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Earth NASA Science

NASA-Funded Study Investigates Collapse of Industrial Civilization 401

Posted by Soulskill
from the gotta-clear-out-the-barbarians-before-settling-another-city dept.
Snirt writes "A new study (PDF) sponsored by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilization 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 civilizational disruption due to 'precipitous collapse — often lasting centuries — have been quite common.' They say, '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.' After running simulations on the survivability of various types of civilizations, the researchers found that for the type most resembling ours, 'collapse is difficult to avoid.'"
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NASA-Funded Study Investigates Collapse of Industrial Civilization

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  • Manners (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @12:52PM (#46493413)

    “A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.”

      Robert A. Heinlein, Friday

    • Re:Manners (Score:5, Interesting)

      by vux984 (928602) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:56PM (#46493907)

      To be fair, Heinlein also wrote that all the moral and ethical problems inherent in transplanting a brain from an old man to the body of a just-deceased young woman - such as how the womans family and loved ones would cope -- could all be resolved by fucking them.

      Of course, that novel also speculated that the deceased personality would still inhabit the body, despite the brain transplant too.

      I mean, really, the premise was excellent, the opportunity to explore the social and technical ramifications of such a brain transplant would be classic SF material ... the direction Heinlein went with it was pretty weaksauce. And he went "that same direction" in an awful lot of his later work.

      Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of Heinlein's work, but nearly everything after Stranger in a Strange Land is a bit off the rails.

    • Re:Manners (Score:5, Interesting)

      by stenvar (2789879) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @02:06PM (#46493961)

      Well, Heinlein is right, though not in the way he probably intended it.

      In totalitarian regimes or anarchies, people have to be polite even if they are wronged because if they don't, they'll get hurt.

      If they are lucky, those cultures then develop into wealthy, liberal societies. In those kinds of societies, people have some degree of free speech and personal security, so they feel free to speak up and speak their mind, even if it offends people.

      Eventually, wealthy and liberal societies come to an end for other reasons. People like Heinlein are then looking for causes and misattribute the fall to whatever negative social phenomena they observed prior to the fall.

      So, a period of "rudeness" usually precedes the fall of a great civilization, but there is no causal relationship: rudeness doesn't cause the fall, and the fall doesn't cause rudeness.

      • Re:Manners (Score:5, Interesting)

        by dfenstrate (202098) <{dfenstrate} {at} {gmail.com}> on Saturday March 15, 2014 @05:59PM (#46495279)

        Eventually, wealthy and liberal societies come to an end for other reasons

        Those 'other reasons' are pretty simple: Liberal and wealthy societies become complacent due to the ease of their lives, and that makes them neglect the principles and practices that made them powerful and wealthy to begin with.

        The default human condition is poverty, misery and violence. Escaping that is rare, and it takes a special society to make wealth, power and security seem normal. Once wealth, power and security are seen as birthrights and not hard-won prizes, the parts of a society that make it special are neglected (because, hey, they're 'mean' and 'hard work'), and rot sets in.

    • Re:Manners (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @02:09PM (#46493987)

      Hmm. I wonder how polite the romans were for 700 years of conquering.

      700 years is a pretty good run.

      I wonder how polite the old west and the gold rush area were?

      I think Mr. Heinlein had on some thick rose colored glasses with regard to government and how people actually behave.

      • Re:Manners (Score:5, Interesting)

        by phantomfive (622387) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:41PM (#46494545) Journal

        I wonder how polite the old west and the gold rush area were?

        Reportedly very polite. They say in the old west, if you didn't get out of your seat when a woman walked in (so she could sit down), someone else would punch you out of your seat. (the gold rush was supposedly good in 48, but the 49ers ruined it all).

        Of course, the code of politeness was different than your code, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there. In my experience cultures where fights are more likely to occur (because everyone is carrying a gun or whatever) tend to be more polite, because being rude can get you hurt or killed (think of The Three Musketeers).

      • Re:Manners (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Penguinisto (415985) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @11:22PM (#46496619) Journal

        Actually, the Romans technically held out until the Fall of Constantinople, which was a lot further along than 700 years. ;)

        Also, considering the world and its mores at that time, the Romans were rather polite indeed. Usually a conquered people would see all the teen/adult males killed, the women dragged off to slavery (if not killed along with everyone else), and everything of value plundered. See also a huge chunk of Exodus and the conquest of Canaan (the Hebrews weren't exactly choir boys when it was they who had the strength and power, no?)

