Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Apocalypse Not?

So there's been quite a bit of attention paid to Nafeez Ahmed's article on the collapse study we talked about last week. One of Ahmed's harshest critics, Keith Kloor, hit back with several posts criticizing the conclusions:

About that Popular Guardian Story on the Collapse of Industrial Civilization (Discover blogs)

Judging the Merits of a Media-Hyped ‘Collapse’ Study (Discover blogs) Blogger Kloor seems to be stridently dismissive of anyone with a message he perceives as "doomer," see this for example: The Merchants of Doom

The first criticism is what relationship the study had with NASA. For its part, NASA released a statement distancing itself from the study:
"A soon-to-be published research paper, 'Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies' by University of Maryland researchers Safa Motesharrei and Eugenia Kalnay, and University of Minnesota's Jorge Rivas, was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity. As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions."

This criticism has some validity. Apparently, the truth is that some NASA funding went into the model the researchers used, but the study was not itself commissioned or released under the auspices of NASA - it was by independent researchers. The idea that it was a "NASA study" was put forward by the media outlets who picked up the story, in a kind of game of Chinese whispers (and why you should be skeptical of what you read on the Internet). That's more a commentary on how the Internet spreads misinformation, and the laziness of the corporate media than a refutation of the study itself. Whether or not NASA was behind the study, what about its conclusions?

One of the things Kloor does is conctact experts on collapse, including Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies. I wonder about the wisdom of trying to dispove a paper about collapse by contacting a guy who wrote an entire book on how civilizations collapse. And why did he contact the people he did? As Ahmed comments (see below) "Curiously, he [Kloor] can find not a single scientist or scholar who found the study useful, worthwhile, or bearing some validity worth further research." Did he try and contact Jared Diamond, for example?

I did find this comment from Dr.Tainter insightful:
"It is interesting how collapse theories mirror broader societal issues. During the Cold War, we had theories ascribing collapse to elite mismanagement, class conflict, and peasant revolts. As global warming became a public issue, scholars of the past began to discover that ancient societies collapsed due to climate change. As we have become concerned about sustainability and resource use today, we have learned that ancient societies collapsed due to depletion of critical resources, such as soil and forests. Now that inequality and “the 1%” are topics of public discourse, we have this paper focusing largely on elite resource consumption."
It's true that inequality has become the forefront of social concerns. And it is true that the causes of collapse focused on by various researchers tend to reflect whatever the pressing social concern is at the time. I think Tainter makes that point well, and why the study's focus on inequality in particular seemed to me, well, a little bit too targeted to contemporary political concerns that are hot right now. But it's equally true that all the other factors he listed above do play a role in collapse dynamics as well. That they also reflect contemporary concerns as well does not invalidate that fact. As for his other criticisms:
The paper has many flaws. The first is that “collapse” is not defined, and the examples given conflate different processes and outcomes. Thus the authors are not even clear what topic they are addressing. 
Collapses have occurred among both hierarchical and non-hierarchical societies, and the authors even discuss the latter (although without understanding the implications for their thesis). Thus, although the authors purport to offer a universal model of collapse (involving elite consumption), their own discussion undercuts that argument. 
Contrary to the authors’ unsubstantiated assertion, there is no evidence that elite consumption caused ancient societies to collapse. The authors simply have no empirical basis for this assumption, and that point alone undercuts most of the paper. 
It's true collapses have occurred under heirarchical and nonhierarchical societes. But they are particularly acute among agricultural societies which are heirarchical. And class stratication is a pretty consistent feature of them.
As for collapse not being explicitly defined, I've made this point several times myself. Personally, I'm not a fan of Tainter's reasoning. Tainter argues that civilizations ratchet up complexity when they encounter problems. But it seems to be that complexity is usually a result of civilizational success rather than difficulty. As a civilization grows, expands, has a bumper crop, conquers its neighbors, invents new techniques and so forth, it becomes more complex. As it can no longer maintain those gains, it becomes less complex. But the complexity does not cause the collapse. Rather it is a symptom of no longer having the resources to maintain the status quo. That is, a reduction of complexity is an epiphenomenon of collapse, not the central cause. If that were true, we would have collapsed long before now, as we're by far the most complex civilization that has ever existed. I think there is a fundamental correlation/causation error there.

