M.I.T. Computer Program Alarmingly Predicts in 1973 That Civilization Will End by 2040

In 1704, Isaac New­ton pre­dict­ed the end of the world some­time around (or after, “but not before”) the year 2060, using a strange series of math­e­mat­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions. Rather than study what he called the “book of nature,” he took as his source the sup­posed prophe­cies of the book of Rev­e­la­tion. While such pre­dic­tions have always been cen­tral to Chris­tian­i­ty, it is star­tling for mod­ern peo­ple to look back and see the famed astronomer and physi­cist indulging them. For New­ton, how­ev­er, as Matthew Stan­ley writes at Sci­ence, “lay­ing the foun­da­tion of mod­ern physics and astron­o­my was a bit of a sideshow. He believed that his tru­ly impor­tant work was deci­pher­ing ancient scrip­tures and uncov­er­ing the nature of the Chris­t­ian reli­gion.”

Over three hun­dred years lat­er, we still have plen­ty of reli­gious doom­say­ers pre­dict­ing the end of the world with Bible codes. But in recent times, their ranks have seem­ing­ly been joined by sci­en­tists whose only pro­fessed aim is inter­pret­ing data from cli­mate research and sus­tain­abil­i­ty esti­mates giv­en pop­u­la­tion growth and dwin­dling resources. The sci­en­tif­ic pre­dic­tions do not draw on ancient texts or the­ol­o­gy, nor involve final bat­tles between good and evil. Though there may be plagues and oth­er hor­ri­ble reck­on­ings, these are pre­dictably causal out­comes of over-pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion rather than divine wrath. Yet by some strange fluke, the sci­ence has arrived at the same apoc­a­lyp­tic date as New­ton, plus or minus a decade or two.

The “end of the world” in these sce­nar­ios means the end of mod­ern life as we know it: the col­lapse of indus­tri­al­ized soci­eties, large-scale agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, sup­ply chains, sta­ble cli­mates, nation states…. Since the late six­ties, an elite soci­ety of wealthy indus­tri­al­ists and sci­en­tists known as the Club of Rome (a fre­quent play­er in many con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries) has fore­seen these dis­as­ters in the ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry. One of the sources of their vision is a com­put­er pro­gram devel­oped at MIT by com­put­ing pio­neer and sys­tems the­o­rist Jay For­rester, whose mod­el of glob­al sus­tain­abil­i­ty, one of the first of its kind, pre­dict­ed civ­i­liza­tion­al col­lapse in 2040. “What the com­put­er envi­sioned in the 1970s has by and large been com­ing true,” claims Paul Rat­ner at Big Think.

Those pre­dic­tions include pop­u­la­tion growth and pol­lu­tion lev­els, “wors­en­ing qual­i­ty of life,” and “dwin­dling nat­ur­al resources.” In the video at the top, see Aus­trali­a’s ABC explain the computer’s cal­cu­la­tions, “an elec­tron­ic guid­ed tour of our glob­al behav­ior since 1900, and where that behav­ior will lead us,” says the pre­sen­ter. The graph spans the years 1900 to 2060. “Qual­i­ty of life” begins to sharply decline after 1940, and by 2020, the mod­el pre­dicts, the met­ric con­tracts to turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry lev­els, meet­ing the sharp increase of the “Zed Curve” that charts pol­lu­tion lev­els. (ABC revis­it­ed this report­ing in 1999 with Club of Rome mem­ber Kei­th Suter.)

You can prob­a­bly guess the rest—or you can read all about it in the 1972 Club of Rome-pub­lished report Lim­its to Growth, which drew wide pop­u­lar atten­tion to Jay Forrester’s books Urban Dynam­ics (1969) and World Dynam­ics (1971). For­rester, a fig­ure of New­ton­ian stature in the worlds of com­put­er sci­ence and man­age­ment and sys­tems theory—though not, like New­ton, a Bib­li­cal prophe­cy enthusiast—more or less endorsed his con­clu­sions to the end of his life in 2016. In one of his last inter­views, at the age of 98, he told the MIT Tech­nol­o­gy Review, “I think the books stand all right.” But he also cau­tioned against act­ing with­out sys­tem­at­ic think­ing in the face of the glob­al­ly inter­re­lat­ed issues the Club of Rome omi­nous­ly calls “the prob­lem­at­ic”:

Time after time … you’ll find peo­ple are react­ing to a prob­lem, they think they know what to do, and they don’t real­ize that what they’re doing is mak­ing a prob­lem. This is a vicious [cycle], because as things get worse, there is more incen­tive to do things, and it gets worse and worse.

Where this vague warn­ing is sup­posed to leave us is uncer­tain. If the cur­rent course is dire, “unsys­tem­at­ic” solu­tions may be worse? This the­o­ry also seems to leave pow­er­ful­ly vest­ed human agents (like Exxon’s exec­u­tives) whol­ly unac­count­able for the com­ing col­lapse. Lim­its to Growth—scoffed at and dis­parag­ing­ly called “neo-Malthu­sian” by a host of lib­er­tar­i­an crit­ics—stands on far sur­er evi­den­tiary foot­ing than Newton’s weird pre­dic­tions, and its cli­mate fore­casts, notes Chris­t­ian Par­en­ti, “were alarm­ing­ly pre­scient.” But for all this doom and gloom it’s worth bear­ing in mind that mod­els of the future are not, in fact, the future. There are hard times ahead, but no the­o­ry, no mat­ter how sophis­ti­cat­ed, can account for every vari­able.

via Big Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1704, Isaac New­ton Pre­dicts the World Will End in 2060

A Cen­tu­ry of Glob­al Warm­ing Visu­al­ized in a 35 Sec­ond Video

A Map Shows What Hap­pens When Our World Gets Four Degrees Warmer: The Col­orado Riv­er Dries Up, Antarc­ti­ca Urban­izes, Poly­ne­sia Van­ish­es

It’s the End of the World as We Know It: The Apoc­a­lypse Gets Visu­al­ized in an Inven­tive Map from 1486

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Joe says:

    Valen­tines Day.


  • Charles Faust says:

    If “Zed” tracks green­house gas lev­els (as opposed to ‘pol­lu­tion’, the MIT pro­gram is spot on. So now we have an expi­ra­tion date: 2060

  • Bradford Hatcher says:

    Had this been bet­ter researched, it would include a link to the 30-year update, which acknowl­edges hasty assump­tions and errors of omis­sion, and attempts some cor­rec­tions and adjust­ments. Lim­its to Growth — The 30-Year Update

  • Timo says:

    The prob­lem with this is that the fol­low­ers of the 3 Abra­ham­ic reli­gions have set them­selves on a course of deter­min­is­tic semi-con­scious self-destruc­tive behav­ior, in the hope of the advent of par­adise on Earth through total destruc­tion, instead of work­ing with what we have already. #lib­er­atey­our­self #wake­up #thereison­lyus #one­plan­et #nooneis­go­ing­tosaveus #itsup­tous

  • N Nescio says:

    The “While such pre­dic­tions have always been cen­tral to Chris­tian­i­ty”

  • N Nescio says:

    “While such pre­dic­tions have always been cen­tral to Christianity”…is inac­cu­rate, though eager­ly argued in the arti­cle. MATTHEW 24:35–36 “Heav­en and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour knoweth no man , no, not the angels of heav­en, but my Father only.”

  • Hannah says:

    Hi, It’s a very nice post. Thanks for your post. Do you know?“These two com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sys­tems have fig­ured out what a — if not the — good solu­tion is. And that feels very pro­found,” says Kan­wish­er.

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