Sunday, 15 June 2014

Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'? | Nafeez Ahmed | Environment |

Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'? | Nafeez Ahmed | Environment |

    Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'?

    Natural and social scientists develop new model of how 'perfect storm' of crises could unravel global system

    This NASA Earth Observatory released on
    This Nasa Earth
    Observatory image shows a storm system circling around an area of
    extreme low pressure in 2010, which many scientists attribute to climate
    change. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

    A new study partly-sponsored by Nasa's Goddard Space Flight
    Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation
    could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource
    exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

    that warnings of 'collapse' are often seen to be fringe or
    controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical
    data showing that "the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a
    recurrent cycle found throughout history." Cases of severe
    civilisational disruption due to "precipitous collapse - often lasting
    centuries - have been quite common."

    The independent research
    project is based on a new cross-disciplinary 'Human And Nature
    DYnamical' (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei
    of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center,
    in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The HANDY
    model was created using a minor Nasa grant, but the study based on it
    was conducted independently. The study based on the HANDY model has been
    accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal,
    Ecological Economics.

    It finds that according to the historical
    record even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse,
    raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation:

    fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han,
    Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian
    Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated,
    complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and
    By investigating the human-nature
    dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the
    most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline,
    and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely,
    Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

    factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial
    social features: "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed
    on the ecological carrying capacity"; and "the economic stratification
    of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or "Commoners") [poor]" These
    social phenomena have played "a central role in the character or in the
    process of the collapse," in all such cases over "the last five thousand

    Currently, high levels of economic stratification are
    linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with "Elites" based
    largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:

    accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but
    rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population,
    while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by
    elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels."
    The study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:

    change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to
    raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource
    extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption
    often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use."
    increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries has
    come from "increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput,"
    despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.

    a range of different scenarios, Motesharrei and his colleagues conclude
    that under conditions "closely reflecting the reality of the world
    today... we find that collapse is difficult to avoid." In the first of
    these scenarios, civilisation:

    ".... appears to be on
    a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal
    depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the
    Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among
    Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is
    important to note that this Type-L collapse is due to an
    inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a
    collapse of Nature."
    Another scenario focuses on the
    role of continued resource exploitation, finding that "with a larger
    depletion rate, the decline of the Commoners occurs faster, while the
    Elites are still thriving, but eventually the Commoners collapse
    completely, followed by the Elites."

    In both scenarios, Elite
    wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most "detrimental
    effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the
    Commoners", allowing them to "continue 'business as usual' despite the
    impending catastrophe." The same mechanism, they argue, could explain
    how "historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to
    be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in
    the Roman and Mayan cases)."

    Applying this lesson to our contemporary predicament, the study warns that:

    some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving
    towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes
    to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who
    opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable
    trajectory 'so far' in support of doing nothing."
    the scientists point out that the worst-case scenarios are by no means
    inevitable, and suggest that appropriate policy and structural changes
    could avoid collapse, if not pave the way toward a more stable

    The two key solutions are to reduce economic
    inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to
    dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive
    renewable resources and reducing population growth:

    can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita
    rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if
    resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion."
    NASA-funded HANDY model offers a highly credible wake-up call to
    governments, corporations and business - and consumers - to recognise
    that 'business as usual' cannot be sustained, and that policy and
    structural changes are required immediately.

    Although the study
    based on HANDY is largely theoretical - a 'thought-experiment' - a
    number of other more empirically-focused studies - by KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science
    for instance - have warned that the convergence of food, water and
    energy crises could create a 'perfect storm' within about fifteen years.
    But these 'business as usual' forecasts could be very conservative.

    Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed

    • This article was amended on 26 March 2014 to reflect the nature of the study and Nasa's relationship to it more clearly.

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