For years, scientists and social activists have warned that income inequality, resource depletion, and unchecked population growth could lead to the collapse of civilization. However policy makers have so far regarded these assertions as little more than the predictions of delusional cardboard sign-carrying oracles on street corners. A new study by researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of Minnesota confirms these terrifying prophesies, stating that industrialized society as we know it could completely collapse within the next few decades.

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It happened to the Roman, Han, Gupta, and Mauryan empires, and now University of Maryland researchers Safa Motesharrei and Eugenia Kalnay, and University of Minnesota’s Jorge Rivas warn that utter destruction could befall our global economy as well. Working with a framework that incorporates mathematical analysis, social science, and observation of natural phenomena, the ‘Human And Nature Dynamical’ (HANDY) model projects “business as usual” could lead to the end of industrialized civilization. Accepted for publication in the Elsevier Journal of Ecological Economics, the study finds ample historical evidence that overpopulation, failing agriculture, limited access to water, energy consumption, and the unequal distribution of wealth could all combine to spell the end for society as we know it.

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The report predicts that increased strain on the ecological carrying capacity of the Earth will further the stratification of wealth, dividing society into what the researchers term the “Elites” and “Masses”. As the rich hog all of the resources and dictate political policy, they will allocate little to the majority of the population who are also the ones responsible for creating their wealth. Advances in technology and agriculture will not improve the situation by increasing resource efficiency due to the fact that it will likely also raise consumption rates.

The researchers believe that humanity is on a collision course with disaster, and they outline two likely scenarios. In the first, everything will appear to be fine for a short period of time, but eventually a small number of Elites will begin to deplete everyone’s resources. Even under the most “conservative” consumption rates, the Elites will take too much and cause a famine amongst the Masses and later themselves. In this model, society is sabotaged by human rather than natural forces. In an alternate future, the faster consumption of resources wipes out the Masses in a short period while the Elites still survive, but soon after disappear. In both situations, the Masses get hit harder and faster while the upper echelons fail to adjust their behavior until it is too late.

To avoid an apocalypse, the scientists urge economic equality, stark decreases in consumption, and the fairer distribution of resources. Energy production should rely on cleaner, renewable technologies and support a smaller, more conservative population. If humans are to survive on the planet, immediate political action is needed to curtail the runaway growth of the economy, the threat of pollution, and the unfair allocation of wealth. To preserve not just the quality of life but its very existence, it is time to restore balance to both natural and social systems.

+ Human and Nature Dynamics Study

Via The Guardian

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Images via NASA and Wikicommons user Giovanni Dall’Orto