Find them here: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/mar/14/nasa-civilisation-irreversible-collapse-study-scientists
and here: http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-the-rise-of-the-post-carbon-era/
Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'?Natural and social scientists develop new model of how 'perfect storm' of crises could unravel global system
This Nasa Earth Observatory image shows a storm system circling around an area of extreme low pressure in 2010, which many scientists attribute to climate change. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
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."
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."
- "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."
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."
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."
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."
Although the study is largely theoretical, a number of other more empirically-focused studies - by KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science for instance - have warned that the convergence of food, water and energy crises could create a 'perfect storm' within about fifteen years. But these 'business as usual' forecasts could be very conservative.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed
The End of the World As We Know It? The rise of the post-carbon eraIn an exclusive new essay, political scientist Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed presents a dramatic picture of the world we're about to leave behind, and the new possibilities ahead. He argues that the age of Carbon is coming to a close, and only a concerted effort can prevent an impending crisis on a global scale.
Arts & Culture, The Cutting Edge - Posted on Monday, September 20, 2010 0:30 - 90 CommentsTags: climate change, peak oil, post carbon
By Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
Only 500 generations ago, hunter-gatherers began cultivating crops and forming their tiny communities into social hierarchies. Around 15 to 20 generations ago, industrial capitalism erupted on a global scale.
In the last generation, the entire human species, along with virtually all other species and indeed the entire planet, have been thrown into a series of crises, which many believe threaten to converge in global catastrophe: global warming spiraling out of control; oil prices fluctuating wildly; food riots breaking out in the South; banks collapsing worldwide; the spectre of terror bombings in major cities; and the promise of 'endless war' to fight 'violent extremists' at home and abroad.
We are running out of time. Without urgent mitigating, preventive and transformative action, these global crises are likely to converge and mutually accelerate over the coming decades. By 2018, converging food, water and energy shortages could magnify the probability of conflict between major powers, civil wars, and cross-border conflicts. After 2020, this could result in political and economic catastrophes that would undermine state control and national infrastructures, potentially leading to social collapse.
Anthropogenic global warming alone illustrates the gravity of our predicament. Global average temperatures have already risen by 0.7C in the last 130 years. In 2007, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told the world that at current rates of increase of fossil fuel emissions, we were heading toward a rise in global average temperatures of around 6C by the end of this century, leading to mass extinctions on a virtually uninhabitable planet. The Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences has reported that current fossil fuel emissions are exceeding this worst-case scenario.
Many scientists concede that without drastic emissions reductions by 2020, we are on the path toward a 4C rise as early as mid-century, with catastrophic consequences, including the loss of the world's coral reefs; the disappearance of major mountain glaciers; the total loss of the Arctic summer sea-ice, most of the Greenland ice-sheet and the break-up of West Antarctica; acidification and overheating of the oceans; the collapse of the Amazon rainforest; and the loss of Arctic permafrost; to name just a few. Each of these ecosystem collapses could trigger an out-of-control runaway warming process. Worse, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley now project that we are actually on course to reach global temperatures of up to 8C within 90 years.
But our over-dependence on fossil fuels is also counterproductive even on its own terms. Increasing evidence demonstrates that peak oil is at hand. This is when world oil production reaches its maximum level at the point when half the world's reserves of cheap oil have been depleted, after which it becomes geophysically increasingly difficult to extract it. This means that passed the half-way point, world production can never reach its maximum level again, and thus continuously declines until reserves are depleted. Until 2004, world oil production had risen continuously but thereafter underwent a plateau all the way through to 2008. Then from July to August 2008, world oil production fell by almost one million barrels per day. It's still decreasing, even according to BP's Statistical Review 2010 (which every year pretends that peak oil won't happen for another 40 years) in 2009 world oil production was 2.6 percent below that in 2008, and is now below 2004 levels.
Oil price volatility due to peak oil was a major factor that induced the 2008 economic recession. The collapse of the mortgage house of cards was triggered by the post-peak oil price shocks, which escalated costs of living and led to a cascade of debt-defaults. A study by US economist James Hamilton confirmed there would have been no recession without the oil price shocks. While the recession slumped demand, allowing oil prices to reduce, experts now warn of a coming oil supply crunch by around 2014. As climate change intensifies natural disasters such as droughts in food-basket regions, floods in South Asia and the heatwave in Russia and as the full impact of peak oil eventually hits, costs to national economies will rocket, while world food production declines.
Already, global warming has exacerbated droughts and led to declines in agricultural productivity over the last decade, including a 10-20 per cent drop in rice yields. The percentage of land stricken by drought doubled from 15 to 30 per cent between 1975 and 2000. If trends continue, by 2025, 1.8 billion people would be living in regions of water-scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress. By 2050, scientists project that world crop yields could fall as much as 20-40 per cent.
