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General · 30th April 2014
Ray Grigg
Anthropologists such as Ronald Wright in his book, A Short History of Progress, and Jared Diamond in his, Collapse, are not the only ones who are noting the precarious condition of civilizations. Now, a report by a multi-disciplinary team of natural and social scientists from the University of Maryland, led by an applied mathematician Safa Motesharri of the US National Science Foundation, has brought the precautionary message from the past much closer to the present. Their report, called the “Human And Nature DYnamical model (HANDY)”, uses research tools developed by NASA to examine the durability of our current civilization. Their conclusion, like the one in the books of Wright and Diamond, is that civilizations are fragile, that they rise and fall, and that ours exhibits some of the historical characteristics of vulnerability.

As expected, the credibility of an academic report such as HANDY is automatically doubted because every civilization proceeds with the blind confidence of its own ideology, believing it has the formula for perpetual success – until it belatedly realizes it doesn't. Careful academic study, however, can expose the fiction of this confidence by analyzing the evidence beyond such ideological myopia. This is what HANDY has done. Its unsettling impact derives from its access to detailed and contemporary information, very different from the historical sources that are available to anthropologists. This means that HANDY's conclusions apply directly to us, and that we have no justification in believing that history grants us an exception. Should anyone forget the lessons of the past, however, we are reminded in the report that, "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."

The report analyzed the human and natural factors involved in the decline and fall of previous civilizations over “the last five thousand years”, then compared those conditions to our own. The determining factors that played "a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse" were population, climate, water, agriculture and energy. While any one of these factors could threaten the stability of a civilization, a review of our own situation might remind us that this full suite of interconnected challenges are now testing the limits of our technologies and occupying increasing amounts of our attention and concern.

HANDY found that these factors can be grouped into two general categories. The first — frequently explored in innumerable other studies — is "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity" of the surroundings, a factor that is becoming increasingly obvious in the disturbed and deteriorating environmental conditions now occurring almost everywhere on our planet. But the second general category that has not been adequately examined is the internal social dynamic that contributes to a civilization's collapse. HANDY identifies this as "the economic stratification of society into Elites and Commoners”.

In our globalized civilization, this “economic stratification” is evident in the vast disparity between wealthy, industrialized cultures and the impoverished ones that are now exploited as the source of increasing quantities of needed resources and services. Within affluent countries, however, this same unbalanced process is evident in the shrinking middle class and the growing separation of the rich from the poor.

Why is this “economic stratification” a threat to a civilization's stability? The answer, the report found, is in the complex interdependence of the two groups. The obvious explanation is that the Elites are dependent on the Commoners to provide labour and resources for the creation of wealth. If the Commoners are unable to offer these services because of debilitating poverty, destructive weather, famine, ecological deterioration or any number of adverse conditions, then the capability of Elites to produce wealth is eventually so impaired that the whole system collapses.

But a less obvious explanation for system collapse is that the first signs of trouble occur among the poor because they are least able to adapt to the stresses of adversity. If the separation between the two classes is sufficient to prevent these vital warning signs from reaching the rich in a timely manner, then the Elites are denied the information necessary to initiate corrective action, the situation deteriorates beyond the point of recovery, and the civilization collapses. A variation of this failure is that the isolation of the Elites causes them to misread the warning signs, mistakenly attributing the underlying social unrest to superficial factors, when the actual cause is structural poverty or ecological ruin. In simple terms, the Elites have a vested interest in maintaining the economic, social and material health of the Commoners.

In our globalized civilization, the Elites have attempted to address the needs of the Commoners by using technology to increase efficiency. While HANDY found that this may relieve some poverty – if the appropriate policies are enacted – the report concluded that this strategy “also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction”, thereby adding additional stress to “the ecological carrying capacity” upon which the viability of the civilization depends. Any gains in efficiency, therefore, are lost to increased production and consumption. Even if more Commoners are lifted out of poverty, the economic distance between them and the Elites increases, as does the total number in poverty because of population increases. Meanwhile, the global ecological stresses continue to worsen.

Put succinctly, the HANDY study found that, given our present circumstances and the current intransigence of the Elites, a preventative strategy that attempts to evade a crisis in one part of the problem causes a crisis in the other part of the problem. The Elites can neither continue exploiting the poor to maintain wealth and power, nor can they create sufficient wealth to elevate the poor out of poverty without doing irreparable damage to ecosystems. Motesharri and his colleagues found that under conditions "closely reflecting the reality of the world today... we find that collapse is difficult to avoid." Not surprisingly, the report was not well received.