About that Popular Guardian Story on the Collapse of Industrial Civilization

By Keith Kloor | March 21, 2014 10:51 am

The end of the world, like everything worth knowing these days, will be tweeted:

If a study with the imprimatur of a major U.S. government agency thinks civilization may soon be destined to fall apart, I want to know more about that.

Click.

The piece cuts to the chase in the opener:

A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

What follows is a straightforward summary of the paper, which the Guardian writer tells us has been accepted for publication in a peer reviewed journal called Ecological Economics.

I’m going to discuss the actual paper separately in the second part of this post. First, let’s talk about the Guardian write-up, its author, and how his piece went global, the latter of which is a sad commentary on journalism today.

Technically, the story appears on a blog in the environment section of the Guardian. The blog’s host is Nafeez Ahmed, who in his Guardian bio describes himself as “a bestselling author, investigative journalist and international security scholar.”

Since joining the Guardian’s blogging network in 2013, Ahmed has carved out what I would call the doomsday beat. He highlights individuals and academic papers that reinforce the thesis of his 2011 documentary, “The Crisis of Civilization,” which is about

how global crises like ecological disaster, financial meltdown, dwindling oil reserves, terrorism and food shortages are converging symptoms of a single, failed global system.

In a post last year, I briefly mentioned him, saying, “If you want a tour guide to the apocalypse, Ahmed is your guy.” Understandably, he didn’t appreciate this backhanded compliment.

In fairness to him, there is a seemingly never-ending supply of journal papers with apocalyptic themes to choose from.

A good example, of course, is the collapse paper he disingenuously hyped as being “NASA-sponsored.” (You’ll soon understand why that was deceptive.) Evidently, Ahmed  was shown the paper by its authors ahead of publication, which he turned into an article/post with this headline:

Nasa-funded study: Industrial civilization headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?

Ahmed thinks of himself as a journalist, so he writes many of his blog posts in a superficial news story format. He even refers to some of his posts as “exclusives,” which is how he characterized his write-up on the supposedly funded NASA study. Journalistic gloss, however, doesn’t mask fundamental journalistic shortcomings.

In the collapse paper Ahmed wrote about last week, he explains how the authors came to their conclusions, sprinkling in quotes from the paper. But he provides no reaction to the study from independent experts. If he questioned the three co-authors themselves, you wouldn’t know, since they are not quoted in his piece. To Ahmed, getting an exclusive apparently means not having to do any actual reporting.

On twitter, Ahmed was challenged to respond to rebuttals of the study he uncritically accepted. He demurred: “I’m just the reporter- ask the study authors.”

Chew on that for a second.

Ahmed’s summary of the soon-to-be published Ecological Economics paper at his Guardian blog–which he thought of as a big scoop–wouldn’t pass Journalism 101. Nonetheless, it was picked up by many other outlets around the world and became a sensation on social media. He was thrilled:

Naturally, the Daily Mail jumped all over it, as did the New York Post, which headlined its piece, “NASA Predicts the End of Western Civilization.”

Other headlines included: The National Journal: “Here’s How NASA Thinks Society Will Collapse”; The Times of India: “NASA-Funded Study Warns of Collapse of Civilization in Coming Decades”; and Popular Science: “NASA-Sponsored Study Warns of Possible Collapse of Civilization.”

Do you notice anything familiar about those headlines? NASA did and was pretty steamed. It recently issued a statement saying that the collapse paper

was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity. As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions.

So much for the sexy NASA angle that was undoubtedly a big selling point. Not that it matters anymore. The marginal NASA connection was played up and successfully dangled as click bait. Mission Accomplished, Guardian editors and Ahmed.

So what else fell through the cracks on this story? Well, if you bother to read through all the herd-like media coverage of the study, you’ll notice that every piece essentially duplicates what the Guardian published. As far as I can tell, all the other similarly sensationalist articles did was reproduce or restate what appeared in the Guardian. And we know how much reporting went into that big exclusive!

Nobody from these other outlets talked to the study’s authors or solicited opinion from independent experts. Everyone willingly ceded the story to the Guardian. After teasing its readers with a few excerpts, PopSci gushed:

You should really head over to the Guardian for the full story; it’s worth reading.

This was not an isolated sentiment. Many people retweeted the story, including journalists in my twitter feed. There were a couple of skeptical outliers, some folks who know about mathematical models and were incredulous after reading both the study and the Guardian story. One is Robert Wilson, a UK Mathematical Ecology PhD Student who wrote up his impressions at his personal blog. Another is the U.S. science journalist David Appell, who offered his thoughts on the study’s model and (like Wilson) also took note of Ahmed’s conspiracy theorist leanings.

