How Civilizations Fail & Can Be Saved (Updated)

How Civilizations Fail & Can Be Saved (Updated)

Mar 25



By Marc Lallanilla
March 20, 2014

Original Link

There’s never been a shortage of doomsday scenarios. From the dreaded Mayan Apocalypse of 2012 (remember that?) to the havoc wreaked in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” people have been predicting the end of civilization for as long as there has been a civilization.

The trouble is, they’re sometimes correct: The Roman Empire fell spectacularly, as did the Mayan civilization, the Han Dynasty of China, India’s Gupta Empire and dozens of other once-mighty kingdoms.

But how, exactly, do powerful empires collapse, and why? Researchers now believe they’ve found an answer, one that has troubling implications for today — because we’re clearly on the road to ruin.

Societal collapse — more common than you think

The researchers’ first task was overturning “the common impression that societal collapse is rare, or even largely fictional,” as they wrote in their report, to be published in the journal Ecological Economics.

In fact, they argue, the rise and fall of great social structures is so common a theme in human civilization — recurrent throughout history and worldwide in scope — that it’s more the rule than the exception.

Most studies of a society’s collapse have looked at the specifics of how one civilization declined, citing individual causes such as a disaster (earthquake, flood), loss of resources (soil erosion, deforestation) or human conflict (war, uprising) that led to the particular society’s downfall.

But the researchers (funded in part by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland, College Park) cast a wider net. They aimed to create a useful mathematical model that could help analyze how any society might fall — including our current global, technically advanced, interconnected society.

The balance of nature

The model they arrived at takes inspiration from the classic notion of predator vs. prey, sometimes referred to as the “balance of nature.” When a deer population grows, for instance, the wolves that feed on those deer reproduce more successfully, too, and so the wolf population grows.

Everything is fine until the wolves become too numerous and overreach, eating so many deer that there isn’t enough venison to go around. Then, as the number of deer plunges, the wolf population drops due to famine, until equilibrium is reestablished and the cycle begins anew.

Informed by this paradigm, the researchers developed a relatively simple formula with four factors influencing social collapse: nature and natural resources, the accumulation of wealth, the elite and the commoners. The team calls their model Human And Nature Dynamics, or HANDY.

A HANDY tool

The researchers used the HANDY model to analyze three different social scenarios: an egalitarian society with no elite class; an equitable society with workers and non-workers (students, retirees, disabled persons); and an unequal society with a robust class of elites.

The egalitarian and equitable societies could produce a sustainable civilization and avoid collapse, even with a high ratio of non-workers. Social collapse was more likely after people overreached and depleted natural resources. Importantly, even without any social stratification, collapse could occur if a society exhausted its natural resources.

In the unequal society, however, collapse was almost unavoidable — and these were the HANDY scenarios that mirrored our current globalized society.

The income gap

“The scenarios most closely reflecting the reality of our world today are found in the third group of experiments, where we introduced economic stratification,” the researchers wrote, referring to uneven wealth distribution. “Under such conditions, we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.”

Other recent research backs up the authors’ claims: A 2012 study from the journal American Sociological Review shows that the income share of the top 1 percent of Americans grew rapidly after 1980 — from 10 percent in 1981 to 23.5 percent in 2007, an increase of 135 percentage points.

Meanwhile, the bottom three-quarters of the U.S. population has seen slow economic growth, with predictable results: A 2011 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that happiness, trust in others and life satisfaction plummet when income inequality is high.

Technology won’t save you

For those who believe that there must be a technological fix to all this despair and destruction, the researchers found that the historical record provides “testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.

“It may be reasonable to believe that modern civilization, armed with its greater technological capacity, scientific knowledge and energy resources, will be able to survive and endure whatever crises historical societies succumbed to,” the authors wrote.

“But the brief overview of collapses demonstrates not only the ubiquity of the phenomenon, but also the extent to which advanced, complex and powerful societies are susceptible to collapse.”

Not all is lost, however: Societies can moderate the two factors that contribute most to social meltdown: the exploitation of natural resources and the uneven distribution of wealth, the researchers said.

