Author Topic: Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'?  (Read 547 times)

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Offline Iguana

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Excerpts:

Natural and social scientists develop new model of how 'perfect storm' of crises could unravel global system


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."

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 study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:

    "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."

Productivity increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries has come from "increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput," despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.

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."


    "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 NASA-funded HANDY model offers a highly credible wake-up call to governments, corporations and business - and consumers - to recognise that 'business as usual' cannot be sustained, and that policy and structural changes are required immediately.

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.



Instability began with the use of fire, but really took off when we became farmers and founded civilizations.
« Last Edit: March 20, 2014, 07:35:30 pm by Iguana »
Cause and effect are distant in time and space in complex systems, while at the same time there’s a tendency to look for causes near the events sought to be explained. Time delays in feedback in systems result in the condition where the long-run response of a system to an action is often different from its short-run response. — Ronald J. Ziegler

Offline Iguana

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Cause and effect are distant in time and space in complex systems, while at the same time there’s a tendency to look for causes near the events sought to be explained. Time delays in feedback in systems result in the condition where the long-run response of a system to an action is often different from its short-run response. — Ronald J. Ziegler

Offline Eric

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Intriguing. My PhD advisor, Dr. Robert Costanza, was the founder of the discipline Ecological Economics and also one of the founding editors of the peer-reviewed journal where the study is slated to be published. I'll give the article a read.
Eric Garza
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Offline Iguana

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On the same topic, two very interesting and well-informed articles (excerpts):

On the cusp of collapse: complexity, energy, and the globalised economy
David Korowicz
Quote
The systems on which we rely for our financial transactions, food, fuel and livelihoods are so inter-dependent that they are better regarded as facets of a single global system. Maintaining and operating this global system requires a lot of energy and, because the fixed costs of operating it are high, it is only cost-effective if it is run at near full capacity. As a result, if its throughput falls because less energy is available, it does not contract in a gentle, controllable manner. Instead it is subject to catastrophic collapse.
 
The self-organisation and biodiversity of life on earth is maintained by the flows of low-entropy solar energy that irradiate our planet as it is transformed into high-entropy heat radiating into space. Our complex civilisation was formed by the transformation of the living bio-sphere and the fossil reserves of ancient solar energy into useful work, and the entropy of waste heat energy, greenhouse gases and pollution that are the necessary consequences of the fact that no process is perfectly efficient.

The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed. But energy can be transformed. The second law of thermodynamics tells us how it is transformed. All processes are winding down from a more concentrated and organised state to a more disorganised one, or from low to higher entropy. We see this when our cup of hot coffee cools to the room’s ambient temperature, and when humans and their artefacts decay to dust. The second law defines the direction in which processes happen. In transforming energy from a low-entropy to a higher-entropy state, work can be done, but this process is never 100% efficient. Some heat will always be wasted and be unavailable for work. This work is what has built and maintains life on earth and our civilisation.

So how is it that an island of locally concentrated and complex low-entropy civilisation can form out of the universal tendency to disorder? The answer is that more and more concentrated energy has to flow through it so as to keep the local system further and further away from the disorder to which it tends. The evolution and emergence of complex structures maximises the production of entropy in the universe (local system plus everywhere else) as a whole. Clearly, if growing and maintaining complexity costs energy, then energy supply is the master platform upon which all forms of complexity depends. [9]

The operational fabric evolves with new levels of complexity. As integration and co-dependency rise, and economies of scale become established, higher and higher fixed costs are required to maintain the operational fabric. That cost is in energy and resource flows. Furthermore, as the infrastructure, plant and machinery that are required to maintain economic production at each level expand, they are open to greater depreciation costs or, in thermodynamic terms, entropic decay.

The correlation between energy use and economic and social change should therefore come as no surprise. The major transitions in the evolution of human civilisation, from hunter-gatherers through the agricultural and industrial revolutions, have been predicated on revolutions in the quality and quantity of energy sources used
.

 Fracking Wars, Fracking Casualties
Richard Heinberg
Quote
The oil and gas industry, after all, claims to be making serious attempts to address environmental problems as they arise—finding better ways to dispose of or recycle wastewater, building better well casings, and exploring methods of capturing fugitive methane.

But fracking by its very nature implies a wide range of environmental risks, of which failure to properly treat wastewater is only one. Remember: as society extracts fuels from lower and lower levels of the resource pyramid, it must use ever more extreme measures, and more things can go wrong. Further, as we have just seen, the high per-well decline rates associated with shale gas and tight oil wells mean that drillers must frack relentlessly in order to maintain production rates; therefore environmental risks are multiplied thousands, tens of thousands, and ultimately hundreds of thousands of times over.

In this chapter, we’ll look at the evidence for fracking’s impacts on water, air, land, and climate. Reader warning: it ain’t pretty.

Cause and effect are distant in time and space in complex systems, while at the same time there’s a tendency to look for causes near the events sought to be explained. Time delays in feedback in systems result in the condition where the long-run response of a system to an action is often different from its short-run response. — Ronald J. Ziegler

 

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