March 27, 2014 — A NASA-commissioned study predicting civilization’s imminent collapse actually demonstrates what’s wrong with both government and academia.
Goddard Space Flight Center commissioned mathematician Safa Motesharrei and his team at the nearby University of Maryland to play Nostradamus. But Motesharrei isn’t calculating the odds of an errant asteroid impacting Earth. He’s not even crystal-balling, based on politicized science, a cataclysm caused by global warming or a new Ice Age, whichever happens to be in vogue.
Given that Motesharrei’s group is named the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center , we should not be surprised that he blames our coming doomsday, as well as past collapses of civilizations over the millennia, on economic and political factors, not just resource issues.
The idea that civilization is about to collapse is so wild that it raises a host of questions. But the existence of the project itself raises a more basic question: “Why on Earth—or any other planet—is NASA wasting taxpayer dollars on such stuff?” NASA is supposed to be pioneering space travel and exploring the solar system, not bankrolling dubious socio-economic studies. Talk about mission creep!
But, then, what of the study itself? Did NASA stumble onto some cosmic revelation that allows us overlook its misuse of funds? Hardly! Motesharrei’s study just repeats the usual leftist canards.
Motesharrei looks at five factors—population, climate, water, agriculture and energy—and concludes that our society hasn’t long to live because of 1) "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity [of the Earth]” and 2) “the economic stratification of society into Elites [the rich, of course] and Masses (or ‘Commoners’).”
He explains that “... accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”
Poor growing richer
Wow! The Marxist paradigm is as alive and wrong today as it was in the nineteenth century. Let’s sort out this mess.
To begin with, when the term “inequality of wealth” is uttered, everyone on the left and confused folks across the political spectrum have an almost visceral reaction based on the premise that such inequality is immoral as such. It isn’t. Individuals who become more prosperous than others by producing goods and services with which to trade with their fellows are creators who should be celebrated. Individuals who gain more than others through government transfers or special favors are crony expropriators who should be condemned. The moral—and practical—meaning of wealth depends on how one earned it.
But Motesharrei’s study is also suggesting, as did Marx, that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer as the ranks of the latter swell. Marx predicted that the result would be the collapse of the capitalist system with socialism to follow. Motesharrei suggests a collapse of civilization and he seems pessimistic about whether a post-apocalyptic paradise can follow.
Marx was wrong because he failed to understand that as production skyrocketed because of the efficiencies of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, labor as well as capital and other resources came into greater demand. Over time, in a free market economy, all prospered and the “masses” or “Commoners” filled the ranks of the new Middle Class.
And key to the spread of prosperity to all was the fact that some individuals are responsible for creating more wealth than others. Think of Henry Ford who figured out how to mass produce automobiles and offer them for a price that the “Commoners” could afford. Or think of the information and telecommunications wizards who in recent decades have put computers in every home and smartphones in every hand. This is why their wealth is “unequal”: they are creators of immense value.
Famine of understanding
You might think that Motesharrei could easily see that technology today continues the process of enriching all. But, instead, he argues that “Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”
Consumption? Doesn’t increased consumption just mean more of every imaginable convenience of life for those supposed impoverished “Commoners?”
Speaking of historical patterns of collapse, he adds that “the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society.”
Famine? (Wow! The “Elites” eat that much?) The fact is that after World War II new agricultural techniques and genetically modified strains of wheat and rice that can grow in a wider variety of environments and increase crop yields many-fold have vanquished the prospects of mass starvation. Surely genetically-modified food, if not stopped by governments cow-towing to eco-loonies, will continue to keep us all well-fed. And surely if governments stop mandating that we literally burn food such as corn as “alternative fuels,” a bigger concern will be obese “Commoners” rather than emaciated ones, as we see today in America.
The ultimate resource
Motesharrei seems to think economic gains are temporary because efficiency always leads to increased consumption which eventually means that resources are depleted.
Motesharrei could have avoided his most fundamental error if he had looked to another Maryland professor, the late, great Julian Simon. In his book The Ultimate Resource , Simon showed that there is no resource problem because the ultimate resource is the human mind. Ayn Rand made this point as well by observing that there is no such thing as a “natural resource,” that there is only raw material in our universe, raw material that human beings learn—by the use of their minds—to utilize for their survival and well-being—raw material we can make into spaceships that can travel to the Moon and the planets!
Which brings us back to NASA. If Motesharrei were right, if we’re all doomed in the coming decades, then NASA’s own projects are for naught and it should simply shut down. But since NASA was foolish enough to sponsor that study, it should probably shut down in any case!
Hudgins is director of advocacy and a senior scholar at The Atlas Society.
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