A recent Guardian article stated that a ‘NASA-funded study’ had predicted that ‘industrial civilisation’ is ‘headed for irreversible collapse’. Not just a collapse, an irreversible collapse.
The article, by the catastrophile and author of The Crisis of Civilisation, Nafeez Ahmed, was soon picked up by dozens of other newspapers, and hundreds of websites, all over the world. ‘NASA-funded study warns of “collapse of civilisation” in coming decades’, screamed the Independent. ‘Industrial civilisation “may be heading toward collapse” within decades because of its strain on the planet’s resources, NASA report finds’, yelled the Daily Mail.
Information was thin on the ground. The research had not yet been published, and no one knew very much about the researchers. Thus it was left to Ahmed’s article to spawn countless further stories of humanity’s looming doom. But what was the actual research, who produced it, and what did it actually say?
Although countless articles cite NASA, the research only mentions it as a ‘partial funding source’. This could mean very little; it could even mean there was no direct funding from NASA for the project. Rather than being the product of the space agency’s rocket scientists, as so many reports have implied, the lead author of the unpublished research, Safa Motesharrei, is a mere graduate student at the University of Maryland, working out of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). SESYNC, like similar organisations in the UK and EU, has been established to produce multidisciplinary research for a particular policy agenda or cause. ‘(SESYNC) is dedicated to solving society’s most challenging and complex environmental problems’, says its website. But it could be accused of imagining those problems.
Motesharrei’s research is simple enough to understand. Rather than proceeding empirically, from observations about the world around us, Motesharrei et al built simple mathematical models of inequality between ‘the masses’ and ‘elites’, and equally simple (or simplistic) models of interactions between society and the environment. ‘The model shows economic stratification or ecological strain can independently lead to collapse [of civilisation], in agreement with the historical record’, say the researchers.