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article imageOp-Ed: Civilization could crash in 15 years- NASA study

By Paul Wallis     Mar 16, 2014 in World
Sydney - NASA’s new study says the crunch time for civilization could be very near. Usually, when civilizations fall, it’s a big deal. Whether or not anybody will even notice the fall of this particular civilization is highly debatable.
The Guardian:
A new study sponsored by Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.
Noting that warnings of 'collapse' are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that "the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history." Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to "precipitous collapse - often lasting centuries - have been quite common."
Uh-huh… The second paragraph, arguably, is one of the symptoms of the collapse of a civilization. Perceptions of the basis of the study, not the issues contained in the study, are what matters.
The published version of the study is hard to find on NASA’s website. The study was carried out by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center but I couldn’t see any current press for this study on that site, either. You’d think the fall of civilization would rate a mention.
…Or would it? Hard to tell in a civilization where rampant disasters on a daily basis are given the usual 5 seconds of attention, then displaced to make room for more disasters.
Historical analogies? Maybe not
The use of historical precedents is a bit misleading. Sure, there’s a cycle of rises and falls, but falls were invariably a result of local conditions, not global conditions. The current situation is far more complex.
The most commonly used analogy for the current civilization is the Roman Empire. The Roman Republic, a viciously political but more efficient culture, would be a better match. The Republic was effective, expansionist, and a civilizing influence in its own right. Ugly as Roman culture was, the Republic and the early Empire, which still had some dynamism, did spread the basics of civilization across Europe.
Resource management wasn’t one of the Roman strengths, particularly in terms of people. The Roman army disintegrated, the society fell into warring factions, and the economy went to hell. The Roman civilization became corrupt, then simply unmanageable. Sound familiar? It should. It’s part of the history of the British, French and Russian empires collapsed through economic failures, wars, and lousy social management. Modern nations aren’t empires, but their societies behave similarly. The decline of the United States in recent years is a faithful echo of multiple historical incidents.
Unfortunately, the study focuses on a broader version of the issues, which is understandable, but arguably missing some big systemic management problems. Having referred to “Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy” as primary foci, it goes on:
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."
You can see where this is going. Distribution of wealth, social inequalities, etc. One word would do- “Mismanagement”. The historical societies didn’t just collapse. They fell to pieces over time. At any point, they could have revived, but they didn’t.
Old economics are still very much part of this perspective. The economic hierarchy is given as the primary symptom of the decline of civilization. Resource depletion is cited as the primary issue for economic management.
As a matter of fact, inequalities have existed since the caves. There are no recorded instances of any society of economically equal people, either, in those 5000 years. Quite the opposite, the “1%” of the historical past records the elites, not the mass of the society.
History is made by individuals and groups, not by the whole society. In many cases, external forces played a major role in the collapse of civilizations. Alexander the Great transformed the ancient Middle East but destroyed the Persian Empire, a decaying civilization in its own right. Genghis Khan, the “barbarian”, and his descendants, imposed the rule of law across Asia, as well as destroying various nations.
Socio-economically, the picture is far less clear:
1. The Industrial Revolution destroyed old social orders and transformed economies on a routine basis.
2. The French, American, and Russian revolutions destroyed the old orders, based on social issues.
3. The Chinese revolution swept away thousands of years of imperial rule, again on a socio-economic basis.
If this civilization falls, the more likely scenario is a transformation, created by a mix of social and economic issues, combined with a completely new issue- Social obsolescence. Even the idea that a society could become obsolete wasn’t part of the mix in the past.
Times have changed. Social structures and systems can be unconsciously obliterated overnight, as seen in the case of the Great Financial Crisis, the rise of China, and globalization. The next form of viable civilization cannot resemble the past in any way.
The human environment has changed, and humans adapt to their environments. We don’t carry animal carcasses, clubs and spears any more. We carry phones, credit cards, and social networks. The parallels with the past break down progressively.
There are no real obstacles to change. Inefficient systems are replaced. It doesn’t matter how much people with vested interests scream about it, they are invariably sent to the Great Social Junkyard of Discarded Ideologies.
There are plenty of things to be scrapped, too. The expectations of modern societies are much higher. Old social structures don’t do well in this environment. Nor do absurd economics, ridiculous power structures full of useless social parasites, and constantly mismanaged situations. The economic pull towards social and economic efficiency is now leaning on the accelerator.
Progress is a lot faster, too, than ever before. These are literate societies, not backward peasant societies. It took 900 years for the feudal French society created by Charlemagne to collapse. It took 100 years to annihilate the old European and Asian empires, change the face of human societies, and “enforce” prosperity on the world.
If a civilization has become inefficient, it either falls or changes according to the needs of its time. That’s the lesson history teaches. So far, it’s been 100% consistent.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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