In 1972, a Computer Model Predicted the End of the World — And We're on Track

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The collapse of the world may be imminent. Zastolskiy Victor/Shutterstock

Call it Apocalypse 2040.

In the early 1970s, a computer program called World1 predicted that civilization would likely collapse by 2040. Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had programmed it to consider a model of sustainability for the world.

The prediction has resurfaced because Australian broadcaster ABC recirculated a 1973 newscast about the computer program. The program's findings, however, never really went away, as its results have been re-evaluated over the nearly 50 years since they first appeared.

The bad news for us is that the model seems to be spot-on so far.

A doomsday computer model

The computer model was commissioned by the Club of Rome, a group of scientists, industrialists and government officials focused on solving the world's problems. The organization wanted to know how well the world could sustain its rate of growth based on information that was available at the time. World1 was developed by Jay Forrester, the father of system dynamics, a methodology for understanding how complex systems operate.

When deciding the fate of civilization, the program considered several variables, including pollution levels, population growth, the availability of natural resources and global quality of life. These factors were considered in tandem with one another as opposed to separately, following the Club of Rome's perspective that the world's problems are interconnected.

Such an approach was novel in the 1970s, even if the forecast World1 produced wasn't intended to be "precise." The program produced graphs that demonstrated what would happen to those metrics in the future, without even accounting for things like climate change. The graphs all indicated a downward trajectory for the planet.

According to the 1973 ABC segment, World1 identified 2020 as a tipping point for civilization.

"At around 2020, the condition of the planet becomes highly critical. If we do nothing about it, the quality of life goes down to zero. Pollution becomes so seriously it will start to kill people, which in turn will cause the population to diminish, lower than it was in the 1900. At this stage, around 2040 to 2050, civilized life as we know it on this planet will cease to exist."

On course for the end of the world

A panoramic image of a large group of people
A large global population may be too much of a strain on natural resources. Such a population could also work together to help save the planet. Ints Vikmanis/Shutterstock

This was not the end of the model. In 1972, the Club of Rome published "The Limits to Growth," a book that built off the work of World1 with a program called World3, developed by scientists Donella and Dennis Meadows and a team of researchers. This time the variables were population, food production, industrialization, pollution and consumption of nonrenewable natural resources.

"The Limits to Growth" pushed the collapse of civilization to 2072, when the limits of growth would be the most readily apparent and result in population and industrial declines.

Criticism of the book was nearly immediate, and harsh. The New York Times, for instance, wrote, "Its imposing apparatus of computer technology and systems jargon ... takes arbitrary assumptions, shakes them up and comes out with arbitrary conclusions that have the ring of science," concluding that the book was "empty and misleading."

Others argued that the book's view of what constitutes a resource could change over time, leaving their data shortsighted to any possible changes in consumption habits.

The tide for the book's finds have changed over time, however. In 2014, Graham Turner, then a research fellow at the University Melbourne's Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, collected data from various agencies within the United Nations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other outlets, plotting their data alongside the findings of the World3 model.

What Turner found that was that the World3 model and then-current statistical information tended to coincide with another, up to 2010, indicating that the World3 model was onto something. Turner cautioned that the validation of World3's model didn't indicate "agreement" with it, largely due to certain parameters within the World3 model. Still, Turner argued that we were likely on "cusp of collapse" thanks to a few different factors, in particular what Turner called the end of peak easy oil access.

Writing in The Guardian, Turner and Cathy Alexander, a Melbourne-based journalist, explained that neither the World3 model or Turner's own confirmation of it signaled that the collapse was a guarantee.

"Our research does not indicate that collapse of the world economy, environment and population is a certainty," they wrote. "Nor do we claim the future will unfold exactly as the MIT researchers predicted back in 1972. Wars could break out; so could genuine global environmental leadership. Either could dramatically affect the trajectory.

"But our findings should sound an alarm bell. It seems unlikely that the quest for ever-increasing growth can continue unchecked to 2100 without causing serious negative effects – and those effects might come sooner than we think."