Using NASA to scare the masses into action

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than being the product of the space agency’s rocket scientists, as so many reports have implied, the lead author of the unpublished research, Safa Motesharrei, is a mere graduate student at the University of Maryland, working out of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center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. 

The researchers conclude that as social inequality deepens, so the social relationship between the haves and the have-nots becomes ‘unsustainable’, because ‘elites’ consume too much – a problem which is seemingly avoided in egalitarian societies. The researchers claim that this explains the collapse of the Roman and Mayan civilisations.

That is a big claim. But it is also a clumsy one. And it is the same kind of claim, made on the basis of computer models, that has been repeatedly attempted since the Club of Rome’s infamous report, The Limits to Growth, was published in the 1970s. And each time, the predictions have been vitiated. That history of failure is one Ahmed would do well to remember. Instead, he tells us, ‘the [research] offers a highly credible wake-up call to governments, corporations and business - and consumers - to recognise that “business as usual” cannot be sustained, and that policy and structural changes are required immediately’.

This is exactly what the Club of Rome said. But this as-yet unpublished report says less about the relationship between society and nature than it says about the degradation of political arguments for equality.

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 had attended a lecture by a pink-haired ‘complex systems’ theorist, Brad Werner, at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Werner presented his findings which were the result of his modelling of the entire world, from its productive capacity to the demands of human society and the direction of political movements. Werner’s conclusion: capitalism had ‘fucked’ the world, but radical political movements could save it.

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.

The transformation of science’s role in society is just as striking: whereas it once promised to produce the means by which we could explore the stars, today it is used to lower our expectations of the future. For those of us whose formative years were marked by NASA’s spectacular achievements, that is all the more disappointing.

Ben Pile blogs at Climate Resistance.

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