NASA-backed study says human civilization is headed for irreversible collapse

A fungus strain changed the world in the game The Last of Us. What might happen in reality? (Yahoo News)According to a new NASA-backed study, unless we immediately take steps to start correcting the inequalities of our society and the unsustainable burdens we're putting on nature, current human civilization is doomed.

Post-apocalyptic visions of the future are quite popular these days, showing up in movies, TV shows, games, comics and books, but most of the serious talk of these scenarios has really only occurred in conspiracy theory and 'prepper' communities. However, a new study led by Safa Motesharrei, a mathematician at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), shows us that we all need to be taking this idea a little more seriously — not as some kind of survival guide, but to prevent these visions of the future from happening.

This isn't some weird study about zombie outbreaks, or even something a bit more grounded in reality, like a rebirth of the Cold War and our eventual nuclear annihilation. No, what it comes down to in the Human And Nature Dynamics (HANDY) model, that Motesharrei and his colleagues designed, is a combination of economic inequality and the depletion of natural resources.

Examining 5,000 years worth of history, the researchers looking specifically at how various human civilizations collapsed during that time period, such as the Mayans and the Roman Empire. There can be many reasons for these collapses, but looking at common factors, they produced a simple model that took into account population, how that population was divided (into workers, non-workers and/or elites) and how the population consumed the resources of nature and accumulated wealth. It also looked at how these factors could produce either a type-N collapse (where Nature disappears) or a type-L collapse (where the labour force of workers disappears).

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Running their model through several different scenarios, they found that natural resource depletion could cause a irreversible collapse regardless of any other factors, even in equitable societies where wealth was distributed equally between between workers and non-workers, or egalitarian societies with only workers. Even then, in these scenarios, avoiding a complete collapse was possible by reducing how much is consumed and by making sure resources were distributed reasonably.

However, in scenarios with increasing inequality in the population, where non-workers become true elites who accumulate most of the wealth and give the workers only a small amount to subsist on — which unfortunately mirror how our own society is developing — civilization was most vulnerable to an irreversible collapse. As the researchers report, even the most optimistic of these scenarios still results in doom:

Importantly, in the first of these unequal society scenarios, the solution 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. Despite appearing initially to be the same as the sustainable optimal solution obtained in the absence of Elites, economic stratification changes the final result: Elites' consumption keeps growing until the society collapses.

The worst part about this is that, as the elites continue to accumulate the vast majority of the resources and wealth, the workers are the first to suffer a collapse. Buffered against this collapse by what they've already accumulated to that point, the elites can continue along "business as usual," the researchers say, completely ignorant of their impending doom. Without workers to produce more for them, their wealth is depleted until there's nothing left, and they suffer a collapse as well.

So, if we're in these latter scenarios, with their fairly grim view of the future, all due to the presence of our elites, how can we avoid a complete collapse of society that nobody, not even the 'preppers,' are going to come out of unscathed?

Well, the current elites might not like the answer, but along with better, more sustainable resource management, we have to reduce the amount of inequality we have in our society. The best-case scenarios with elites gives civilization roughly 1,000 years, whereas the worst-case ones give us maybe 350 years before our resources are gone and civilization follows over the next 150. The elites of today will be long gone by then (unless we develop some kind of nanotech rejuvenation methods), but if these projections work out, the collapse of civilization will be the legacy they leave behind ... not only for their direct descendents, but for the entire human race.

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