Originally published April 6 2014
NASA warns how 'powerful, complex societies' are subject to immediate collapse
by J. D. Heyes
(NaturalNews) A newly released study funded in part by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center predicts a Roman-style collapse of Western civilization unless resources and wealth are distributed more "equitably."
The study warns of a coming "collapse" within a few decades and attempts to avoid being viewed as fringe or controversial by attempting to make sense of historical data indicating that "the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history."
It says that cases of severe disruptions of civilization due to "precipitous collapse - often lasting centuries - have been quite common."
As reported by The Guardian, the independent research project's findings were based on a new cross-disciplinary model known as "Human And Nature DYnamical," or HANDY. The project was led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the U.S. National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists, the paper reported. The study has since been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Ecological Economics.
Researchers found that, according to historical records, even the most advanced, complex civilizations are susceptible to collapse, which has raised questions about how sustainable modern civilization can be:
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.
'Accumulated surplus not distributed evenly'
By examining the dynamics of human nature involved in past instances of societal collapse, researchers say they have identified the most prominent factors that can help explain the decline of civilizations, which they hope will help identify risks of collapse today. Such factors include population, climate, water, agriculture and energy.
These factors, The Guardian reports, can lead to societal collapse when they combine to create two 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 cases over "the last five thousand years," researchers conclude.
Current high levels of economic stratification are tied to overconsumption of resources, the report says, with "Elites" based mostly in industrialized countries responsible for both phenomena. The "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," said the report.
In addition, the study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these imbalances through 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.
A tale of two models
The study says that increased agricultural and industrial productivity over the past two centuries has come from "increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput," even though there have been dramatic gains in efficiency over the same time.
In modelling a number of different scenarios, Motesharrei and his team concluded that under conditions "closely reflecting the reality of the world today... we find that collapse is difficult to avoid."
The first of these scenarios finds that civilization "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," the study says. "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."
In the second, the rate of resource exploitation is modeled, leading to the 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."
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