Now some, not Eli may consider Eli to be a bit, shall we say sardonic and prone to look through a glass darkly. Eli knows this is not the case, because he has a friend Dano who makes Eli look like the Easter Bunny spreading cheer. Dano writes
Bunnies may have sensed a disturbance in the force (no, not the gravitational waves from inflation after the Big Bang) surrounding a foofaraw over some negative comments about the meaning of several recent papers on future resource trends, and especially a paper discussed at The Guardian and elsewhere. That paper** is, of course, Motesharrei et al. A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction.. It is a first attempt to try and find parameters for a model that can describe the events in, say, Jared Diamond’s Collapse
After turning on the Interwebs and seeing the garment-rending, Dano is inclined to wonder where the intersection of techno-optimist and modeler-computer scientist-physicist lies. Being an. . .erm...sotto voce, urban ecologist does make one grumpy and perhaps understanding of the task of modeling complex socio-ecological systems, but it sure sounds to me like some folks don’t want to hear the message from these papers.
That is: the authors themselves – in their paper – state:
…results of our experiments…indicate that either one of the two features apparent in historical societal collapses - over-exploitation of natural resources and strong economic stratification - can independently result in a complete collapse. [pg. 28] .The latter assertion about collapse due to economic stratification is essentially the thesis of Thomas Piketty’s new work Capital in the Twenty-First Century, where he argues capitalism may inevitably lead to unsustainable inequality and collapse. There have been lots of people having a sad about this book, as it argues for a suboptimal possible outcome of basic human nature over a large scale (and refudiation of a particular ideology, but still)1.
Motesharreiharrei et al. are not the first to argue over-exploitation of natural resources can … result in a complete collapse [of societies], so what’s the problem? Did they put a graph on it that upset folks? Too many simple equations? Another work that explains a suboptimal possible outcome of basic human nature over a large scale?
What I think is upsetting to non-ecologists/biologists/natural sciency-types is the authors don’t recommend technology to reverse course, but rather
… 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. [pg. 28]Say what?!? Lessen resource extraction? Human nature must utterly change and people must cease to want more? Societies must embrace change, re-do their basic infrastructure quickly and make wholesale changes in how the economy is considered? Well, good news: to do societal change, all we have to do is have leaders lead and giant multinational corporations change their ways and people cease to want more. And also easy as pie: much investment must happen to harden, update, make efficient, make cooler cities. And profit may be foregone for some multinational corporations. It’s solvable.
One other thing to consider. Jared Diamond argues collapse has much historical precedent and tries to tease out the reasons why this is so. He argues that in general it is resource depletion and an inability to respond. But why? And is he a doomer? Geoffrey West argues in this TED talk about the conditions surrounding urban and societal growth, and at the end outlines the conditions leading to collapse – but no one is harshing on his buzz. Why? Because he sugar-coated it?
And our current direction, with big changes on the horizon including technology changing monitoring and photography paradigms and technology maybe making some labor go away, doesn’t offer the common folk a lot of hope. Techno-optimists have a long row to hoe (hopefully not for Bt corn that was poorly managed and has bred resistant pests) and not much time before the (CO2-fueled) weeds grow high. Plenty of historical instances to learn from to turn the societal ship around.
In short, as the Kevin Anderson argues in this compelling video that Eli embedded earlier, we have even less time for a technical solution that hasn’t been tested yet. And human nature is very resistant to change. Why wouldn’t garments be rent? It’s hard to be an optimist when looking at the daunting problems in the human socio-ecological system. But shooting the messenger won’t make things better. Leaders leading and basic human nature changing can help us learn from history. But maybe we should have a spoonful of sugar at the ready just in case.
** Well, that was my bookmark, it may have been taken down. I’m glad I know someone who may know someone who may have a hard copy.
1. I understand Krugman is working on a review for the so he may correct my argument soon.NYTRB