A warning about the end of the world (doomster scenario #137)

Summary: It’s time for yet another warning of doom. As usual, based on a flimsy foundation of data and analysis. As usual, the news media eats it up. And the public, mostly on the Left, applaud. No matter how often these predictions prove false, the Left uncritically believes the next. Too bad for them that the public no longer cares.

Only One World

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Contents

  1. The trumpets of doom sound again
  2. NASA pushes back
  3. What’s the fascination with doom?
  4. Articles debating the study
  5. Scientists comment on the study
  6. For More Information about dooms
  7. This would be doom!

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(1)  The trumpets of doom sound again

The blog post that went viral: “Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?“, Nafeez Ahmed (journalist, director of Institute for Policy Research & Development), blog of the Guardian, 14 March 2014 — “Natural and social scientists develop new model of how ‘perfect storm’ of crises could unravel global system.”

It’s based on this paper: “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies“, Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas, & Eugenia Kalnay, Ecological Economics, in press.

There are widespread concerns that current trends in resource-use are unsustainable, but possibilities of overshoot/collapse remain controversial. Collapses have occurred frequently in history, often followed by centuries of economic, intellectual, and population decline. Many different natural and social phenomena have been invoked to explain specific collapses, but a general explanation remains elusive.

In this paper, we build a human population dynamics model by adding accumulated wealth and economic inequality to a predator-prey model of humans and nature. The model structure, and simulated scenarios that offer significant implications, are explained. Four equations describe the evolution of Elites, Commoners, Nature, and Wealth. The model shows Economic Stratication or Ecological Strain can independently lead to collapse, in agreement with the historical record.

The measure “Carrying Capacity” is developed and its estimation is shown to be a practical means for early detection of a collapse. Mechanisms leading to two types of collapses are discussed. The new dynamics of this model can also reproduce the irreversible collapses found in history. Collapse can be avoided, and population can reach a steady state at maximum carrying capacity if the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level and if resources are distributed equitably.

A provocative piece of early-stage research in an important (if immature field), greeted by the public (especially the Left) as the latest chapter in the endless series of doomster porn. It’s the end of Life!  Again.

NASA

(2)  NASA pushes back

If NASA expects the world to end soon, I’ll book passage on a trip to somewhere else!

Nafeez Ahmed and the media ech0-chamber focused on the “NASA-sponsored” aspect to give the study undeserved emphasis. The push-back was fast:  “NASA Statement on Sustainability Study“, press release from NASA, 20 March 2014 — Excerpt (red emphasis added):

“{the 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.”

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), at which one of the study’s authors works, elaborates further on NASA’s role (red emphasis added):

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Motesharrei received minor support from NASA to develop a coupled earth system model. Some of this funding was spent on the mathematical development of the HANDY model {basis of the paper}.

New Scientist: collapse

(3)  What’s the fascination with doom?

It’s entertainment, part of the long tradition of fairy tales, science fiction disaster films, and horror flicks. It’s a legitimate concern. It’s a political tool, source of scary stories to influence the public to adopt certain pubic policy measures. But after 50 years of overuse, starting with the scares of the 1970s — famine, overpopulation, and global cooling (all still MIA) the public has become indifferent to new screams of warning. Example:

Moses Versus Joseph: A Biblical Lesson in Communication about Climate Change“, Cliff Mass (Prof of Atmospheric Sciences, U Washington), 16 March 2014 — “I noticed something else: the audience’s eyes glazed over as the endless list of disasters were described.”

Meanwhile the Right also applauds. The Left contemplates the end of life on Earth, while the Right gathers wealth and power.

Posts about the Left’s crusade about climate change:

  1. Possible political effects of the pause in global warming,
    26 August 2013
  2. Watch the Left burn away more of its credibility, then wonder why the Right wins, 29 January 2014
  3. Apocalyptic thinking on the Left about climate change risks burning their credibility, 4 February 2014
  4. This is what defeat looks like for the Left, and perhaps also for environmentalists, 17 March 2014

(4)  Articles debating the study

The discussion about this study nicely demonstrates our inability to clearly and coolly evaluate scientific research.

(a)  Keith Kloor, at the Discover magazine blog, writes about the study and the news media coverage:

  1. He looks at the journalism of Zahmed’s story, and its embrace by the news media echo chamber: “About that Popular Guardian Story on the Collapse of Industrial Civilization“, 21 March 2014
  2. About the science: “Judging the Merits of a Media-Hyped ‘Collapse’ Study“, 21 March 2014 — See excerpts below.

