Peak Civilization and The Limits Of Growth

If you would like to understand why reality looks the way it does, it would help to familiarize yourself with the book called The Limits To Growth. The Limits To Growth is a book released in 1972 which showed that an economic policy committed to endless economic growth will inevitably lead to catastrophic collapse due to the combined effects of resource depletion, pollution, and social instability.

Panned by the venerable New York Times after its release, Limits To Growth was dismissed as a pessimistic, shrill, and unrealistic projection of the future. However, 30+ years of historic data now show that the projections created by the World 3 simulation under the “Business As Usual” scenario are remarkably accurate. As such, though the creators of the simulation have taken great pains to refer to their data as projections and not predictions, the fact that reality has closely adhered to the model shows that it is a useful tool for looking into the future. Certainly more useful than say, tarot cards, economists, or pollsters.

What the BAS simulation shows most clearly is that the years between 2000 and 2050 can best be described as the time of “peak humanity“. Food production, services, pollution, and industrial output will all hit their highest levels during this interval before a precipitous decline unfolds, brought about by resource overshoot and subsequent environmental collapse.

Limits to Growth Projection with Historical Trend Line

Based on the current projection, we have already reached or are approaching within the next 3-5 years peaks in food production, industrial output, and services. The pollution curve, however, is expected to continue to rise until about 2035, about 5 years past peak population which is expected to occur in 2030. After 2030, a combination of starvation, war, disease and natural disasters will steadily decimate the human population.

At this time, it should be clarified that the assumptions made under the BAS model have been realistic, but erring towards the generous. Several of the scientists who are responsible for the model actually now believe that reality is likely to be far worse than their projections, not only in terms of declines being more steep, but also in terms of peaks arriving earlier than projected.

While the projection has identified various dimensions of human society reaching their peaks, what it cannot actually quantify is when civilization itself will peak. I’m defining civilization here as not merely the rule of law, but also as a commitment to rationality. (Before I go any further, I must clarify that rationality is not in opposition to emotionality. Emotions can be either rational or irrational. This is worth saying because as more and more people begin to detect the coming social and economic collapse, psychological illnesses such as anxiety, depression and even mania are likely to rise. Heightened emotionality is an entirely rational response to a world in peril.)

It is worth thinking about when we will reach peak civilization precisely because the social and emotional components of life define the quality of our existence in addition to the availability of goods and services. High food production doesn’t mean much if it is being produced by slave labor, nor does an increase in the availability of services if those services are largely being provided by machines while much of the population are destitute and homeless.

Given that we cannot actually track something like “rationality” directly, what other indicators might we use to determine if a rational society still exists? One might suggest looking at the form of governance and whether there is a drift towards greater authoritarianism or democracy, but one might also look at less subjective variables, such as the internal logical coherence of a language. That is, to what extent do people argue over the meaning of words, and what kinds of words are generating conflict. There is a difference between arguing over the meaning of a word like “sustainability” and arguing over the meaning of a word like “woman”. The former indicates a society still dedicated to rationality. The latter, not so much.

There is certainly a large enough data pool to measure such metrics and derive a score of some kind, though it is of course very unlikely that this will be done, largely because it does not serve the interests of those who prefer incoherence and confusion, namely the business and political elites who profit from clicks and campaign donations. If the controversy can be used to generate money, then the controversy will live. Indeed, even where there is no controversy, one will be created in order to generate profit. It also serves as a useful way of depleting the public’s emotional reserves so that they won’t have the wits or energy to focus on the fact that their children and grand children will be living through a hellish dystopia brought about by an unstable climate, depleted environment, and collapsed social order, and that they themselves will be entirely responsible for that future since they wasted their time creating social disorder by empowering the kind of fools who argue over what the word “woman” means.

But, perhaps the election results in the UK and USA in 2016 has finally begun to alert both the public and the elites who rule them to what has long been obvious to those scientists since 1972 (and the rest of us who’ve been paying attention), namely that the status quo is no longer possible, nor can the projected future be ignored. Peak civilization it seems, is finally upon us, and the consequences of “Business As Usual” can no longer be escaped. Good luck.