[permaculture] Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'? | Nafeez Ahmed | Environment | theguardian.com

Lawrence London lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Sat Mar 15 10:31:42 EDT 2014

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

Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible

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

Noting 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

The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary 'Human And Nature
DYnamical' (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharri of
the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental
Synthesis Center <http://www.sesync.org/>, in association with a team of
natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been
accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological

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

"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
civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse
today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and

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."

However, 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:

"Collapse 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."

The 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 is largely theoretical, a number of other more
empirically-focused studies - by
the UK
Government Office of
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

*Dr Nafeez Ahmed <http://www.nafeezahmed.com/> is executive director of the
Institute for Policy Research & Development <http://www.iprd.org.uk/> and
author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It
<http://www.crisisofcivilization.com/> among other books. Follow him on
Twitter @nafeezahmed <https://twitter.com/NafeezAhmed>*

More information about the permaculture mailing list