I’m generally a debunker, and what I can’t debunk I tend to be outspoken about. This one is easy to debunk, but I still am very wary of the end-of-world-as-we-know-it.
Here’s the lead paragraph of an article that has appeared in newspapers around the globe today:
Modern civilisation is heading for collapse within a matter of decades because of growing economic instability and pressure on the planet’s resources, according to a scientific study funded by Nasa.
I find it bizarre that every newspaper copied it as Nasa, when the organisation is properly known as NASA, something many young children could point out. No need to check something if it was published elsewhere, I guess. Lazy!
The source is a blog post on the Guardian website, as opposed to an article published in their newspaper – so perhaps that is why it escaped the Guardian editors, even though it ended up in print elsewhere.
Anyway, about the story itself…
Sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center – why? Nothing to do with space!
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.” “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.” - that would be a pre-technological history in which the poor and down-trodden had no idea what was happening until the situation became untenable. And presumably the wealthy were unaware or dismissive of the plights of the poor. Neither are applicable today.
Oh yeah, and no mention of any connection between those historical collapses and economic resources or planetary resources.
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.” – Neither of these will occur. Natural resources will be used more, and the elite will get richer. But that doesn’t necessarily mean doomsday. In all the previous empirical collapses, economies were based solely on natural resources. Today the situation is much different and more complicated. Results are exponentially harder to predict.
To put things in perspective, this is the opinion of a mostly anonymous group who have a presumed priority of getting doctorates or whatever. The head of this study is Safa Motesharri, a graduate student in applied mathematics – so you have to wonder who the rest are… He/she is not a doctor or professor, and there is no mention of social or historical studies. The collapse of civilisations is a multi-disciplinary study, and I would suggest not to be tackled by mathematicians.
One of the cited collapses is that of the Maurya empire. The relevant Wikipedia article makes it clear that the possible reasons for the collapse are many, and none are related to our modern situations. Same goes for the collapse of the Gupta empire.
There are many ways our societies can collapse, and I urge people to prepare for the worst. But the idea that the 1% will use up resources needed by the 99% doesn’t make much sense. There is a limit to how much rice someone can eat, and how many miles they can drive.