Saturday, March 22, 2014

Nasa-Funded Study: Industrial Civilization Headed for “Irreversible Collapse?” By Nafeez Ahmed.

Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for “irreversible collapse?” By Nafeez Ahmed. The Guardian, March 14, 2014.

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

Here’s How NASA Thinks Society Will Collapse. By Alex Brown. National Journal, March 18, 2014.

Too much inequality and too few natural resources could leave the West vulnerable to a Roman Empire-style fall.

Did Nasa fund “civilisation collapse” study, or not? By Nafeez Ahmed. The Guardian, March 21, 2014.

About that Popular Guardian Story on the Collapse of Industrial Civilization. By Keith Kloor. Discover, March 21, 2014.

Judging the Merits of a Media-Hyped “Collapse” Study. By Keith Kloor. Discover, March 21, 2014.

What happened to space exploration? NASA’s new project predicts the end of civilization. By Glenn Beck., March 18, 2014.

NASA-backed study says human civilization is headed for irreversible collapse. By Scott Sutherland. Yahoo! News, March 19, 2014. 

Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies. By Safa Moteshaerrei, Jorge Rivas, and Eugenia Kalnay. Ecological Economics, draft accepted for publication. Also here.


There are widespread concerns that current trends in population and resource-use are unsustainable, but the possibilities of an overshoot and collapse remain unclear and controversial. How real is the possibility of a societal collapse? Can complex, advanced civilizations really collapse? It is common to portray human history as a relentless and inevitable trend toward greater levels of social complexity, political organization, and economic specialization, with the development of more complex and capable technologies supporting ever-growing population, all sustained by the mobilization of ever-increasing quantities of material, energy, and information. Yet this is not inevitable. In fact, cases where this seemingly near-universal, long-term trend has been severely disrupted by a precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common. A brief review of some examples of collapses suggests that the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history, making it important to establish a general explanation of this process.
The Roman Empire’s dramatic collapse (followed by many centuries of population decline, economic deterioration, intellectual regression, and the disappearance of literacy) is well known, but it was not the first rise-and-collapse cycle in Europe. Prior to the rise of Classical Greco-Roman civilization, both the Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations had each risen, reached very advanced levels of civilization, and then collapsed virtually completely. The history of Mesopotamia – the very cradle of civilization, agriculture, complex society, and urban life – presents a series of rise-and-declines including the Sumerians, the Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Sassanid, Umayyad, and Abbasid Empires. In neighboring Egypt, this cycle also appeared repeatedly. In both Anatolia and in the Indus Valley, the very large and long-lasting Hittite and Harrapan civilizations both collapsed so completely that their very existence was unknown until modern archeology rediscovered them. Similar cycles of rise and collapse occurred repeatedly in India, most notably with the Mauryan and the Gupta Empires. Southeast Asia similarly experienced “multiple and overlapping histories of collapse and regeneration” over 15 centuries, culminating in the Khmer Empire based in Angkor, which itself was depopulated and swallowed by the forest during the 15th Century. Chinese history is, very much like Egypt’s, full of repeated cycles of rises and collapses, with each of the Zhou, Han, Tang, and Song Empires followed by a very serious collapse of political authority and socioeconomic progress.
Collapses are not restricted to the “Old World.” The collapse of Maya Civilization is well-known and evokes widespread fascination, both because of the advanced nature of Mayan society and because of the depth of the collapse. As Diamond puts it, it is difficult to ignore “the disappearance of between 90 and 99% of the Maya population after A.D. 800 . . . and the disappearance of kings, Long Count calendars, and other complex political and cultural institutions.” In the nearby central highlands of Mexico, a number of powerful states also rose to high levels of power and prosperity and then rapidly collapsed, Teotihuacan (the sixth largest city in the world in the 7th C) and Monte Alban being just the largest of these to experience dramatic collapse, with their populations declining to about 20-25% of their peak within just a few generations.
We know of many other collapses including Mississippian Cultures such as Cahokia, South West US cultures such as the Pueblo and Hohokam, Andean civilizations such as Tiwanaku, Sub-Saharan civilizations such as Great Zimbabwe, and many collapses across the Pacific Islands, such as Easter Island. It is also likely other collapses have also occurred in societies that were not at a sufficient level of complexity to produce written records or archeological evidence. Indeed, a recent study of the Neolithic period in Europe has shown that “in contrast to the steady population growth usually assumed, the introduction of agriculture into Europe was followed by a boom-and-bust pattern in the density of regional populations.” Furthermore “most regions show more than one boom-bust pattern,” and in most regions, population declines “of the order of the 30-60%” can be found. The authors also argue that, rather than climate change or diseases, the timing and evidence point to endogenous causes for these collapses in 19 out of 23 cases studied, suggesting the possibility of “rapid population growth driven by farming to unsustainable levels.” Moreover, through wavelet analysis of the archeological data, S. Downey [personal communication] has shown that the average length of such boom-and-bust cycles is about 300-500 years.