“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,” they wrote.


Click the image below to see the full infographic.


Click the image above to see the full infographic.


By Nafeez Ahmed
The Guardian
March 21, 2014

Original Link

Blogger Keith Kloor, who writes for Discover magazine, claims that my article on a Nasa-funded study modelling civilisational collapse scenarios is so inaccurate that it constitutes “a sad commentary on journalism today.” The actual study, he claims, had no connection to Nasa whatsoever. Rather, I “disingenously hyped” the paper “as being ‘Nasa-sponsored'”, when in fact, it simply wasn’t.

Thus, the story which I “thought of as a big scoop”, says Kloor, “wouldn’t pass Journalism 101.”

Kloor then goes on to take, essentially, the entire “herd-like media coverage” of the story to task for repeating the story in a “similarly sensationalist” fashion.

Sadly, Kloor’s misguided response is consistent with his axiomatic rejection of what he calls ‘misguided eco-doomers’ (which apparently includes anyone who says that business-as-usual could have disastrous consequences for the environment).

The Nasa deception that wasn’t

At first glance, Kloor’s evidence for insinuating that the study led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei had no connection to Nasa seems clear-cut. He cites an official statement put out earlier today by the space agency saying that the study “was not solicited, directed or reviewed by Nasa. It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate Nasa activity. As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. Nasa does not endorse the paper or its conclusions.”

Clear-cut? Perhaps not.

Nasa’s funding for the very research behind the study is explicitly acknowledged in the paper, which is now available online here (p. 23):

“This work was partially funded through NASA/GSFC [Goddard Space Flight Center] grant NNX12AD03A.”

And the US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (Sesync) where the lead author carried out his research for the project issued an official clarification about the study yesterday as follows, confirming the same:

“Motesharrei received minor support from NASA to develop a coupled earth system model. Some of this funding was spent on the mathematical development of the HANDY model.”

Indeed, the authors of the paper fully agreed with the accuracy of my characterisation of the study as being “Nasa-funded” or “sponsored.” It comes down to a simple question really. Was the HANDY model funded by NASA? The answer is yes, even if the conclusions of the study do not represent the views of the space agency.

Indeed, it’s standard practice for independent research to be funded or sponsored by external agencies or bodies without them necessarily endorsing or agreeing with the findings of that research.

So who is being “deceptive” here, to use Kloor’s word?

To be fair, much of the media reporting following my story blurred simple nuances even further. “Nasa-funded study” became “Nasa study”; a mathematical model exploring a range of hypothetical scenarios was depicted as stating unequivocally that “society is doomed”, “the end is nigh”, and “western civilisation is heading for collapse.”

But pretending that the Human and Nature DYnamical (HANDY) model was not funded by a Nasa grant to the lead author is hardly honest.

The ‘collapse’ that wasn’t?

Kloor then follows up with a further post attempting to dissect the actual study. Now this I don’t have a particular problem with as such – nothing wrong with disagreeing with a study on the basis of reasonable contrary evidence.

The problem is that after making a big hullabaloo about my presentation of the arguments and findings of the study ‘as is’, Kloor proceeds to harness as many experts as he can to rubbish the study. Curiously, he can find not a single scientist or scholar who found the study useful, worthwhile, or bearing some validity worth further research.

He quotes, for instance, leading collapse anthropologist Prof Joseph Tainter, who critiques the HANDY model for a “flawed” understanding of the rise and fall of civilisations due to unsustainable levels of complexity. Some of Tainter’s criticisms may well be correct (such as noting the lack of a precise enough concept of collapse) – but Tainter is not always right.

Tainter’s model of the collapse process of past civilisations in his landmark book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, is contradicted by the historical record on many of his own examples (a matter I’ve discussed more extensively elsewhere). The process of collapse, he says, occurs on a timescale of “no more than a few decades,” when the complex structures created to deal with increasing problems generated by growing complexity begin to crumble under their own weight (p. 4).

