nettime's avid reader on Wed, 19 Mar 2014 09:55:33 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'?

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
Motesharrei 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."

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 KPMG and the UK Government Office of
Science for 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 conservative.

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