future collapse in pollinators], why would we want to live in that world, if we could also use our innovation in a way that doesn’t have to resort to that?

We’ve had warnings about our actions for more than half a century. Why is humanity seemingly incapable of heeding them?

We have all been taught that the only way to alleviate poverty is through growth. And that is simply not true. Plenty of studies show we can have everybody’s needs met in a no-growth environment.

But you cannot alleviate people from poverty without growth if the 1 percent hold onto all of their wealth. So the alternative to growth is of course sharing more. But people are very loss-averse. Once there is already a lot of inequality, there will be very powerful resistance from those people at the top that have a large accumulated wealth and power.

But we cannot grow our wealth beyond a point. So either we choose our own limits, and then we maintain our welfare levels, or we have limits to growth forced upon us through climate change and ecosystem breakdown.

We need to stop kidding ourselves about unlimited growth, and about what technological advances can do for us. But how specifically do we change?

We have to really redefine who we are, how the world works, what world we want to see, and what our role is. A very important realization is that the current crisis, even the biodiversity crisis, is not just environmental or technological. If that were the case, it would have been solved by now. It’s also largely social and ultimately, also, spiritual. We should have a better vision.

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Then of course, you need frameworks. Experts are already working on developing frameworks for well-being economics—the framework from Katherine Trebeck and others, or other frameworks, such as doughnut economics and post-growth economics. They’re not anti-growth; rather, they distinguish between good and bad growth: If it supports human and ecological wellbeing, let’s do it. Letting go of the pursuit of growth is not a capitulation to grim necessity—it’s an invitation to strive for something much better.

The shift is really toward meeting everyone’s needs. Human beings’ needs, but also for all life. And that would be a place where people are happier and where nature is thriving. And I think that would be a better world to live in.

Is such a big transformation actually possible?

Human history really is full of societies making drastic changes. It wouldn’t be the first time that a society bumps into limits and says we’re gonna do it differently. Of course, collapse is also not unprecedented. So that is no guarantee.

People ask me: “Can we make the shift, will we make the shift?” I don’t know if we will, because I don’t know the future. I do know for certain that we can. We have the technological capabilities. We have the knowledge, and I also truly think that we have the will.

Most of these measures that we talk about—post-growth economics, well-being economics—are wildly popular. The recent Beyond Growth conference in the European Parliament shows how much this kind of thinking is gaining momentum. Reducing inequalities—super popular. Doing more to conserve nature—people hate that biodiversity is dying out. They don’t like to hear the stories about another rhinoceros species dying, even though they probably had never seen one and they probably never would, but they deeply care about these things.

One thing I liked about the pandemic is that it gave a very good recent example of: This is what we can do—clearly if it’s necessary, we can do this.

How useful are the efforts that are already happening—things like the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is trying to fight back against biodiversity loss?

It’s a good question. It’s very important. We clearly undervalue nature. The challenges of falling biodiversity and environmental damage need to be tackled. They’re global challenges, they need to be tackled on a global scale. We need those international agreements.

The key with these things, always, is succeeding in actually following up on your commitments. This one [the latest iteration of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which first arrived in 1993 and has been updated with supplementary agreements] doesn’t go far enough. It goes a lot further than the last one. So that is good. If you look at the scientific papers, 30 by 30 [the pledge to make 30 percent of the world’s area protected by 2030] is probably not even enough. Work suggests we need 40 or 50 percent. At the same time, it’s already much more ambitious than the last framework, and that was not achieved.

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So—I think it’s a good thing. I would have liked to see it go further. But absolutely it’s a step in the right direction.

Alongside conventions, how much change has to happen at the personal level?

It starts with the personal, but that is definitely not where it ends. It does not end with you recycling. These are systemic issues.

An update last year from the Club of Rome identified five leverage points in the system. Those are: energy transition, and food—we need to move to regenerative agriculture—and the other three are actually not environmental but social. Reduce inequalities between countries in the world, reduce inequalities within countries, and then gender equality is a massive leverage point system as well.

So those would be the five areas for you to work in: Find your specific point in the system to work on it with your capability. Because everything is interconnected, if you work in a system, anything you do matters. And next to that, be plugged in. You need to go out to vote. It’s not even about combating climate change or avoiding biodiversity loss or combating income inequality. It’s kind of a battle for humanity’s soul right now.

Finally, are you optimistic about the future?I do genuinely believe that it’s possible that we’ll see a breakdown, and I just think that will involve a lot of unnecessary suffering. I’m afraid of the heartbreak that will cause. I’m a very privileged person. It will impact everybody, but it will not directly impact me the most. But I will have to see the suffering. That scares me.

But I do think there’s still hope, and I see so many people longing for a change. When I see the younger generation—but not only the younger generation—I see a lot of people who are really energized and working toward this vision of a well-being economy and a society that's actually thriving. I see this more and more.

I was quite surprised when my research went viral. I think it resonated with so many people because they already had kind of a sense, a sense like it’s not working. And I think it’s a very broadly carried sense: that, this current system, it can’t possibly be the best version.

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