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The case for

Civilisation post-2040

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The world is heading for trouble, says a new study.

Who’s predicting doom and gloom?
In 1972 a team of scientists at MIT modelled the 21st century using one of the most sophisticated computer programmes available at the time, World3. The computer told them population would outstrip food production, global oil reserves would run dry and raw materials would be exhausted by the middle of this century. Supply chains would go haywire at some point in the 2020s, according to World3’s calculations. The population would fall by 500 million every decade from the 2030s and quality of life would drop to pre-1900 levels by the 2040s. “A computer looks ahead and shudders,” said one headline at the time.

How was the report received?
The MIT researchers and other “doomsday fantasists” have been derided for getting their facts wrong. In 1997 The Economist pointed out that the world wasn’t running out of raw materials at all: since 1972 reserves of everything bar tin had increased. “These people,” it pronounced, “appear to think that having been invariably wrong in the past makes them more likely to be right in the future.”

Why are we talking about this now?
New analysis from a top consultant at KPMG suggests that, in fact, MIT’s numbers all hold up. If you crunch the planet’s population trends, industrial output, food production and pollution levels, we’re on course to hit World3’s “civilisational collapse” by the 2040s. Economic growth will decline and life as we know it will go into free fall. MIT may have exaggerated the risks of “resource depletion”, says the author of the new research, Gaya Herrington, but that diminishing danger has been more than made up for by the threat from pollution and carbon emissions.

Are there other analysts who agree?
Yes. New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells thinks our planet will soon be so awash in greenhouse gases that Brooklyn’s heatwaves will rival Bahrain’s, the breadbaskets of China and the US will enter a debilitating and everlasting drought, and millions of brains will slip into carbon-induced confusion because they lack sufficient oxygen. What’s more, researchers say rising temperatures and violence are linked – and for every half-degree of warming, there’s a 10%-20% increase in the likelihood of armed (and possibly nuclear) conflict.

Aren’t we always being told the end is nigh?
So it seems. As St Augustine of Hippo pointed out, the earliest followers of Jesus believed they were in the “last days” of creation. “And if they were the ‘last days’ then,” he wrote in the 5th century, “how much more so now!” From Ragnarok to Revelation, we have always been obsessed with flood and fire. The difference now is that we blame ourselves, not deities. “Once people saw in the apocalypse the unknowable avenging hand of God,” said German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger in his 1978 essay Two Notes on the End of the World. “Today it appears as the methodically calculated product of our own actions.”

Haven’t we nearly wiped ourselves out before?
We’ve certainly tried. The An Lushan Rebellion in the 8th century is thought to have killed about 30 million – more than half of all Chinese people, and roughly a sixth of the world’s population. Polynesian settlers who arrived on Easter Island sometime between 800 and 1200 are thought to have annihilated themselves through overpopulation, tribal conflict and feverishly chopping down trees to transport their famous monolithic stone heads. By the time Europeans arrived in 1722, the islanders’ society had collapsed. The Black Death wiped out a third of Europeans in the 14th century – and in Asyut, Egypt, taxpayers’ ledgers show the population fell by 98%.

What about nuclear weapons?
Their invention gave man the power to destroy the planet, and there have been at least 22 recorded instances when a nuclear exchange has been narrowly averted. One was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, another in the small hours of 26 September, 1983, when the Soviet Union’s early-warning systems detected an incoming missile attack from the US. Protocol dictated that the Soviets should launch their own warheads in retaliation, but duty officer Stanislav Petrov decided not to inform his superiors; his gut told him it was a system malfunction, and he was right.

Will the risk reduce?
The pessimists think not, and there are plenty of them, especially in the US, where demand for bunker space is at an all-time high. The pandemic has triggered America’s second “doom boom” – the first was during the Cold War. Vivos, a Californian company, is selling 575 decommissioned weapons facilities in South Dakota, adapted into “underground survival shelters” and designed to withstand half a megaton of explosives, at $45,000 a pop. At its flagship facility in a disused government shelter in Indiana, mod cons include a cinema, accommodation for pets and a hydroponic farm for growing vegetables. Vivos also boasts the world’s only private DNA vault – “the next ark of humanity” – where members can store their genetic code.

What are the super-rich doing?
Silicon Valley types have been busy buying boltholes in New Zealand to protect themselves not only from nuclear weapons, but also from rampaging AI or synthetic diseases. “Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more,” says Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn. In the seven days after Donald Trump’s 2016 election win, 13,401 Americans registered with the New Zealand immigration authorities. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, a one-time Trump adviser who owns a 477-acre farm on South Island, has even mulled building his own country on an artificial island, or “seastead”. Thiel cites a 1997 book called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State – which was co-authored by the late William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times and father of Tory MP Jacob.

So we face multiple threats?
The prospect of catastrophe is built into human progress, and think tanks all have lists of top threats. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report, for example, worries about rogue AI, global internet failure, nuclear warfare, gene editing and “mind-reading” technology – it’s less worried about supervolcanoes and asteroid strikes. But the gloom can be overdone. On climate change, KPMG’s Gaya Herrington says new technologies such as carbon capture and lab-grown meat may save the day, and green energy is vastly cheaper than it was in the 1970s. There are “two radically opposed visions of the future”, says The New York Times’s climate expert, Brad Plumer, and it’s “not yet clear which one will win out”. The same could be said of the other threats facing us, from global pandemics to nuclear war. And anyway, futurologists are nearly always wrong.

🌎 🦠 🥵 🚀 It looks as if the world is “bumping up against some kind of ceiling”, says Niall Ferguson in Bloomberg. With the energy technology we’ve got, we can’t support much more than our current population of 7.9 billion without “destabilising the planet”. As if to curb our numbers, technological advances and population expansion have created “ideal conditions” for “significant, life-shortening disasters” – global pandemic, say, or a climate catastrophe.

We’ve been here before. The population of 14th-century Europe outgrew the agricultural technology of the age, leaving it highly vulnerable to shocks. Bubonic plague unleashed a “cascade” as mass deaths led to economic and social dislocation, which in turn led to religious and political upheaval. History shows we can overcome these problems: we’re still here, after all. But it’s small wonder the billionaires have taken to exploring space. What used to be “the final frontier” is becoming the ultimate insurance policy.