Judging the Merits of a Media-Hyped ‘Collapse’ Study

By Keith Kloor | March 21, 2014 4:25 pm

As I discussed in the previous entry, a recent Guardian blog post (structured loosely as a news article) made worldwide headlines. It was trumpeted by the Guardian blogger as an “exclusive”; he was given a copy of a paper soon to be published in the journal Ecological Economics. Because he didn’t provide any context for the paper (the authors were not interviewed, nor were any independent  experts), I thought I’d jump into this vacuum.

Let’s start with the first paragraph of the study’s abstract:

There are widespread concerns that current trends in resource-use are unsustainable, but possibilities of overshoot/collapse remain controversial. Collapses have occurred frequently in history, often followed by centuries of economic, intellectual, and population decline. Many different natural and social phenomena have been invoked to explain specific collapses, but a general explanation remains elusive.

Anthropologists are loathe to make sweeping generalizations about the dissolution and/or reorganization of prehistoric cultures. This hasn’t stopped popular narratives about carrying capacity from taking hold and remaining immune to mounting evidence that challenges prevailing views.

Let’s return to the study’s abstract:

In this paper, we build a human population dynamics model by adding accumulated wealth and economic inequality to a predator-prey model of humans and nature. The model structure, and simulated scenarios that offer significant implications, are explained. Four equations describe the evolution of Elites, Commoners, Nature, and Wealth. The model shows Economic Stratification or Ecological Strain can independently lead to collapse, in agreement with the historical record.

In other words, overconsumption by elites and/or resource depletion lead to societal collapse, the authors assert.

Early in the paper, they walk us through the historical record, citing, among other examples, the fall of the Roman Empire and the crumbling of ancient societies from Southeast Asia to the American Southwest as case studies that suggest “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” The question this raises, they write, is “whether modern civilization is similarly susceptible” to a crash.

One of the questions nagging at me when I read this study was whether prehistoric societies are appropriate analogues for our 21st century world. Oxford’s Steve Rayner, an anthropologist I contacted, provided valuable context:

Whether historical empires were fragile or robust depends on your time perspective and how you divide up historical epochs.

But the authors insist in their paper:

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.

Rayner counters:

But China as a civilization dates from at least 2070 BCE, that makes it 4000 years old at present. Just because it has been eclipsed by the west for a mere couple of centuries should not blind us to this. The first Egyptian dynasty began around 3000 BCE and the Ptolemys collapsed in 30 BCE when Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire, which lasted another 400-500 years, before itself morphing into the Holy Roman Empire and Byzantium respectively, the latter morphing into the Ottoman Empire. These seem to me to be pretty long epochs in human terms, if not in geological ones. Nothing lasts for ever and arguably while individual human societies come and go humanity seems to be better off in general today than ever before.

He also said that “the very idea of collapse is ideologically loaded” and offered a suggestion:

For a much more balanced approach to the issue of technological innovation and sustainability I recommend you take a look at the final chapter of Joseph Tainter’s book “The Collapse of Complex Societies.”

As it happens, I’m very familiar with Tainter’s work, that book in particular. And since Tainter, a Utah State University anthropologist, was repeatedly cited by the authors, I already thought it would be good to get his thoughts. His first response was curt:

Overall I found the paper to be trivial and deeply flawed. It is amazing that anyone would take it seriously, but clearly some people do (at least in the media).

You are correct that they cite my work a lot, but they seem not to have been influenced by it, or even to understand it. I suspect they were strongly influenced by the work of Peter Turchin—for which, please see the attached (short) review.

He then promised to send a more detailed response, which he emailed several days later. Here it is in full (emphasis mine)

It is interesting how collapse theories mirror broader societal issues. During the Cold War, we had theories ascribing collapse to elite mismanagement, class conflict, and peasant revolts. As global warming became a public issue, scholars of the past began to discover that ancient societies collapsed due to climate change. As we have become concerned about sustainability and resource use today, we have learned that ancient societies collapsed due to depletion of critical resources, such as soil and forests. Now that inequality and “the 1%” are topics of public discourse, we have this paper focusing largely on elite resource consumption.

Models depend on the assumptions that go into them. Thus the first four pages of the paper are the part most worth discussing.

The paper has many flaws. The first is that “collapse” is not defined, and the examples given conflate different processes and outcomes. Thus the authors are not even clear what topic they are addressing.

Collapses have occurred among both hierarchical and non-hierarchical societies, and the authors even discuss the latter (although without understanding the implications for their thesis). Thus, although the authors purport to offer a universal model of collapse (involving elite consumption), their own discussion undercuts that argument.

Contrary to the authors’ unsubstantiated assertion, there is no evidence that elite consumption caused ancient societies to collapse. The authors simply have no empirical basis for this assumption, and that point alone undercuts most of the paper.

The authors assert that there is a “two-class structure of modern society,” and indeed their analysis depends on this being the case. The basis for this assertion comes from two papers published in obscure physics journals. That’s right, this assertion does not come from peer-review social science. It comes from journals that have no expertise in this topic, and whose audience is unqualified to evaluate the assertion critically.

In other words, there is no empirical or substantiated theoretical basis for this paper’s model.

In modeling, once one has established one’s assumptions and parameters, it is a simple matter to program the mathematics that will give the outcome one wants or expects. For this reason, models must be critically evaluated. Unfortunately, most readers are unable to evaluate a model’s assumptions. Instead, readers are impressed by equations and colored graphs, and assume thereby that a model mimics real processes and outcomes. That seems to be the case with this paper, and it represents the worst in modeling.

Others I queried, such as the Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil, and George Mason University’s Mark Sagoff, noted the model’s Limits to Growth echo.

Sagoff was bluntly dismissive:

I skimmed the article yesterday and saw that it was the Club of Rome all over again — the computer that cried wolf.

I have no doubt that many empires fell as others rose.  Now the average man lives better than the ancient emperor.  We have seen creative destruction before and we will see it again.  But what destroys improves.

There is nothing here [in the paper] that was not presented in the 1960s and 1970s by Paul Ehrlich and other “Cassandras” as they called themselves.  Their views, repeated in this [Guardian] article and study, have been completely discredited.

Sagoff ended on a down note:

I am sorry to have seen the paper you sent — it is discouraging.  Nobody learns anything or bothers to try.

So what do the authors of the study think of this harsh criticism? (I’m still waiting to hear back from additional social and environmental scientists. I’d like to know if others have a more charitable take on the paper). I’ve contacted two of the three co-authors repeatedly this week, asking to interview them about their paper–including how it’s been characterized in the media and the critiques lodged in this space. But they have declined. They say they would rather wait to speak to the press until their paper is published in several weeks.

If that’s the case, then I think they will come to regret giving a Guardian writer an advance peek for a story ahead of publication. A second wave of media interest is unlikely to be triggered by the paper’s official publication.

Perhaps the authors are fine with that. One of them, Eugenia Kalnay, a University of Maryland atmospheric scientist, did convey to me, via email, her approval of the Guardian article:

Dr. Nafeez Ahmed wrote an excellent discussion based on a pre-publication draft of the paper.

Ahmed wrote an uncritical appraisal of the study. He didn’t bother to inquire about the merits of the model or its results. If Kalnay and her colleagues would like to engage in actual discussion of their paper, I encourage them to visit this space. I will gladly post their responses.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: coal, collapse, science journalism
  • Robert Wilson

    As a guide to the future this model is about as valuable as a map of Paris in 1700 would be to the average tourist.

    The Industrial Civilization changed the rules of the game. Yet, the scientists involve do not change the rules accordingly. As Tony Wrigley pointed out in his fine book “Energy and the English Industrial Revolution” the Industrial Revolution could not have occurred in an “organic” society dependent purely on renewable resources. This model however is purely based on renewable resources. Modern civilization is dependent on the extraction of billions of tonnes of non-renewable resources each year, so of what possible use is a model that only considers renewable resources?

    Another fundamental problem with this model is that it assumes birth rates are fixed. They aren’t fixed at all. In every modernised country the average woman now has less than 2.1 babies. This is below the replacement level required for a population to continue increasing.

    So, the basic fundamentals of the model seem to have little relationship with modern civilization.

    Similarly there is no effort whatsoever to parametrise the model to historical data. It’s little more than a toy version of reality.

    Some compare this to Limits To Growth. That is too kind. Limits To Growth had far more than 4 equations. Not that those equations were particularly reliable.

    • Nathan Merrill

      To be fair, we will eventually, in the long run, have to switch over to purely renewable resources. Such is the nature of non-renewable resources – they do eventually run out.

