The Collapse of Civilization

An article in the April 7, 2014 New York Times about the third annual National Preppers and Survivalists Expo (The Capitalism of Catastrophe, by Alan Feuer) mentions that a recent study found the industrial world might collapse within decades:

Ever since Isaiah, someone somewhere has been talking about the imminent demise of civilized society. Still, one could argue that today’s connected world of globalized supply chains and multinational banks is especially susceptible to a catastrophic failure. This is not the exclusive opinion of the fringe groups of society: Just last month, a study financed by NASA found that, because of financial inequality and environmental problems, the industrial world could suffer “a precipitous collapse” within decades.

You might think such a study would merit more than passing mention. If not deserving of as much coverage as the recent disappearance of a Malaysian passenger jet (25 NYT articles as of April 7), if less interesting than the April 7th New York Times front page article on the popularity of country music (Young, Rich and Ruling Radio, Country Walks a Broader Line), a study indicating that our civilization might soon collapse would still seem to deserve somewhat more attention, perhaps an entire article. But searching for additional coverage by the Times of this ominous study turned up nothing other than the brief passage quoted above.

Nevertheless, we can thank the Times for calling this study to our attention. A good overview of the study is provided by a 3/14/2014 article in The Guardian, Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?, including the following:

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.”

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.”

Details of the study are reported in Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies, by Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas, and Eugenia Kalnay. Their report includes the following comment on factors that may prevent action to avoid impending catastrophe:

It is important to note that in both of these scenarios, the Elites —due to their wealth— do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners. This buffer of wealth allows Elites to continue “business as usual” despite the impending catastrophe. It is likely that this is an important mechanism that would help 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). This buffer effect is further reinforced by the long, apparently sustainable trajectory prior to the beginning of the collapse. 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.

Failure of contemporary leaders to take serious action to address global warming is lamented by Elizabeth Kolbert in Rough Forecasts (New Yorker, 4/14/2014). Describing U.S. tax policy related to fossil fuels and alternatives as “lunacy,” she writes:

At a meeting in Yokohama, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest update on the looming crisis that is global warming. Only this time it isn’t just looming. The signs are that “both coral reef and Arctic systems are already experiencing irreversible regime shifts,” the panel noted. Composed in a language that might be called High Committee, the report is nevertheless hair-raising. The I.P.C.C.’s list of potential warming-induced disasters—from ecological collapse to famine, flooding, and pestilence—reads like a riff on the ten plagues.

The fact that so much time has been wasted standing around means that the problem of climate change is now much more difficult to deal with than it was when it was first identified. But this only makes the imperative to act that much greater, because, as one set of grim predictions is being borne out, another, even worse set remains to be written.

The author of the Guardian article, Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, wrote a book about potential catastrophe,
A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization. For a summary of his view, see The End of the World As We Know It? The rise of the post-carbon era.

For a discussion of the validity of the HANDY study, and of whether it is accurate to describe it as NASA-funded, see Nafeez Ahmed’s Did Nasa fund ‘civilisation collapse’ study, or not?, which concludes with the following quote from a discussion of HANDY and other models titled Human-Nature Interaction in World Modeling with Modelica, by Rodrigo Castro et al.:

Although models presented in this paper are from different classes (minimal Handy vs. more complex, realistic world model, World3), their conclusions are similar. In the long run, not so far into the future, humanity must change to living sustainably on planet Earth. This change can occur either as a planned gradual transition, preserving well-functioning societies, or as a more disruptive, unplanned transition resulting in a less pleasant society with a reduced ecological capacity.