Maps released by scientists at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), University of Wisconsin-Madison, show that the earth is "rapidly running out of fertile land" for further agricultural development. No wonder, then, that world agricultural land productivity between 1990 and 2007 was 1.2 per cent per year, nearly half compared to 1950-90 levels of 2.1 per cent. Similarly, world grain consumption exceeded production for seven of eight years prior to 2008.
Apart from climate change, the ecological cost of industrial methods is fast eroding the soil in the US, for instance, 30 times faster than the natural rate. Former prairie lands have lost one half of their top soil over about a 100 years of farming but it takes 500 years to replace just one-inch. Erosion is now reducing productivity by up to 65 per cent a year. The dependence of industrial agriculture on hydrocarbon energy sources with ten calories of fossil fuel energy needed to produce just one calorie of food means that the impact of peak oil after 2014 will hugely constrain future world agricultural production.
But oil is not the only problem. Numerous studies show that hydrocarbon resources will become increasingly depleted by mid-century, and by the end of this century will be so scarce as to be useless although we do have enough to potentially tip us over into irreversible runaway global warming.
Former TOTAL geologist Jean Laharrere projects that world natural gas production will peak by around 2025. New technologies mean that unconventional forms of natural gas in the US might prolong this some decades, but only if future demand doesn't increase. The independent Energy Watch Group (EGW) in Berlin projects that world coal production will also peak in 2025, but the journal Science finds that this could occur "close to the year 2011." EGW also argues that world production of uranium for nuclear energy will peak in 2035. According to the Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group at Uppsala University, unconventional oil such as oil shale and tar sands will be incapable of averting peak oil. Greater attention has turned to thorium, which certainly holds greater promise than uranium, but as pointed out by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Washington DC, thorium still requires uranium to "kick-start" a nuclear chain reaction, and as yet no viable commercial reactors have been built despite decades of research.
The exponential expansion of modern industrial civilization over the last couple of centuries, and the liberal ideology of 'unlimited growth' that has accompanied it, has been tied indelibly to 1) the seemingly unlimited supply of energy provided by nature's fossil fuel reserves and 2) humankind's willingness to over-exploit our environment with no recognition of boundaries or constraints. But the 21st century is the age of irreversible hydrocarbon energy depletion the implication being that industrial civilization, in its current form, cannot last beyond this century.
This means that this century signals not only the end of the carbon age, but the beginning of a new post-carbon era. Therefore, this century should be understood as an age of civilizational transition the preceding crises are interlocking symptoms of a global political economy, ideology and value-system which is no longer sustainable, which is crumbling under its own weight, and which over the next few decades will be recognized as obsolete. The question that remains, of course, is what will take its place?
While we may not be able to stop various catastrophes and collapse-processes from occurring, we still retain an unprecedented opportunity to envisage an alternative vision for a new, sustainable and equitable form of post-carbon civilization.The imperative now is for communities, activists, scholars and policymakers to initiate dialogue on the contours of this vision, and pathways to it.
Any vision for 'another world', if it is to overcome the deep-rooted structural failures of our current business-as-usual model, will need to explore how we can develop new social, political and economic structures which encourage the following:
- Widespread distribution of ownership of productive resources so that all members of society have a stake in agricultural, industrial and commercial productive enterprises, rather than a tiny minority monopolising resources for their own interests.
- More decentralised politico-economic participation through self-managerial producer and consumer councils to facilitate participatory decision-making in economic enterprises.
- Re-defining the meaning of economic growth to focus less on materially-focused GDP, and more on the capacity to deliver values such as health, education, well-being, longevity, political and cultural freedom.
- Fostering a new, distributed renewable energy infrastructure based on successful models such as that of the borough of Woking in Surrey, UK.
- Structural reform of the monetary, banking and financial system including abolition of interest, in particular the cessation of money-creation through government borrowing on compound interest.
- Elimination of unrestricted lending system based on faulty quantitative risk-assessment models, with mechanisms to facilitate greater regulation of lending practices by bank depositors themselves.
- Development of parallel grassroots participatory political structures that are both transnational and community-oriented, by which to facilitate community governance as well as greater popular involvement in mainstream political institutions.
- Development of parallel grassroots participatory economic institutions that are both transnational and community-oriented, to facilitate emergence of alternative equitable media of exchange and loans between North and South.
- Emergence of a 'post-materialist' scientific paradigm and worldview which recognizes that the cutting-edge insights of physics and biology undermine traditional, mechanistic conceptions of the natural order, pointing to a more holistic understanding of life and nature.
- Emergence of a 'post-materialist' ethic recognizing that progressive values and ideals such as justice, compassion, and generosity are more conducive to the survival of the human species, and thus more in harmony with the natural order, than the conventional 'materialistic' behaviours associated with neoliberal consumerism.
Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London. His latest book is A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization (Pluto, 2010).