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No. 3297:
Modeling the World

Today, modeling the future of human civilization. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. 


Isaac Asimov’s novel "Foundation" tells the story of a galactic empire on the brink of collapse. A key premise of the novel is that a mathematical model can predict the future of civilization. Are such forecasts possible?

Mathematical models can help predict the movements of planets and atoms. But human society seems much more complicated. Yet, an attempt to model the future of human civilization was published in a 1972 report titled "Limits to Growth". The model captured interactions between population growth, natural resources, technology, and our ecosystem.



This model churned out specific predictions about the future of humanity under various scenarios. In one case, we carry on as usual, using environmental resources to increase our living standards as the Earth’s population grows. Under this scenario the model predicted that global welfare should peak around 2020, followed by a decline and a collapse around 2030. In a different scenario, we adjust our societal values to prioritize health and education, which helps us avoid a catastrophe. In a third scenario, technological progress moves faster than expected, staving off a complete collapse, but leaving our environment severely damaged.

The idea that population and economic growth can't continue indefinitely wasn't news in 1972. Robert Malthus argued in the late 1700s that a growing population would exhaust our resources, leading to famine and disaster. However, Malthus didn't pinpoint when this collapse would happen. In contrast, the predictions in the 1972 report offered precise forecasts about our future.



So, did these predictions come true? The economists who developed the model checked their forecasts several times since and found that their predictions mostly held up. However, we're not yet able to tell if we're on the "business as usual" path leading to a dire end, or the "accelerated technology" path that will avoid societal collapse. The predictions for these two paths start to diverge a few years from now, so we should soon get a better sense of which scenario better describes reality. 

We’ve been using mathematical models to predict how financial markets will move and where a hurricane might land. These forecasts have their limitations - all models are mere shadows of the physical and societal processes they represent. However, models tell us about the behavior of atoms, the movement of galaxies, and the workings of the brain. But all models need constant comparison to real events so that we can adjust them, and discard them when they fail. Good models detect important trends and events and can make predictions that go beyond mere human intuition. When such models warn us about an incoming storm or potential famine we should pay attention. 

This is Krešo Josić at the University of Houston where we are interested in the way inventive minds work.


(Theme Music)


You can read more about the “Limits to Growth” report, and how it held up here:


The model that was used for the report is called World3, and is described well on Wikipedia:


This episode was first aired on May 21,2024.