The huge, uncritical pick-up of the Guardian story perturbed me. Why was everyone so quick and seemingly content to parrot a story that contained no actual reporting? After all, it was just a blogger’s interpretive summary of an unpublished journal paper. Why didn’t anyone reach out to the paper’s authors or bother to call a few sources to examine the merits of the study?

So I thought I’d fill that journalistic vacuum myself. In part two of this post, I’ll report what the authors of the paper had to say after I contacted them, and what numerous, highly regarded experts think of their study. This is completed. I’m just proofing the material and breaking it out into a separate post.

Check back in several hours for part two.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: collapse, science journalism, select
  • Paracelsius

    I appreciate the desire to deflate the zeal of collapse-mongers, and your stirring defense of journalistic practice.

    However, given that you are making this a two part piece, and the second part actually promises to look at the paper in question, is this not just an ad hominem attack to discredit Mr Ahmed, with whom you are engaged in a Twitter spat?

    After all, I’ve read the Guardian piece and some of the journal article, and there are enough qualifications to render both reasonable, unless you feel that it is inadmissible to discuss the possibility of collapse in public fora.

    By the way, beginning by stating that “The end of the world, like everything worth knowing these days, will be tweeted” is fun from such an obsessive Twitter user (13,000 tweets!).

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al
    • Reuben Schwartzschild

      Third world overpopulation is thanks to the west though (medicine, aid, industrialization)

  • Kuze81

    Excellent read as usual, Keith. Looking forward to this afternoon’s piece like it’s the season premiere of Game of Thrones!

    And now for my half assed, arm chair psychological analysis.

    “Why was everyone so quick and seemingly content to parrot a story that contained no actual reporting?”

    Short answer: Media has never met an apocalypse story it didn’t like. Sensationalism gets clicks.
    Longer answer: There’s bascially a formula for the appeal of apocalypse stories. The Ahmed piece interfaces perfectly with the intuitive moral mindset of modern liberal-leaning westerners (blaming over consumption, inequality). Unconsciously apocalypse is a *given* it’s just a matter of rationalizing your way back to it as an objective and imminent fact. Throw in the veneer of an august government organization like NASA and voila: a must read tale of our impending demise. Nothing is more riveting than something frightening that proves what we’ve suspected all along. Fear + Told you so = must read.
    Conversely, a conservative apocalypse would follow similar formula but attribute decline to the behaviour that runs contrary to conservative moral psychology (family breakdown, sexual promiscuity, decline of church, etc).

    • makayli verran

      My Uncle Harrison recently got Infiniti Q50 Sedan from only
      workin part time on a home computer… go to this website F­i­s­c­a­l­P­o­s­t­.­ℂ­o­m

  • A Amiri

    This is unfortunate that blind-following is a global trend and it lurks even among the scientist (who should free themselves of prejudices and confirm whatever information they receive!!!).

    Of course, journalists cannot keep their mouths shot; they seem to need attention and are happy with self-aggrandizing (referring to Ahmed’s tweet you quoted!)

    When i read the article in Guardian i just passed over it and now i admit that it is a shame both for a journalist and Guardian as well, to publish something without verifying the truth about it.

    • Mollie Norris

      You’re overlooking important issues in describing scientists as possibly prejudiced blind followers, although I’m sure some are. Climategate emails from East Anglia mention political pressure on scientists to create the illusion of CAGW and the necessity of data manipulation to accomplish this. Many scientists have mentioned politically-oriented journal editing that’s prevented researchers from publishing papers based on science, rather than politically correct distortions. The entire subject of consensus and polls and perception manipulation is anti-science. There’s an enormous amount of money involved in promoting CAGW, and scientists whose research disputes it are censored. They don’t get grants for future research and aren’t hired by universities. Lysenkoism really is an accurate analogy for the current ostracization of scientists who support science rather than the party line, and it’s a very critical issue in the future of the earth and of science.

      Censorship is by far the most important issue. The media grossly distorts the public’s perception of scientists’ opinions about climate issues by representing only the small fraction of scientists who support the government’s position and most likely work for government agencies or receive government funding.

  • mem_somerville

    Ya know, I remember when Mother Jones did a flow chart of “How to Make Your Lie Go Mainstream in 26 Easy Steps”. And a bunch of my amigos on the left thought this was a hoot.

    Well, the same thing happens on the left. It’s just a different issue starting point. And pretty much just replace WSJ with “The Guardian” and we’re good to go.