But this is incorrect. The collapse of the Western Roman empire, for instance – one of Tainter’s prime examples – did not occur over decades through a single protracted collapse-process, but rather consisted of a series of crises over a period of centuries. Each crisis led to loss of social complexity and the establishment of temporary stability at a less complex level. Each such level then proved to be unsustainable in turn, and was followed by a further crisis and loss of complexity. The first major breakdown in the Roman imperial system came in 166 CE, and further crises followed until the Western empire ceased to exist in 476 CE. Collapse processes simply aren’t as fast as Tainter thinks, and do not occur simply due to the dynamics of the resource issues surrounding his concept of ‘complexity.’

This doesn’t mean Tainter is entirely wrong, just that his theorisation of what makes collapses take place, whether over shorter of longer periods of time, is open to question. Indeed, in my own PhD research at the University of Sussex I explored the direct link between class dynamics, inequality, overconsumption, and social instability in past empires, leading to past collapses and genocides – an area that remains under-explored in Tainter’s work, and at least tentatively addressed by the HANDY model.

For instance, another anthropologist and complex society expert, Prof Adam T. Smith of Cornell University, said that the HANDY model’s central thesis – that a collapse of industrial civilisation due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasing economic inequality – is perfectly plausible:

“The archaeological record is quite unambiguous: every prior society in every part of the world has ultimately been eclipsed. Human communities are kinds of machines – machines for social life – and just like any machine they fall apart and are discarded. However, civilisational collapse is actually quite rare.

“Civilisational collapse typically involves the disappearance of entire ways of life, systems of thought, cultural values and worldviews. These generally do not disappear due to convulsive periods of collapse but rather fade over time as alternative systems of belief take their place.

“However, although civilisational collapse is rare, political collapse is constant. Kingdoms, principalities, republics and states come and go and typically their downfall is violent and convulsive. The warnings in the recent study should carry significant warnings to current global political leaders: address the threats posed by climate change and economic inequality or face the rapid undoing of the current political order. The archaeological record suggests that while civilization will likely endure, politics as we know it, odds are, will not.”

Number games

What about the HANDY model itself? Is it too simplistic? Kloor’s modelling expert turns out to be an obscure student in Mathematical Ecology specialising in the modelling of Plankton, who pooh-poohs the study as oversimplistic as it has only four equations. But this simply misses the point.

An academic conference paper on the HANDY model (pdf) by a cross-disciplinary team of natural and social scientists led by Dr Rodrigo Castro of the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, delivered earlier this month, explains in detail why the HANDY model is so useful:

“It is our predicament that we live in a finite world, and yet we behave as if it were infinite. Steady exponential material growth with no limits on resource consumption and population is the dominant conceptual model used by today’s decision makers. This is an approximation of reality that is no longer accurate and started to break down. The World3 model, originally developed in the 1970s [aka the ‘Limits to Growth’ project which despite Kloor’s dismissals has turned out quite accurate according to American Scientist], includes many rather detailed aspects of human society and its interaction with a resource limited planet. However, World3 is a rather complex model. Therefore it is valuable for pedagogical reasons to show how similar behavior can be also realized with models that are much simpler. This paper presents a series of world models, starting with very simple exponential growth and predator-prey systems, then investigates a minimal human-nature model, Handy, and ends with a brief account of the World3 model. For the first time, a simple human-nature interaction model is made available in Modelica that distinguishes between dynamics of Elite and Commoner social groups. It is shown that Handy can reproduce rather complex behavior with a very simple model structure, as compared to that of world models like World3.”

The HANDY model’s utility, in other words, is precisely its ability to reproduce complex behaviour despite a simple model structure. Its most unique feature is described as follows:

“An interesting feature of Handy is that it introduces the accumulation of economic wealth, and divides the human population into rich and poor according to their unequal access to available wealth…

“Social inequality is not only explicitly considered but also plays a key role in the sustainability analyses of the model. This makes Handy the first model of its kind that studies the impacts of inequality on the fate of societies, a capability seldom found even in complex world models.

“Handy establishes a useful general framework that allows carrying out ‘thought experiments’ about societal collapse scenarios and the changes that might avoid them.

