Industrial society heading for ‘irreversible collapse’

a13-iconAt The Guardian, Nafeez Ahmed writes: 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 common.”

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, 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 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:

“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 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.” [Continue reading…]

The research paper, which is quite technical, can be read here: “A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction.”

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4 thoughts on “Industrial society heading for ‘irreversible collapse’

  1. Steve Zerger

    Useful context for the overall subject of war. This work was all done 40 years ago by the Limits to Growth (Club of Rome) and contrary to the popular myth, their projections appear to be remarkably on track. It might make one chronically depressed to dwell on it, but it relativizes the blazing crimes of the current crop of bad men to rather minor occurrences in the narrative. War is an endlessly fascinating diversion, but absent the ecological context, it is just so much human naval-gazing.

  2. Paul Woodward

    I don’t think dwelling on ecological destruction will cause chronic depression unless one is convinced that humanity is on a fixed course. Neither do I think that the subject of war has to be a diversion — though it certainly can be.

    Human beings have extraordinary destructive and creative capabilities. Technological ingenuity, replicated through mass production, has created the illusion that collectively we are creatively evolving. I view the overarching trend of civilization, however, as one that saps creativity.

    We lose the skills to make things that we can instead buy. We lose the incentive to repair things we can replace. We lose the discipline to cultivate our own talents when we can so easily enjoy the talents of others. We have turned from producers into consumers, outwardly more wealthy while inwardly becoming more impoverished.

  3. Steve Zerger

    I don’t think it is all about humanity. Dwelling on ecological destruction might cause chronic depression when one just considers the beauty which has irrevocably passed away as a result of human destructiveness. But in the long run the purposes of the universe have no need for us. And it is not misanthropic to frankly realize and accept this.

  4. pabelmont

    I’m used to the idea that corporations (and people generally) will trash the environment to make a buck. the problem with capitalism-as-practiced-in-the-USA is not (only) that businesses are too big, too inhumane, etc., but that we’ve allowed politics to be near-totally commodified so that the big corporations (and other loci of concentrated wealth) can “buy” or “rent” whole legislatures adn whole administrations. Today, we suffer not only from “regulatory capture” (the control of regulatory agencies by the businesses they wre created to regulate/control) but also elective-capture.

    So no surprise that Obama cannot — assuming as I do that he would wish to — oppose climate change, fracking, pipeline building, et al, unless he is willing to kiss goodbye the possibility of Demoicrats being elected next time. Neither can he oppose the ongoing separation of very-very-very-rich from very-poor.

    We’ve acquiesced in this system and appointed a supreme court that seems to think that governance by oligarchs is the best thing since sliced bread.

    So is NASA’s report correct? Who knows. But our system of governance in the USA is not presently constituted so as to deal with almost ANY important problem.

    Trillions for “defense” (and CIA’s and NSA’s shenanigans) but not a penny to de-rail on-0rushing climate change. This message brought to you by BIG-FOSSILS, BIG-DEFENSE, [effectivel;y BIG-STATUS-QUO, where status-quo is deadly] and all their chums.

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