In 1704, Isaac Newton predicted the end of the world around (or after, “but not before”) the year 2060, using a bizarre series of mathematical calculations. Rather than studying what he called the “book of nature”, he took as his source the alleged prophecies of the book of Revelation. Although such predictions have always been central to Christianity, it is surprising for modern people to look back and see the famous astronomer and physicist indulge in them. For Newton, however, as Matthew Stanley writes in Science, “laying the foundations of modern physics and astronomy was a bit of a sideshow. He believed that his really important job was to decipher the ancient scriptures and discover the nature of the Christian religion.
Over three hundred years later, we still have many religious doomsayers predicting the end of the world with Bible codes. But lately, their ranks have apparently been joined by scientists whose sole stated purpose is to interpret climate research data and sustainability estimates in the light of growing populations and dwindling resources. Scientific predictions do not rely on ancient texts or theology, nor do they involve final battles between good and evil. While there may be plagues and other horrific accounts, these are predictable causal results of overproduction and consumption rather than divine wrath. Yet, by some strange coincidence, science 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 1960s, an elite society of wealthy industrialists and scientists known as the Club of Rome (a frequent player in many conspiracy theories) has predicted these disasters at the turn of the 21st century. One source of their vision is a computer program developed at MIT by a computer science pioneer and systems theorist. Jay Forrestwhose global sustainability model, one of the first of its kind, predicted the collapse of civilization in 2040. “What the computer envisioned in the 1970s has largely come to pass,” Paul Ratner tells think big.
These forecasts include population growth and pollution levels, “degradation of quality of life” and “depletion of natural resources”. In the video above, see Australia’s ABC explain computer calculations, “an electronic guided tour of our global behavior since 1900, and where that behavior will take us,” the presenter explains. The graph covers the years 1900 to 2060. “Quality of life” begins to decline steeply after 1940, and by 2020, the model predicts, the metric contracts to turn-of-the-century levels, responding to the sharp increase in “Zed Curve” which plots pollution levels. (ABC revisited this report in 1999 with Keith Suter, member of the Club of Rome.)
You can probably guess the rest – or you can read all about it in the 1972 report by the Club of Rome Limits to growthwho brought Jay Forrester’s books to the public’s attention Urban dynamics (1969) and Global Dynamics (1971). Forrester, a figure of Newtonian stature in the worlds of computer science, management, and systems theory – but not, like Newton, a devotee of Bible prophecy – more or less endorsed his conclusions until the end of his life in 2016. In one of his last interviews, at the age of 98, he tells MIT Technology Review, “I think the books are holding up well.” But he also warned against acting without systematic reflection in the face of interrelated global issues that the Club of Rome ominously calls “the problematic”:
Time and time again… you will find that people are reacting to a problem, they think they know what to do, and they don’t realize that what they are doing is creating a problem. It’s 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 meant to leave us is uncertain. If the current course is disastrous, the “unsystematic” solutions can be worse? This theory also seems to leave powerfully invested human agents (like Exxon executives) totally inexplicable of the coming collapse. Limits to growth– ridiculed and denigrated as “neo-Malthusian” by a host of libertarian critics– rests on much surer evidence than Newton’s bizarre predictions, and his climate predictions, notes Christian Parenti, “were alarmingly foresighted”. But despite all this pessimism, it should be kept in mind that the models of the future are not, in fact, the future. There are tough times ahead, but no theory, no matter how sophisticated, can account for every variable.
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on our site in 2018.
In 1704, Isaac Newton predicted the end of the world in 2060
It’s the end of the world as we know it: the Apocalypse is visualized on an inventive map from 1486
Watch the destruction of Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius, recreated with computer animation (79 AD)