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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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  • 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.
  • 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.

  • by Bob9113 (14996) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:16PM (#46493617) Homepage

    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?

    And what would you do if the most powerful and affluent had a great deal to lose if we attemped to put such controls in place? Suppose they had powerful PR machines, sharpened through years of product marketing and fierce political campaigns, at their disposal to sew disdain for those who advocate such restraint.

    "May you live in interesting times."

  • Dear NASA (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:21PM (#46493661)

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

  • by inasity_rules (1110095) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:23PM (#46493683) Journal

    I suppose the best solution there would be to contrive a solution that appeared to be in their best interests. I would assume that anyone able to do so would be both powerful and affluent or soon to become so.

    A control mechanism need not involve only limiting something (showing restraint). It may be active, and add to the process as well.

  • by felrom (2923513) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:24PM (#46493697)

    1. Implement policies that any Econ 101 student can tell will exacerbate income inequality.
    2. Tell people that the income inequality you've created will destroy society.
    3. Get people to beg you to fix it.
    4. PROFIT!!

    The government has become a feedback loop unto itself, fooling people into giving it ever more power to fix the disasters it caused when it used the last round of powers people gave 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.

  • by approachingZero (1365381) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:54PM (#46493893) Homepage
    Lighten up Frances, Capitalism has not failed us. I understand it is fashionable in some circles to ignore the benefits of the very system that has given us the highest standard of living the world has ever known with technologies that were unheard of 200 years ago but please give it a rest.

    Or is my sarcasm meter broken?
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Hahaha the 1%ers' killbots won't spare you for this.

  • 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".

  • by GameboyRMH (1153867) <gameboyrmh@gmaiWELTYl.com minus author> on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:09PM (#46494369) Journal

    No, he's serious and I agree with him. Capitalism had its run and it was better than feudalism,* but the system is finally breaking and it's time to move on. It's allowed a small percentage of the population to hoard the fruits of everyone's labor. It's inelegant and inherently unstable. We can do better.

    *Although it migh have produced even greater inequality and left us with even less leisure time

  • 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

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

    That depends on how much of the personality comes from the endocrine system.

  • by rrohbeck (944847) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:48PM (#46494583)

    The primary energy for food is fossil fuel today. A calorie of food needs about 8 to 10 calories of fossil fuel to make and distribute in the developed nations.

  • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @04:00PM (#46494651) Homepage Journal

    Sailing is practically free transportation. The adjustment of the sails can be automated so a single human operator can run the whole ship.

    And poor people, after the global economic collapse, are going to buy that automated sailing ship how again?

    Most people don't see the flaw in thinking that they're going to weather the coming social breakdown because they have a high limit on their Visa card.

  • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @04:16PM (#46494759)

    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.

    And in 15 years, if anyone still remembers this report, they'll say "well, obviously something changed".

    Then they'll say "according to our revised model it'll be fifteen years from now".

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @04:19PM (#46494781)

    But you are very correct, we have not run out of cheap oil, and can even make more.

    Dead wrong. We have never made CHEAP oil. Nothing was ever as cheap as just sticking a pipe in the ground enough to have pressurized oil flow out of it.

    Petroleum that we make is essentially EXPENSIVE oil. And we can always make that. It's no big deal. Except we can't run our civilization on that sort of oil. Our civ was designed to run on CHEAP oil... the stuff we got out of the ground without much trouble, in Pennsylvania, Baku, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, etc.

    And that era is over. We now spend too much effort (time and money, therefore money and money) to get oil out of the ground now. And the farther afield that we go for it, the cost of getting it out will continue to rise. It will always rise. That's the fact of life when a resource DEPLETES.

  • 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.
  • by Accordion Noir (1256202) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @10:04PM (#46496237) Homepage

    Only Rich People can travel quite quickly and easily.

    Try getting citizenship in Iceland, or getting past the immigrant holding-camps in Australia, or over the border separating Mexico from the North, or moving from Africa to most of the European countries.

    It's a curiosity of the corporate-libertarian economic model that capitol is multinational, but labour is stuck with the economy their dealt. That's part of the problem that this study seems to address. The elite do not have to care about the majority, because they and their offspring will be able to run from the worst of the problems for the longest – probably. But unless the elite are forced to see themselves at risk, and lose some of the benefits of their elite status, they will oppose change, and with their concentration of power that will cause problems for everybody.

    Pretty creepy stuff. Maybe some elitists will read this study and save us! Or some other plan....

  • 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...)

  • 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.

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken

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