Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Potential Collapse of our Civilization

A controversial paper concerning the not so distant future of our civilization has been published this past month (May, 2014) in Ecological Economics.  The paper is entitled "Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies". 

In summary, the paper uses a predator-prey modelling approach to predict the well-being of people (predator) and nature (prey) in the coming decades.  The numerical tool (HANDY) is applied not only to our civilization, but to a wide variety of potential civilizations.  The study concludes that our current civilization is on the brink of collapse, and identifies two particular causes: (1) over-exploitation of natural resources and (2) strong economic stratification (large gap between rich and poor).

The paper is controversial for a few reasons.  The first is that the media caught wind of this research before it was published, and erroneously attributed it to NASA.  The paper, now published, has three authors, none of whom are NASA representatives.  Still, their work has been peer-reviewed by experts in the field and has been approved for publication in a reputable journal.  This is why this paper should be met with controversy: we need to be talking about this because it is relevant to us all.

My intention here is not to cause panic amongst my readers.  This paper identifies what is plainly obvious to any rational person: the global economic system, which strives for infinite growth, exists within a finite system and is thus unsustainable.

What stays with me most about the study is the negative effect that economic stratification has on the prosperity of a civilization.  The paper refers to the rich as elites and the others as commoners (here is a helpful guide - if you have to ask which group you belong to, you are not an elite).

Because the ultra wealthy exert a disproportionate influence over the direction of civilization, their desires hold more weight.  This is not only unfair, it is also dangerous to the prosperity rich and poor alike.  When warning signs that a civilization is in danger arise, the poor are the first to be affected.  Famine, draught, war - when such things occur, elites are the last to be directly impacted, and are unlikely to use their large sway to effect change before it is too late.

Yet again, the complex mathematical system yields a simple truth: an imbalance of wealth is bad.  The "99%" came to this conclusion long ago.

As the paper points out, many civilizations have come and prospered before ours, but most meet their respective demise for the same reasons we may meet ours: insufficient resources and an extreme wealth gap.  We must address both of these issues in parallel if we are to prosper for centuries to come.

We have one advantage over all known civilizations in history: with the help of science, mathematics, and computer simulations, we have the ability to forecast our own demise.  Unfortunately, as our reluctance to adequately respond to climate change has shown, we are slow to react to dangers that are not immediately in front of us.

How about technology?  Is this not another advantage that may save our civilization?  The authors of the study argue that while technology greatly impacts society, it is as much a weakness as it is a strength, as it leads to greater population and further exploitation of resources.  I would add that it also creates a dependency.  It seems to me that if all power plants were to suddenly shut down permanently across the world, the developed world would collapse within months while the developing world would not.

All this talk of civilization collapse can leave one feeling helpless.  Instead, let us feel fortunate for all that is good now, and make decisions that can allow for a bright future.  Perhaps the elites among us will act on behalf of our civilization and not just themselves.  In the long run, they will hopefully become less elite.  The rest of us have a role to play here too: we need to consume responsibly, which is easier said than done.

The surface of this planet hosts a wide array of life, all searching for its own equilibrium.  May we all find it and avoid the systemic collapse that this study, and history, warns of.

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