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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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  • Manners (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:52PM (#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

  • by cheesybagel (670288) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:53PM (#46493425)

    Depends on what you call 'local'. Try reading about the Greek Dark Ages [].

  • Re:Manners (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vux984 (928602) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @02:56PM (#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 @03:06PM (#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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:19PM (#46494067)

    You lack imagination, as well as the ability to understand sentences in the English language.

    'Collapse of civilization' does not mean that the human population goes to zero. While that has happened (as on Easter Island and the Viking colonies on Greenland), the more likely outcome is that the population is severely reduced, as well as the quality of life of those survivors is also severely reduced. As I see it, the most likely result would be many centuries of society organized on medieval lines with many small fiefdoms (along with a few short-lived larger kingdoms and empires) based on subsistence farming with very limited travel or commerce. I think that most scientific and medical knowledge would be lost, and slow to be re-acquired. This would be especially true if the collapse occurs more than a couple of decades from now, when most paper books will not be common any more. And since we will have already consumed most of the earth's richest mineral deposits, the richest source of metals will be the carcasses of today's cities (although that might be a benefit in rebuilding).

    There is a huge number of novels that have been written describing life in a pre- or post-civilization society. None of it is very pretty, and certainly not anything that I would wish on anybody.

  • by Areyoukiddingme (1289470) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:22PM (#46494101)

    So how many people are capable of building a transistor? Where will those computer things come from after a couple of generations?

    You might be surprised. Nothing has to be reinvented from scratch. The earliest versions of modern chip-making processes are now public domain, as the patents have expired. The patents themselves are less than useful as descriptions of what to actually do to make a chip, but they are legitimately a place to start for anybody bootstrapping a foundry. Those patents are old enough that many copies of them exist in printed form, so having a functional computer connected to a functional Internet is not a prerequisite for access.

    But I don't see how it's possible to collapse that far any longer. Maybe before the ascendance of ARM chips, you had a good point. There were only two companies in the world making fully capable CPUs (I discount microcontrollers here because they're usually too specialized). Nowadays there's an ARM foundry around every corner. ARM cores may not be cutting edge in performance, but they can do all the scalar operations you need and enough of the vector operations. And they're dirt cheap and a lot of people all around the world know how to make them. The process is cheap and easy and can work in suprisingly primitive conditions. (Where "primitive" is a relative term, of course.) More to the point, there are ARM systems all over the world now. We're not quite to the point where there's a functional ARM system for every human on Earth, but we're very rapidly approaching that point. That kind of ubiquity is hard to lose once it's established. It would take a world wide religious pogrom to do away with sufficient numbers of those pocket computers to actually put a dent in their availability.

    And as long as we have those pocket computers, we can hold things together. We have functional processors and data storage so vast that somebody, somewhere, has access to anything you need to know to keep civilization running, right down to how to produce ad hoc power solutions to keep it all working. Making a solar panel in your garage isn't really feasible, but making a multi-kilowatt wind turbine is astonishingly easy, especially when salvaging parts, and you could store complete plans for how to do so in a tiny fraction of your phone's storage device, available for the rest of your life.

    Civilization is a lot more robust than many people imagine. Some of that robustness happens specifically because people imagine it isn't, and so they take steps to improve an already remarkably resilient system. If it bothers you, join the crowd. Storage for detailed plans and procedures for making every kind of machine required for at least a modicum of civilization costs less than $100, with room not just for blueprints, but for How To instructional videos for every piece of it. Leave out the video and depend on just detailed textual instructions and that storage can be solid state for the same price.

  • Hardly. (Score:0, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:22PM (#46494105)

    . 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.

    Ahh. The magic of the self-correcting markets. Why bother to manage or regulate anything? Nature will take care of the whole thing for us!

    The problem is that the "alternatives" you mention invariably include mass starvation, which always leads to disease and the disintegration of functioning infrastructure and social norms. Then steep population decline.

    This is what classifies as a collapse.

