societal collapse

Under Economic And Ecological Strain, Could Modern Civilization Collapse?

Ecological strain has contributed  to societal collapse in the past – but could it happen today?

When societal collapse happens, it’s due to a perfect storm of circumstances.

Popular examples include the fall of the Hittite Empire, the Western Roman Empire, and the Mayan Civilization. Mostly, such collapses are precipitous, or gradual declines that end up reversing society completely.

As always, there are those that believe it could happen as soon as tomorrow, and others that believe today’s world is invincible – neither mindsets of which are new.

Though the future is hardly predictable, certain factors reminiscent of what contributed to past collapses, such as a lack in resources and widening wealth gap, have been leading researchers to investigate the possibility.

Predicting collapse: Could it happen to us?

Enter the a cross-disciplinary model HANDY  (Human And Nature DYnamics), partially funded by NASA, which explores the combinations of circumstances that could, in theory, contribute to a societal collapse in today’s world.

HANDY lays out a model for economic stratification (division between rich and poor) and ecological strain as key triggers for societal decline, either separately or together.

An independent study, based on HANDY, was reported on by the Guardian’s Nafeez Ahmed in March 2014. Ahmed suggests that the model and study should serve as a wake-up call to the government – and everyone else – on resource sustainability, or lack thereof.

Noting that advanced, creative, complex civilizations have fallen many times before, the study identifies the factors that have threatened past societies: population, water, climate, agriculture, and energy.

These factors, when combined with the stretching of resources and stratification between the elite and the masses, create what many, including Ahmed, believe could be trouble.

Here are some of the study’s key points, as laid out by Ahmed:

  • Stretching of resources and the economic stratification are two social phenomena that have played key roles in the in the process of collapse in all cases in the last 5,000 years
  • Today, these two factors are linked, with today’s “elites” controlling resources, which are not evenly distributed
  • Technology only serves to raise per capita resource consumption
  • In a range of worst case scenarios in today’s reality, collapse would be difficult to avoid

The study has yet to be published, but awaits submission into the journal Ecological Economics.


In light of today’s record high income inequality and resource trauma, concern over these findings are natural.

The authors are not alone in their assertions. Similar views have been presented academically since the 1960s and 70s, and as recently as 2013. There are also entire websites devoted to preparation of societal collapse, citing stages and timelines that foresee economic, energy, and ecological collapse by 2070.

And though the latest collapse study clearly outlines worst-case scenarios, others question its credibility. Specifically, Discover Magazine’s Keith Kloor criticizes Ahmed for failing to provide context, or reach out to experts.

In his own investigation, Kloor contacted anthropologists including Joseph Tainter, who was quoted repeatedly in the study.

Tainter called the paper “trivial and deeply flawed,” noting that it lacked basic historic evidence, which undercuts it significantly. Other scientists echoed this criticism, comparing it to prior discredited works.

Still, even if this particular model is flawed, minimizing the risks – as both Ahmed and the paper’s authors suggest – could still serve to strengthen society and the planet.

Because at the end of the day, neither anthropologists nor economics nor psychics can really know for sure. The Romans certainly didn’t.

Photo courtesy of Robbt via Flickr.


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