Sunday, March 16, 2014

The science of collapse

This is getting some attention. A study out of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center takes a look at previous collapses and has some not very good things to say about our current trajectory. Here's Nafeez Ahmed summing it up:
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.

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 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 years."

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:

    "Technological 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."

Productivity 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.

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, 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:

    "While 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."
Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'? (The Guardian) Nothing new to those of us who have been studying these phenomena for a while - climate change, resource depletion, extreme inequality, soaring debt, parasitical elites, war and conflict, loss of social trust, and so on. And Gizmodo sums up the conclusion:
Is there a way out? Of course. But you're probably not gonna like it. Dr. Ahmed sums up the researchers' suggestions:

    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.

Which is just as difficult and improbable as it sounds.
NASA-Backed Study Says Humanity Is Pretty Much Screwed (Gizmodo) There is a link here to the original paper, which I'll certainly be checking out.

From the comments:
Here's a link to another mainstream intellectually and methodologically robust study, this one by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) that indicates a 21st century 'collapse' unless we change our consumptive ways.

This one was reported in 'fringe' (meaning scientifically objective and accurate) media like "New Scientist" and Australia's ABC "Science Show" and ignored by mainstream media. I expect internationally, mainstream media ignored it too.


  1. "Is there a way out? Of course. But you're probably not gonna like it. Dr. Ahmed sums up the researchers' suggestions:

    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.

    Which is just as difficult and improbable as it sounds."

    I like it! A lot. What's not to like? Sure would hate to dust off Madame Guillotine though... repent while it's still time!

    Probable? Not. But you know, something is niggling me about the butterfly effect... :-)

  2. Ok, one other thing, after looking at the Guardian discussion.

    The Big Five Crises: Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy

    But -- the Two Deep Roots: Voracious elites, Money (Debt)

    Interesting that ancient Egypt avoided the periodic crises of Mesopotamia that eventually led to rapid land degradation and the other problems. They did not have a financial system based on debt/usury, and correspondingly ballooning elites. Sumerians et al did. Also, Egypt is one of the very few civilizations that did not collapse.

  3. The latest NASA report on "The Coming Collapse of Civilization" is pretty overblown. I'll let Ran Prieur speak on the subject:

    January 1, 2013. Ten years ago it really seemed like the whole system was about to come apart. People who saw a crash coming were seeing things that were being ignored by people who expected business as usual. Yet we were still wrong. After seeing how little daily life has changed after the 2008 financial collapse, seven years with global oil production on a plateau, and two catastrophic hurricanes, I think the big mistake of doomers was assuming that failures would have positive feedback like a house of cards. At this point, anyone still using the "house of cards" metaphor is not a serious analyst but an entertainer. It's clear that the interconnectedness of modern complex systems makes them stronger, not weaker.

    This is especially true of technological systems. I no longer expect any kind of tech crash, except that resource-intensive benefits like driving and eating meat will become more expensive and less available to poor people. Economies will collapse as they adjust to decades of zero or negative growth, weaker nations and businesses will fail, but computers will continue to get stronger, and automation will adapt to resource decline by becoming more efficient and better able to compete with human workers. At the same time, no government that can possibly avoid it will allow its citizens to starve, so there will be even more subsidies for industrially produced human dog food.

    Over the next few decades I see the global system passing through a bottleneck as it shifts from nonrenewable to renewable resources. We fantasize about apocalypse because we want the world to get looser, but I see it getting crappier and tighter. When we emerge from the bottleneck, life will get nicer... but are we coming out of the bottle, or going in? I think the "singularity" will match its meaning in astrophysics: the center of a black hole, with 90% of increasing computing power being used to stop the other 10% from doing anything interesting. I imagine an airtight sci-fi utopia/dystopia, where almost everything will be automated, nobody will have to do any work, everyone will be comfortable and safe, and we will have amazing powers to entertain ourselves. Other than that, we will have less power than any people in history or prehistory. The world will be lifeless and meaningless, a human museum, a suicide machine. Making the world alive again will be our next challenge...more

  4. January 10. Ten years ago, when I imagined "collapse", it was interesting: industrial collapse means there are no factories and everything new is made by hand. Infrastructure collapse means there are no electric grids and we're riding horses on the ruined freeways. Economic collapse means the banks are just gone, cash is worthless, and economies are gift and barter. Political collapse means you don't have to pay taxes, kids don't have to go to school, and there are no police.