        But, no - the Romans (usually) settled for taking a percent as slaves and then proceeding to absorb their culture, religion, and the better parts of what was left. Then they built roads, utilities, entertainment, and a whole shitload of things that were pretty effing amazing - for the time. Yup - they were brutal as fuck at times (see also Caesar's conquest of Gaul), but if the conquered people submitted, it usually went way the hell easier on them than it would at the hands of any other civilization at the time (save for the Greeks, but then the Romans pretty much absorbed most Greek philosophy, mathematics, religion, laws, etc etc...)

        • But, no - the Romans (usually) settled for taking a percent as slaves and then proceeding to absorb their culture, religion, and the better parts of what was left. Then they built roads, utilities, entertainment, and a whole shitload of things that were pretty effing amazing - for the time.

          All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

  • by oddtodd (125924) <`moc.gnirpsdnim' `ta' `ddotddo'> on Saturday March 15, 2014 @12:53PM (#46493417)

    Read it, MFs!

    • by cosm (1072588)
      Ditto, great book. Just loaned it out to my director and he liked it too. Highly recommend it if you're interested in the rise and fall of societies due to internal and external pressures.
  • ATM we enjoy cheap stuff because of China's cheap labour and lax environmental laws. Once the Chinese workers and people start earning higher wages and standards of living closes in to that of the western world next will be Africa as the new China.
    After that????
    Booom!!!!

    • next will be Africa as the new China.

      Africa is a little more complex than that, and in some parts (southern Africa mostly - I cannot comment on anything north of Malawi or so...), workers are already fairly expensive and environmental controls can be very strict. Ineffective often, but strict never-the-less.

    • After that????
      Booom!!!!

      After that? Robots. Before that, apparently, since Foxconn is already deploying assembly robots. Africa may not get the opportunity to become the new China since China will very likely do what the US could have done, and fully automate assembly lines for everything from toasters to smartphones, in advance of rising wages and standards of living.

      iPhones will still cost $500, but I predict a $25 Android smartphone in less than a generation, with effectively no compromises in hardware or software capabiliti

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @12:59PM (#46493461)

    "... the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution"

    No kidding. The depletion of cheap and plentiful supplies of petroleum alone will cause the global marketplace to seize up like a 55-yr-old American's heart after decades of being a couch potato. Too many people today are eating food produced by a highly-mechanized, energy-densified agriculture system. Too much of it runs on cheap petroleum. And cheap petroleum has arguably already run out. The energy input to produce each calorie of food, must either stop or rise to reflect the scarcity price. In too many instances, the former option will be chosen.

    • by siddesu (698447) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:18PM (#46493637)
      It was written 40 years ago, the title is "Limits to Growth".
      • Yep, and it was crap the last time. For those of us old enough: overpopulation, environmental crisis, the collapse of capitalist societies and others are just boring memes that we've heard before.

        • by Sabriel (134364) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @01:31AM (#46496957)

          Y'know, the only reason a lot of those "turned out it wasn't a problem" disaster scenarios didn't happen was because of scientific advances, sometimes serendipitous ones.

          Relying on our scientists to keep pulling technological miracles out of their asses at a time when we continue to cut their relative funding and bury them in bureaucracy? Might not be a good idea.

  • Any decent engineer could probably put together a PID loop or two (possibly cascaded) to keep stability in the system, but what would you use as a control mechanism?

  • Where? (Score:5, Funny)

    by NEDHead (1651195) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:05PM (#46493523)

    Is Hari Seldon when we need him?

  • by Jerk2 (1153835) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:05PM (#46493527)
    I don't want NASA using their funds for Social/Political Simulations. Not their job and a complete waste of NASA money. Fire the writers and buy another Rocket, or a fuel tank, or something that has something to do with Aeronautics and Space, not make believe liberal arts studies. Let some other organization waste their money. NASA is for Space Engineering/Science Research, not for some third rate Social Pseudo Science study.
    • Yeah, this is why they are turning off the rovers [slashdot.org].

    • I imagine this study is an attempt to justify space colonization, but no matter how much I support this in principle, this particular attempt is executed very poorly. Basically just rehashing the old "ecological capacity" and "peak resource" arguments, and over-dramatizing potential problems with obvious hype like "civilization collapse".
    • by whistlingtony (691548) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:13PM (#46494387)

      This didn't cost much. It's a few mathmatical formulas and a few graphs from tweaking the formulas for different scenarios... Which is exactly what math is for imo. The pay for the authors for a year (and I'm being very generous in time needed) wouldn't touch the cost of a rocket.