      But by then, hopefully, we’ll have sufficient efficiency that it won’t be a problem, though we’ll have to do a lot of work to get there, and that work started… well, thirty years ago at least.

      • lewskannen

        Thorium for about 8,000 years and if we have not got fusion going in that time we do not deserve to have energy.

        • Nathan Merrill

          Where do we get the hydrogen from? Destroying water?

          I can’t imagine where THAT would go wrong.

          Also we don’t actually have 8,000 years of Thorium; a common flaw with many such estimations is that they rely on present day extraction rates. It is the convention by which things are expressed in the medium, but laypeople often get confused because in reality it is an utter lie – it assumes constant production, forever, at the present rate of production. In reality, however, you have to consider what happens when you actually undergo the full production curve. The estimates I’ve seen on Thorium is that if we went over to full exploitation of Thorium, we’d get a bit less time than we got out of Uranium – a couple hundred years, though it depends on future energy curves.

          The idea that we have 8,000 years of Thorium is simply false. We have 8,000 years of Thorium at present rates of extraction, but if Thorium becomes a primary power source, it will only last on the order of centuries, and that’s assuming our power consumption doesn’t rise too much further.

          • JH

            “Also we don’t actually have 8,000 years of Thorium; a common flaw with
            many such estimations is that they rely on present day extraction rates.”

            Then why,do you rely on assumptions that present-day technology will always be the only technology for extraction and power production?

            Then why, in your response to my comment about mining and metal resources below, do you rely on the assumption that recent economic trends – recent commodity price spikes – can be extended infinitely into the future when there is ample precedent in the historical record for short-term commodity price spikes?
            :) Perhaps a little more consistency would benefit your thinking.

          • Nathan Merrill

            Why do you think oil prices have increased over time?

            The absolute cost of oil extraction has risen faster than inflation by a wide margin. This is not because of a “short term price spike”; it is just reality.

            The more you extract all the easy to get to resources, the more you get into the harder and more expensive ones to extract.

            Reserves are always estimated – they’re calculated from both what we know we have, as well as what we can expect to find in the future. The idea that we’re relying on present day technology for total reserve size is false – that’s not how the numbers are derived.

            The way that people claim 8,000 years is present day extraction rate divided by total reserves. But if you use more, obviously your extraction rate will increase over the present day rate.

            It isn’t inconsistency in my thinking – it is a lack of understanding of the way that reserves are calculated on your part.

          • JH

            “Why do you think oil prices have increased over time?”

            But they haven’t, at least not over the long term, and not when measured in real $$ terms.

            Here’s what the IMF said in 2011 about “rising” oil prices:

            “real oil prices have not trended persistently up or down throughout the sample period [1875- Oct 2011]. Instead, prices have experienced slow-moving fluctuations around long-term averages. This suggests that periods of changing oil scarcity have been long-lasting but have come to an end, and that investment, technology, and discovery are eventually responsive to price signals.”

            “In other words, real oil prices are stationary”

            (IMF: Tensions from the Two-Speed Recovery: Unemployment, Commodities, and Capital
            Flows. Pages 91-92. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2011/01/)

            “The idea that we’re relying on present day technology for total reserve size is false”

            Nope! :) Here’s the definition of “Oil Reserves” provided in wikipedia:

            “Oil reserves are the amount of technically and economically recoverable
            oil.”

            That means that the technology exists today to recover it, and that it can be recovered at current prices. That’s what a “reserve” is, like it or not.

            If you don’t like that one, try the US EIA:

            “the estimated quantities of all liquids defined as crude oil, which geological
            and engineering data demonstrate with reasonable certainty to be recoverable in
            future years from known reservoirs under existing economic and operating
            conditions.

            (my bold). The EIA calls these “proven reserves”, but it’s the same as “reserves”.

          • Nathan Merrill

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Crude_oil_prices_since_1861.png

            Oil prices have not been static. They were at one level for a long period of time (from 1880 to 1970), but after that point anyone claiming that they have remained so would have to be a liar or trying to sell you something. Of course, the IMF is both.

            Over the last 40 years, oil prices have varied dramatically, and they have simply never returned to the old value which held for 90 years; in the last 40 years, the closest thing to “stability” was a 15 year span where gas prices varied quite wildly but averaged well above the previous mean; at two other points, for the other 25, they’ve been massively higher, and in recent years, they’ve been way, way higher.

            All the oil companies state that it is more expensive to extract oil today than it was in the past, both due to added capital costs and lower well efficiency, not due to lack of technology, but because the oil they’re pulling out is harder to get out in terms of energy cost. If it takes you 1 barrel of oil worth of energy to suck out 100, and now it takes you 1 barrel of oil worth of energy to extract 10, and in the future you’re looking at a 1:4 ratio, that is an enormous difference in reality.

            Which is something that cornucopists don’t really understand, which is why scientists have a tendency to make fun of them – there are other factors involved which are very relevant.

            Re: Oil Reserves: this depends on the type of the reserve, as well as who is counting. For instance, oil sands and oil shale, while extremely plentiful, do not, in fact, contain oil as we know it, but bitumen and kerogen; that’s not to say they aren’t useful, usable, ex tractable hydrocarbons (though the efficiency of extracting from such substrates is low) but they aren’t exactly the same thing, and no one is doing commercial extraction of them in the US. So they aren’t counted as part of our proven reserves, because it hasn’t been “proven” we can extract them.

            Better technology does “increase reserves” by allowing us to extract a higher percentage of material from existing wells, though it is also worth noting that this is at a higher cost because it is more energetically expensive to do so. These change reserves from UNPROVEN reserves to proven reserves.

            However, you are confused. Proven reserves is not synonymous with reserves; it is a subtype of reserves. Anyone who thinks that proven reserves and reserves are the same thing understands nothing about reserve terminology.

            Proven reserves are what you noted. But they are but a subset of our total reserves. Unproven reserves are reserves which are more speculative; they are, as noted, unproven.

            The SPEE has its own terminology, which tends to be better. Contingent reserves are reserves which are known to exist, but which are contigent upon development of conditions (technology, price, ect.) to be extracted. Prospective reserves are things which are not yet discovered, but which may exist and may be developed.

            When we’re talking about total oil reserves, it is important to specify what we’re talking about. Proven reserves change continuously; so do economically recoverable reserves. The reason why US oil production has increased in recent years is precisely because the price of oil has risen, and thus the amount of economically recoverable oil (and thus, our economically recoverable reserves) have increased. However, when you prove an unproven reserve, that does not mean your total oil reserve has increased; it means you have transformed unproven reserves into proven reserves. Your total amount of reserves are an estimate based on proven reserves and unproven reserves and undiscovered reserves, all of which there are ways of calculating. For instance, you’ll often see that the world’s oil reserves consist of 75% unconventional oil; that’s how that number was calculated. Unconventional oil is only rarely counted in proven reserves, and is frequently counted in unproven reserves due to the fact that most of it isn’t being exploited commercially, and it is hard to tell whether or not it will be worthwhile to do so.

          • JH

            “Over the last 40 years, oil prices have varied dramatically, and they
            have simply never returned to the old value which held for 90 years.”

            Oil was $12/bbl (nominal) in 1998 – in real terms, that was near the all-time historical low (since 1875). So your contention that oil prices “have never returned to the old value” is false.

            “Proven reserves is not synonymous with reserves”

            If you bothered to read the definitions i provided, you’d see that the meanings are exactly the same.

            There are many classification schemes. But when a person says “reserves”, they typically do not mean “technically unrecoverable”.

            “Anyone who thinks that proven reserves and reserves are the same thing understands nothing about reserve terminology.”

            LOL.

          • Thomas Fuller

            Please–we’re Cornucopians, not Cornucopists.

          • Guest

            “The more you extract all the easy to get to resources, the more you get into the harder and more expensive ones to extract.”

            Myth. All resources are extracted at their level of immediate economic viability – again, give or take short-term price squeeze. There has never been an era when it was “cheap” to extract resources.

            Today if you mine copper in southern BC, you have a ready-built paved road and easily obtainable trucks that can haul the concentrate to market in a matter of days from the time the ore leaves the heading.

            That same mine 100 years ago would have required building a very poor road and shipping in thousands of tons of milling and extraction equipment by horse and wagon – arriving over a period of several years – and shipping out a nearly-fully refined product. Time from the ground to payment for the resource could be years.

            The same for oil. Today there is a massive infrastructure that takes oil to market, dramatically reducing the cost of delivery. That infrastructure wasn’t available even 60 years ago.

          • Nathan Merrill

            Yes, all resources are extracted at their level of immediate economic viability, which is dependent upon their price.

