Civilisation is almost inevitably doomed, a Nasa-funded study has found.
Human society is founded on a level of economic and environmental stability which almost certainly cannot be sustained, it said.
The study used simplified models of civilisation designed to experiment with the balance of resources and climate that creates stability – or not – in our world.
These theoretical models – designed to extrapolate from simple principles the future of our industrialised world – ran into almost intractable problems.
Almost any model “closely reflecting the reality of the world today… we find that collapse is difficult to avoid”, the report said.
Mathematician Safa Motesharri begins his report by stating that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history” and that this is borne out by maths, as well as historiography.
“The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”
His research – funded by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center and published int he Ecological Economics journal – explored the pressures that can lead to a collapse in civilisation.
These criteria include changes in population, climate change and natural disasters. Access to water, agriculture, and energy are also factors.
Motesharri found that problems with each of these is far more damaging when experienced in combination with another. When this occurs the result is often an “economic stratification” and “stretching of resources” which drags at society’s foundations.
Under this highly simplified model, our society appears to be doomed.
In one of his simulations:
“[Ours] appears to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this Type-L collapse is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature”
He added that elites tend to have a vested interest in sustaining the current model – however doomed – for as long as possible, regardless of the eventual negative outcome:
“While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”
There are caveats, of course. The study is a simplified model of society, not a perfect simulation, and it isn’t able to make solid predictions of the future. It’s also worth noting that Motesharri does allow for the possibility that “collapse can be avoided” – though he thinks it will be exceptionally difficult.
Indeed, as the Guardian reports, other studies by the UK Government and KPMG have also warned of a “perfect storm” of energy scarcity and economy fragility coming within a few decades, which lends weight to his conclusion.