    • Mollie Norris

      I think all liberal media editors have memorized the 26 steps. Global warming isn’t scary, because it’s not happening – left-wing media is scary because its reporting is restricted to claims of climate change that aren’t happening. Pigoon Rancher, you left out evil, which is the essence of the media disinformation. AGW-benefits a very few who are media owners – who acknowledge that it’s a NWO political creation, and their goal is destroying life on earth. There are plenty of websites showing data alterations by NASA, NOAA, IPCC, and East Anglia CRU, but with Rothschilds owning the Weather Channel, we may have no honest climate data. I think the most important current climate issues are 1) hiding gosat photos showing that most CO2 is released from oceans, sparsely populated vegetated areas, and China, and 2) hiding videos of HAARP radiation that’s being used to destroy the ozone layer and create severe weather events and chemtrails that are poisoning the earth and used to direct typhoons and hurricanes. There’s no need to hide the Club of Rome’s published statements that CO2 was proposed as causing AGW as a means of establishing a fascist, totalitarian global NWO, because they’re statements CAGW-alarmists could correctly attribute to oily bias; they’re inconsistent with the meme.
      I’m wondering if liberals will ever acknowledge that “mainstream” scientists know that CO2 has never been shown to cause global warming.
      This is a link posted in a Guardian climate change article I read today. It was used to support CAGW. What it really says is that atmospheric CO2 concentration is dependent on temperature – CO2 goes up when it’s hot. That’s same same as saying CO2 doesn’t make it hot. The authors say there was positive feed- back from the initial CO2 that caused more warming. Almost all natural systems have negative feedback cycles that keep them stable. CO2 and water vapor concentration is a negative feedback system.

  • Pigoon Rancher

    Thanks for reminding us how utterly worthless the media is… No, actually.. how utterly destructive, and what a monumental time, money, and soul suck it has become.

  • Buddy199

    Evil capitalism kills Mother Earth, verified by rocket scientists!! Apparently this story was too sexy to fact check. On the other hand, how many great stories are deliberately ignored because they make reporters ideologically uncomfortable?

  • Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
    • NameNotGiven

      Doesn’t really address the fact that an equal number of civilizations have collapsed when economic equality is at apex, nor the fact that Rome essentially collapsed several times, including at times of economic equality apex.

  • InSouthChicago

    First, ever since I saw the blog post on the Guardian, I have been looking all over for the study. Thank you for the link. I’m well-versed in mathematical modeling so I can read and critique the study and it’s conclusions myself.

    Second, a quick review of the study indicated that the authors received some NASA funding as opposed to the study being sponsored by NASA. NASA as well as other governmental funding agencies never review or critique studies that they fund through their grants … unless they’re asked to. The money that they supply is to support a free-flow of ideas, data and research findings … as they should.

    Finally, in spite of the way this study has been publicized, it has raised up to people’s level of consciousness the world that we live in … a world with real limits on its available, extractable resources and the consequences of when we exceed those limits. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Furthermore, it might be wise and time to focus on the study instead of the messenger. Now that I have the study … as well as similar studies as well … I’m going to do just that.

  • redgirl77

    Is he trying to be the next Alex Jones or something? Constant fear-mongering grows old with me quick (so does this style of journalism where people never actually fact-check anything). Sadly, other people eat it up and live for the next doomsday headline to pop up in their newsfeed. The idea of critical thinking is lost on those people. :/

  • CharleyX

    Pule-e-e-z-e… Enough with the hockey stick BS. Those ding-dongs in England screwed the pooch for all you propeller heads years ago.

    I don’t believe one damned thing any of you global warming BSers have to say now. Or ever.

  • JH

    Ah, Keith, I do believe the web has created a new age of hype journalism.

    But, I suspect, it’s not for the reasons that most people think. It’s not because the web allows fans of all sorts to reach critical mass. It’s not because the web allows the “common wo/man” to say what s/he thinks to the world. It’s not because the web has worldwide reach, or because it’s a fast way to publish, or because its bringing new people and minds online.

    It’s because of one thing – or, rather, the lack of that thing: profit.

    In the Golden Age of Journalism, local monopolies meant that strong profits were a given. Newspapers and magazines could afford to spend on “quality” work. No longer. The web has destroyed those local monopolies, reduced the number of players, and turned “journalism” into a dogfight for every last penny. Hence, if it will sell, it must be published. Now.

  • Tyler Hess
    • Buddy199

      Kloor’s OK in my book. This blog’s like a family food fight but I’d take him over a hack like Podesta any day.

    • NameNotGiven

      Fact is Ahmed was discredited. And Podesta? What is Podesta’s background other than a political operator and paid flack?