    So you're not exactly disagreeing with the premise.

    Toss in psychopaths leaping to the head of masses of unhappy people in order to "lead" them, (which always happens), and a catastrophic event or three, and... welcome to the next dark age.

    We're well into the process right now. Might as well pull up a chair to watch and learn, because our society is so utterly blind and willfully programmed, any chance of mitigating or avoiding the scenario passed us by years ago.

    The reason for all these surveillance and population control measures as sold under the bogus rubric of the "War on Terror" are so that the elites can survive the fallout. It is a bitter consolation to know that they won't. They never do.

    Of course, they always think they're special and that *this* time, they'll be all warm and cozy in their bunkers.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:34PM (#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 Irate Engineer (2814313) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:55PM (#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).
  • by approachingZero (1365381) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:57PM (#46494283) Homepage
    Sadly, what you wrote is nothing less than a prima facie example of the emotional self loathing pap that passes for enlightenment in today's educational environment.

    Jane was thirsty, went to the well to get a drink of water and stepped on other people to get it and destroyed the environment. You are no doubt intelligent, but the people who fed your brain poisoned it with half truths and straight out lies.

    Just open your eyes and look at the magnificent world you live in, how damn easy life is for the modern day inhabitant of the civilized industrial world. You have it good, really good. And you have capitalism to thank for everything you so high and mightily take for granted.

    I will take a guess or two here and say you are sitting in a warm room, maybe sipping the beverage of your choice. Is is unlikely you are hungry, if you are you will no doubt have to go no farther than a refrigerator less than 50 feet away. You wear different clothes every day, and these clothes are clean. At your desk you have more computational power than the entire planet did 100 years ago. You quite possible own a motorized vehicle that can take you hundreds of miles in a day for less that $100. As so on, you live better than 80 percent of the people on this planet and 99.999999 of all people then have come before you. And so on.

    Now here's the good part.

    The upward assent of mankind is not at an end, irregardless of what some grant writing parasites spewed forth at Goddard. They have an agenda, who the hell knows what it is other then it serves them in the short run. But you need to wake up and smell the roses, life is damn good and I (for one) really don't see any reason to suspect things aren't going to get even better.

    There will always be people who will be predicting the end of the world, and they can always just kiss my ass.
  • Re:Manners (Score:5, Interesting)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @04:41PM (#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).

  • by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @04:49PM (#46494589)

    Socialism was tried, and didn't work. The most likely avenue may be a hybrid system - picking out the best parts of capitalism with the required parts of socialism, possibly with some accomodation for new technologies that have shaken things up a bit.

  • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @05:09PM (#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.

  • Re:Manners (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dfenstrate (202098) <> on Saturday March 15, 2014 @06:59PM (#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.

  • by visualight (468005) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @11:44PM (#46496437) Homepage

    The left tends to be more pragmatic and logical about these technical problems (scarce resources, income inequality and the costs/risks that come with it) and look for technical solutions. The right only sees the right and wrong that they've been brainwashed to see. "Everybody knows that".

    For example, when I read his comment I knew exactly what he meant and how he arrived at his response. Apparently you didn't. It seems you saw someone "right" being attacked just for being "right".

    Put it another way: At least in part, you view communism, capitalism, socialism et al through the prism of morality, as right and wrong. I do not because I realize how meaningless terms like that really are.

    I am motivated to do something about income inequality not simplly because it's unfair, but because I am aware of how much it really costs "us". You see the "wrongness" of interfering with the natural order of things (money goes where money is).

  • Re:What the hell (Score:4, Interesting)

    by wytcld (179112) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @11:02AM (#46498261) Homepage

    NASA's self-interest is in promoting space ships. If the elites who control government funding see that the best path for future survival is for their children to leave the planet, they'll fund NASA to build more space ships. Forecasting space ship demand is as central to NASA's project as forecasting widget demand is to Widgetronics.

If you think nobody cares if you're alive, try missing a couple of car payments. -- Earl Wilson