No, Nasa Does Not Think Civilization Is About To Collapse

I cannot claim to know how much the Guardian pay their in house apocalypse merchant Nafeez Ahmed, but I hope it is not much. Not really a regular journalist, Mr. Ahmed runs the Earth Insight blog “hosted” (does “hosted” mean the Guardian get the stuff for nothing?) by the Guardian. If your idea of journalism is someone waking up each morning and then doing a Google Scholar search and credulously reporting every piece of half-baked research that backs up that journalist’s prejudices then Mr. Ahmed is your guy.

Mr. Ahmed spent a large part of the 2000s going around concocting conspiracy theories about September 11th [update: the link to Mr. Ahmed's crackpot conspiracy theories has been removed from his website in the day since I posted this (you don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to draw a conclusion). Fortunately you can still read it using the archive.is website here.], telling us that the US government was partly behind the whole thing. Back then he was doing the rounds of 9/11 truth conferences, today, sadly, the Guardian has been foolish enough to give him a platform.

However he has since moved on to all things environmental, and he has two key themes: civilization is about to collapse and we are running out of everything. On the latter it is best to picture a man who if asked to write about TV talent shows would take the “we are running out of 18 year olds with enough talent to appear on X Factor” angle.

So we are running out of oil, coal and uranium. And Mr. Ahmed has the research to back himself up. Here he is in 2010 telling us that a study in “Science” (the quote marks are used because it wasn’t Science) that peak coal would have occurred by now. Well, this bizarre prophecy has been shown to be nonsense by China’s still booming coal mines. The same piece also claims that global oil production was in “inexorable” decline since 2008. Well, the numbers are clear on that prophecy. As Vaclav Smil remarked “Is it too much to hope that even some catastrophists and peak-oil cultists will find it impossible to ignore those numbers?” In Mr. Ahmed’s case the answer is almost certainly no.

But normally I would just ignore this type of crackpot, however this week he has dived into theoretical ecology (which is my day job), and made an even bigger fool of himself.

A “Nasa funded study” apparently shows that industrial civilization is on the verge of collapse. (sidenote: anyone familiar with Mr. Ahmed’s approach will note that he likes to put high emphasis on credentials, in this case Nasa, as Christopher Hitchens delightfully mocked here.)

So far this piece of journalism has been tweeted over 6,500 times and shared on Facebook 100,000 times. Social media needs more bullshit checking. (And these are statistics I have updated since I first wrote this. Originally it was 3,500 and 40,000.)

Let’s get first things out of the way. There appears to be no evidence that the paper in question has been peer-reviewed. Mr. Ahmed claims it has been accepted for publication by Ecological Economics.  Yet, the paper is not on the Ecological Economics website, although it is in submission.

This kind of thing should be unacceptable from a reputable newspaper like the Guardian. If a journalist says a study has been peer reviewed, then an editor should make damn sure that it has been peer reviewed. Otherwise no shortage of nonsense could appear in newspapers.

Given that Mr. Ahmed does not link to the paper or give its name a Google search is necessary. This throws up a paper called “A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction.” The lead author name is correct, and that Nasa funded part that Mr. Ahmed so delights in is there. 

So should we now worry about the imminent collapse of industrial civilization? Well, the word “minimal model” in the title should give us a hint. All of the complexities of humanity appear to be reduced to eight equations. Yes you read that correctly, eight equations.

Now, I do not model human civilization as my day job. Instead I model plankton. If you want to do a half adequate job of modelling plankton populations you will probably need more than eight equations. And I think humans are more complex than plankton, but some times I have doubts.

A model with this few equations will always provide egregious predictions about “industrial collapse”. Anyone who spends more than two minutes looking on Gapminder will recognise that inter-country differences are so vast that using eight equations to accurately model humanity is like replicating the Sistine Chapel using a crayon.

The model also assumes that birth rates are fixed. Again spend some time on Gapminder and see how meaningful this assumption. Most problematic is that they only model renewable resources. Modern civilization is fundamentally dependent on the provision of non-renewable resources on a huge scale.

It also assumes that there is a fixed carrying capacity for populations. Carrying capacity itself is a deeply problematic concept. Think about Britain prior to the Industrial Revolution. If Britain had attempted to power the Industrial Revolution with wood it would have rapidly run out of trees. As Tony Wrigley argued in his fine book on the subject the transition to coal allowed Britain to  escape the limits of a purely organic society. This makes it clear that this model, in its current form, offers limited insights into whether civilization will persist over the twenty first century.

Not that this means the research in question is rubbish. They aren’t aiming to model human civilization, but are aiming to provide some general theoretical insights into how civilizations might collapse. Models start simple and over time complexity is added in, and so you cannot criticize scientists for this, unless they make grand claims on the basis of simple, crude models.

And this of course is what Mr. Ahmed does. And this is what he always does.

Update:

Mr. Ahmed apparently thinks I am a “devotee” of American environment journalist Keith Kloor, and I could not fault the science. As an old fashioned atheist I am not aware of my devotion to Keith Kloor or anyone else.

And if Mr. Ahmed believes that 8 equation models of all of humanity cannot be faulted then we can add rank scientifically illiteracy to the charges. Sadly this silly story has now been shared 50,000 times on Facebook, so who knows. The Guardian might even give him a proper column. Can you imagine it?

About these ads

19 thoughts on “No, Nasa Does Not Think Civilization Is About To Collapse”

    1. Interesting. I was told the science bloggers were unpaid. Though I’m not sure what the current situation. Obviously they aren’t paid a great deal. The business model is to get cheap content and rely on ad revenue. Not one I have much enthusiasm for.

      1. Doom mongery is arguably not the problem here. The lack of editorial over sight is the big problem. Newspapers should fact check what is written. And certainly they should not be writing about scientific research that has yet to be published. Ahmed is bringing his profession into disrepute with his behaviour. Not that many would recognise him as any kind of journalist.

  1. I think that is one of the most vital info for me.
    And i’m happy studying your article. However
    want to observation on few common things, The
    web site taste is great, the articles is in point of fact nice : D.
    Excellent task, cheers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s