NASA Confirms the Obvious

According to a recent NASA-funded study, our civilization will collapse—as so many before ours have—unless major policy changes are enacted to address growing inequality, resource extraction, and consumption.

As the Guardian article points out:

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.”

Man, I hate being right all the time.

But wait, there’s more (sorry for the long quote but it’s almost a summation of this entire blog):

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.”

…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.”

I almost feel like I need not elaborate on this article, since, after all, brevity is a virtue. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention just how unlikely it is that governments will enact policies that reduce both production and reproduction. If only because of standard game theory, the arms race of competing nation-states dictates that no oligarch wants to blink first. Therefore, corporations (who really run governments at this point) will continue to promote increased “growth,” increased reproduction, increased consumption, and increased extraction and distribution of resources via unsustainable—and toxic—means. If the history of civilizations has taught us anything, it’s that civilizations don’t wind down and gradually ease into new eras; they are thrust, violently, either through revolution or starvation (which, actually, are usually two sides of the same coin). Our current civilization is only unique in the sense that when it comes down, it’ll take not only most other civilizations, but most living beings down with it.

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4 thoughts on “NASA Confirms the Obvious

  1. I stumbled upon this article today re: the Guardian piece: http://www.peterfrase.com/2014/03/the-comforts-of-dystopia/

    Guy bashes the study for being a “thinly sourced bit of nonsense” popular on social media, “suggesting that it spoke to a desire for apocalyptic scenarios among ostensibly pragmatic leftists.” Frase claims giving a nod to what the study indicates is purely gloom-and-doom fatalism that allows leftists to sulk and stay idle.

    His points aren’t all off, to me, and I appreciate the appeal to optimism for the future. That he has no respect for the report and its methodology — fine, whatever. But to use that disdain for the report to paint anyone with an interest in its findings, or what those findings speak to, as being comfortable with dystopia or as being revelers in “apocalyptic scenarios” is quite the assumption.

    Whether the study was the most solid or not seems beside the point when it comes to its popularity on social media. I’m glad it was shared widely. Would it not indicate people are worried about these very real scenarios? Does is not infer an interest in the increasingly unstable future? Seems Frase is the peddler of gloom if he believes interest in the study only means one is ready to curl up in the corner and rot.

  2. Yes, I think the topic is so popular because people look around and see all the signs of something horrible; in the search for the missing Malaysian flight, proceedings are made difficult precisely because there’s so much trash and oil in the ocean that locating the specific debris from the plane can’t be done from the air. Let’s just think about that for a second.

    I agree, though, that doom can lead to apathy (or worse), but then, it’s up to people who care to motivate people to take action – and to me, that means creating communities of support, teaching/learning lost skills, pushing for public policy that encourages mass transit and bikes, fighting for reproductive rights and education for women, distributing contraceptives, slowing growth, turning as many spaces “wild” as possible, etc. Planting flowers can be fun and useful.

    But I can plant flowers and still contend that things will get much worse before they get any better, right?

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