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."
The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary 'Human And Nature DYnamical' (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.
It finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation:
"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."
By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity"; and "the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or "Commoners") [poor]" These social phenomena have played "a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse," in all such cases over "the last five thousand years."
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." In the first of these scenarios, civilisation:
".... 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."
Another scenario focuses on the role of continued resource exploitation, finding that "with a larger depletion rate, the decline of the Commoners occurs faster, while the Elites are still thriving, but eventually the Commoners collapse completely, followed by the Elites."
In both scenarios, Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most "detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners", allowing them to "continue 'business as usual' despite the impending catastrophe." The same mechanism, they argue, could explain how "historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases)."
Applying this lesson to our contemporary predicament, the study warns that:
"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."
However, the scientists point out that the worst-case scenarios are by no means inevitable, and suggest that appropriate policy and structural changes could avoid collapse, if not pave the way toward a more stable civilisation.
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."
Compare this with the prediction of by book, "The Rise and Fall of the American Middle Class," pages 343-347:
"What we are seeing today, with this economic crisis is the fruit of the 30 years of Reagan’s supply side or trickle-down economics. Until, and unless, we reverse it and return the jobs back home through the Alexander Hamilton-like protectionist trade policies, most of us will be standing at the door of the elevator waiting for the driver to return and take us back up to an upper floor with 10% unemployment being the norm.
“President Grover Cleveland in the 1888 State of the Union address had this to say:
“The gulf between employers and the employed is constantly widening, and classes are rapidly forming, one comprising the very rich and powerful, while in another are found the toiling poor.
As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”
This unsustainable condition continued to retrogress until it reached a point in 1929 where the system collapsed from lack of consumers who could afford to buy the products they were making. In 1928, one year before the global economic collapse, the wealthiest .001% of the U.S. population owned 892 times more than 90% of the nation’s citizens. There are many micro theories for the collapse of the economy then but the lack of consumers permeates all of them. As bad as it was then, it’s worse now! Today, the top .001% of the U.S. population owns 976 times more than the entire bottom 90%. This again is not sustainable, and makes for a very volatile economy.
The recent financial crash was a result of too much money in the hands of too few people who had nothing to spend it on. Their larder was full! Had it not been for help from the government, we well may have had a collapse worse than in 1929. Bailing the banks out, however, did nothing for the average American who was thrown out of work by the collapse of the building industry and the collateral reduction in business activity. The obvious reaction would be a healthy application of Keynesian Economics. Ironically it was resisted by the very ones who survived only because of it; financial aid from government. The decision by the Supreme Court giving corporations all the privileges of being deemed a “person” without any of the responsibilities enabled them to funnel money into the electoral process and determine the outcome of elections.
We literally, now have a government at the federal level that is de facto owned by international corporations. With the weakening of our government as a protective entity, we are in real danger of becoming what Marc Bloch describes as a “feudal society” in his book by that name, with government by, for and of the rich. It’s a cold hard fact that there is no such thing as laissez faire. It can’t exist for long. Either you have a government that controls business or business that controls government. A healthy stable economy requires a balance – as we had from the end of WWII until the slow dismantling of New Deal legislation and the rebirth of supply side economics. Capitalism is a harsh appeal to selfishness and unchristian darwinistic survival of the fittest. Its sole redeeming quality is that it has been very effective at producing goods and it will only continue to do this as long as good government prevents it from emasculating itself.
I won’t be here but our progeny will. We have four children, all adults now, of course, 14 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren. In addition, our brothers and sisters all have children and grandchildren. I can’t count the cousins. I am not able to wash my hands of the whole mess that greed and selfishness has made of my country because my genes will still be around…until the end. Every living organism has a life cycle; birth, growth, maturity, degeneration, atrophy and death. The same is true of states/empires. All have fallen and all will. I believe the end of the United States as a great dominating empire is about here. I think my generation’s life cycle runs parallel to the blossoming and impending fall of our nation as an exceptional society.
There are multiple reasons given by historians for the fall of the Roman Empire: Here are a few that are most applicable to the USA, the most dominant empire since Rome:
- Antagonism between the Senate and the Emperor (Legislative, Executive and Judicial)
- Decline in Morals
- Political Corruption
- Fast expansion of the Empire
- Constant Wars and Heavy Military Spending
- Failing Economy
- Unemployment of the Working Classes
- Decline in Ethics and Values
While all of these problems exist in the United States, the most dangerous ones are the wars and the economy. The other six exacerbate the two primary problems.