            And yes, being in a remote area ADDS to the price… but it adds to the price in a static way.

            There’s a fundamental difference between mining lower quality ores that you have to spend more energy to extract the precious material from and mining in a remote location. In a remote location, there is an added static cost to getting there, but the price of the ore per unit is the same – you’re looking at a static cost added on top of the price per unit.

            In the case of more expensive extraction, however, you’re looking at the price being higher per unit extracted. This is a fundamental difference because it does not scale – if you build a road out to the middle of nowhere, the more ore you bring out, the less that road costs per unit ore. If you’re extracting lower quality ore, then no matter how much you extract, it costs the same amount.

            This is the fundamental difference between the two. Now, it is true that nothing is ever perfect – the more remote location does require more money to ship (which is added to the price of everything), and the more expensive ore does add a capital component which does not scale with volume (which gets cheaper the more you do).

            What causes a decrease is a technology which allows you to separate things for less money. But there are fundamental physical limitations involved – at some point, said technology simply cannot exist because there’s a limit to how cheap it can be to go through a pile of dirt and extract a small amount of material from it.

          • JH

            Your point that the road doesn’t scale is fair enough, but the cost of moving ore by horse and wagon vs. moving it by truck scales dramatically.

            In one case, it takes say, 10 days to move <5 tons of ore 200 miles to rail where it might take another week or longer to get it to market, and in the other case it takes four hours to drive 40 tons of ore 200 miles. Today, one person can move 160 times as much ore to market in the same amount of time as they could in 1880.

            Beyond the labor cost and the speed, the ore is tied up in transport 160 times longer. That means your money can't be used to generate profits. That's a capital cost.

            Beyond that, modern methods produce so much more tonnage per day that they far outstrip any loss in grade. A modest gold mill today will process 1200 tons per day. 120 years ago the average daily tonnage of a gold mill was probably less than 50 tpd.

            “there’s a limit to how cheap it can be to go through a pile of dirt and extract a small amount of material from it.”

            I’m sure there is. We’re just not there yet, and not very close.

          • JWrenn

            One thin is a bit different from Uranium. There would not be nearly as much push back from the environmentally conscious about the use of such materials. This alone would make the use of Thorium a boom if the technology was fully developed. As to the idea that Thorium will get more espensive as it is harder to mine, is true but that really just depends on the survey you are looking at. If the survey is just about how much there is that is really different then how much there is that is economically viable. When USGS puts out a study saying there is 2 million tons of it that is commercially viable..that doesn’t mean that is all there is, it means that is all there is that could be mine and not cost so much that it is silly. So it all comes down to the studies and that is before we even get into the plants which are all 1st gen so who knows how much we would get per ton of the stuff. In the end..who cares! If we can get 200 years off of Thorium…we should do it.

          • Nathan Merrill

            Oh, I’m not disputing that Thorium is a good idea – I’m quite fine with doing Thorium reactors – I just think that people are exaggerating how awesome it will be with thousands of years of energy.

            However, as far as the environmentally conscious are concerned, if they were actually environmentally conscious, they’d be for nuclear energy already from uranium. The problem is that they are fundamentally unreasonable people, and as such, they hear “radioactive” and think “It will make you die super fast of radiation sickness and is insanely dangerous.” They’re crazy people who won’t listen to things like logic or reason, so thorium won’t make a difference to them because they don’t even understand uranium-based fission power. If we did breeder reactors, as we should, we’d produce even less waste. It isn’t like the US doesn’t have nuclear weapons anyway, so it isn’t like it is a proliferation issue.

          • JWrenn

            They may be crazy but with 2 major environmental catastrophies in the books the uranium side does have an uphill battle. That and the fact that it has anything to do with a bomb…I know completely different scientifically but it is a pr thing…let’s just leave it at it has problems. The issues with nuclear are still there outside of pr though…the waste is horrible, the actual fuel is dangerous and it can be used to make weapons..dirty rather than nuclear but still. Thorium cuts all of that out. The only real reason we are not using it is actually because of the nuclear industry. The company’s that invest in these sorts of things don’t want to restart and possibly lose the investment. i really think the difference is a bit bigger than just 2 types of the same thing. Uranium is far far more dangerous when compared to Thorium, and if handled correctly in the media could really be a game changer because it may not be shunned like Uranium.

          • Nathan Merrill

            Actually, you can use thorium to make nuclear weapons as well, as the way thorium reactors work, they end up making uranium which can be used in nuclear weapons. Heck, Wikipedia even explains how you can use a thorium reactor as a part of a nuclear weapons program to breed fissile materials for use in a nuclear device.

  • Gary Glass

    I often read that Limits to Growth has been discredited, but I haven’t seen the actual analysis. Can anyone point me to any?

    • Robert Wilson

      See this essay by Vaclav Smil, one of the scientists mentioned above.

      http://secure146.inmotionhosting.com/~vaclav5/wp-content/uploads/docs/smil-article-2005-pdr2005-1.pdf

      • Gary Glass

        Thanks, Robert. The response is more polemic than analysis but once he gets to substance he scores fair points. I can agree the CoR’s model may have serious flaws, I may even agree that the approach is fundamentally misguided. However overshoot is a real thing that happens and it’s far from certain that it is not happening to us right now. The real world has physical constraints. There are probably better ways to think about that than big computer models, but there are better ways than the King James Bible too. Where are the serious discussions happening?

        • JH

          “The real world has physical constraints”

          Yes, it does. Fortunately, they’re not likely to be reached in the near future.

          Take copper, for example. An essential metal for electronics and electricity in general, and a staple metal of modern society. Obtained only from mining. Period.

          The deepest mine on Earth is about 2.5 mi / 4 km deep – a gold mine in South Africa. Compare that with the average thickness of the continental crust: about 40km. So, at this point, even the deepest mine on Earth is only reaching about 10% of the depth of the Earth’s continental crust – and that’s not even counting the much more vast oceanic crust.

          No doubt, although oil and gas prices may spike, most resources are more than sufficiently abundant for the foreseeable future.

          • Nathan Merrill

            Actually, this is a very terribly misleading understanding of mining.

            In reality, almost all of the crust is utterly worthless for mining because of the heat of the Earth; the Kola Borehole found that at a mere 15,000m of depth (less than 10 miles) the temperature was already 180 C; the heat at that depth made further drilling impractical. And that was just drilling out a straight borehole.

            The reality is that the heat of the inside of the earth restricts our ability to dig down into it extremely heavily. Even at a mere 4km of depth, we already run into pretty big issues with mining. Even if you’re using robots, you still have to dissipate the heat somehow, as well as transport the materials back up to the surface.

            We’re past peak oil – we’re in the plateau phase – and peak coal will hit soonish. We’ve got a few hundred years of uranium, depending on usage rates and efficiency (we could have thousands if we’re particularly efficient), but the problem is that you can’t use uranium to fuel trucks – you need some sort of portable, high-energy substance to fuel many vehicles. Cars we might be able to build EVs good enough that it isn’t a huge issue for most things (though there are still some regions where gas-powered vehicles are likely the only practical solution) but larger things are much more difficult to power in this way if they don’t run on tracks.

            It isn’t that we’re doomed – I don’t think that – but we will have inferior resources in some regards in the future (though superior ones in others).

            That being said, the period of exponential growth is over, barring interplanetary colonization and the consideration of said other planets as part of our economy.

          • JH

            “Actually, this is a very terribly misleading understanding of mining.”

            Um, no. Wrong.

            Although the deepest existing mine is 4km, few mines reach even half that depth today. I’ve worked down to 1600m, and even that is extremely deep. Most mines are operating in the upper 1 km of the crust.

            Heat will be a problem as depth increases, but ultimately that problem will be solved. While I grant that we’re unlikely to reach 20km, with most mines currently operating in the upper 1 km, even reaching 10 km provides a massive volume of unexplored crust – and, again, we’re just talking about continental crust here. The oceanic crust has hardly been touched.

            Robotic mining is already occurring in super-hot uranium mines, so the technology is emerging already.

            The current deep mines are mostly gold and platinum mines. In most cases, these are narrow-vein, high-grade mines that require men operating jack-legs to maintain grade. However, as deep mining progresses to lower-grade bulk deposits, robotic operations will take over. Robots won’t require the kind of ventilation that is necessary for people, and they can work at much higher temperatures.

            No doubt, there is still much metal to be extracted from the earth.

          • Nathan Merrill

            Eh, it will only carry you further than you can imagine if you’re a complete moron.

            It will carry considerably less far than many advocates claim as well.

