What Does the Data Tell Us About Growth?

What Does the Data Tell Us About Growth?

Gaya Herrington

15 years: Sustainable Economics

In the previous video, Gaya introduced the four scenarios considered in the Limits to Growth model. In this video, she will explain the alignment of these scenarios with empirical data of the past few decades, based on her own research.

In the previous video, Gaya introduced the four scenarios considered in the Limits to Growth model. In this video, she will explain the alignment of these scenarios with empirical data of the past few decades, based on her own research.

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What Does the Data Tell Us About Growth?

12 mins 47 secs

Overview

Having understood how the Club of Rome constructed the first system dynamics model of the world, and what its different scenarios imply for human well-being in the future, we turn now to Gaya’s research on the validity and accuracy of the model. By comparing the scenarios with empirical data, we can assess where humankind stands today. The implications from these findings are a stark reminder that although we can still change our future, we must act decisively now to shift towards a stabilised world trajectory. This involves a systemic change, and requires us to give up the growth pursuit.

Key learning objectives:

  • Outline the five insights provided by Gaya to avoid global collapse

  • Understand how the new empirical data compares to the original scenarios

  • Understand the implications of the research results

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Summary
What are the five insights outlined by Gaya?

  1. We live in systems (connected living)
  2. Perpetual growth is not a good goal for our economic system
  3. We need fundamental, not incremental, changes in society’s priorities
  4. We are fast running out of time to make these systemic changes
  5. Limits do not mean the end of progress, they are guideposts towards a better world

How does the research results compare with the original scenarios?

The comparison suggests a close alignment with the four scenarios, indicating that The Limits to Growth model was very accurate. Close to the point where we are at currently (2023), the scenarios begin to diverge and show very different trajectories. As things stand, we remain least aligned with the stabilised world (SW) scenario, and most closely aligned with BAU2 and comprehensive technology (CT). The two scenarios were both most closely aligned with empirical data because they only diverge from one another later in time.

What are the implications of the research results?

The accuracy of the model suggests that the general global dynamics indicated by the model should be taken seriously. It indicates that we are currently at peak welfare and as scenarios begin to diverge, we need to ensure we move onto a sustainable trajectory such as a stabilised world scenario to maintain this high welfare level. Otherwise we can expect our welfare levels to decline, because they cannot keep growing. We either choose our own limits by capping our material footprint, or have limits to growth forced upon us. 

The CT scenario does not display a total collapse, only declines, but it also seems unlikely that we can reach that path because our innovation rates are nowhere near the assumptions made. For example, the decoupling of GDP and greenhouse gas emissions is nowhere near absolute decoupling, i.e., where the world economy would be growing while greenhouse gas emissions are declining enough to stay within the Paris Agreement. There is even less decoupling from impacts to biodiversity. 

Why is there no slow down at all in ecosystem destruction despite advancement in technology?

  1. Innovation takes time and nature is not unbounded
  2. Technology is a tool and will primarily serve the system’s goal (growth pursuit)

As a result, we are very close to Earth tipping points, beyond which any damage will be irreversible. Some evidence to support this include the following:

  1. Global society has been living above Earth's carrying capacity since the late '70s
  2. We have already crossed 6 of the 9 planetary boundaries
  3. We have crossed 7 out of 8 of these globally quantified safe and just Earth System boundaries
  4. IPCC’s other climate scientists’ research suggests that we are on the path to cross 1.5 degree warming by 2027 and that by the end of this century climate change will have driven away about one third of the human population from places they have originally lived.

What are the key takeaways from the research findings?

We are on an unsustainable business-as-usual path, on which limits to growth will be forced upon us within the next decade, or two at most. It is highly unlikely that technology alone will save us without a simultaneous change in societal priorities away from the growth pursuit. It is also important to note that the CT scenario is not the best-case scenario. Changing the ultimate goal of our current economic and political systems from continuous growth to meeting human needs within planetary boundaries would seem to be a better society. One that we would prefer anyway, even if we were not facing collapse. 


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Gaya Herrington

Gaya Herrington

Gaya Herrington is a renowned environmental, social, behavioral, and economic researcher who focuses on the interplay between these trends and the necessary changes for global sustainability. She is a published author on the importance of recognising limits to growth and the potential for increasing global human and ecological well-being by shifting from perpetual growth to meeting human needs within planetary boundaries. She is currently Vice President Sustainability Research at Schneider Electric, the world's most sustainable corporation, and has held various positions, including sustainability consulting at KPMG and policy advisor to the Dutch government. She has given keynote speeches and guest lectures at various international conferences and is an advisor to the Club of Rome.

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