      • This is the Zodiac Speaking

        Exactly, not sure why Romm’s opinion is of any consequence at all. Why should anyone listen to Romm and accept his opinions about anything? He’s as biased and one sided as they come, pathologically so.

    • Kuze81

      The degree to which people think “Joe Romm sez not to listen to this guy” is evidence against someone’s argument is both baffling and depressing.

    • hunterson

      Joe Romm complaining about anyone being a paid flack is hilarious.

    • http://cst.net Chris Salmon

      If thinkprogress doesn’t like him, that makes him go up several notches in my estimation just by itself.

  • peterdtillman

    Ahmed responds to this post at
    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/mar/21/climate-change-scienceofclimatechange

    I didn’t wade through all of it, but it does appear that a NASA grant paid for the study (such as it is).

  • Johnson

    With a name like that what the hell did you expect???? LOLOLOLOL

  • GreenCPA

    The first book I read on this subject was “”The Final Empire, the collapse of civilization and the seed of the future” by Wm. H. Kotke. (published and read in 1993)

    It was an excellent book that went through the historical patterns of collapse. How they collapse from the center and how they collapse from the periphery.

    Ecosystem collapse goes hand in hand:

    The loss of soil
    The loss of forests
    Extinction
    Dying oceans
    Unsustainable agriculture

    The connections between population, toxins, and resource extraction eventually build to disaster.

    ALL EMPIRES COLLAPSE.

    Want insights into the solution? Read “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn

  • GreenCPA

    Since ancient times, one generation after another has looked at the world’s intransigent problems and said that was we needed was more civilization. We are still saying it. What if we’ve always been wrong? What if civilization itself if the problem?

    In a book that asks the most radical of questions, Daniel Quinn reminds us that for millions of years our ancestors sustained themselves as tribal creatures. The hierarchical civilization we see as being so necessary and so synonymous with humanity is in fact only a recent experiment in social organization and one that is failing. We have been taught to see civilization as our greatest achievement and our only hope for survival in a hostile world.

    In “Beyond Civilization,” Daniel Quinn challenges this assumption, and startles us into a truly revolutionary way of seeing. Isn’t it odd, for instance, that among all human cultures, we alone grow food, lock it up, and then earn wages so we can buy it back? And isn’t it odd that we imagine that humans can be organized only hierarchically, with a few at the top who live lavishly, a larger number in the middle who live well, and a vast majority at the bottom who have to struggle just to stay alive?

    With visionary clarity, Quinn urges us to move beyond our failed experiment. Not by returning in defeat to a Paleolithic way of life, but moving in a future in which ordinary people can once again assert control over their destiny, while recovering the freedom to live at a scale and in the style of their own choosing.

    FROM THE JACKET COVER OF “BEYOND CIVILIZATION: HUMANITY’S NEXT GREAT ADVENTURE” by Daniel Quinn

    • Hammerstrike

      “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

      • Reuben Schwartzschild

        Interesting. I’ve always wondered if we humans ARE civilized or rather try to ACT civilized.

  • Donough Shanahan

    A question.

    I though that is was a no-no to be publicizing unpublished journal articles before they have been released ‘in print’ in a journal? At the very least I would consider this to be a journey away from decorum. Any thoughts?

  • Jeff Lichtman

    Wow Keith! You nailed this clown Ahmed to the barn door! Thank you for your writing, knowledge and seeing through this bunch of goat droppings. As to the Guardian using or endorsing him, can anyone look to the Guardian for the truth?

  • aMan Bloom

    I actually didn’t read the original article, but have read a climate change report in this month’s Scientific American that might support the contention. Regardless of who writes or which publication, the signs are evident, historically relevant, and not to be summarilly dismissed.

  • laszlo sebestyen

    You know, I fell for it too. And true enough, it was the name NASA that made it authentic.Thanks for the article it made my day.

  • TravelGayle

    Thank you. A headsup as to the quality of Guardian editors and editing, as well. Journalists need to be responsible reporters, yes, but where were the gatekeepers?

  • donl

    I don’t think we need a lot of mathmatics to tell that our civilizations are crumbling..the US first followed by it’s dependents which will leave those who live closest to the earth..as in Africa!…not to forget Global changes in the weather patterns are really going to mess things up..I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the world went to war!!..glad I’m old!!!

  • hunterson

    Another reason to either shutdown the Goddard center, or at least to clean house there, top to bottom. Turning out cheesy poorly written scifi plot lines and movie ideas dressed up as science papers is an annoying waste of tax payer money.

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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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