    Now it's increasingly clear that none of these things are going to happen, even slowly over 100 years. As someone known for writing about collapse, I have two career options. One is to follow the bait-and-switch: keep writing about "collapse" but redefine it as something much less interesting. The other option is to write about what has now become interesting, given the new forecast. And that is: if the tech system keeps grinding ahead, what kind of crazy stuff is it going to do?

    On this subject, there are two popular schools of thought, and I don't like either. One is late 20th century conservative disasterism, where the worst criticism we can make of any technology is that it will destroy a bunch of stuff that we want to preserve. The other is infantile techno-optimism. Look at this page that just got massive upvotes on reddit: "Papertab" paper tablet is your flexible friend. This is not revolutionary. This is a toy, and people who get excited about it are like little kids around the Christmas tree, believing that the shininess and novelty of their toys equals eternal happiness.

    Now, there are possible technologies that are truly revolutionary. But my fear is that they will all be stopped, that the increasing power of the tech system will be used to keep the world stable and predictable, and to make us happy in the shallowest and least satisfying way. To avoid this dreadful fate, we need a cultural shift in which we gain a deeper understanding of quality of life, and we need to apply this understanding to technology, and start using it to increase danger and pain. I know, people in Africa would love to have the problem of not enough danger and pain. Don't worry -- in a hundred years, they will, and we'll have it worse than we do now.

  5. Yes, well. It's a discussion worth having. Basically, I think that Ran assumes that just because "collapse" did not happen immediately, it's not going to happen at all. But this is a silly assumption... esp. since past civilizations did collapse with tedious regularity.

    I also think that as a "clueless urbanite" (as most of us are) it is hard for Ran to appreciate the devastation to the web of life this civ is wreaking on unprecedented scale. Now this again does not mean that things will collapse next year, or, as professional alarmist McPherson claims, we'll have stone age in 2019, but it certainly does presage dire future happenings. The Sumerians saw their soil turning white and blowing away, yet they continued their trajectory. Take a good look at the land they left behind.

    Nobody will have to do any work, and all will be comfortable and safe?! Ha. That's Ran after getting his inheritance, living in a western American town where things still function pretty well. We have moved from a world where age-old subsistence lifestyles on the periphery (outlying communities and tribes) have given way to scrabbling in slums and giant garbage heaps, while in America small towns lie shuttered and abandoned, ruins of their former selves. What exactly is going prevent this trend from spreading?

    And finally, I understand the apocalypse fatigue and a need to grapple with more interesting topics on Ran's part. But there is a difference between moving on according to one's "career options" and struggling to discern real patterns to watch for. Ran is generally excellent in pattern recognition; too bad that he's felt a need to foreclose a path he's gotten bored with.

    One more example: he mentions "no police" in his former vision. Well, there are plenty of places even in this country where things have gotten so dangerous, the police no longer go there. Hey, it's already happened. And as for those potholed highways that have become almost impassable, and a horse and cart is good to own? Look at Ukraine.

  6. Ran just linked to this study on his site and commented:

    "My forecast remains what it was two months ago: global economic collapse, crushing poverty, widespread political chaos, but crappy subsidized food will keep you from starving, you'll still have to pay taxes, and high tech will continue creating new distractions and opportunities."

    Interstingly, his prediction is amazingly close to what economist Tyler Cowen predicts in his book Average is Over - soaring inequality thanks to automation, with 10 percent lving it up while everyone else becomes part of the precariat or the service industry catering to the rich and powerful. The poor will be living in shantytowns in the sunbelt subsisting on canned beans, but the internet and computerization means they will have lots of opportunity for distraction and entertainment and "cheap fun" thanks to couchsurfing, freecycle and so on. In fact, Cowen's descriptions of life for the majority of future Americans sound almost exactly like what Ran has talked about in his dropping out essays.


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