            The reality is that undersea mining is extraordinarily expensive; the reason they’re doing it is because of extremely high prices for certain precious metals. It isn’t that it is “economical” in the grand sense, it is that the prices have surged to the point where it is possible to mine and make money (assuming enough volume, and that you don’t spend anything on keeping the environment uncontaiminated, as the mining companies are hoping to avoid actually having to pay the true costs of mining and have the government subsidize the pollution damage they cause with their tailings that they’re just going to dump out onto the sea floor). If they had to actually properly deal with all this stuff, it probably still wouldn’t be economical, though it probably will be at some point – when gold and silver and similar metals are so hideously expensive that even extremely expensive measures are economically viable.

            And this is really what is driving a lot of the “boom” – we’re getting more oil because oil which was previously not worth the money to extract is now worth the money to extract. The same applies to other things.

            The problem is that while this changes what is worth extracting, it doesn’t fix the underlying problem, which is that the materials in question are continuing to increase in price much faster than inflation. In other words, it doesn’t actually fix the problem of scarcity of resources – if it costs $200 to extract a barrel of oil in 2050, it will still be worth pulling up, but how many people can afford to fuel their cars on $200/barrel oil? $300/barrel? There’s a point at which various uses of the products simply are no longer economically feasible.

            The problem has nothing to do with absolute scarcity, but rather cost of extraction. There’s gold and uranium literally everywhere in the environment.

            As far as robotic mining go, it is going to be a huge thing in the future, but ventilation is still a major concern for robots because of heat dissipation issues; rather than being about air quality (though that will still be an issue in any mine where humans need to enter, or where air quality is important for other reasons, such as coal mines) it is about heat. Robots generate considerable heat while operating, and stuff like drilling creates enormous amounts of heat and requires something to be transported to cool it down. At 100C, water, the most common coolant, boils if it isn’t pressurized, and even before that point its heat absorbing properties are diminished. Indeed, robots can’t really operate under extreme temperature conditions nearly as well as is commonly believed; sure, numerous metals are good up to a few hundred degrees centigrade, but robots are by their very nature full of moving parts. What are you using for lubrication that remains stable and useful at these temperatures? How cool can you keep the insides of the robot where the all-important processors are which are controlling the thing? These are major limiting factors, above and beyond the point at which steel begins to get too hot and lose its strength, though that, too, is important when you’re talking about drill bits and such.

            Technology isn’t magic. We might be able to deal with all of these problems, but the question is, at what price? If you gave me an unlimited amount of money, I could build you a robot that could operate down at the bottom of the deepest shaft ever drilled, but what sort of future is even going to allow gold to cost enough that the ROI is worthwhile?

            There are limits and there are limits. I would bet that, if we were sufficiently motivated, we could drill down past the edge of the crust into the mantle if we were willing to spend the money on it. I doubt that it would be even remotely worthwhile for anything other than scientific purposes, though.

          • JH

            “Technology isn’t magic

            No, but it’s been improving steadily for at least 10,000 years. I think that’s a pretty solid trend.

            “It isn’t that it is “economical” in the grand sense, it is that the prices have surged to the point where it is possible to mine and make money”

            Prices for commodities are always at the lowest point where “it’s possible to make money” – give or take the occasional glut or supply squeeze. The idea that we’ve passed some golden age in which commodities were extracted for nothing and sold for exorbitant prices is a myth.

            Today prices for all common base metals (Cu, Zn, Ni, Pb, Fe) in real $ terms are roughly on their historical averages and well below their historical peaks. None have a long term trend of rising prices, but Zn, Al, and Pb have a long-term trend of falling prices.

            2006-2011 price spikes in all metals were driven by short-term supply squeezes, and all have fallen dramatically since 2011. Much of the demand growth was driven by outlandish borrowing in China.

            “assuming…you don’t spend anything on keeping the environment uncontaiminated”

            Mining companies spend extensively on environmental protection and remediation in the developed world. No doubt, spending is less in developing nations, but there are still massive financial risks in leaving behind an environmental mess.

    • Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

      I’ve seen analysis stating that we’re actually following the paths that were in the model rather well: http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/limits/csiro_2008.pdf

      The opposite view, that it’s all been discredited, seems based on the fact that we are still here…

  • Viva La Evolucion

    I don’t believe that inequality and unsustainable use of resources necessarily go hand in hand. For instance, the current trend in food production (using huge amounts of land and water resources to grow corn and soy to feed to cows/pigs/chickens, which are then used as human food) is not in my opinion a long term sustainable method of food production, but I don’t necessarily blame this inefficient and unsustainable use of resources on the 1%. I would say there are many factors that contribute to our unsustainable use of resources, the biggest being that the general public does not recognize unsustainable use of resource problems or care enough about them until it becomes noticeable in their everyday lives. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that some sort of collapse will happen eventually if population growth continues along with unsustainable use of resources.

    • Nathan Merrill

      It is actually quite sustainable. People don’t like it, and therefore call it unsustainable, but in reality, it is much more sustainable than older, worse farming practices. It creates more concentrated pollution but uses less land.

      The reality is that people don’t want to believe that our farming practices are sustainable because they have idealogical problems. You know what IS unsustainable? Organic farming. It is known to be unsustainable. Going with GMOs and machine farming is the way of the future.

      • Viva La Evolucion

        My point is that the resource intensive method of growing corn and soy to feed to livestock is a very inefficient method of producing food, which requires a lot of water and land that could be put to better use to produce food more efficiently. I do agree with you that GMOs and high tech mechanical farming methods are the ways of the future. I would also add modern greenhouses, aquaponics, vertical farming, soil steaming, terra preta, and cover crops to that list. I’m sure we both agree that a 100 acre aquaponic farm producing fruits, veggies, grains, and fish has potential of producing a lot more food, more efficiently than a 100 acre corn/soy farm/cattle ranch, while at the same time using a lot less resources like water and fertilizer. I believe that many of our our current farming methods, which result in overuse of water, herbicides, and fertilizer runoff, will not turn out to be sustainable in the long term. In regards to GMOs, I do think GMOs have a lot of potential in the future for things like drought tolerance, less insecticide/fungicide use, and increased nutrition. But, GMOs like Roundup Ready, and other herbicide tolerant crops result in continued use of herbicides, and thus weeds evolving resistance to these herbicides, and therefore require us to constantly make new herbicides and herbicide resistant GMOs every few years, which has potential for environmental damage, and is not the best approach to weed control in my opinion. I do agree that there are many organic farming methods that are unsustainable. But, there are some methods of organic weed control that are quite sustainable like soil steaming, cover crops, and mechanical weeding, which I believe are superior to herbicide tolerant GMOs.

        • Nathan Merrill

          Vertical farming is actually useless as a technology for producing crops; the problem is that the main cost of farming has nothing to do with transportation, it has to do with the actual cost of farming. As vertical farming is inherently more expensive due to higher concentration, artificial lighting, pumping of water and other things to elevation, construction of the building, ect. it will simply never be useful for growing crops en masse; horizontal farming is considerably more efficient from an energy and economic perspective, and is less polluting to boot. Greenhouses, too, pollute more than horizontal farming, though they do use less land, which is a benefit. Tera preta is just a form of fertilizer, and there’s no reason to believe it is any more efficient than any other – and actually a great deal of reason to suspect it may well be less so, though the present suggestions are to mostly use waste products in producing it.

          It should be noted, however, that many fruits and vegetables themselves are not very water efficient at all; while people often believe that plants are inherently less “thirsty” than animals are, in reality it is much more complicated than that as different animals and plants have vastly different levels of efficiency. Corn, for instance, is much thirstier than wheat is, while soy is thirstier still, and there are cereal crops more water efficient than wheat is. If you think about it, this makes sense; consider the volume of an apple tree relative to the volume of wheat, and consider what percentage of the volume of an apple is water compared to a similar amount of wheat, though on the upside, the apple tree doesn’t have to regrow all of itself every year – though it does regrow its leaves every year. Things where we consume the whole plant, or the great bulk of the plant volume, are inherently much more efficient than fruits are. I’ve seen estimates that put potatoes as more water efficient than wheat, but apples as being considerably less water efficient than either. Indeed, some plant derived products – coco beans and coffee beans in particular – are less water efficient than almost any sort of meat is, including beef.

