At a UN sustainability meeting several years ago, an economic policy officer came up to Gaya Herrington and introduced himself. Taking her name for a riff on James Lovelock’s earth-as-an-organism Gaia hypothesis, he remarked: “Gaya – that’s not a name, it’s responsibility.”
Herrington, a Dutch sustainability researcher and adviser to the Club of Rome, a Swiss thinktank, has made headlines in recent days after she authored a report that appeared to show a controversial 1970s study predicting the collapse of civilization was – apparently – right on time.
Coming amid a cascade of alarming environmental events, from western US and Siberian wildfires to German floods and a report that suggests the Amazon rainforest may no longer be able to perform as a carbon sink, Herrington’s work predicted the collapse could come around 2040 if current trends held.
Research by Herrington, a rising star in efforts to place data analysis at the center of efforts to curb climate breakdown, affirmed the bleaker scenarios put forward in a landmark 1972 MIT study, The Limits to Growth, that presented various outcomes for what could happen when the growth of industrial civilization collided with finite resources.
Now, with the climate crisis increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, and many single events shown to have been made worse by global heating, the Club of Rome, publisher of original MIT paper, has returned to the study.
“From a research perspective, I felt a data check of a decades-old model against empirical observations would be an interesting exercise,” said Herrington, a sustainability analyst at the accounting giant KPMG that recently described greenhouse gas emissions as a “shared, existential challenge.”
“The MIT scientists said we needed to act now to achieve a smooth transition and avoid costs,” Herrington told the Guardian this week. “That didn’t happen, so we’re seeing the impact of climate change.”
Since its publication, The Limits to Growth has sold upwards of 30m copies. It was published just four years after Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb that forewarned of an imminent population collapse. With MIT offering analysis and the other full of doom-laden predictions, both helped to fuel the era’s environmental movements, from Greenpeace to Earth First!.
Herrington, 39, says she undertook the update (available on the KPMG website and credited to its publisher, the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology) independently “out of pure curiosity about data accuracy”. Her findings were bleak: current data aligns well with the 1970s analysis that showed economic growth could end at the end of the current decade and collapse come about 10 years later (in worst case scenarios).
The timing of Herrington’s paper, as world economies grapple with the impact of the pandemic, is highly prescient as governments largely look to return economies to business-as-usual growth, despite loud warnings that continuing economic growth is incompatible with sustainability.
Earlier this year, in a paper titled Beyond Growth, the analyst wrote plainly: “Amidst global slowdown and risks of depressed future growth potential from climate change, social unrest, and geopolitical instability, to name a few, responsible leaders face the possibility that growth will be limited in the future. And only a fool keeps chasing an impossibility.”
Herrington, who as a degree in econometrics from the University of Amsterdam and a master’s in sustainability from Harvard, believes that the field of economic sustainability has to be made into an observable science that can be acted upon.
Her motivation, she says, is for the well being future generations. “I would like ‘the kids to be OK’, even if none of them were mine,” she says. “I am driven by a passion for sustainability. Always have been.”
The policy officer who approached her at the UN meeting and spoke about the meaning and responsibility of her first name was not necessarily wrong, she adds. “He was right in the sense that my drive has always come naturally to me.”
The MIT study, Herrington says, was never about making predictions but to show potential paths forward during a time of immense change. Herrington’s review concludes that the 1972 study was essentially on target. The 1972 study’s authors, Herrington points out, were looking for paths toward a stabilized world in terms of economic growth.
She says there is nothing inevitable about its predictions – even now.
“The key finding of my study is that we still have a choice to align with a scenario that does not end in collapse. With innovation in business, along with new developments by governments and civil society, continuing to update the model provides another perspective on the challenges and opportunities we have to create a more sustainable world.”
At the same time, she says, the primary concern of the MIT study have been supplanted. “Resource scarcity has not been the challenge people thought it would be in the 70s and population growth has not be the scare it was in the 90s. Now the concern is pollution and how it perfectly aligned with what climate scientists are saying,” she said.
Technological advances have meant simply that we go farther and deeper to extract fossil fuels, and despite some efficiencies, consumption and emissions have only increased. The MIT authors, she points out, predicted as much.
“They said that even if we innovate ourselves out of resource scarcity, we would probably see an increase in pollution from those adaptations unless we also limit our continued search for growth,” she said.
In the new study, Herrington focused on two scenarios using a range of variables, or markers, including population, fertility rates, mortality rates, industrial output, food production, services, non-renewable resources, persistent pollution, human welfare, and ecological footprint,
Under one, termed business as usual, or BAU2, growth would stall and combine with population collapse. The other, termed comprehensive technology (CT), modeled stalled economic growth without social collapse. Both scenarios “show a halt in growth within a decade or so from now,” the study says, adding, that “pursuing continuous growth, is not possible.”
Sustainability is the answer, she says.
“There is a sustainable way of creating value and prosperity that also has immense economic potential. Doing good can still yield a profit. In fact, we are seeing examples of that happening right now. Expanding those efforts now creates a world full of opportunity that is also sustainable,” she said.
Ironically, the pandemic, she believes, has even shown the world what might be possible.
“We’re totally capable of making huge changes, and we’ve seen with the pandemic, but we have to act now if we’re to avoid costs much greater than we’re seeing,” she said.