Why Our Sky Sometimes Does Start Falling

The sky, we all learn as children, is not falling — and never falls. Only silly Chicken Littles prattle about “precipitous collapses.”

Only silly Chicken Littles, apparently, and applied mathematicians.

One of those mathematicians, the University of Maryland’s Safa Motesharrei, has joined with two colleagues to publish a new paper that sees the “precipitous collapse” of our global order as a distinct possibility.

In fact, the three conclude, that possibility will become a hard-to-avoid probability unless the world becomes a far less unequal place.

Motesharrei and his fellow researchers — University of Maryland meteorologist Eugenia Kalnay, a former Goddard Space Flight Center exec, and University of Minnesota political scientist Jorge Rivas — reached that conclusion after running “a range of hypothetical scenarios” through an innovative model developed with funding support from NASA, America’s space agency.

Scientists at NASA usually spend their time looking up at the heavens. The investigators behind this new study kept their focus distinctly earth-bound.

Sophisticated human civilizations, the three investigators point out, have in the past collapsed and on a fairly regular basis. The Romans broke down, as did the Han in China and the Gupta in India, the Maya in Central America, and a variety of Mesopotamian civilizations.

These collapses, Motesharrei and his collaborators note, naturally raise the question whether we today remain “similarly susceptible.” Or can our modern civilization, with all our “greater technological capacity, scientific knowledge, and energy resources,” survive whatever did in our sophisticated predecessors?

And what did do in these predecessors? In previous collapses, we see some similar patterns. The doomed societies overextended themselves environmentally. They depleted their natural resources at an unsustainable pace — and failed to see, despite their sophistication, the warning signs of their impending implosion. They soldiered on, oblivious to the danger.

Or rather, to be more precise, the elite movers and shakers of these societies soldiered on. In deeply unequal societies, elites seldom feel the strain and pain that environmental degradation engenders — until that degradation has gone too far to reverse.

This “buffer of wealth,” as the Motesharrei team puts it, “allows elites to continue ‘business as usual.’”

Could we go down the same clueless path? The Motesharrei study explores that question with “the first model of its kind that studies the impacts of inequality on the fate of societies.” Under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today,” the study finds an eventual collapse “difficult to avoid.”

Difficult but not impossible. We can avoid collapse, the Motesharrei paper notes, if we reduce the “per capita rate of depletion of nature” to a “sustainable level” and start distributing resources in a more “reasonably equitable fashion.”

For specifics on what that would actually mean in practice, we need to look elsewhere. The new Motesharrei paper soars at a theoretical level and offers no practical roadmap to a more sustainable and equal society.

Other analysts have made that effort, no one more so than Herman Daly, the former World Bank senior economist now widely considered the founding father of ecological economics.

Daly and his colleagues have been calling for a “steady-state economy” that acknowledges the limits of our physical world. We can’t go on, they contend, endlessly depleting our stocks of natural resources and polluting the world with the wastes from our resource exploitation.

“We need,” says Daly, “to build the physical constraints of a finite biophysical environment into our economic theory.”

And into that theory, he adds, we need to build justice, too. This past fall, Daly spelled out ten specific steps that could help us push back against our current unsteady state. Among them: “Limit the range of inequality in income distribution with a minimum income and a maximum income.”

“Rich and poor separated by a factor of 500,” Daly observes, “have few experiences or interests in common.”

Maybe not even, the new Motesharrei study suggests, avoiding a cataclysmic environmental collapse.