          It also depends on where you grow the food on how much water is required (as transporting water incurs losses as well, as does the natural dryness/humidity of the climate), as well as who you trust on how much water various food sources require – for instance, the 1kg of beef estimate varies from 5,000 to 20,000 liters of water; the 1kg of wheat estimate from 500 to 4,000. Those are enormous ranges of variation. It is certain that beef, with its feed ratio of about 5:1, is less efficient than poultry, which is 2:1, and from what I can find, it is believed that poultry are less efficient than apples… but actually fish are less efficient than poultry (3:1 for some species, the same as pigs, and obviously they require a considerable amount of water as well; some varieties of fish are much, much worse. The advantage of fish, in principle, is that they can be farmed offshore, and thus we can cheat on the water requirements as ocean water is mostly unusable for crops, but how efficient it is in terms of overall efficiency is actually quite questionable).

          As far as herbicides and pesticides go: every single form of farming requires the use of herbicides and pesticides in various ways. Indeed, all plants innately produce various pesticides, though they tend to be quite weak in general (though there are exceptions; caffeine most notably. Yes, that’s right, caffeine is a natural pesticide – and a pretty good one at that). That’s why GMed corn with bt toxin is such a neat idea – not only do you not spray the toxin into the environment (thus preventing bykill of things like spiders and bees and anything else that you don’t care about – only things which eat the plants die) but it also reduces costs. Yeah, it is going to cause resistance in pest populations long term, assuming you don’t follow proper practices (basically, ensuring that you kill everything periodically, thus preventing a stable local population from existing) but that’s inevitable with any tactic we choose.

          Immunity to herbicides, likewise, is very useful because it allows for less use of herbicide and higher yields – roundup ready soy has twice the yield of non-roundup ready soy, which is why it has completely eaten the soybean market. Plants which are less sensitive to competition benefit more from other things, but in reality, herbicide and pesticide usage is going to continue forever to get rid of various unwanted pests.

          There are other issues to consider as well. There is more than a little suspicion that a vegetarian and vegan diet is actively harmful to children, and it is known that vegetarian and vegan diets are inherently missing at least one essential nutrient, and often lack several more. Thus having animals in our diet is not a bad thing; we did evolve to eat them, after all.

          I will note that perfect efficiency isn’t actually inherently desirable in the first place; there are reasons that people enjoy eating beef so much. It is okay for people to eat a variety of foods, and indeed, desirable to have a varied diet.

          • Viva La Evolucion

            Yes, after thinking about it more I think I agree with you that large scale vertical farming will probably not be the way of the future, at least not in the next 100 years. I still think greenhouses have a lot of potential though. I agree that some forms of insecticide or fungicide, be them organic or not, are needed to grow most crops, and I like the GMO Bt corn, and other GM crops that result in less insecticide and fungicide usage. But, I strongly disagree with you that herbicides are needed to grow crops. For instance, growing hydroponically does not require herbicides at all. By the way, I like the idea of genetically modifying and/or selectively breeding fruit trees to smaller size so they can be grown in hydroponic/aquaponic system, which uses less water than growing in soil. I also like idea of modifying fruit trees to have bigger fruit that does not spoil for long time after harvest. I noticed you left out mention of aquaponics, which is system that grows plants hydroponically, and produces fish in a closed loop system. The plants’ roots filter out the fish poop, and fish poop with beneficial bacteria in water act as fertilizer for the plants. I believe it is this combination that makes it more efficient than poultry. Please let me know if you are able to find any efficiency numbers on aquaponics? In regards to cows, I believe they should be grass-fed or pasture raised becuase grass-fed beef and milk is more nutritious than soy or corn-fed (has more omega 3 and vitamin k2). That’s probably why Neil Degrass Tyson drinks grass fed pasture raised organic milk. https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/270191112109568000

  • JH

    Most excellent coverage, Keith. Applause.

    Marcelo Gleisman at NPR’s 13.7 blog wrote a rather supportive post on the paper. I haven’t read the paper but I can hardly give any credence to a paper that uses mathematical modelling to predict social collapse. It’s laughable.

    The “Fall of the Roman Empire” leads the discussion at NPR too, nothwithstanding the fact that, as you point out, like most empires, it never fell, but morphed into something else. But, alas, for most forms fo prophecy, facts have little relevance.

  • Kuze81

    Weekly Recap:
    Guardian: NASA funded study says we’re all gonna die in dystopian Mad Max hell hole

    “Frightening! A Must-Read!”

    Five Thirty Eight: No climate trend in disaster losses
    “BOOOOOOO!!! ROGER IS A WITCH!!! BURN HIM!!”

  • Steve Bene

    Societies do collapse, some rise up from their ashes, others not. How is empirical data gathered from the ashes of past societies? Comparisons may be difficult to make on this basis, and it is always risky to predict future events.
    This brings to mind Nineveh. Societal change is possible but each generation must choose to embrace for itself values that will allow it to flourish for itself and into the next generation.
    ………………………
    Wouldn’t it be possible to create a mathematical model with predictive capabilities based on conflicts that have occurred during the last 200 years? Wouldn’t there be sufficient empirical data? Imagine if Putine’s and Obama’s actions/inaction could be predicted mathematically with only 80%* reliability.
    *Some room must be allowed for free-will or providential intervention.

  • mtobis
    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      There are numerous inaccuracies in Michael’s post, such as this:

      “They’re both wrong in trying to defend the study as valid or invalid.”

      Where do I defend the study as invalid? I only pass judgement on the merits of Ahmed’s journalism.

      As for the merits of the study, perhaps you should take issue with the critiques leveled against it by the independent experts I contacted in the second part of my post:

      http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/collideascape/2014/03/21/judging-merits-media-hyped-collapse-study/

      Michael also writes:
      “Kloor is out of line trying to dismiss it as garbage.”

      Presumably he is referring to the study. Again, where do I dismiss the study? Personally, I’m not qualified to judge its merits. So I contacted experts I know that were qualified–specifically several of them who I knew also had a deep understanding of the complex causes of prehistoric societal collapse or cultural reorganization, or however you want to phrase it.

      I would welcome Michael–or anyone else, for that matter–to engage with the critique made by Joseph Tainter. On the matters at hand, you won’t find a more qualified person than him.

      • JH

        I’ll step up to the plate: The study’s predictions are invalid. Useless. Irrelevant. Its equations have no demonstrated relevance in the real world. And I can say all of that without reading the paper, the abstract, or even the title.

        Major economic or social changes aren’t mathematically predictable. There is no formula that can forsee them. From the emergence of OPEC, the rise of the PC, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of shale oil, the Arab Spring and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, every major economic and social event of the past half-century was an utter and shocking surprise.

        Some things, like the average age of a given population 10 or 20 or 30 years hence, are predictable. Others, like revolutions, major economic upheavals and major technological advances, aren’t.

        We need not have scientific training to understand this: it’s intuitively obvious.

  • Tom Scharf

    Let me be just one of the few people who will thank you for making some effort here. I am going to go way out on a limb here and guess the authors of this paper’s political views align with OWS.

    I ask myself, why even bother? This kind of crap makes the cycles continuously, and as long as the media keeps printing it, the social activists will keep churning it out. The discrediting of this work will never be mentioned by anyone who printed the puff pieces.

    I think you are upset because science “journalism” is willingly getting played here with a wink and a nod. You would be right.

    Any fear that just because the media printed it, it will be taken seriously, is doubtful. Those who pander to this kind of stuff get the reputation they deserve, and Guardian does have a rep.

    The world will collapse unless we redistribute wealth! We proved it with computers, so it must be right, because computers aren’t biased. Yawn.

    I really feel sorry for serious scientists. When this kind of lazy simplistic thinly veiled politically biased work gets a global audience, and hard honest science never gets a mention, you worry about the future of science.

  • Tom Scharf

    “Things get worse when he essentially libels Keith Kloor by claiming that he is a closet climate change denier. ”

    Ha ha, had to laugh at that one…

    http://carboncounter.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/i-do-not-understand-what-i-am-talking-about/

  • Boskote

    An interesting counterpoint, but one that should be read critically. It is based on the counter-opinions of two anthropologists, one who mentions that “humanity seems to be better off in general today than ever before” and another professor who says in his critique that “I have no doubt that many empires fell as others rose. Now the average man lives better than the ancient emperor.” Sounds like they have pretty significant political/intellectual commitments to the idea that things are going pretty well in the world right now, which in my eyes doesn’t lend much credibility to their opinions on these questions.

    • space chikun

      dude. the paper was written by physicists.. think about it for a moment. that’s like asking a train conductor to perform brain surgery.

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      An intellectual commitment…. otherwise known as a position? The average man today, at least in first world countries, does live better than many ancient kings by any objective measure of consumption. Knowledge and resources are more available than ever, and the availability of industrial goods as well as modern medicine is an insurmountable hurdle.

