It’s easy to feel like the world around is falling apart. Every day there’s some new tragedy in the news, yet another sign that most of our politicians are more concerned with enriching their personal bank accounts and living a life of personal leisure than making the lives of their constituents better. But are we headed for a collapse like that of the Roman Empire?
As Alex Brown noted at The Atlantic back in 2014,
“Two important features appear across societies that have collapsed. The stretching of resources due to the strain placed on ecological carrying capacity and the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses.”
In other words, as the haves and have-nots continue to grow farther apart, and as the middle class continues to shrink, we place greater and greater strain on the capacity of our society to work; as the 1% (and 1% of 1%, really) continue to consume a greater and greater portion of resources and accumulate a greater and greater share of wealth, our societal structures head closer and closer to collapse.
As technologies improve in efficiency, we somehow continue using greater resources. Consider for instance how as fuel economy has improved more people are willing to commute farther distances and spend more time in their vehicles. As a result, even though the average miles per gallon vehicles on the road gets is steadily rising, the number of gallons of gasoline burned each year is increasing far more rapidly.
The researchers Brown cites in his article used a formula they referred to as HANDY—Human And Nature DYnamical—to come to their conclusions. Using such factors as income classes (and disparities), birth rates, and resource allocation and use, they mathematically modeled various outcomes based on current behaviors. What the study, sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and headed by the National Science Foundation’s Safa Motesharrei, found was not hopeful, to say the least.
As the authors noted,
“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.”
In other words: This has happened before, perhaps as best demonstrated by the way the Roman Empire collapsed seemingly overnight. It’s also likely to happen again.
So is there any hope of avoiding the collapse?
Sure, say NASA’s researchers, but it requires major changes. For instance, economic equality must be lessened (so the exact opposite of the current administration’s goals), resources must be preserved (ditto), and depletion of resources must be reduced (good luck).
In other words? We’re all screwed.