The Sky Is Falling

According to and many other news agencies, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has released a new study that claims we only have a few decades left before life as we know it is over. The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

NB: The following is a statement from NASA regarding erroneous media reports crediting the agency with an academic paper on population and societal impacts.

“A soon-to-be published research paper ‘Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies’ by University of Maryland researchers Safa Motesharrei and Eugenia Kalnay, and University of Minnesota’s Jorge Rivas 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.”

At any rate, here’s’s take:

So will it be war, climate change, or a zombie apocalypse?

Turns out it’ll be mostly because of how crappy we treat the environment — and each other. A team of natural and social scientists analyzed five risk factors for “societal collapse,” including population, climate, water, agriculture, and energy. The downfall of a societal structure like ours reportedly occurs when these risk factors intersect.

Throughout history, societal collapses have happened because of the combination of “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity,” and “the economic stratification of society into Elites (rich) and Masses (poor).” The scientists place much of the blame on the Elite class for continuing to consume on such a grand scale despite the impending catastrophe.

Researchers predict either a sudden collapse due to famine, or a slow breakdown due to over-consumption of natural resources. They do offer a few key solutions, including reducing economic inequality, dramatically reducing resource consumption and of course, reducing population growth. However, scientists fear that mankind will not put these suggestions into action, and they’re probably right — when have we ever heeded serious warnings? Global warming, anyone?

And in case you were thinking of writing this off as another one of those doomsday scare tactics, think again. The Guardian reports that this is hardly the first study of its kind. KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science have issued similar warnings.

Image 1 for article titled "The Sky Is Falling"
An 1865 edition of Chicken Little, originally published in Boston in 1840. It is a folk tale with a moral in the form of a cumulative tale about a chicken who believes the world is coming to an end. The phrase “The sky is falling!” features prominently in the story, and has passed into the English language as a common idiom indicating a hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent. Versions of the story go back more than 25 centuries. The moral to be drawn changes, depending on the version. Where there is a ‘happy ending’, the moral is not to be a ‘Chicken’ but to have courage. In other versions where the birds are eaten by the fox, the fable is interpreted as a warning not to believe everything you are told (Wikipedia: Henny Penny)