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NASA funded study concludes that the end times are nigh

Earth as seen by Apollo 17
Earth as seen by Apollo 17

A March 14, 2014 story in the UK Guardian announced the results of a NASA funded study that suggests that human civilization is going to collapse. The reason is that the “elites” (that is to say the industrialized West) are using too many resources. The study points to previous collapses of civilizations such as Rome and Han Dynasty China as examples of what is in store for us. However the solutions the study offers are draconian and, surprising for something funded by NASA, misses an obvious one that doesn’t involve population control and rationing.

“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.’”

The solution that will stave off collapse will be severe.

“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."

The study “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.”

The methodology, assumptions, and the conclusions of the study appear to match those of a 1972 report called “Limits to Growth” that suggested that resource depletion was going to cause the collapse of civilization. The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center has added a rich vs. poor aspect that, when one takes the solution proposed, suggests a severe political prejudice and an antipathy to free market capitalism and freedom in general. Any regime that could enforce zero population growth and resource rationing would be a tyranny that would make Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia seem like Switzerland by comparison.

The dire predictions of the “Limits to Growth” study failed to materialize because it failed to take into account technological innovation that made more efficient use of resources and found substitutes when needed. The new study mentions this, but then discounts it as a long run solution.

Curiously for a study funded by NASA, it does not touch upon an obvious solution that is right within the space agency’s purview. To be sure the Earth is finite and so are its resources. But the universe is infinite or vast enough to be the next best thing. Already companies like Planetary Resources and Moon Express are starting businesses to exploit off planet resources. Perhaps this study, as flawed and filled with political biases as it may be, could be used to facilitate expansion beyond the Earth into the vaster universe.

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