Our doom will come sci-fi-style, NASA-funded study says

Uh-oh. The "1 Percent" might just lead to the complete collapse of civilization, according to a study sponsored by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. But all hope is not lost.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

In the movie "Elysium," the rich live off-planet while the poor sweat it out in squalor on Earth. It might not be that far-fetched scenario if a NASA-funded study is right. Screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

We've all seen movies depicting a dystopian future. Usually they envision a small group of elites living in sleekly designed homes wearing clean gray clothes, sipping pure water, and enjoying generally dust-free living while the rest of us schlubs reside in cardboard boxes beneath bridges. Now, a NASA-funded study is saying the collapse of civilization as we know it might not be all that different from what happens in movies like "Blade Runner," "Elysium," and "The Hunger Games."

The study, sponsored by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and first reported on in The Guardian, examined five key factors that led to the collapse of civilizations such the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty: population, climate, water, agriculture, and energy. It found that civilizations collapse when these factors coalesce in such a way that natural resources are stretched at the same time the gap between the rich (termed "Elites" in the study) and the poor (dubbed "Commoners") increases. Sound familiar?

In arriving at these conclusions, the study authors, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, applied something known as the HANDY (Human and Nature Dynamics) model of analysis. It was derived from previous predator-prey mathematical models invented in the early 20th century and assigns nature the role of prey and humans the role of predator. The study then goes one step further, assigning elites a wolf-like role. "We have also added a different dimension of predation whereby Elites 'prey' on the production of wealth by Commoners," the paper says.

The study details just how this type of predation can lead an empire to collapse. "Even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the solution appears to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, then Elites grow and consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society," it says. According to one model run during the research, there is a total collapse of society just 125 years after the elites reach their maximum size.

So the end will come, according to the study, not from running out of resources but from greed, pure and simple. Hear that, 1 Percent?

Actually, they probably didn't hear that. The report, which was penned in 2012, but recently accepted into the peer-reviewed scientific journal Ecological Economics, points out that the elites are typically blissfully unaware of society's eminent demise. It says that "historical collapses were allowed to occur by Elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases)."

As in every good sci-fi flick, all hope is not lost. The study authors say that "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."

Ah, so that's all it will take. A sudden change of heart among the elites to distribute their wealth amongst the rest of us, and people to stop using natural resources like free lives in a video game. Better start hoarding bottled water and batteries now.