This story caught my attention, since a lot of people are passing it around:
• Nafeez Ahmed, NASA-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?, Earth Insight, blog on The Guardian, 14 March 2014.
Sounds dramatic! But notice the question mark in the title. The article says that “global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.” But with the word “could” in there, who could possibly argue? It’s certainly possible. What’s the actual news here?
It’s about a new paper that’s been accepted the Elsevier journal Ecological Economics. Since this paper has not been published, and I don’t even know the title, it’s hard to get details yet. According to Nafeez Ahmed,
The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists.
So I went to Safa Motesharrei‘s webpage. It says he’s a grad student getting his PhD at the Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, working with a team of people including:
• Eugenia Kalnay (atmospheric science)
• James Yorke (mathematics)
• Matthias Ruth (public policy)
• Victor Yakovenko (econophysics)
• Klaus Hubacek (geography)
• Ning Zeng (meteorology)
• Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm (hydrology).
I was able to find this paper draft:
• Safa Motesharri, Jorge Rivas and Eugenia Kalnay, A minimal model for human and nature interaction, 13 November 2012.
I’m not sure how this is related to the paper discussed by Nafeez Ahmed, but it includes some (though not all) of the passages quoted by him, and it describes the HANDY model. It’s an extremely simple model, so I’ll explain it to you.
But first let me quote a bit more of the Guardian article, so you can see why it’s attracting attention:
By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”
Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with “Elites” based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:
“… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”
The study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:
“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”
Productivity increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries has come from “increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput,” despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.
Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today… we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.” In the first of these scenarios, civilisation:
“…. appears to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this Type-L collapse is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature.”
Another scenario focuses on the role of continued resource exploitation, finding that “with a larger depletion rate, the decline of the Commoners occurs faster, while the Elites are still thriving, but eventually the Commoners collapse completely, followed by the Elites.”
In both scenarios, Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners”, allowing them to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.” The same mechanism, they argue, could explain how “historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases).”
Applying this lesson to our contemporary predicament, the study warns that:
“While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”
However, the scientists point out that the worst-case scenarios are by no means inevitable, and suggest that appropriate policy and structural changes could avoid collapse, if not pave the way toward a more stable civilisation.
The two key solutions are to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth:
“Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.”
The HANDY model
So what’s the model?
It’s 4 ordinary differential equations:
• is the population of the commoners or masses
• is the population of the elite
• represents natural resources
• represents wealth
The authors say that
Natural resources exist in three forms: nonrenewable stocks (fossil fuels, mineral deposits, etc), renewable stocks (forests, soils, aquifers), and flows (wind, solar radiation, rivers). In future versions of HANDY, we plan to disaggregate Nature into these three different forms, but for simplication in this version, we have adopted a single formulation intended to represent an amalgamation of the three forms.
So, it’s possible that the paper to be published in Ecological Economics treats natural resources using three variables instead of just one.
Now let’s look at the equations one by one:
This looks weird at first, but and aren’t both constants, which would be redundant. is a constant birth rate for commoners, while the death rate for commoners, is a function of wealth.
is a constant birth rate for the elite, while the death rate for the elite, is a function of wealth. The death rate is different for the elite and commoners:
For both the elite and commoners, the death rate drops linearly with increasing wealth from its maximum value to its minimum values . But it drops faster for the elite, of course! For the commoners it reaches its minimum when the wealth reaches some value but for the elite it reaches its minimum earlier, when , where is some number bigger than 1.
Next, how do natural resources change?
The first part of this equation:
describes how natural resources renew themselves if left alone. This is just the logistic equation, famous in models of population growth. Here is the equilibrium level of natural resources, while is another number that helps say how fast the resources renew themselves. Solutions of the logistic equation look like this:
But the whole equation
has a term saying that natural resources get used up at a rate proportional to the population of commoners times the amount of natural resources is just a constant of proportionality.
It’s curious that the population of elites doesn’t affect the depletion of natural resources, and also that doubling the amount of natural resources doubles the rate at which they get used up. Regarding the first issue, the authors offer this explanation:
The depletion term includes a rate of depletion per worker, and is proportional to both Nature and the number of workers. However, the economic activity of Elites is modeled to represent executive, management, and supervisory functions, but not engagement in the direct extraction of resources, which is done by Commoners. Thus, only Commoners produce.
I didn’t notice a discussion of the second issue.
Finally, the change in the amount of wealth is described by this equation:
The first term at right precisely matches the depletion of natural resources in the previous equation, but with the opposite sign: natural resources are getting turned into ‘wealth’. describes consumption by commoners and describes consumption by the elite. These are both functions of wealth, a bit like the death rates… but as you’d expect increasing wealth increases consumption:
For both the elite and commoners, consumption grows linearly with increasing wealth until wealth reaches the critical level But it grows faster for the elites, and reaches a higher level.
So, that’s the model… at least in this preliminary version of the paper.
Some solutions of the model
There are many parameters in this model, and many different things can happen depending on their values and the initial conditions. The paper investigates many different scenarios. I don’t have the energy to describe them all, so I urge you to skim it and look at the graphs.
I’ll just show you three. Here is one that Nafeez Ahmed mentioned, where civilization
appears to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society.
I can see why Ahmed would like to talk about this scenario: he’s written a book called A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization and How to Save It. Clearly it’s worth putting some thought into risks of this sort. But how likely is this particular scenario compared to others? For that we’d need to think hard about how well this model matches reality.
It’s obviously a crude simplification of an immensely complex and unknowable system: the whole civilization on this planet. That doesn’t mean it’s fundamentally wrong! Its predictions could still be qualitatively correct. But to gain confidence in this, we’d need material that is not made in the draft paper I’ve seen. It says:
The scenarios most closely reflecting the reality of our world today are found in the third group of experiments (see section 5.3), where we introduced economic stratication. Under such conditions,
we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.
But it would be nice to see a more careful approach to setting model parameters, justifying the simplifications built into the model, exploring what changes when some simplifications are reduced, and so on.
Here’s a happier scenario, where the parameters are chosen differently:
The main difference is that the depletion of resources per commoner, , is smaller.
And here’s yet another, featuring cycles of prosperity, overshoot and collapse:
I hope you see that I’m neither trying to ‘shoot down’ this model nor defend it. I’m just trying to understand it.
I think it’s very important—and fun—to play around with models like this, keep refining them, comparing them against each other, and using them as tools to help our thinking. But I’m not very happy that Nafeez Ahmed called this piece of work a “highly credible wake-up call” without giving us any details about what was actually done.
I don’t expect blog articles on the Guardian to feature differential equations! But it would be great if journalists who wrote about new scientific results would provide a link to the actual work, so people who want to could dig deeper can do so. Don’t make us scour the internet looking for clues.
And scientists: if your results are potentially important, let everyone actually see them! If you think civilization could be heading for collapse, burying your evidence and your recommendations for avoiding this calamity in a closed-access Elsevier journal is not the optimal strategy to deal with the problem.
There’s been a whole side-battle over whether NASA actually funded this study:
• Keith Kloor, About that popular Guardian story on the collapse of industrial civilization, Collide-A-Scape, blog on Discover, March 21, 2014.
• Nafeez Ahmed, Did NASA fund ‘civilisation collapse’ study, or not?, Earth Insight, blog on The Guardian, 21 March 2014.
But that’s very boring compared to fun of thinking about the model used in this study… and the challenging, difficult business of trying to think clearly about the risks of civilizational collapse.
The paper is now freely available here:
• Safa Motesharri, Jorge Rivas and Eugenia Kalnay, Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies, Ecological Economics 101 (2014), 90–102.