Here’s How NASA Thinks Society Will Collapse

Too much inequality and too few natural resources could leave the West vulnerable to a Roman Empire-style fall.

National Journal
Alex Brown
March 18, 2014, 11:47 a.m.

Few think West­ern civil­iz­a­tion is on the brink of col­lapse — but it’s also doubt­ful the Ro­mans and Meso­pot­ami­ans saw their own de­mise com­ing either.

If we’re to avoid their fate, we’ll need policies to re­duce eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity and pre­serve nat­ur­al re­sources, ac­cord­ing to a NASA-fun­ded study that looked at the col­lapses of pre­vi­ous so­ci­et­ies.

“Two im­port­ant fea­tures seem to ap­pear across so­ci­et­ies that have col­lapsed,” reads the study. “The stretch­ing of re­sources due to the strain placed on the eco­lo­gic­al car­ry­ing ca­pa­city and the eco­nom­ic strat­i­fic­a­tion of so­ci­ety in­to Elites and Masses.”

In un­equal so­ci­et­ies, re­search­ers said, “col­lapse is dif­fi­cult to avoid…. Elites grow and con­sume too much, res­ult­ing in a fam­ine among Com­mon­ers that even­tu­ally causes the col­lapse of so­ci­ety.”

As lim­ited re­sources plague the work­ing class, the wealthy, in­su­lated from the prob­lem, “con­tin­ue con­sum­ing un­equally” and ex­acer­bate the is­sue, the study said.

Mean­while, re­sources con­tin­ue to be used up, even by the tech­no­lo­gies de­signed to pre­serve them. For in­stance, “an in­crease in vehicle fuel ef­fi­ciency tech­no­logy tends to en­able in­creased per cap­ita vehicle miles driv­en, heav­ier cars, and high­er av­er­age speeds, which then neg­ate the gains from the in­creased fuel-ef­fi­ciency,” the study said.

The re­search­ers used what they termed a Hu­man And Nature DY­nam­ic­al (HANDY) for­mula to reach their con­clu­sions. The for­mula uses factors such as birth rates, re­sources, and in­come classes to cre­ate a math­em­at­ic­al equa­tion to pro­ject out­comes.

The study was sponsored by NASA’s God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter and headed by the Na­tion­al Sci­ence Found­a­tion’s Safa Mote­shar­rei.

For those who think mod­ern so­ci­ety is im­mune from the prob­lems that brought down an­cient civil­iz­a­tions, a “brief over­view of col­lapses demon­strates not only the ubi­quity of the phe­nomen­on, but also the ex­tent to which ad­vanced, com­plex and power­ful so­ci­et­ies are sus­cept­ible to col­lapse,” the study said.

So how do we save ourselves? “Col­lapse can be avoided, and pop­u­la­tion can reach a steady state at the max­im­um car­ry­ing ca­pa­city, if the rate of de­ple­tion of nature is re­duced to a sus­tain­able level, and if re­sources are dis­trib­uted equit­ably,” reads the re­port.

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