The American people, it seems, are bored with war. Like a reality show that's gone on too long, it ceases to shock, shame or even interest. Recently, when pollsters asked what the most important problems facing the country are, just 3 percent mentioned Afghanistan, the war of choice at that time. Even when combined with Iraq it had not reached double digits for several months. In a CBS poll it did not register at all. A Pew poll the same month found that just 23 percent said they were following the situation closely. And they do not like what they see. Polls show that 60 percent of Americans believed Afghanistan is a lost cause, and roughly half compared it to Vietnam and favored a timetable for withdrawal.
The war profiteers have done it. With the help of two administrations, including Obama’s, they have converted an act of mass murder into an endless war attracting very little public concern. The rich folks' kids are not involved, there is no draft, the voters were distracted with an extension of a deficit bulging tax cuts and we are borrowing from a communist nation to pay for it. What's not to like, at least until some future group of voters are forced to pay for it....somehow. And the profits just keep rolling in.
As Milo Minderbinder, the war profiteer extraordinaire of Heller's Catch 22, said, "In a democracy, the government is the people, Milo explained. "We're the people, aren't we? So we might as well keep the money and eliminate the middleman. Frankly, I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry."
Halliburton Chevron, ExxonMobil, Blackwater and many others, with the swinging door between the Bush White House and the corporate world, has made this a fait accompli! America has become, or maybe I should say has been for some time, the most war-like country in history, only now the corporations are in charge. How has this happened?
Personally, after serving reluctantly during the Korean War, I was through with war, or hoped and thought I was. I believe most Americans felt the same way. Then along came Viet Nam, a totally political and needless war. I think that, for the most part, our government was honorable in its intention...at first. It became more and more political, more and more deadly and more and more needless. It ended tragically and we lost. We were no longer undefeated.
Again, many of us were through with war and hoped that the USA was too. Wrong again. There are just too many people of power who benefit or think they would benefit by war. I won't go into those people and their reason now but they learned a lot from Viet Nam; to the extent possible, isolate the public from the war. The Neocons made sure the military was all volunteer...avoid the war awareness that democratic participation produces! Avoid public awareness of the true cost in human life and fiscal cost by privatization. Who cares that a private contractor, a mercenary, is killed? Avoid contemporary awareness of the fiscal cost by borrowing. Who cares about the war if we are not taxed and are not required to make ANY sacrifice?
9/11 provided a fortuitous opportunity for making war. Of course, we made war with the wrong country and with tragic consequences but a profitable war all the same; and that's the important thing to Milo Minderbinder and the Dick Cheneys of the world.
Now, in addition to fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we've become embroiled in still another never ending war; this, while we are occupying South Korea, Iraq, and in a sense, Germany and Japan. We will stay in these countries indefinitely relieving their governments of the expense of a military, and who knows how long we will stay in a shooting war in Afghanistan or how involved we will subsequently be in Libya, particularly now that nobody really cares and of which fewer and fewer will be aware. Make no mistake about it, pulling our troops out of these countries doesn't end our involvement or expense. They are replaced by private contractors or American trained and financed locals - whose loyalty is questionable.
The attack on the middle class is more insidious than the attack on the Twin Towers. The plight of the Libyans is truly sad. The plight of 15 million out-of-work Americans and their families is sadder and it is at home, where our military should be.
What does this portend for our national well-being? Wealth is usually needed to underpin military power, and military power is usually needed to acquire and protect wealth. While worrying about their foes, states playing in the world arena must constantly maintain a delicate internal equilibrium. Armies are required for security, but they cost money. Military superiority by itself is often deceiving, since it may be weakening a state's ability to compete economically and fund future conflicts.
The combination of the U.S.'s declining rate of industrial growth and its extensive military commitments spells trouble: "Decision-makers in Washington must face the awkward and enduring fact that the sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country's power to defend them all simultaneously." Even aside from this dilemma, American dominance is on the wane, not because the nation is growing poorer or weaker but because others are becoming richer and stronger. We can expect both China and Japan to improve their shares of world power; if the European Community can submerge national disputes and agree on common goals, then it too will find its wealth and influence increasing. The Soviet Union possesses a vast military machine and a stagnant economy; uh-oh for the U.S.S.R. India could be an awakening giant.
It simply has not been given to any one society to remain permanently ahead of all the others. The threat to the interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order. I see no American leaders or movements on the horizon that will recognize the fact that a healthy survival depends on our accepting a diminishing status gracefully. But until it is convincingly refuted by other theorists or the years ahead, The rise and fall of the great powers stands as a fascinating response to ancient questions about the life-span of nations.