(b)  Nafeez Ahmed’s rebuttal has the funniest sub-title of the year: “Did Nasa fund ‘civilisation collapse’ study, or not?“, blog of the Guardian, 21 March 2014 — “Journalistic standards won’t be upheld by attempting to discredit science we don’t like.” He doesn’t notice that he (and his fellow climate activists) routinely “discredit science {they} don’t like.” It’s their primary mode of rebuttal, with personal smears as a close second.

(c) Using NASA to scare the masses into action“, Ben Pile, Spiked, 25 March 2014 — Conclusion:

In the issue of the New Statesman edited by comedian Russell Brand last year, Naomi Klein wrote that ‘science’ was ‘telling us to revolt’.  … Klein’s awe at a complex theorist’s back-of-a-fag-packet maths, and Ahmed’s lust for stories about the end of the word, tell us much more about them than Motesharrei and Werner tell us about judgement day.

Today’s nominal left cannot make an argument for equality in human terms. So instead, they have resorted to computer models and apocalyptic forecasts. Whereas political movements once offered liberation, today they offer mere survival.

Doomster Greeting Card

(5)  Scientists comment on the study

Most of the articles about the study are accurate, but are none the less chaff in the public debate. They nicely illustrate why so many vital issues turning on science have collapsed into cacophony.

As a profession, science requires commitment and focus — devoting years, decades, or a lifetime in pursuit of data and theory which might prove a dead-end. Public policy requires understanding uncertainty and the limits to what we know. Journalists are bridges between these two spheres, a difficult task. Unfortunately exaggerating the certainty of studies — with which scientists often cooperate — makes better copy.

The following comments are from experts, but as usual neither scientist admits that this field lies on the edge of science, a poorly understood and immature topic. That is the vital context for laypeople to know, but are seldom told.

(a)  Keith Kloor, journalist at the Discover magazine blog, gets some brief expert comments on the paper. He checks with one of the top social scientists working in this field: Joseph Tainter (Professor of Environment & Society, Utah State U; his Wikipedia entry), author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988).

Overall I found the paper to be trivial and deeply flawed. It is amazing that anyone would take it seriously, but clearly some people do (at least in the media).

You are correct that they cite my work a lot, but they seem not to have been influenced by it, or even to understand it. I suspect they were strongly influenced by the work of Peter Turchin — for which, please see the attached (short) review.

Tainter provides more detail in an email to Kloor:

It is interesting how collapse theories mirror broader societal issues. During the Cold War, we had theories ascribing collapse to elite mismanagement, class conflict, and peasant revolts. As global warming became a public issue, scholars of the past began to discover that ancient societies collapsed due to climate change. As we have become concerned about sustainability and resource use today, we have learned that ancient societies collapsed due to depletion of critical resources, such as soil and forests. Now that inequality and “the 1%” are topics of public discourse, we have this paper focusing largely on elite resource consumption.

Models depend on the assumptions that go into them. Thus the first four pages of the paper are the part most worth discussing.

The paper has many flaws. The first is that “collapse” is not defined, and the examples given conflate different processes and outcomes. Thus the authors are not even clear what topic they are addressing.

Collapses have occurred among both hierarchical and non-hierarchical societies, and the authors even discuss the latter (although without understanding the implications for their thesis). Thus, although the authors purport to offer a universal model of collapse (involving elite consumption), their own discussion undercuts that argument.

Contrary to the authors’ unsubstantiated assertion, there is no evidence that elite consumption caused ancient societies to collapse. The authors simply have no empirical basis for this assumption, and that point alone undercuts most of the paper.

The authors assert that there is a “two-class structure of modern society,” and indeed their analysis depends on this being the case. The basis for this assertion comes from two papers published in obscure physics journals. That’s right, this assertion does not come from peer-review social science. It comes from journals that have no expertise in this topic, and whose audience is unqualified to evaluate the assertion critically.

In other words, there is no empirical or substantiated theoretical basis for this paper’s model.

In modeling, once one has established one’s assumptions and parameters, it is a simple matter to program the mathematics that will give the outcome one wants or expects. For this reason, models must be critically evaluated. Unfortunately, most readers are unable to evaluate a model’s assumptions. Instead, readers are impressed by equations and colored graphs, and assume thereby that a model mimics real processes and outcomes. That seems to be the case with this paper, and it represents the worst in modeling.