Ahmed himself has published a response to Kloor's articles: Did Nasa fund 'civilisation collapse' study, or not? (The Guardian) Journalistic standards won't be upheld by attempting to discredit science we don't like

Ahmed looks at Tainter's criticisms:
He [Kloor] quotes, for instance, leading collapse anthropologist Prof Joseph Tainter, who critiques the HANDY model for a "flawed" understanding of the rise and fall of civilisations due to unsustainable levels of complexity. Some of Tainter's criticisms may well be correct (such as noting the lack of a precise enough concept of collapse) - but Tainter is not always right. 
Tainter's model of the collapse process of past civilisations in his landmark book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, is contradicted by the historical record on many of his own examples (a matter I've discussed more extensively elsewhere). The process of collapse, he says, occurs on a timescale of "no more than a few decades," when the complex structures created to deal with increasing problems generated by growing complexity begin to crumble under their own weight (p. 4). 
But this is incorrect. The collapse of the Western Roman empire, for instance - one of Tainter's prime examples - did not occur over decades through a single protracted collapse-process, but rather consisted of a series of crises over a period of centuries. Each crisis led to loss of social complexity and the establishment of temporary stability at a less complex level. Each such level then proved to be unsustainable in turn, and was followed by a further crisis and loss of complexity. The first major breakdown in the Roman imperial system came in 166 CE, and further crises followed until the Western empire ceased to exist in 476 CE. Collapse processes simply aren't as fast as Tainter thinks, and do not occur simply due to the dynamics of the resource issues surrounding his concept of 'complexity.' 
This doesn't mean Tainter is entirely wrong, just that his theorisation of what makes collapses take place, whether over shorter of longer periods of time, is open to question. Indeed, in my own PhD research at the University of Sussex I explored the direct link between class dynamics, inequality, overconsumption, and social instability in past empires, leading to past collapses and genocides - an area that remains under-explored in Tainter's work, and at least tentatively addressed by the HANDY model.
It's true that Tainter's assertion that collapse happens rapidly and in a matter of decades is probably the single biggest error in the book. Anyone looking at the historical record can see that. Such collapses usually happen to smaller, isolated societies and are the result of a catastrophe. Ahmed's description is closer to the mark, and will be familiar to people who know John Michael Greer's theory of catabolic collapse.

And it's true that the simplistic "we're all doomed" narrative put forward by the media was sensational and not entirely accurate. But pointing out the iceberg in the path of the Titanic is not that same as resigning yourself to drowning in icy water. Ahmed has a good follow-up:
Doom is not the import of this study, nor of my own original research on these issues as encapsulated in my book, A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It. Rather what we are seeing, as I've argued in detail before, are escalating, interconnected symptoms of the unsustainability of the global system in its current form. While the available evidence suggests that business-as-usual is likely to guarantee worst-case scenarios, simultaneously humanity faces an unprecedented opportunity to create a civilisational form that is in harmony with our environment, and ourselves. 
Of course, there are those who go so far as to argue that humanity is heading for extinction by 2030, and that it's too late to do anything about it. 
But as other scientists have pointed out, while the number of positive-feedbacks that could go into 'runaway' on a business-as-usual scenario appears overwhelming, whether they have yet is at best unclear from the numbers - and at worst, we find that proponents of fatalism are actually systematically misrepresenting and obfuscating the science to justify hopelessness.
The global Transition tipping point has arrived - vive la révolution (The Guardian)

He goes on to describe the kind of society that we really want to create that will deal with these converging crises: one that gets its energy from renewable, rather than non-renewable resources. One that is not dependent upon growth and debt. One that produces healthy food with means that enhance rather than despoil the earth and its systems. One that does not turn resources into waste for frivolous consumption. One that is more egalitarian and decentralized. And one that promotes the human values of meaningful work, freedom, fellowship, and cooperation, rather than exclusion, coercion, drudgery, surveillance, and conflict.

It's a nice view, but there a lot of forces arrayed against it. As Richard Heinberg noted recently in an interview with Chris Martenson, the only preparations the authorities seem to be making is preparing to deal with social unrest by putting in an all-seeing police state, and buying up as much farmland as they can. I've also noticed an increasing number of "thought leaders" arguing that democracy is no longer compatible with economic growth. Disturbing. Allowing this to go forward rather than Ahmed's more inclusive vision is the most "doomer" approach I can think of.

Incidentally, I first featured the work of Dr. Ahmed back in December of 2011.


  1. Are these sorts of dustups really useful? I am suffering from collapse fatigue... not because I don't think it's happening, but because I don't see people behaving differently after all that's been said and observed. And it's all pretty much been said over and over. The people on Easter Island could have had erudite groups arguing back and forth until the rats came home (not having cows) while not making a whit of a difference.

    1. So true. But the fact that *this* story went so viral should tell you something - maybe the shell is cracking?

      I've often thought that the *best* thing that could happen is a collapse, a la the Great Depression. Because only then is there alarm and enough pressure to DO SOMETHING! Instead we just the constant drip, drip, drip of lower living standards and each step downward is justified as "the New Normal" Statistically, we're already at GD levels, it has just unfolded over 30+ years.

    2. That's exactly why they'll keep collapse at bay as long as they can. They want the drip drip. Sudden collapses even if only economic lead to at least massive reforms, if not revolutions. So every time it comes close, they'll do some variation on bailouts et al, to keep kicking the can along.

      Yeah, the shell is cracking. But it's been cracking for some time... it's amazing what you can do with some glue and duct tape. ;-) And if the cracks show too much, they send in the false flag revolutionaries, like in Ukraine...


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