The Pathfinders Column from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
Interest was pricked recently in socialist circles by a Guardian environmental blog report of a NASA-funded study suggesting that a ‘perfect storm’ of five economic and environmental factors, namely population, climate, water, agriculture, and energy, were leading to the imminent collapse of industrial civilisation (‘Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'?’, Guardian Online, 14 March). According to the Guardian’s Earth Insight blog, the study is funded by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and is the product of a cross-disciplinary team of natural and social scientists based at the University of Maryland (UMD). Their argument is that there is a 5000 year history of civilisation collapses and that they all have two crucial and related factors in common, the ‘stretching of resources due to the strain on the ecological carrying capacity’ (also key in Jared Diamond’s 2005 study Collapse) and, somewhat more controversially to anyone but socialists, the ‘economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or ‘commoners’)[poor]’.
Reading eerily like a Socialist Standard editorial, the study states that ‘... accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.’ Technology won’t help, the study says, because net consumption will simply rise to match net increased output. Neither will appeals to those elites themselves be any use, because their monopoly on wealth and resources means that they are protected from the ‘detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners’ with the result that they blindly continue their policy of ‘business as usual’. This I’m-alright-Jack mentality, argues the study, is why ‘historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory.’ But even where elites bother to address these problems at all, they tend to oppose any conclusion requiring fundamental structural change in society and instead ‘point to the long sustainable trajectory 'so far' in support of doing nothing.’
It’s worth distinguishing between collapse as envisaged here and two other kinds of collapse as described by ecologists and left-wingers. Ecological collapse, where the world simply dies, is an extreme and largely nonsensical idea. It’s also unlikely that humans could damage the world so badly that it became uninhabitable to humans. The collapse of capitalism through its own internal contradictions, a kind of Get-out-of-capitalism-free card devoutly wished for by some on the left, is equally unlikely and anyway undesirable (see Cooking the Books, page 18). This study describes scenarios which are more plausible because they are consistent with evidence from historical events. In its view, it is not so much nature which fails but workers, through catastrophic immiseration: ‘the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this [possible scenario] is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature.’
The two key solutions in the study, as quoted in the blog article, are as follows: ‘Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.’ Since the study has already identified the fact that all the wealth and power are in the hands of elites who don’t listen to reason, the likelihood of achieving either of these aims through political reform of capitalism stands at zero. That being the case, the logical conclusion to draw is that the global elites must be forcibly dispossessed and overthrown along with the capitalist system which placed them in power.
Is budget-strapped NASA really promoting global socialist revolution? It hardly seems likely. It’s not so far been possible to obtain a copy of the study, and investigation of the sources behind the story has proved frustrating. A search of NASA’s website reveals no trace of any such study. Ditto the Goddard Space Centre. Apart from a brief synopsis of a seminar given by the named lead researcher last October, there is also no report offered by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), based at UMD and supposedly where the study originates. The researcher is a bona fide graduate student whose PhD studies may well be funded in some part by Goddard, and his cross-disciplinary colleagues are mostly respectable Maryland professors of public policy, hydrology, geography, meteorology and a weird hybrid, ‘econophysics’. However the study is set to be published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Ecological Economics, which has had a rocky history and some credibility issues, as has the field of ecological economics in general. According to its current Wikipedia entry the journal has lost focus on its core field and now ‘seems to accept anything to do with the environment and economics from any field’.
Hard to fathom too is the role of the Guardian journalist behind this scoop, Dr Nafeez Ahmed, whose by-line bills him as executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development (IPRD). Apart from a member page entry on the Stanford University MAHB website (Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere) which describes IPRD as a London-based ‘voluntary global collective of specialist scholars, scientists, and analysts, working in different fields of the social and physical sciences’, this Institute appears to exist in name only, with a web address that doesn’t work. Dr Ahmed is also the author of a 2011 book, The Crisis of Civilization, whose main thrust seems if not identical to that of the UMD study then along very similar lines (see review of this in Socialist Standard, February 2011). He advocates certain key resources like energy and water being placed in a ‘global Commons’ which is immune from monopolisation by any elite. This is encouraging, but then why not all resources? He argues for ‘more equal access’ but then why not just ‘equal access’? Disappointingly the agent of much of this redistribution is, he proposes, banks, an idea which shows that even would-be revolutionary thinkers just can’t let go of capitalist institutions no matter how hard they try. It turns out that Dr Ahmed also has a day job as chief research officer for the London-based PR company Unitas, which lists among its services ‘media positioning’ and ‘pre-empting negative media coverage’. This prompts a number of wild speculations. One is that the research team have adopted the increasingly common but dubious practice among scientists of engaging a PR firm to ‘spin’ their study in the popular press prior to academic publication, either for simple promotional purposes or to offset anticipated hostile reactions. Another is that the Maryland team and the Institute are in cahoots, or even one and the same, while preferring to appear as objectively independent for purposes of academic credibility. As we go to press enquiries to Dr Ahmed and to the lead researcher of the Maryland team have not met with any response.
It would be good to know for sure whether NASA is genuinely behind this, even indirectly. It certainly ought to be. NASA gives itself a bold strapline: Earth. Your Future. Our Mission. So in among its studies of hurricanes, sinkholes, salt and the anatomy of a raindrop it really ought to find space for any serious study that suggests Earth has no future unless the mission parameters change drastically.