(b) Nafeez Ahmed cites in rebuttal Adam T. Smith (Prof Anthropology, Cornell):

The archaeological record is quite unambiguous: every prior society in every part of the world has ultimately been eclipsed. Human communities are kinds of machines – machines for social life – and just like any machine they fall apart and are discarded. However, civilisational collapse is actually quite rare.

Civilisational collapse typically involves the disappearance of entire ways of life, systems of thought, cultural values and worldviews. These generally do not disappear due to convulsive periods of collapse but rather fade over time as alternative systems of belief take their place.

However, although civilisational collapse is rare, political collapse is constant. Kingdoms, principalities, republics and states come and go and typically their downfall is violent and convulsive. The warnings in the recent study should carry significant warnings to current global political leaders: address the threats posed by climate change and economic inequality or face the rapid undoing of the current political order. The archaeological record suggests that while civilization will likely endure, politics as we know it, odds are, will not.

(6)  For More Information

(a)  Equally fantastic but opposite scenarios:

  1. Posts about the Singularity
  2. Posts about Shockwaves (low probability, high impact scenarios)

(b)  Posts about doomsters:

  1. Spreading the news: the end is nigh! , 8 May 2008
  2. Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off , 8 May 2008
  3. We are so vulnerable to so many things. What is the best response?, 30 December 2008
  4. Comment: warnings about a reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, 30 December 2008
  5. About our certain doom from the Yellowstone supervolcano, 11 January 2009
  6. Poor peak oil research, more evidence of a serious problem with America’s vision, 5 May 2009
  7. Propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island, 4 February 2010
  8. If humanity is unprepared for Peak Oil, here are some of the guilty people, 11 May 2010
  9. Today’s conservative doomster warning (ludicrous but fun), 1 August 2010
  10. Exaggerations and false predictions are good; truth is bad – about peak oil research, 10 August 2010
  11. The IPCC rebukes the climate doomsters. Will we listen?, 15 October 2013
  12. Looking at natural resources as limits to growth, 8 January 2014

(7)  This would be doom!

(a)   The Yellowstone super-volcano eruption of 2021

By Mister Ed Fan, at DeviantArt. For more information see About our certain doom from the Yellowstone supervolcano,
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Yellowstone eruption of 2021
By Mister Ed Fan, at DeviantArt

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(b)  Impact of an asteroid or comet
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Impact on Earth

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14 thoughts on “A warning about the end of the world (doomster scenario #137)

  1. And the left was responsible for the predictions of Weimar size inflation that I have been hearing for the last five years?

    1. Dr. Bove,

      Thank you for raising this important point, one addressed in a fragmentary fashion in scores of post on the FM website: both side — Left & Right — have gone mad (speaking figuratively) in America, reflecting some deep dysfunctionality in America (the nature and causes of which are beyond my ken).

      This should not surprise us, as both Left and Right are drawn from the same pool of people — and differ little from each other.

      I lack the scales to balance both sides’ madness — lack of clarity of vision and thought — but my guess is that it is worse on the Right than the Left. For some details see these posts:

      1. The key to modern American politics: the Right-Wing Id Unzipped, 15 February 2012
      2. A harsh clear look at the history of the Republican Party, 22 September 2013
      3. Most of what Democrats say is wrong about the Republicans’ recent actions in Congress, 1 October 2013
      4. What are the odds of violence from the Right in America?, 2 October 2013
      5. Seeing the world through conservative eyes, 15 February 2014
      6. A look into the GOP mind: unteathered from reality and drifting in the wind, 3 March 2014

      For more detailed exploration of this dysfunctionality see these posts on Gun rights.

      As for inflation, I suspect you’ll find these posts about inflation of interest:

      1. Is the US Government deliberately underestimating inflation?, 8 November 2007 — No.
      2. Can Obama turn America into something like Zimbabwe?, 22 February 2010 — No.
      3. The Fed is not wildly printing money, as yet no hyperinflation, we’re not becoming Zimbabwe, 2 March 2010
      4. More invisible signs of looming US inflation!, 22 February 2011
      5. Inflation is coming! Inflation is coming!, 7 February 2011 — Nope, it’s not.
      6. Inciting fear of inflation in our minds for political gain (we are easily led), 28 February 2011
      7. Update on the inflation hysteria, the invisible monster about to devour us!, 15 April 2011
      8. Conservatives were correct: we have record-breaking inflation! What’s next?, 14 June 2013 — Record-breaking low.
      9. Lessons from the failed forecasts of inflation since the crash, 5 October 2013
  2. Fab,

    You amusingly take your contrarian tendencies to meta-levels of self-revolution that virtually are always entertaining! But you must be dizzy at times. Thanks for being so entertaining!