      Frankly, I think this is useful. This sort of thing is exactly what we pay policy wonks for... to examine our world and present scenarios and recommendations based on science to our representatives. So... quit whining. I think the survivability of our society is worth paying 3 people to hole up and do some math for a few months. Perhaps that's just me.....

      Note, I actually read and understood the paper. :D

  • by MRe_nl (306212) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:05PM (#46493531)

    I foresee the imminent fall of the American Empire, which encompasses the entire world, and a dark age lasting 30 thousand years before a second great empire arises. I also foresee an alternative where the intermittent period will last only one thousand years. To ensure my vision of a second great empire comes to fruition, we should create two foundationsâ"small, secluded havens of all human knowledgeâ"at "opposite ends of the internet".

    • Your obvious parody of the foundation series may not be far off. I am sure there will be a group of highly educated folk who find a place with decent sustainable resources and set up a society based on sustainability and preservation of human knowledge. Then once the chaos consumes existing civilizations it will be able to expand and grow to dominate the world once again...minus the psychologists that lean to use psychic powers of the mind.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:09PM (#46493561) Journal
    Someone named Cassandra? [wikipedia.org]. Jared Diamond wrote a whole book called Collapse [wikipedia.org] about it. Greenland colonization attempt, anasazi Indians etc. When the collapse avoidance is still possible, the new course requires sacrifices from the current top dogs of the system. Not being sure whether the top-dogginess will persist in the new course, they stay on original course to disaster.
    • by Solandri (704621)

      Someone named Cassandra?. Jared Diamond wrote a whole book called Collapse about it.

      The beauty of crying that the sky is falling is that if you say it long enough, eventually you'll be right.

      While I'm a bit skeptical of the study after reading TFA, they avoid that particular pitfall and put their money where their mouth is. They conclude that if things don't change, we're looking at about 15 more years before collapse.

  • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:09PM (#46493563) Homepage Journal

    The trick with good times is when they don't last. What we see, more so in this cycle that most, is centralization of power and responsibility/regulation (there has never existed a more regulated society than the modern West).

    The cost of this is extreme - by some estimates, most people pay 30-60% of their earnings for the year to support such a structure (if you don't understand the average 22% cost of goods as embedded income taxes, google for the Harvard economics study). When we have an extreme downturn, like now (we need 350,000 jobs per month added for 10 straight years just to get back to "Bush era" employment numbers), people can't afford it. Just this week we have the example of Obama saying that people should cancel their phone service to pay for his healthcare scheme, but that's just a glaring example of a pervasive problem.

    Only so many people will allow their homes to be confiscated to pay for the ostentatious lifestyle in DC and on Wall Street, while they're having trouble putting food on the table for their families. If trends continue, the USD will lose its place as the national reserve currency (debt-to-gdp is over 100% now; Bretton Woods was agreed upon when the USD was still backed by gold) which will cause a rapid loss of buying power. And the more the US outsources, the less will be there when the USD loses its value. At some point, they can crank up the printing presses to fund poverty programs, but when people stop accepting dollars, there's nothing else to do but to implement wage and price controls and/or seize the means of production. The odds of a revolt go up with each step along the way.

    The shame of it is, we can see this coming, and we can recognize that we need decentralization and de-escalation of power, but the political system does not allow for it to back itself down. Even the very name, "lawmakers" is telling - "law-removers" isn't in the lexicon.

    Jefferson himself predicted the situation, and even recommended revolution as the solution. I'd rather see a peaceful and economic one.

    • Just this week we have the example of Obama saying that people should cancel their phone service to pay for his healthcare scheme, but that's just a glaring example of a pervasive problem.

      So not what he meant. If you like your phone service, you can keep your phone service.

    • The trick with good times is when they don't last.

      The problem is that the good times usually last longer than the short-sightedness of 99% of the population.

    • by phantomfive (622387) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @02:34PM (#46494185) Journal

      (there has never existed a more regulated society than the modern West).

      They call it Byzantine for a reason......also 1700s Germany gets a special mention, and it wasn't by accident Prague produced Kafka. So your claim is somewhat questionable.

    • by ultranova (717540)

      The cost of this is extreme - by some estimates, most people pay 30-60% of their earnings for the year to support such a structure (if you don't understand the average 22% cost of goods as embedded income taxes, google for the Harvard economics study).

      And after they do, the remaining 70-40% is still enough to cause the obesity epidemic. Percentages are meaningless when comparing two different cakes; it's the final size of your slice that matters.

