All of a sudden, it seems, the Internet would have you believe that modern society is poised to go down hard, just like the Roman Empire and other great but fallen civilizations did. The stories say it may happen within mere decades and that we probably won’t bring ourselves to do anything about it.
Why all the hoopla? It’s about a study soon to be published in the journal Ecological Economics. Don’t get out your “The End is Near” placards just yet though.
If you peer beneath the surface of this gone-viral story, all the hand wringing might be a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
What the Study Actually Says
In a nutshell, here’s the hypothesis. Great civilizations which “collapse” tend to share certain traits. First, natural resources are exploited to the point that they can’t sustain us all. Second, the population ends up in two camps: the haves and the have nots, or as the study calls them, the Elites and the Masses.
Elites, who have all the money, are the baddies because they won’t hand it over to everybody else. Instead they’ll use everything up because they can. This will lead to famine, instability and eventually societal collapse.
The study is suddenly the darling of social media because a story about it in The Guardian went viral. Any headline that says the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is tied to a pronouncement that societal collapse is imminent will tend to draw attention, after all.
There are two problems, though. NASA isn’t really involved, other than as a source of funding used by the researchers. More importantly, other experts say the study has some fundamental flaws that everyone’s ignoring in their haste to tweet and re-tweet this particular doomsday news.
Let‘s Check Our Assumptions and Definitions, Shall We?
While a great number of media outlets trumpeted this story as a research-based harbinger of doom, a few folks looked at the study with a more jaundiced eye.
Discover Magazine’s Keith Kloor decided to poke around under the hood of this study instead of just issuing yet another “Hey NASA Says the World’s Ending” blog post. Unlike The Guardian, Kloor called a few experts and asked them what they thought. They weren’t impressed.
“Contrary to the authors’ unsubstantiated assertion,” said anthropologist Joseph Tainter of the Utah State University, “there is no evidence that elite consumption caused ancient societies to collapse. The authors simply have no empirical basis for this assumption, and that point alone undercuts most of the paper.”
Interesting, since the study cites to Tainter’s work. Of that, he told Discovery magazine, ”Overall I found the paper to be trivial and deeply flawed. It is amazing that anyone would take it seriously, but clearly some people do (at least in the media). You are correct that they cite my work a lot, but they seem not to have been influenced by it, or even to understand it.”
Tainter notes that the term “collapse” isn’t even defined in the study. He also says the underlying basis for the Elites vs. the Masses assumption “comes from journals that have no expertise in this topic, and whose audience is unqualified to evaluate the assertion critically.”
The study authors gave a pre-publication copy of their work to The Guardian, which resulted in all the breathless headlines. When Discovery Magazine asked for comment on its more critical article a week later, the study authors indicated they would not further comment until the study is published in Ecological Economics.
NASA Issues Statement to Clarify How Uninvolved it Really Is
Headlines erroneously attributed the study to NASA in nearly every story and blog post that burst forth on the web after The Guardian’s blog item went live. In truth, NASA only partially funded a grant used by independent researchers who then developed this theory.
This doomsday story has gained so much attention that NASA felt the need to remind everyone that these conclusions are not those of the agency. It said on March 20 that the study:
was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity. As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions.
OK, so now we have that straight.
Calm down, social media. Despite those excited headlines of yours, NASA isn’t predicting the end of the world and some experts think this theory is a bit simplistic. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to address the issue of shrinking resources in an expanding world. We do, without question.
It just means we don’t need to run around like Chicken Little based on one viral blog post.
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