    Two comments semi-germane to today’s post:

    1. As I’ve pointed out before, the rehearsal of catastrophe is always good entertainment (Aristotle), but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong! W.r.t current forecasts of collapse, my personal take is that the economy still exhibits the signature of pre-collapse seen before the Great Depression: excessive debt/GDP, mostly bad debt not being cleared by the banks; and very high income inequality. So I expect another financial collapse. This is a judgment call resulting from 30 years post economics PhD following the economy and learning to separate the mainstream propaganda from “the truth” as far as I can discern it.

    2. John Robb is out with a proclamation that the problem with the world is that “the American dream” (that one should be able to get ahead by working hard) and that it needs to be reborn. I assert that it is excessive greed of the “managerial capitalist class” and their focus on profit (i.e., usually by screwing labor; record high profit/GDP etc.) that is the problem, and until all corporations face regulations similar to those in Germany and Scandinavia recognizing that employees are valid stakeholders in a corporation the problem won’t be solved.

    Back in the ‘Seventies when regulation was in its heydey businesses used to say (re: environmental protections, for example) that they couldn’t do it by themselves, that it needed to be required of all or they couldn’t make a decent profit. Same thing applies today. Employee rights need to be enforced via law around the world in a reasonable way.

    In my more optimistic moments I speculate that, as the most powerful form of social organization on the planet today, that corporations will naturally evolve to optimize their internal distributions a la Wilkinson (see his great TED talk on inequality) to maximize health and welfare benefits of all. I would bet that productivity also responds to corporate inequality, inversely.

    Interestingly, Putin has encouraged his oligarchs to register their businesses for tax purposes in Russia to support the nation. Radical concept. Obama made the famous comment that he does not “begrudge” the bankers the bonuses–up by about 40 percent since the financial crisis–that the American taxpayer is subsidizing for them.

    When is this going to end? And how?

    1. Beneign

      “I’ve pointed out before, the rehearsal of catastrophe is always good entertainment (Aristotle), but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong!”

      OK, so you didn’t read (or perhaps understand) the post. Same old, same old. Blah, blah, blah.

  3. Included below is a link related to what many people now mock as “doomsday” hysteria relating to Solar Flares and the current solar cycle. The scale of the event referred to in the story is in line with the estimates published in the AFS report of the potential risk from CME’s back in 2009, moreover, in terms of scale of Solar phenomena, the initial estimates of the proximity of that flare to Earth (given how few SV’s we have positioned to sufficiently evaluate the evolution of such events as they develop), should the Berkeley report prove out, is well within the margin of error of a medium to medium/heavy calculation. In sum, the Developed World was merely lucky.

    In practical terms, physicists and engineers evaluating Solar Weather and Events (like CME’s), are not in a position to offer other than 20% degrees of probability, in terms of advising policy makers. Very Low, Low, Medium, High, Very High. And even then, so little is known about the variables of how actual events develop (because we have very little data to serve as a basis), the REALISTIC margin of error associated with the General probability of a significant event crossing Earths obit might be generations away, technologically speaking. I’d ask readers to think back to 1997-1998… because I vividly remember being openly LAUGHED at in a room full of PhD and Post Doc physicists for insisting that “Solar Weather” EXISTED (which probably explained why they were at a Public Midwestern University, and not at MIT).

    This noted, I believe the DoD was fully justified in going to the expense and trouble of “hardening” such a wide range of assets and systems deemed critical. Doing so was VERY expensive, and the Generals who made the call demonstrated a great deal of wisdom and political bravery. The Civilian authorities appointed by both the Bush AND Obama Administrations, to make similar determinations regarding safe-guarding critical infrastructure, cannot argue “See! We were right! The Flare MISSED us by thousands of miles!” lol. Expecting to be LUCKY regarding Medium to Medium/Heavy CME’s is absolutely NOT a logical, reasonable, or responsible basis upon with to define National Policy.