      And the more the US outsources, the less will be there when t

  • by mspohr (589790) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:09PM (#46493565)

    I found these two quotes most interesting:
    "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."

    "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."

    I think we can see that we are already in an early state of collapse. Environmental change is a strong driving force to destabilize society. We can see that the elites have their heads firmly stuck in the sand on the issues of over-consumption of resources and unequal distribution. Jared Diamond has covered these issues well (particularly in "Collapse").
    I personally am pessimistic that we will be able to avoid collapse due to the political and economic power of the elite.

  • Our hard drives get bigger, the programs grow fatter. Everything grows as big as it can, and will use all the space and time has.

  • Dear NASA (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I hear good things about outer space. Maybe you should check that out sometime when you're not busy.

  • We'll have resources forever.!Jesus and Santa Clause and the EIA said so! There's infinite oil and gas! We find more every year RIGHT HERE IN THE USA, don't we?! And we have infinite water! Infinite phosphates! Infinite free money! Golly gosh-a-rootie, the whole ding dang show will just go on *forever* because we have God and TECHNOLOGY on our side!

    Whoo, that was too much sarcasm. I have to lie down now.

    • We'll have resources forever.!Jesus and Santa Clause and the EIA said so! There's infinite oil and gas! We find more every year RIGHT HERE IN THE USA, don't we?! And we have infinite water! Infinite phosphates! Infinite free money! Golly gosh-a-rootie, the whole ding dang show will just go on *forever* because we have God and TECHNOLOGY on our side!

      But we do.

      Has the sun stopped shining? Has the wind stopped blowing? Has the rain stopped falling?

      No, oil and gas aren't infinite, but energy effectively is, until the sun goes red giant and swallows us all. Likewise water and elements are effectively infinite, because it's all reused. There's less of it lying around doing nothing than there once was, but there's still a helluva lot more that could be put back into circulation before the sheer tonnage of the biosphere equals that of the time of the dino

      • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @04:09PM (#46494715)

        Energy is effectively infinite, but not at a rate that's going to effectively substitute for the 160 exajoules per year currently provided by hydrocarbon energy. While I'm a big fan or renewables, even with a full-on effort at conversion, you're just not going to be able to sustain an interdependent, international supply chain based on *cheap* energy, nor will you feed 7 billion+ humans.

        The coming population bottleneck can't be avoided. We will, as a species, one day exist on sustainable energy - all of the remaining 300 to 500 million of us, if we're lucky, and we don't throw too many nukes around to celebrate the transition.

  • If it's 100,000 years from now, I won't lose any sleep over it.

  • BS, as usual. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by PeterPiper (167721) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:46PM (#46493837) Homepage

    A climatologist, likely with a political agenda, a math grad student, and a political science BA, put together a model that shows that if growth trends continue in a finite system, the system breaks. No shit sherlock! Except that such growth trends do NOT continue. Any increase in resource consumption results in an increase in price. Any increase in production results in a reduction of price. If the system gets to a point where consumption outpaces production then the price rises, and it can rise a lot! This results in people using less of the resource and finding alternatives.

    Any such models that are built without the input of an economist should be automatically discarded as being total BS.

    • So you don't think using resources at sustainable levels has merit, or not doing so will eventually lead to depletion and potential collapse?

      • Re:BS, as usual. (Score:4, Insightful)

        by PeterPiper (167721) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @02:04PM (#46493947) Homepage

        You missed my point entirely. My point is that the price mechanism ensures that resource consumption is always sustainable. As resources get scarce and harder to extract, the price rises. The rise in price can be HUGE. Right now we burn coal and oil for instance, for energy because it is cheaper than the alternatives. If demand increases outstripping production sufficient to cause a price rise of only a factor of three, oil and coal will no longer be burned for energy, as the alternatives will be cheaper. This price point would be reached LONG before there is 'no more' coal and oil. The same principle applies to all other resources.

        We never get to the point where were run out of things that get scarce. Instead we find alternatives. The price of the alternatives might well be high, but they will be cheaper than the original resource. The higher prices in turn serve as a break on consumption. A free market ensures that the system is sustainable. Only to the degree that states attempt to intervene in the price mechanism, or societies that simply never had such to begin with, can you wind up with a situation in which resources get completely used up.

        • by anorlunda (311253)

          You are mostly right Peter, but continue the analysis another step. Because we are very good at finding alternatives, then we approach a point where nearly all resources reach depletion (nearly) simultaneously. The result is not just collapse, but a really devastating collapse. Worse, post collapse recovery will be greatly hindered by a resource starved world.