      Bet those ancient kings would have loved an SUV, suntan lotion, and Panama City.

  • NameNotGiven

    It is just as easy to show that societies collapse during periods of increased equality.

    And most collapse is caused by warfare or immigration. Certainly the Roman empire’s extension to the Rhine and Dunube exposed them to both.

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      The Roman Empire also had rampant inequity both economically and in terms of political influence. I think the paper is complete bunk, so I’m not disagreeing with your conclusion.

  • Scott Locklin

    Good on you for discovering some of this clown car of impostures and shaggy dog tales. You failed to notice, however, that the Ahmed character who caused this mess is actually a famous 911 truther. If you can deal with some differential equations, a more extensive rip on this model and the reporting that came with it was done here:
    http://scottlocklin.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/bad-models-and-the-end-of-you/

    • mem_somerville

      Well that wasn’t how I expected to start my Sunday, but it was hilarious.

  • Tom Scharf

    Brigg’s humorous takedown of this model

    http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=11927

    “HANDY has no applicability to human cultural change. But it’s a matter of interest to see who is most anxious to believe the model”

    • mem_somerville

      “This would be like the wolves discovering how to make and store venison jerky.”

      I haven’t laughed this much since this morning’s piece by Locklin. I’m surprised how funny stats nerds are in the wild.

  • Stu

    There are more equations underlying the rules of a typical SimCity type game, with more relevance to the dynamics of the modern world than offered here…

    SimCity as model of the future-

    “UFO’s, Tornado’s, Zombies and a Giant Lizard to wipe out Civilisation Sooner than you may think”.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11uKa9vsknc

    Dr Nafeez Ahmed, get your pen out dude

  • Tom

    Ausubel and Marchetti contend that the duration of human empires is driven by an underlying equation of logistic growth implying that automatic processes such as the time it takes to traverse the empire (two weeks) determines its size.

    http://phe.rockefeller.edu/docs/empires_booklet.pdf

  • mtobis

    What a sad lost opportunity to discuss the role of mathematics in social science. The model is what it is; to assign predictive skill to it is absurd. But that is not the purpose of this sort of model.

    A graduate student is trying earnestly to link mathematics to social questions. This is commendable. He has attracted the attention of Eugenia Kalnay. This is enviable.

    And rather than taking it for what it is, people are taking sides, and arguing about a triviality (how involved was NASA, and should Mosharrei’s paper have thanked them or not?) While Nafeez’s overblown claims for the paper do us no service, Keith’s stoking the territory-defending impulses of the obvious suspects (and here I would best acknowledge a great pre-existing respect for Dr Smil) hardly improve the situation.

    The question is what a simple model like this is for. To answer that brings us to a potentially very fruitful discussion of the Club of Rome and the question of how well we really understand the interfaces between society, economics, and the physical and biological environment.

    Instead we are taking sides. It’s not an unprecedented disaster. And once again, it’s the press visiting an unnecessary and unnatural polarization upon us.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      “Keith’s stoking the territory-defending impulses of the obvious suspects (and here I would best acknowledge a great pre-existing respect for Dr Smil) hardly improve the situation.”

      This is perplexing. All I did in this particular post was seek out independent opinion of the study–something Ahmed neglected to do in the article of his that went viral.

      What I did was called journalism. I’m sorry if you don’t find that helpful.

      Oh, and you still haven’t engage with the critiques of the model. Again, I would suggest you engage with Tainter’s extended remarks.

      • mtobis

        I agree with the critics that the handwaving about collapse in the abstract, preamble and summary were a bit overblown, but their criticisms seem overblown to me in the same way. In the end, this is a plausibility exercise and it’s mostly a modest experiment in systems dynamics with a plausible connection to the human condition. It is neither as strong as it claims nor as weak as Tainter and Sagoff imply.

        Whether the model does or doesn’t have the claimed implications is indeed what we should be discussing. It’s unreasonable to expect the debate to be carried by a student. We shouldn’t, on the other hand, make a pariah of the fellow for making the attempt. Trying to understand the situation is, in fact, the right thing to do.

        I see no more substance to the critiques you quote than to the original claims.

        Let’s agree, though, to the following: “In modeling, once one has established one’s assumptions and parameters, it is a simple matter to program the mathematics that will give the outcome one wants or expects. For this reason, models must be critically evaluated. ”

        There’s been woefully little critical evaluation here, and plenty of posturing.

        It is a reasonable question – whether and how the spectacular concentration of wealth that has snuck up on us these past decades affects our prognosis. That it’s possible to construct a model whereby the results are deleterious is indeed unsurprising, but the effort is nevertheless worth doing. Now that we have a model, it’s time to criticize the details, not to snark about the credentials of the modeler.

        The idea that “Limits to Growth” has been refuted is ideological posturing. Models in that tradition have their place, and in fact they are right at the interface between academic discourse and public discourse. The press’s job should be neither worship nor iconoclasm. Rather its is to engage with the details, to explain the purposes and limitations of this sort of model, and to elucidate the phenomenology of the simulation in plain language.

        • Tom C

          Bravo for defending Limits to Growth! That computer model had 40! – count em – 40! inputs. Among the outputs was the prediction that the British Isles would be un-inhabited by 2020. Yes, Michael – thanks for defending Limits to Growth! It has been unfairly maligned.

          • mtobis

            “British Isles would be un-inhabited by 2020″??

            It happens that I am just rereading Limits to Growth now, and I haven’t seen anything of the sort. Indeed the Club of Rome model aggregates the whole planet, so this would be a very odd conclusion. (Also, the collapse in the various scenarios picks up steam around 2050.)

            Could you provide chapter and verse? Otherwise, I’m afraid that I have to very seriously doubt what you say about it.

          • Tom Scharf

            You should really like the new movie Noah. It’s just like your envisioned global warming catastrophe. It has a mighty conquering elite hero (you could pretend you are Noah), and poor misguided plebes who won’t listen to the sermons about the danger of near term rising sea levels.

            I won’t let you in on what happens, but I have it on authority from people who should know that it is accurate. Enjoy.

          • Tom C

            Well Michael – I was paraphrasing from memory and frankly, not too concerned with the details. I try not to memorize nonsense. But here is the exact quote:

            “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” Paul Ehrlich, Speech at British Institute For Biology, September 1971.

            Your refusal to try to understand economics is really puzzling. In other areas you seem like an intelligent and decent guy. Look, people who study and understand issues of scarcity are called economists. Not physicists, not entymologists… economists. Listen to what they say.

          • mtobis

            Even assuming your quote is correct and not missing important context it has exactly nothing to do with the Club of Rome.

        • JH

          Has it occurred to anyone that the much maligned “spectacular concentration of wealth” might be a symptom of social success rather than a symptom of social failure?

          Along those lines, while this “concentration of wealth” is much discussed, every other economic measure – health, income, and buying power – has improved dramatically in the last 50, 20 and even 10 years for the larger share of the world’s population. The “concentration of wealth” is mostly an American phenomenon, bothered about often here by the leftish literati, but not of much concern in, say, China or India.

    • Tom Scharf

      This is clearly shooting the messenger.

      The authors have been free to disassociate themselves from Ahmed previously, and now. Silence. One can only assume they approve of this behavior.

      There are far too many in science that favor media exposure over integrity. This is a classic example.

    • JH

      Three Points:

      ONE: If the project is a tiny first baby step in generating mathematical model of how society works, why the press release to a blogger inclined to hype the results?

      TWO: if you’re going to try to model the long-term outcome of society, doesn’t it make sense to be successful at something smaller first? :) That’s traditionally the way people build successful models.

      THREE: If you can’t model markets, you can’t model society. And make no mistake, there have been numerous concerted efforts to model markets. So I’m not sure you can call this a “first step”.

      I’m down with experimental modelling. By all means, experiment. But if that’s what you’re doing, don’t pre-release the probably dubious results to hype artists and claim they have anything to do with reality.

  • Kane

    Hunt and Lipo elicit Rousseau’s ‘state of nature’ when they affirm the validity of the noble savage myth. In their fanciful Eden Island, the indigenous population utilizes judicious rationality to impede environmental degradation with the implementation of sustainable farming practices. Hunt and Lipo have a clear case of cognitive dissonance. They hold that Easter Island was overrun by palm nut eating rodents accidentally brought over by the Rapanui, while also concluding from their “archaeological survey” (of the local pub) that the complete annihilation of Easter Island’s vegetation did not negatively impact the Rapanui’s population (1). Hunt and Lipo’s incompetence may engender the next generation of anarcho-primitivist neophytes—Makemake save us!

