NASA Study: Industrial Civilization Headed for Collapse

Nafeez Ahmed writes:

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 Motesharri 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.

Full Story: The Guardian: Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?

(via Eleanor)

I haven’t had a look at the study yet, but will be published here. It sounds a lot like Peter Turchin’s Cliodynamics research.

See also: Ahmed on peak soil.

Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays

Peter Turchin (the Cliodynamics guy) has a piece in Bloomberg today:

Past waves of political instability, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, the French Wars of Religion and the American Civil War, had many interlinking causes and circumstances unique to their age. But a common thread in the eras we studied was elite overproduction. The other two important elements were stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state.

Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions. Consider the Antebellum U.S.

Full Story: Bloomberg: Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays

While I can understand how intra-elite conflict destabalize society and lead to ever more disaparity between the elites and everyone else, I still don’t quite understand how elite overproduction causes this. If most of these wannabes are locked out of the elite positions, how is it that they’re causing trouble?

See also:

Turchin: Bimodal Lawyers: How Extreme Competition Breeds Extreme Inequality

Mathematicians Predict the Future With Data From the Past

Data Geeks Say War, Not Agriculture, Spawned Complex Societies

Data Geeks Say War, Not Agriculture, Spawned Complex Societies

My latest for Wired:

Cliodynamics is a field of study created by Peter Turchin in the early 2000s. The idea is to use data as a means of predicting the future, but also as a way of testing theories about what happened in the past. You build a model that seeks to explain history, and then you test this model using real historical data.

The movement’s latest aim is to analyze the origins of complex societies. In a paper published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Turchin and a trans-disciplinary team from the University of Connecticut, University of Exeter, and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis attempt to overturn the long standing belief that large-scale states are the product of agriculture.

Early humans were hunter-gatherers. They had relatively simple social structures, which consisted of perhaps a few dozen people, all of whom knew each other, and they didn’t engage in complex cooperative tasks. But eventually, complex societies evolved — complete with governments, armies, agriculture, education, and other large scale, cooperative projects. With their paper, Turchin and his collaborators analyzed the spread of the social norms that allowed societies to expand across millions of people.

“You cannot have a large state without bureaucrats, but bureaucrats are expensive. You have to pay them,” he says. “So the big question is how do complex societies evolve when they are so expensive?”

The standard theory, which Turchin calls the “bottom up” theory, is that humans invented agriculture around 10,000 years ago, providing resource surpluses that freed people up for other ventures. But what Turchin and his team have found is that the bottom-up theory is wrong, or at least incomplete. “Competitions between societies, which historically took the form of warfare, drive the evolution of complex societies,” he says.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Data Geeks Say War, Not Agriculture, Spawned Complex Societies

While this doesn’t prove that war pre-dates agriculture, it does challenge some ideas about the origins of war.

See Also:

My article on Cliodynamics

Researchers Say Humans Didn’t Wipe Out the Neanderthals

Mathematicians Predict the Future With Data From the Past


I wrote for Wired:

In Issac Asimov’s classic science fiction saga Foundation, mathematics professor Hari Seldon predicts the future using what he calls psychohistory. Drawing on mathematical models that describe what happened in the past, he anticipates what will happen next, including the fall of the Galactic Empire.

That may seem like fanciful stuff. But Peter Turchin is turning himself into a real-life Hari Seldon — and he’s not alone.

Turchin — a professor at the University of Connecticut — is the driving force behind a field called “cliodynamics,” where scientists and mathematicians analyze history in the hopes of finding patterns they can then use to predict the future. It’s named after Clio, the Greek muse of history.

These academics have the same goals as other historians — “We start with questions that historians have asked for all of history,” Turchin says. “For example: Why do civilizations collapse?” — but they seek to answer these questions quite differently. They use math rather than mere language, and according to Turchin, the prognosis isn’t that far removed from the empire-crushing predictions laid down by Hari Seldon in the Foundation saga. Unless something changes, he says, we’re due for a wave of widespread violence in about 2020, including riots and terrorism. […]

There are competing theories as well. A group of researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute — who practice a discipline called econophysics — have built their own model of political violence and concluded that one simple variable is sufficient to predict instability: food prices. In a paper titled “The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East,” they explain that although many other grievances may be aired once the violence begins, the cost of food is the primary trigger. They make a similarly grim prediction: large-scale riots over food, beginning around October of this year.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Mathematicians Predict the Future With Data From the Past

I’d actually recommend reading journal articles I cite before reading my article:

Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010 by Peter Turchin

The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East by Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand and Yaneer Bar-Yam.

Also check out Turchin’s blog.


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