The Siren by Armand Point
NASA-sponsored study warns of possible collapse of civilization
A new study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in the upcoming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.
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.
The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ model, also known as HANDY, led by mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), in association with a team of natural and social scientists.
It finds that according to the historical record that even advanced, complex civilizations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilization:
"The 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 impermanent."
By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain a civilizations decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: population, climate, water, agriculture, and energy.
These 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 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 years.”
Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri 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, civilization:
"…. 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).”
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 civilization.
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.
The NASA-funded HANDY model offers a highly credible wake-up call to governments, corporations and business - and consumers - to recognise that policy and structural changes are required immediately.
The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.
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