          In terms of mitigatation, it would be better if we were no so adaptive and good at finding alternatives. Instead of a collapse, we might have a

    • Exactly. The authors fail to account for both the adaptability of the demand, and for the rate at which disruptive technologies appear these days, making any such "static world" analysis meaningless.
    • by ultranova (717540)

      Any increase in resource consumption results in an increase in price. Any increase in production results in a reduction of price. If the system gets to a point where consumption outpaces production then the price rises, and it can rise a lot! This results in people using less of the resource and finding alternatives.

      The collapse results when neither the supply (because all oil fields are already producing all they can) nor the demand (because you must get stuff from place to place somehow) are elastic, and

  • This is one of those scenarios in which it would be better to not have all of our eggs in the same basket. For instance, it might be possible to avoid a complete catastrophe if, in advance, we managed to set up a self-sustaining colony on the Moon or on Mars. However, unless we're very careful, that could easily be such an expensive endeavor that attempting to achieve it would only hasten the collapse of our own civilization. Ho-hum.
  • by phantomfive (622387) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:54PM (#46493887) Journal
    It is an interesting idea, to model sustainability, but the paper isn't particularly convincing in the way it models things. They start by admitting it's not clear why various societies have collapsed, then create a model which may or may not be related to reality, but matches their political viewpoints.

    They chose only a few different variables to look at. If all you do is look at inequality and resource use, the answer you get is going to be in terms of inequality and resource use. This is similar to if you have a rocket flying through space carrying a flea; and the only variable you examine is the flea jumping, you are going to find a huge correlation between the jumps of the flea and the trajectory of the rocket. In other words, they might be right or they might not, but this way of studying it won't give you any good conclusions.

    To understand my point, (if you've read the paper), consider if they had been Ayn Rand disciples instead of modern democrats. It would have been just as easy to create the model in terms 'producers' and 'leaches,' and deriving whatever conclusion you want from that.
  • .... has also been a characteristic of civilizations' growth.

    Equality is really only seen in hunter-gatherer tribes small enough not to require some sort of hierarchical governance or specialization in various crafts. What disrupts societies (wealth-wise) is actively inhibiting its members from receiving the compensation that their particular skill sets command. And one of the prime methods of interference is wealth redistribution.

  • Sooner or later we're getting one of the above, at some point economic growth will become at best neutral and the top scientists will spend their entire careers simply understanding the work of their predecessors. The question is whether our massive interconnectedness means we'll have more redundancy and be able to withstand inevitable setbacks, or if we'll just have more links in the chain that we don't know how to repair and be at risk of a fairly sudden and drastic collapse.

  • by Irate Engineer (2814313) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @02:55PM (#46494275)
    The model is nice in that it seems to catch the trends for a agrarian or hunter-gather dependence on natural resources that can be replenished (animal and plant species). Probably a decent model for human history prior to the 1850s.

    The problem is that the natural resources that we are consuming now are NOT renewable (fossil fuels, minerals, metals). Once they are gone, they are gone, and there will be no recovery. And there is no incentive to conserve as as these resources become more rare, they become more valuable. Who can afford to stockpile them? The elite, of course.

    In the end we're all screwed, but the elite will be insulated from the consequences for a while and will be wondering why the commoners are raising such a ruckus at the gates with their torches and pitchforks.

    Whoever survives this crash will be back living on an Earth with a carrying capacity limited by renewable resources (hint: think of world populations of (maybe) a few hundred million, not 7-10 billion).
  • A few criticisms (Score:5, Insightful)

    by floobedy (3470583) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:05PM (#46494349)

    I think the model wrongly assumes that elites draw down essential resources faster than commoners. In pre-modern society, that appears to have been incorrect. In pre-modern civilizations, it was over-farming and the reduction in soil fertility which was subject to draw-down, and not "resources" more generally. (For example, there is reasonably good evidence that soil degradation contributed to the collapse of the western roman empire). Elites do not consume much more food than commoners. As a result, I'm not sure it would make any different how stratified society is. Take the chateaux of the Loire Valley as an example: they're extravagant, but they're not built out of materials (such as stone) which became exhausted anywhere or threatened civilization.

