A new scientific study partially funded by NASA predicts that our current economic framework will likely cause a collapse of civilization. The study published in Ecological Economics has received much online attention recently based on its theory that previous instances of civilization collapse occurred based on the depletion of natural resources, which depletion occurred at a faster rate than necessary due to inequitable distribution of such resources. The study noted that the creation of commoner and elite segments in previous civilizations led to over consumption of resources.
Those reading between the lines can see the potential hot button political issues. Economic or scientific discussion of inequitable allocation of resources becomes an indictment of capitalism and an endorsement of a more socialist model of society. NASA has been quick to distance itself from the study. A NASA statement attached to the study provides that the Goddard Space Flight Center only partially funded the research and that the space agency in no way endorses any of its conclusions, whether related to predictions of likely civilization collapse or otherwise. If the results of the study continue to gain media traction, much discussion will focus on the study’s division of society into commoners and elites, which sounds similar to the framework adopted by Karl Marx.
The study developed a mathematical model to explain the collapse of previous civilizations and purports to encapsulate the earlier societal downfall causes. The model is called HANDY, meaning “Human And Nature DYmanics.” The idea is that civilization can generate resources and these can be accumulated as wealth. The authors of the study say, in what could be viewed as a provocative statement, wealth is generated primarily by the masses yet the “elites” control the wealth and only allow the commoners to keep a mere subsistence amount. The study notes that all resources are not the same. Some are nonrenewable, such as oil, and others are capable of regenerating (forests) and renewing (solar, wind). For purposes of the mathematical model used for the study, the resources are all combined together. As a further limitation of the study model, only the commoners are deemed to produce. The supervisory duties of the elite group are not included in the model as a production component.
Without delving into the mathematical elements of the study, at least two additional issues come to mind beyond the aggregation together of all types of resources as a single unit. First, how does society run out of resources if the masses are limited to a mere subsistence share of them? Further, would the commoners produce at the same level without some component of management and direction? Someone has to organize the groups to create the wealth in optimal fashion. The study assumes that production occurs organically without any direction.
The ultimate conclusion of the study is that the collapse of civilization is difficult to avoid when economic stratification occurs. Preventing collapse is only possible under conditions of an egalitarian society. In other words, a capitalist society with a privileged elite will lead to the downfall of civilization. The results of this study partially funded by NASA are certainly provocative and thought provoking, whether the collapse of civilization is likely to occur, only time will tell if the prediction holds true.
By William Costolo