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Almost 50 years ago, the World3 computer program at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced ...
2019-10-25 09:00:00

Cassandra ’72
Were the Predictions of World3 Accurate?

“Kasandra”, Evelyn De Morgan, 1898. Photo in public domain
Cassandra ’72
Cassandra ’72

The year 1972 saw a number of extraordinary events in the history of computer technology. Atari launched its first popular computer game, Pong. Intel released an eight-bit processor known as 8008. Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter, was born. What else? Perhaps the fact that following a week of tedious calculations, World3, a program developed by MIT scientists, came to the conclusion that the rapid collapse of our civilization would begin in 2040.

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These findings were the basis for the book Limits to Growth, commissioned in 1972 by the Club of Rome. This was one of the best-known positions of the early 1970s. It argued that scarcity of resources, a growing population, and the postponement of dealing with the issues of waste and pollution would lead to ecological, humanitarian and economic disaster. The collapse of civilization – World3 calculated – would occur before raw materials reserves are exhausted; it would be violent and lead to a manifold decline in world population (i.e. the extinction of the majority of human civilization).

The reception of the book varied wildly. At the time, Cold War tensions were somewhat relieved and people no longer feared nuclear war to such a great extent, hence some critics’ claim that The Limits to Growth filled the void left by his threat. Its detractors argued that it is human nature to expect the end of the world, so if bombs are no longer a threat, people will find some other apocalyptic prophecy, and will lose sleep over some computer prediction, rather than eat, drink and be merry.

This might be accurate, insofar as the establishment of the Club of Rome may have been impacted by the removal of the threat of another world war. The dismissal of such a war finally allowed people to calmly think about the future of humanity that would follow a non-violent path, rather than that of war. It is worth watching a 1973 clip from the Australian ABC television channel video (available on YouTube), in which the host, holding a several-metres-long printout from a dot matrix printer, explains that “for the first time in man’s history on the planet [it is possible] to look at the world as one system. It shows that Earth cannot sustain the present population and industrial growth for more than a few decades.”

Drawing by Mieczysław Wasilewski
Drawing by Mieczysław Wasilewski

Many took the predictions of The Limits to Growth seriously, especially as in the autumn of 1973, the oil crisis had begun in the US and several other Western countries. However, at the end of the 1970s, the period of relaxation in international politics had come to an end and the ‘Second Cold War’ had begun, again bringing the threat of global conflict to the fore.

I am not interested in discussing why, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, humanity did not resolve to unite in the face of common challenges, but rather completely forgot about them. In any case, the matter of the Club of Rome’s report did not resurface until the turn of the century. In 2000, the influential American economist Matthew Simmons wrote: “In hindsight, The Club of Rome turned out to be right. We simply wasted 30 important years by ignoring this work.”

Even though World3 did not take into account global warming (knowledge on the subject was still quite limited at the time), The Limits to Growth has begun to slowly gain more interest as the threat of climate change has become more and more tangible. Quite a simple algorithm, World3 calculated the relationships between five dynamic, interactive variables: population size, food production, industrialization, environmental pollution and consumption of non-renewable natural resources.

And yet, we should not take to heart the year 2040 as the date of the beginning of the end. Although some scientists, such as Graham Turner of the University of Melbourne, consider the predictions accurate, most experts on the subject say that the prognosis does not and cannot work (unless by some chance), because the interactions between the planet and humanity are much more complex than the computer algorithm written half a century ago. World3 is a very early example of computer modelling. The most important part of the Club of Rome’s report is its recognition of the close relationship between humanity and the planet, and its suggestion to try to move away from the unrestricted exploitation of the Earth, treating it as an inexhaustible resource and, simultaneously, an infinite landfill site.


Translated by Joanna Figiel

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