business strategies

[Science Solitaire] The final audit: The hellish scenario of business as usual

Maria Isabel Garcia
[Science Solitaire] The final audit: The hellish scenario of business as usual

Graphic by DR Castuciano

'Do we deserve a century more? Will we even have a century more?'

We all hurt, and even crumble, that all our lives have changed and that we can’t wait to go back to what we have been used to. But what if you knew that going back to the “good old days” will definitely lead to collapse, not in some unimaginable future, but starting now? 

Our own defensively-skilled brains will label that as being “alarmist,” and probably even dismiss it as the mere opinion of a “tree hugger” – a thickly veiled insult to (or a brazen show of ignorance on) the biological power of trees to save us from ourselves. But there is solid proof from the past and the present that the worst thing that could happen to the world is “business as usual” (BAU). And there is glaring proof now in the very currencies that business mainly values and understands.

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The proof from the past was in Limits to Growth, published in 1972. It had predicted that if the world stayed on a path in pursuit of “economic growth,” it will reach a limit naturally marked by finite resources and/or countered by the tragic environmental and social effects of growth. It was authored by Donella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, Dennis Meadows, and William Behrens III, who projected world scenarios based on available data then coupled with assumptions. They updated it in 1992 in Beyond Limits, when the real world even overshot the tragic assumptions in 1972, and then again in 2000 in Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.

Given my choices in the life I have led, I have read Limits to Growth and its two updates, and even personally met one of the authors, Jørgen Randers, many years ago. But none of my personal experiences in learning and working will ever have as much gravitas to readers/leaders in industry as the newest “update” by someone who belongs to their own “tribe.”

Gaya Harrington, a senior director at KPMG – one of the biggest global accounting firms – took it upon herself to go back to the scenarios used in Limits to Growth and its updates and put in the real data that was not available then. The study was published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology in late 2020. The verdict it gave is as clear as the audited financial reports that businesses use as reference to measure their own health. The entire study can be accessed here in a language and methodology any business person could understand. So if you are someone who for some reason is averse to environmental data, thinking that it has been selective to curbing your company’s growth goals, then read the facts from a person who knows what is essential to company bottom lines.

There were four main scenarios in Limits to Growth and its updates, and the worst scenario was “Business as Usual” (BAU), where we pursue industrial growth without equal or more regard for environmental and social costs, which leads to a decline in everything we value – including industrial output. 

Harrington’s study used available real-world data now on the key interactions of factors used by Limits to Growth: global population, birth rate, mortality, industrial output, food production, health and education services, non-renewable natural resources, and pollution. These were assessed using updated assumptions about technological development, amounts of non-renewable resources, and societal priorities to see if we are still on BAU. And the revelatory tragedy is that indeed we are, which could lead us to an even more hellish “BAU 2” scenario. That scenario shows a steep decline starting now, yes now, in resources, industrial production, population, and food, and a steep rise in pollution.

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The bottom line of Harrington’s study: the “Stable World” (SW) scenario can only happen if we not only come up with comprehensive technologies and adapt them, BUT also if we do a reboot of our societal priorities and values. And time is closing in fast on a point of no return if we do not do this. That is what, personally, deeply worries me. It is, I think, easier to set up a human colony on Mars than to change the minds of people on this planet about what they value.

The invisible hand has given us all a visibly tragic and all-encompassing mess for people and planet. It was so successfully invisible that it was there creating havoc regardless if countries and economies touted themselves as capitalist, communist, socialist, or hybrids. 

Like many of you, I am dead tired and deeply frustrated (and even sometimes angry) that we still use old century frameworks of capitalism, communism, and socialism to suit our 21st realities and our plans for the future. The baggage of all these ideologies in terms of whom and what they were associated with paralyzes us all from spinning our collective world into one where we can still deserve to be called Homo sapiens (beings who are wise), who thought of and promptly acted out in ways to save ourselves and the very planet we live on. 

It was adaptability to real-world conditions that made our species get to this century from 200,000 years ago. Is this the end to our adaptive record? Do we deserve a century more? Will we even have a century more? –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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