Here’s how NASA thinks society will collapse

Preface.  NASA  says that the way to avoid collapse is having the population reach a steady state at the maximum carrying capacity and reducing the rate of depletion of nature to a sustainable level by equitably distributing resources.

They don’t seem to realize that we have way overshot the planets carrying capacity, the maximum isn’t what it is today, or the 10 billion expected by 2050, but far less since we’ve depleted fisheries, aquifers, topsoil, forests, and pretty much everything else.  A very rosy, simplistic view, but hey, it’s NASA, which the public trusts and has even heard of.

But they are not ecologists.  The best warnings come from 1,700 scientists in 1992 who signed the first warning to humanity here, and the 15,000 scientists from 184 countries who signed the second notice in 2017 here.  A more detailed understanding of the patterns of collapse throughout human history can be found here:Peter Turchin

 — Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

Brown, A. 2014. Here’s How NASA Thinks Society Will Collapse. Too much inequality and too few natural resources could leave the West vulnerable to a Roman Empire-style fall. The Atlantic. (select link above to see article).


Few think Western civilization is on the brink of collapse — but it’s also doubtful the Romans and Mesopotamians saw their own demise coming either.

If we’re to avoid their fate, we’ll need policies to reduce economic inequality and preserve natural resources, according to a NASA-funded study that looked at the collapses of previous societies.

“Two important features seem to appear across societies that have collapsed,” reads the study. “The stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity and the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses.”

In unequal societies, researchers said, “collapse is difficult to avoid…. Elites grow and consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society.”

As limited resources plague the working class, the wealthy, insulated from the problem, “continue consuming unequally” and exacerbate the issue, the study said.

Meanwhile, resources continue to be used up, even by the technologies designed to preserve them. For instance, “an increase in vehicle fuel efficiency technology tends to enable increased per capita vehicle miles driven, heavier cars, and higher average speeds, which then negate the gains from the increased fuel-efficiency,” the study said.

The researchers used what they termed a Human And Nature DYnamical (HANDY) formula to reach their conclusions. The formula uses factors such as birth rates, resources, and income classes to create a mathematical equation to project outcomes.

The study was sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and headed by the National Science Foundation’s Safa Motesharrei.

For those who think modern society is immune from the problems that brought down ancient civilizations, a “brief overview of collapses demonstrates not only the ubiquity of the phenomenon, but also the extent to which advanced, complex and powerful societies are susceptible to collapse,” the study said.

So how do we save ourselves? “Collapse can be avoided, and population can reach a steady state at the maximum carrying capacity, if the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed equitably,” reads the report.


Lessig, L. 2015. Republic, Lost: Version 2.0. Twelve.

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4 Responses to Here’s how NASA thinks society will collapse

  1. Nehemiah says:

    In our Low Power Distance (google it if necessary) culture, it would be comforting to believe that unequal societies must inevitably be punished with collapse, but we need to remember that most pre-Modern civilizations much larger than a city-state were highly stratified for centuries, even millennia in the case of ancient Egypt and, until the twentieth century, China. (Granted, dynasties sometimes changed, and this was often associated with periods of cooler and drier temperatures, but these civilizations would remain highly stratified under the new dynasty.) If collapsing civilizations were highly stratified, so were thriving civilizations.

    I can well believe that most collapses were associated with famine. Even today, food scarcity outweighs all other factors in explaining revolutions. However, it seems unlikely that famine was the result of elites who were a tiny fraction of the population eating more food than everyone else combined, thus creating an avoidable famine. Even Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, rich as they are, can eat only so much.

    • energyskeptic says:

      I agree that the NASA article sucks, but I find that 99% of people are more likely to believe NASA than systems ecologists, the book “Limits to Growth”, or unknown historians like Peter Turchin. But just as Peak Oil didn’t make a single mainstream media publication until 2006, at least 7 years after conferences and peer-reviewed papers had been published, it is rare for the MSM to mention collapse. My husband doesn’t believe anything I say until it appears in the New York Times….

  2. The Roman empire did not collapse due to inequity, it collapsed because it had a divided vision Christianity vs Platonism. As the Romans turned inwards against each other, weakened their state as wealth rather than going towards the efficiency of the army went into building churches, where the adherents were told God-Jesus would protect them, and the Platonists correct in their view the Roman elite turning from the Roman/Greek Gods divided the citizens, Romans-Greeks without a common vision of reality fell not only on each others swords, simultaneously on the swords of what should have been a common enemy. This is what causes an Empires destruction divided vision. So as it is today in the West.

    • energyskeptic says:

      I have seen a list of 210 reasons the roman empire failed.
      I prefer some of the latest theories, which you can read in these books:
      1) Book review of “Empires and Barbarians: the fall of Rome and the birth of Europe”.
      2) The best book of all is: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, by Kyle Harper
      3) Also along that theme is Robert Montgomery’s “Dirt: The erosion of civilization” (all civilizations fail after about 1500 years on average due to topsoil erosion)
      4) The topsoil erosion is often caused by deforestation, another big factor in the fall of civilizations as shown in John Perlin’s book “A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization”.

      I’m afraid Gibbons and others are a bit out of date, but not wrong — there were hundreds of factors. And there are reasons why they can all be overcome for a while — such as trade, conquering other nations, enslaving people, but nature always wins the end. We’e got to eat, and if your main energy source for bricks, clay, glass, metals, and so on is wood, deforestation rapidly lowers the standard of living.