In summary, despite the common impression that societal collapse is rare, or even largely fictional, the “picture that emerges is of a process recurrent in history, and global in its distribution.” As Turchin and Nefedov contend, there is a great deal of support for “the hypothesis that secular cycles – demographic-social-political oscillations of a very long period (centuries long) are the rule, rather than an exception in the large agrarian states and empires.”
This brings up the question of whether modern civilization is similarly susceptible. It may seem reasonable to believe that modern civilization, armed with its greater technological capacity, scientific knowledge, and energy resources, will be able to survive and endure whatever crises historical societies succumbed to. But the brief overview of collapses demonstrates not only the ubiquity of the phenomenon, but also the extent to which advanced, complex, and powerful societies are susceptible to collapse. 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.
A large number of explanations have been proposed for each specific case of collapse, including one or more of the following: volcanoes, earthquakes, droughts, floods, changes in the courses of rivers, soil degradation (erosion, exhaustion, salinization, etc), deforestation, climate change, tribal migrations, foreign invasions, changes in technology (such as the introduction of ironworking), changes in the methods or weapons of warfare (such as the introduction of horse cavalry, armored infantry, or long swords), changes in trade patterns, depletion of particular mineral resources (e.g., silver mines), cultural decline and social decadence, popular uprisings, and civil wars. However, these explanations are specific to each particular case of collapse rather than general. Moreover, even for the specific case where the explanation applies, the society in question usually had already experienced the phenomenon identified as the cause without collapsing. For example, the Minoan society had repeatedly experienced earthquakes that destroyed palaces, and they simply rebuilt them more splendidly than before. Indeed, many societies experience droughts, floods, volcanoes, soil erosion, and deforestation with no major social disruption.
The same applies to migrations, invasions, and civil wars. The Roman, Han, Assyrian, and Mauryan Empires were, for centuries, completely militarily hegemonic, successfully defeating the neighboring “barbarian” peoples who eventually did overrun them. So external military pressure alone hardly constitutes an explanation for their collapses. With both natural disasters and external threats, identifying a specific cause compels one to ask, “yes, but why did this particular instance of this factor produce the collapse?” Other processes must be involved, and, in fact, the political, economic, ecological, and technological conditions under which civilizations have collapsed have varied widely. Individual collapses may have involved an array of specific factors, with particular triggers, but a general explanation remains elusive. Individual explanations may seem appropriate in their particular case, but the very universal nature of the phenomenon implies a mechanism that is not specific to a particular time period of human history, nor a particular culture, technology, or natural disaster.
In this paper we attempt to model collapse mathematically in a more general way. We propose a simple model, not intended to describe actual individual cases, but rather to provide a general framework that allows carrying out “thought experiments” for the phenomenon of collapse and to test changes that would avoid it. This model (called HANDY, for Human and Nature Dynamics) advances beyond existing biological dynamic population models by simultaneously modeling two separate important features which seem to appear across societies that have collapsed: (1) the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, and (2) the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses (or “Commoners”). In many of these historical cases, we have direct evidence of Ecological Strain and Economic Stratification playing a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse. For these empirical reasons, and the theoretical ones explained in section 3, our model incorporates both of these two features. Although similar to the Brander and Taylor model (hereafter referred to as “BT”) in that HANDY is based on the classical predator-prey model, the inclusion of two societal classes introduces a much richer set of dynamical solutions, including cycles of societal and ecological collapse, as well as the possibility of smoothly reaching equilibrium (the ecological carrying capacity). We use Carrying Capacity in its biological definition: the population level that the resources of a particular environment can sustain over the long term. In this paper, we call these environment resources “Nature.”