    Gentlemen, the United States and Canada has experienced record, or near record amounts of snow accumulation this winter, in addition 93% of the surface of the Greats Lakes was frozen over. Is there a single individual among you willing to risk your life, or the lives of your loved ones when all that snow and ice melts, and the floods come… to the extent you will go against the Army Corps of Engineers warnings and camp out in front of a Mississippi floodgate the Engineers expect will have to be opened? Because you imagine that YOUR LUCK is more reliable than experienced ACE professionals estimates??? I’d certainly agree, as would most hydrologists and engineers at the USACE that it’s fine to HOPE thousands of homes located on floodplains will be spared, and will go so far as to be HAPPY to be wrong once the melt water recedes… but to risk dozens, hundreds, thousands of lives on LUCK alone, would be pure dereliction of duty. Thus the aphorism, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”.

    Goodness! When the President used the term, “Audacity to Hope” in his stump speeches, he wasn’t referring to disaster preparedness! Or of the best manner to deal with contentions Nations like N. Korea or China. Or what “America” should expect from Taliban militants when the US retreats from patrolled territory in Afghanistan! Adopting “HOPE” or “LUCK” as the main factor in the determination of National Policy is NOT audacious! It’s irresponsible and dumb.

    Best,

    A. Scott Crawford

    http://www.foxnews.com/science/2014/03/19/massive-solar-blast-that-almost-wreaked-havoc-on-earth/

    1. A Scott Crawford,

      “Gentlemen, the United States and Canada has experienced record, or near record amounts of snow accumulation this winter, in addition 93% of the surface of the Greats Lakes was frozen over. Is there a single individual among you willing to risk your life, or the lives of your loved ones when all that snow and ice melts, and the floods come”

      I hate to burst your hysteria, but this is nuts. There have been snowfall records set, but this is nothing usual. We have records for snowfall for only a century in most of North America; in some places as far back back as two centuries. Reliable national-scale data goes back to the 1960s — an eyeblink in terms of climate. Especially since these records cover only the warming following the Little Ice Age. If we had records going back to 1400 we’d see what real snowfall was like.

      Take a deep breath, then go to the Rutgers University Global Snow Lab. Their data is easily accessible: see if you see any terrifying snowfall on the national or continental scale for any month this year.

      As for solar storms, this is one of many possible shockwaves — high impact, low annual probability events — we face. As I have written so often, we handle these very poorly, allocating resources on the basis of scary stories distributed by well-funded PR campaigns — run to benefit special interest groups. This does not serve us well, and will eventually prove costly. Hopefully costly only in money.

      To learn more about the danger of solar storms see this post. You’ll learn more than from the tabloid news services — such as Fox News.

  4. Fabio, I did read the post and am contributing my take on collapse (economic), which is already happening in rates of employment and income for most Americans. I do appreciate the time and effort you put into the blog, and very much enjoy pulling your leg from time to time.
    cheers,
    benign

    1. Benign,

      Thank you for the clarification! My point was this at the opening.

      ” the rehearsal of catastrophe is always good entertainment (Aristotle), but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong! ”

      This was the point of the post. The amplification of warnings by doomsters is in effect crying wolf, and is producing the inevitable result — public disinterest. We face many possible shockwaves, and our survival might depend on careful allocation of resources to prepare for them.

  5. I have my own theory about societal collapse. You see, look at all societies who have collapsed already in the past: Angkor, Anasazi, Maya, Olmec, Easter Island. They all have one thing in common – dark hair. If you study the history, you will see remarkable and grim correlation that almost all collapsed societies did in fact have dark hair.
    Even more scary is that today, there are more brunettes than ever. With the world population of dark-haired people at an all time peak, total global collapse is not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’.
    It’s all but inevitable unless all nations of the Earth unite in a massive hair-dying program of unprecedented proportions.
    In preparation for this new world order, I’m already looking into getting a Cosmetology Certificate, so I can come out ahead once the dye is cast…

  6. Personal observations only, take them as you will. My Christian friends hope for calamity as signs of the End Times and wait for Rapture. My “prepper” friends see calamity of various forms and hope it happens because they are preparing and waiting for one. I know people who hoped for a Carrington event to give a respite from the pace of modern things and give them peace and still hope one happens in this solar cycle.

    I read the posts here about how we need to work to change things and move back to what the Founding Fathers formed our nation to be and I understand your frustrations in trying to move people to action. The most excited I can get my friends is when I talk to them about what my spouse and I do to be more self sufficient. They have a lot of questions, the most common of which is, “Where do you find the time?” I merely point out to them that we do not sit in front of the television for four or five hours at night after we get home from work.

    Many people are all hoping some great event to happen that will automagically transform our world and make the problems they face every day go away and simplify their lives. The sad thing is that they do not see that elimination of the world’s problems by calamity might meant their own end – somehow, in their minds, they always survive.

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