    The view held by Hunt and Lipo surmising that the Rapanui were ingenious scientific and social engineers who initiated birth control polices, implemented sustainable agriculture, and lived in a peaceful utopian society, is pure fantasy. Cannibalism was once a common practice amongst Polynesians (2). The Papuans and Māori even consumed rivals in times of plenty, yet man eating was totally incongruent to the Rapanui culture? What mechanism apportioned the Rapanui with such moral superiority? Furthermore, violence and myopia have been staples of human thought for millennia—why is it so difficult for Hunt and Lipo to imagine humans behaving like humans? Perhaps we could examine the pervasive references to warfare and brutality found in the Rapanui’s own oral history for evidence of pre-Columbian violence (3). Nope! Hunt and Lipo feel the oral accounts are “untrustworthy.” Well then, the unearthing of numerous spears, armor, swords, and arrow heads carved from obsidian rock will surely convince them. No way! Hunt and Lipo reassure themselves that the excavated items are “agricultural tools.” Agricultural tools!? Even modern Rapanui think Hunt and Lipo’s desiccate hypothesis is a joke (1).

    Works Cited

    1. If They Could Only Talk

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/easter-island/bloch-text

    2. Cannibalism in Polynesia

    http://www.heretical.com/cannibal/polynesi.html

    3. Violence in the Rapanui’s oral history

    http://hilo.hawaii.edu/academics/hohonu/documents/Vol09x02TePitooTeHenua.pdf

  • J M

    I can understand somebody reading Marcus Aurelius or some other classic and find that human nature is still very much the same as 2000 years ago.
    However, as Robert Wilson pointed out, it is quite useless to look at the Roman Empire, Aztecs etc. and hope to see the future.
    Another point is that we have in fact seen collapses of systems and empires in our time. The Soviet Union comes to mind. Faced with the same challenge, the Chinese managed a transition from a failed system to a successful one peacefully in 30 years.
    Even warfare does not have the same ability to destroy countries and civilizations as before. Japan and Germany were bombed flat but rose from the ashes in 30 years to become leading industrial nations.
    Thanks to science and technology, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse have dismounted in the most parts of this planet.

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      Much of the reason that Germany and Japan came back from the brink is that the winners didn’t embark on a campaign of enslavement, eradication, and integration. In fact, if the US hadn’t completed the bombs before the end of the war, there is a very real possibility that Japan would be a part of the US today.

      • J M

        Operation Coronet would have been bloody.

        But, whatever the course of events, Japan would not have suffered the fate of Carthage.

  • J. M. Korhonen

    Even newer research uses a COMPUTER MODEL (and equations!) to prove that societies collapse not because of inequality, but because of their insufficient support for PhD students:

    http://jmkorhonen.net/2014/03/24/modeling-societal-collapse-as-a-result-of-stingy-support-for-phd-students/

    Must be true!

    Aside: many thanks to Mr. Kloor – best journalistic take on this story I’ve seen so far.

  • Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

    “Nobody learns anything or bothers to try.” is the note on which I’d also be ending, but it applies equally to the view that we will predict collapse by computer models as to the opposite view that there will be no collapse because there hasn’t been one so far.

    “Their views, repeated in this [Guardian] article and study, have been completely discredited.” … Uhm, no. We clearly are facing ecological boundaries that threaten (or perhaps one should say threaten to threaten…) human existence and, certainly, industrial civilization.

    Predictions of imminent collapse and mathematical certainty about it, however, are proving quite worthless, yes. Predictions of a glorious future for humanity simply because we haven’t collapsed yet and are creative are at least as worthless, though.

    All that is just the continuation of the attention-grabbing game that has been going on at least since the 1960s, with the Cassandras vs. the Cornucopians, with the focus on hard ecological limits (which aren’t hard like that but rather more complicated) vs. creative human intelligence (which isn’t bad at all, but also has its limits, not least in understanding human-ecological systems).

    Now, how about we use some of that creativity and intelligence – let alone all that energy going into quarrels over just who’s right in their respective predictions that are merrily mixing facts and research with ideology and world view – and get to actually working on making lives better and ecosystems more resilient, on urban areas utilizing more ecosystem functions, on agriculture being less resource-intensive and more resilient as well as healthy, on technology following cradle-to-cradle principles, on consumerism abating where it’s hurting us or being based on a production system in which wastefulness doesn’t matter (hey, nature’s wasteful) – you name it. Lots to do.

    • Thomas Fuller

      I don’t think anyone will deny that there are resource constraints that set hard limits on what this planet will provide and can support.

      However, it is a legitimate question to ask if we are approaching those limits in any area. My own perception is that we are not. Human population looks set to peak at 9.1 billion, although pessimists say the peak will be 10 billion. But not even pessimists say it will be 15 billion,the figure used by Nicholas Stern in his damage assessment a few years back.

      We already grow enough food to feed 10 billion people–we just can’t get it onto their tables before half of it rots. We have enough water for 10 billion people–we just have to be as good as the Romans at getting it to where it’s needed.

      We could build half a dozen breeder reactors and have them supply a fleet of nuclear power plants that would power a world of 10 billion (and eventually we will, led by France’s example and China’s industriousness).

      As for the environment, in developed countries it’s improving and this will happen in developing countries as soon as they can afford it. As humans aggregate in cities instead of being dispersed in the fields, our impact on the planet lessens.

      The oceans–they are a tragedy in the making and eventually the fish we eat will all be farmed. But they are big and can sustain the damage we are inflicting.

      By every measure, the condition of humanity is improving. We are living longer, living healthier lives and fewer of us are poor and malnourished. The top 10 causes of death are the diseases that afflict the old. 100 years ago they were the conditions that afflict the young, their mothers and those living in cities.

      Did Toynbee write his works for nothing?

      • Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

        Well, as an ecologist, I know enough of the studies about softer limits according to which we are drawing down our “capital” rather than “interest/surplus” in order to make lives better. Meaning, we can’t go on like this. The tragedy of the oceans, for example, would mean that we cannot farm fish, and would have impacts beyond the oceans.

        But there’s where things are still on the merry-go-round-of-knives: Such a warning/doubt would typically be taken as (and all too often, would be) a call only to give up things, sacrifice, forfeit technology. The hopeful/positive perspective, on the other hand, is often taken to say that we just need to go on as we have been and everything will be all dandy.

        What we need is a step up from these “circular firing squads,” as a friend just called such processes in a related context, to an understanding – and practice – of making lives, and ways of living, better. Better in terms of their impact on and “fit” into the world, and better for us.

        How can we change things so that they keep improving for us humans as well as for the world at large? Ultimately, after all, it only works in tandem, not if we only look at human lives, nor if we only look at nature/the environment…

        • Thomas Fuller

          Hi Gerald,

          Current rates of change are not dizzyingly fast enough? ;)

          Things are changing and they keep improving for humans, despite our grumbling… driverless cars and UAVs… Google Glass and GMOs.

          The issue is what’s good for the world at large. I submit that as humanity gets rich and citified, that is what will be best for the world. And I further submit that the worst thing that could happen would be for us to abandon technological innovation and experimentation right at the time when our numbers are growing and developing societies need growth most (if only to save politicians’ skins).

          If this is a marathon, I’m saying don’t quit when you hit the wall.

    • Paul Shipley

      Nobody learns anything or bothers to try.

    • JH

      “Now, how about we use some of that creativity and intelligence and get to actually working on making lives
      better and ecosystems more resilient”

      I think we’re doing that with stunning success.

      LIVES BETTER: Life expectancy has risen steadily worldwide over the last 1/2 century, especially in Dev Nations. So has income.

      ECOSYSTEMS: From ESA to the EPA, in the west, at least, we’ve dramatically changed the trajectory of our impact on the world around us in the last 50 years. It would be hard to overstate the progress that has been made.

      The danger facing us now is this: will we kill the golden goose that drives our progress by putting too many environmental constraints on the market?

  • abinico

    Girls gotta keep their panties on; boys gotta keep their shorts on – get it?

  • Matt L

    I don’t understand how the Ehrlich crowd manage to evade criticism for their continual movement of the goalposts. Like eschatological mystics of the 19th Century, they hammer together their models, declare a date of doom and then quietly retreat when the day comes and goes unnoticed, only to re-emerge in the following decade with their amended prediction.

  • Ronanfitz

    This all might be correct, and I don’t doubt it. But Mark Sagoff’s claim

    ” But what destroys improves.”

    is ludicrous and should lead one to dismiss everything else he has to say.

    • http://henrymiller.me/ Henry Miller

      Nietzsche made pretty much the same observation, and I’ve never seen anything that refutes it.