    In pre-modern societies, elites subsisted off the surplus labor which was left over after commoners had provided for their own subsistence. According to best estimates, this "surplus" labor available for exploitation by elites was never more than 20% of the total commoner labor available. Most labor in pre-modern societies was used in simply providing enough food for everyone to survive. In ancient Egypt, more than 90% of the population spent all their working time devoted to agriculture or household work, and similar ratios existed in other civilizations. As a result, the total consumption of elites in pre-modern society was never a large fraction of the total production of society. Some elites may have had extremely extravagant lifestyles compared to commoners, but that is because such elites' numbers were extremely small, generally much less than 1% of the population.

    Another important consideration here is the difference between reduction of population, and the collapse of some political order. Insofar as I can tell, soil degradation often leads to a gradual reduction in population over centuries until some political order suddenly cannot be sustained. Often, ancient civilizations were empires in which some center had a large army and long transportation networks. The empire dominated a group of subject peoples on the periphery, and extracted the products of their surplus labor beyond subsistence and transported those surplus products to the center. Usually, the subject peoples disliked being so dominated. It seems possible to me that soil degradation could lead to a reduction in the size of the surplus, and thus the size and power of the army of the empire, until the arrangement suddenly could not be maintained. Take the western roman empire as an example: soil degradation and population decline had been happening for centuries, until the army weakened and a barbarian tribe invaded and suddenly overran and destroyed the empire.

    Of course, the main criticism of the paper is that it's wildly speculative. There is no data whatsoever in the paper. This is excusable because there is very little "data" in the modern sense left over from pre-modern civilizations. Pre-modern peoples were extremely good at telling stories and writing epics, but poor at keeping records and statistics of commoners' well-being. For this reason, and other reasons, the causes of the collapses of many civilizations (such as the meso-American civilizations) are not well understood, and the explanations are highly speculative and different from each other. Many researchers speculate that the American civilizations collapsed because of long-lasting mega-droughts, which obviously would not fit this model of resource draw-down.

    Usually, when constructing a model, it's at least necessary to verify that the model agrees with past evidence. Even then, the model may not be predictive at all; however, constructing a model which agrees with past evidence is often a first step. Unfortunately, the model in this case is just wildly speculative. There are virtually no examples of egalitarian civilizations prior to the 18th century, and so no data on how egalitarian civilizations would have fared. There is no data on soil fertility, consumption by elites, resource draw-down, total populations of civilizations, etc, which this model refers to. Instead, the model is along the lines of "this seems plausible".

  • Some irony there somewhere.
  • very disappointing (Score:4, Insightful)

    by grep_rocks (1182831) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @06:30PM (#46495415)
    I am always disappointed by the comments of otherwise intelligent people on slashdot in response to these articles, as this point was first brought up by the club of rome and more recently Jared Diamond - the response I see here makes it clear we will have a collapse - everyone is in denial, nobody wants to change a thing, everyone is going to use up non-renewable resources as fast as they can to get some perceived short term advantage over some other group - I want my car, I want my house in the middle of nowhere, I want to have as many children as I can - blah blah blah Exponential growth is impossible on a finite planet, space travel will not save us nor will any breakthrough technology - at best genetic engineering can buy us a bit of time - we need birth control, we need people to live in cities and share resources and we can't have a handful of people allocating a civilization's resources for their own self interest - and I will be cursed on /. for saying this.
    • Honestly, your comment is disappointing. Why? Because you didn't even read the paper, instead of possibly enlightening yourself by reading the paper you word-vomited empty thoughts into your browser. You can do better.
  • by X10 (186866) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @07:51PM (#46495773) Homepage

    Our civilizatin wouldn't be the first to collapse, and disappear. Roman civilization rose and fell. Chinese same. Several civilizations in the Middle East. So, no, I wouldn't be surprised if our civilization would go to hell, and be replaced by another in a few centuries. And as every new civilization in history took civilization further than the previous one, the next guys will be wiser than us, richer, smarter, and better off. Until they go too.

  • by drfred79 (2936643) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @09:24PM (#46496129)
    "Alright so the budget this year is somewhat bleak. Regardless of the fact we privatized spaceflight (contrary to our projected economic model) we have no budget to conduct any space missions. We need an excuse to perpetuate our funding people! "
    "How about a worthless and biased economic study that has nothing to do with space and doesn't require Federal Economic experts, you know, like the Federal Reserve, or the Treasury? "
    "Genius! Just make sure you somehow game the system to be the opposite of Civilization IV's governmental hiarchy so people don't get bored and fail to realize career government work is the farthest thing from Capitalism. I want absolute monarchy, anarchy, depotism, communism, and facsism to somehow be safer than Capitalism. "

Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig. -- Lazarus Long, "Time Enough for Love"

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