The model is a very strong simplification of the human-nature system, which results in many limitations. Despite its simplicity, such a model is easy to understand and offers a more intuitive grasp of underlying dynamical phenomena compared to more complex and less aggregated models.”

It is precisely this unique feature which enabled the HANDY model to depart from the work of Tainter to explore the potential instabilities of the rampant inequality in today’s global economy.

The Kloor effect

Kloor has had curious run-ins with other journalists. Joe Romm, the physicist and founding editor of the renowned Climate Progress blog, didn’t have much great to say about Kloor’s brand of journalism – which Romm, rightly or wrongly, characterised as “trash.” Harsh? For one thing, Kloor is a leading cheerleader for genetically modified (GM) foods, and routinely argues that the science on GM is firmly settled in its favour (while systematically ignoring credible scientists who disagree).

Rather than upholding journalistic standards, Kloor ends up muddying them while promoting the happy vision of a world without ‘eco-doom.’ Hence his reasons perhaps for characterising me as a “doomsday prophet” in a post last year.

Sadly, Kloor’s journalistic rigour apparently somehow failed to involve bothering to read either my book or my numerous observations over the years on the grounds for long-term optimism.

Unfortunately for Kloor, a world without his dreaded ‘eco doom’ is unlikely to transpire without the sort of change of course that he finds so unpalatable.

I close with the conclusions of Dr Rodrigo Castro’s paper on the HANDY model:

“Although models presented in this paper are from different classes (minimal Handy vs. more complex, realistic world model, World3), their conclusions are similar. In the long run, not so far into the future, humanity must change to living sustainably on planet Earth. This change can occur either as a planned gradual transition, preserving well-functioning societies, or as a more disruptive, unplanned transition resulting in a less pleasant society with a reduced ecological capacity.”



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  1. Clint Summer

    What’s missing from this (for me) is a good answer to the question of why inequitable societies are more likely to collapse. My view is that it’s because of the design of the social – especially economic – systems that comprise the society. All we need to know is the design function of those systems. In a rational, equitable society, the economic systems would be designed to meet everyone’s real needs in ecologically sustainable ways. They would be holistically designed to receive input from all sources, including their impact on humans and the natural environment and would modify their functioning based on that input. The design of modern advanced societies has arisen from humans’ fear of being subject to the natural world and so trying to live independent of it. It is also a society controlled by a wealthy and powerful elite for whom the game is about solidifying and expanding power. They design systems that funnel economic power toward themselves and their fellow super-rich (the owner-investor class). The name of the game is maximizing market share, and the only inputs of interest are the size of their share and perhaps their public image. Anything that might limit market share or return on investment – including human suffering or environmental degradation – is seen as an inconvenient input and to be ignored and concealed. So instead of a self-regulating system we have in effect a cancer metastasizing over the earth, apparently oblivious to the fact that it’s destroying its host and harming those it purports to serve. But power is extremely addictive, and it is very difficult to radically redesign a system – or even to admit that it’s on a self-destructive course – once you’ve invested your life and reputation in it.
    We still have the option, though, to come together and begin to design and build a cooperative society based on sharing, caring and mutual support. We can use a “whole systems” approach that emphasizes relationship and inclusiveness. And we can support each other in freeing ourselves from our cultural conditioning and in becoming humans who can self-organize and take full responsibility for how our needs are met and how that affects others and the natural world.

  2. I’m with you Clint — a living, intelligently designed system that is able to expand and contract, adapt and adjust according to the differing needs of all the beings that share it (including all aspects of nature), is the system to strive for. Rote systems, of all kinds, are destined to fail in one way or another. So, too, is any system that wants to treat everyone and everything equally. On an absolute level of existence, we are equal — one with God and one another. On the relative level of existence (planet Earth), our needs, desires, talents, abilities, callings, level of development are all over the map. We need a system that can meet everyone — and every thing — where they are and then help them realize their full potential by providing greater opportunities for growth and development as they grow into them. That’s a tall order…

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