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Society’s Going to Collapse and it’s All Your Fault Because the Internet Says So

Society’s Going to Collapse and it’s All Your Fault Because the Internet Says So

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.

Lets 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.”

Ouch.

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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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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129 comments

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9:25PM PDT on Mar 28, 2014

Try reading: Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed / Jared Diamond.

7:03PM PDT on Mar 27, 2014

Well, you know, if it's on the internet, it's got to be true...Hopefully the end won't approach for a bit longer...I have 4 years of teaching before retirement...

5:51PM PDT on Mar 27, 2014

The fact of the matter is that having two camps, the elite (haves) and the masses (have nots) DOES destabilize society (not to mention being WRONG).

Economic inequality is the single biggest problem this nation is facing.

And yes, it was a major factor in the fall of the western Roman Empire.

5:03PM PDT on Mar 27, 2014

TY

11:25AM PDT on Mar 27, 2014

I still think we're doomed, whether it's on decades or centuries. Global warming is real!

3:42PM PDT on Mar 26, 2014

@ Joan E. "All that happens is the economy goes up, then it goes down", If that is what you think is happening, you are lucky that you are 71 and hopefully don't have children or grandchildren. You will probably be lucky enough to die before you notice the reality.

3:33PM PDT on Mar 26, 2014

I didn't need the internet to tell me that the good times were all gone whether the study referred to was flawed or not. In my lifetime, nearly all animals became faced with extinction, The air,soil and water became polluted. In one lifetime the oceans went from being full of fish to nearly empty and glaciers and snow caps on mountains are nearing nonexistence. When their melt water no longer feeds rivers necessary for human existence, when agriculture can no longer produce food because of alternating floods and droughts, people will starve in great numbers. Only fools such as the author of the above rebuttal can pretend that the glass is half full.. .

12:11PM PDT on Mar 26, 2014

What is the point of this article? Sleep on, until it is too late??

Of course doomsday is coming, we are working so hard to bring it about. Taking more out of earht more that it can grow back, using up recources that cannot come back and polluting like there is no tomorrow, and more an more and more people.

We will die of greed an stupidity and take everything with us if not enough people Work against it.

9:02AM PDT on Mar 26, 2014

If Ecological Economics wants to show they are an ethical organization they will think twice about publishing what appears to be flawed information. This all sounds like a bunch of researchers trying to make a name for themselves and nothing more; with the exception that they apparently did not care about facts and twisted the information they compiled for sensationalism. Perhaps the best thing Ecological Economics can do is have Tainter and possibly NASA write articles commenting on the supposedly flawed one by these researchers.

We, keeping in mind individual freedom, must put some regulations on the use of the internet and with consequences when abused. Since its development and the use of social media people's privacy has been invaded and not just by government organizations but by business, other groups and even the general public and one really has to be diligent in searching out truth from fiction.

To be clear there are many flaws in our societies but history tells us we can change and we can be better. We know what we must do to make positive changes in our world, but greed and/or complacency keeps us for moving forward. We need better leaders in our world; and in particular the USA. This experiment of our Republic is flawed and we need to find the leadership and the will to change it for the better and long-term.

7:34AM PDT on Mar 26, 2014

i liked chicken little

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