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      You deny the general upwards trend in standard of living for ascendant civilizations over the course of human history?

      • Ronanfitz

        No, I think the quote exists at a level of such inane generality that it’s pretty much useless.

        What happens during the period of destruction ? The fact that theoretically we might (in the long run) be forever advancing upwards doesnt negate the damage done by the destruction. It doesnt mean that the destruction was neccessary (which is much too deterministic) for advancement. It doesnt even make sense conceptually, conflating concepts like creative destruction (which is commonly thought of in the context of economics – old industries/trades being replaced by new one) with enviornmental degradation. (what would the positives of ‘destroying the enviornment’ be? what creativity could result?)
        It’s just rhtetoric in place of serious thinking or a properly formed argument.

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          Unless he questions the significance of environmental impact in most of these studies. In the same way that bad businesses should be allowed to fail so that the market can generate a more efficient solution, shouldn’t inefficient societies be allowed to fail so that nature (seems like the word is at least close to appropriate in this context) can find a more appropriate solution?

          I suppose in this context you also have to define collapse. Are we limiting this to collapses like Rome where civilization backslid significantly, or are we including the “collapse” of civilizations that were conquered? In the latter case there is generally a direct and immediate replacement that prevents any true collapse even if there is a different cultural legacy.

          • Ronanfitz

            Should nature be allowed to fail ? I dont know what you mean by that.

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            The idea in economics is that poor business models will collapse and be replaced under pressure from better models. Why should we not expect the same from civilizations?

          • Ronanfitz

            It depends what you mean by civilisation and depends what you mean by collapse. Id prefer to see it as an evolutionary process rather than collapse followed by rebirth.
            A collapse on the scale predicted by the paper (ignoring the flaws with it for the moment) no of course not, because that doesnt allow for the gradual advancement of humanity. A collapse that leads to mass suffering ? Why would that have to be neccessary ?

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            Which is why earlier in the thread I pointed out that collapse has to be properly defined for the discussion, which it sounds like has not been accomplished based on the responses to the article.

  • T.j. Thomas

    Rayner apparently has an odd definition of the word “morping”. The Roman Empire didn’t “morph” into the Holy Roman Empire. The old order was overthrown, new populations moved in, and eventually centuries later the HRE arose – and it wasn’t actually Roman. Similarly, the Byzantine Empire didn’t “morph” into the Ottoman Empire, it too was overthrown and a new and in this case radically different population moved in.

  • johnwerneken

    Once again, priorities amongst values, which of the two value sets one holds, and individual and group identity, together with individual and group material and status interests, drive ALL public comment. Facts don’t matter, except to the winners of THAT argument when they attempt to do what they won the power to try.

  • Robert Kelley

    Yep, nothing to see here, folks. We can go on living as we have been living without a care. Corporate shill.

  • http://henrymiller.me/ Henry Miller

    “Models depend on the assumptions that go into them.”

    “In modeling, once one has established one’s assumptions and parameters, it is a simple matter to program the mathematics that will give the outcome one wants or expects.”

    As in the “climate change” models, for example.

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      At least the climate change models have underlying physics that can be used to test the veracity or plausibility of many assumptions. The system is complex beyond our understanding which hampers the models, but at least there is a fundamentally sound background that underlies it all.

      The models they used are trying to use the evidence of preindustrial collapse to create a model of industrial collapse. It makes as much sense as studying hunter/gatherers and using that to predict the course of the early Roman Empire.

      Fact of the matter is that the industrial revolution was every bit as significant as the agricultural revolution. You can’t form a sound model for one side of the chasm based on evidence from the other side.

      • http://henrymiller.me/ Henry Miller

        In short, history doesn’t repeat itself. At best, there may be superficial similarities with brief durations of sequences of past events, but even that says nothing about the antecedents and causes of those events. Santayana notwithstanding, learning aside, no one is going to repeat history, at least not in detail.

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          History can reveal human motivation. For all the things that change (education, affluence, style of government, environmental pressures, external threats, and technology level), people basically still have the same underlying motivations they did a couple thousand years ago.

          For example, the revolutions of 1848 seem important case studies in what happens when “the masses” become disaffected with a system that is not run by or for them. Heck, China today is very definitely engaging in national mercantilism. Looking back at appeasement prior to WW1 provides insights into the general considerations in the current Crimea situation. Heck, our most recent financial collapse had flashing warning signs that were eerily similar to the economic situation prior to the Great Depression.

          Point being that history does repeat itself at least in the most general terms.

          Perhaps the study misses on the point that governments can peddle two things: hope and fear. When people are sufficiently fearful they will lose their standard of living or sufficiently hopeful for something better, there is stability. As soon as people have nothing to fear losing or no hope of improvement, there is a paradigm shift.

          • http://henrymiller.me/ Henry Miller

            And re your last sentence, I doubt there’s ever been a society so poor that it can’t lose more, or one so rich that it can’t be improved. Or, least, there will always be those who will try to convince the masses that they can avert the former or achieve the latter only if they follow him.

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            At some point you have little enough that losing it isn’t a threat. And the hope part of the equation wasn’t referring to general affluence but rather (the appearance of) upwards mobility.

          • JH

            I think your point about upward mobility is the key.

            The paper Keith’s piece discusses uses wealth distribution as a factor that drives collapse. I doubt it is so. IME, people don’t care how much the rich have relative to themselves; they care more about whether or not they have any hope of improving their own situation.

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            mmhmm. I look at Napoleon’s government as a prime example of that. He taxed the bejeezes out of the French people to fund his military campaigns, but he also disbanded the old aristocracy and applied a meritocracy in many respects.

  • suibneg

    socialists don’t care about science. Science is a tool for them like any other. It either gives them more power or it is ignored, convoluted, manipulated.

  • valwayne

    Well I’ve always had confidence that the U.S. would survive until we elected Obama. Now I think the freedom of both the world and in our country is under terrible threat because our weak, inept, INCOMPETENT President is killing our economy and national security at the same time that his dictator wannabe tendencies lead him to try and transform our nation, as he promised, into an authoritarian, socialist, basket case. However, I think we will survive and overcome a weak incompetent like Obama so I refuse to think a collapse is anywhere near, but with Obama in the White House? Who knows?

  • Paul Shipley

    Love it. Especially like Mark Sagoff’s comment Nobody learns anything or bothers to try.

  • JPV

    An old saying in the computer world: “Garbage In, Garbage Out” — GIGO. In this case, as was true of the 1970′s “Limits to Growth” models, “Malthus In, Malthus Out.”

    Doomsday prophet Paul Ehrlich (Stanford U.) and economist Julian Simon (U. of Chicago) made a $1000 bet around 1980 regarding the costs of non-renewable minerals over the ensuing decade or three. Ehrlich got to pick a basket of 5 resources. He argued that their inflation-adjusted price would inevitably rise as high-grade ores were depleted; Simon argued that improvements in extractive technologies would push costs down at a faster pace, resulting in lower prices. Result: Simon won, Ehrlich paid off.

    Global oil prices since the 1970′s (at least) have depended far more on politics and taxation than they have on extraction and distribution costs.

  • Glenn Bech

    Hi Keith,

    I just want to know why you chose the word “obscure” for the two articles referenced from the original. These are the references used to describe modern society as a two-class structure.

    http://iopscience.iop.org/1367-2630/12/7/075032/cites http://www.sciencedirect.com/…/pii/S0378437101002989

  • Tony Sanchez

    So the paper is discredited but what was the agenda? Population control? Wealth redistribution? Environmental propaganda? All three?

  • David L. Allison

    We are in the midst of the sixth great extinction in world history. Our F&W office refuses to recognize the threat of climate change on wolverine extinction in the lower 48. Glaciers are melting. Plants are migrating as fast as they can but for many, not fast enough. Birds and bees and butterflies – our pollinators – are dying out as a result of global warming and resultant global climate change. Human activities are making all of this happen.
    Please use your journalistic skills and smoothing rhetoric to assure all of us that this is not a potential signal of a civilization collapse. Maybe you need to do more reading of analytical studies and fewer blogs written by your friends.

  • David L. Allison

    Go ahead, pick any of the pieces of my comment apart as you are wont to do but if you deny the proposition, at least provide some substantiation other than your frequent “tin hat” denigration of opposing comments.

  • http://jult.net/ Julius

    Oh sure Keith. DEAD ZONES in oceans worldwide:
    1975: 1
    2014: 573 (and rising!)
    but noooo, nothing’s wrong with that picture. Hope you realize that 50% of all oxygen you breath has the oceans as its source. Freaking douche.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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