Cultural modeling by Safa Motesharrei

I did not see this being discussed here. I am trying to avoid the incendiary rhetoric that I see surrounding it.

Human and Nature Dynamics study (small pdf)

He is designing system models (algorithms) to apply to human societies in order to analyze the collapse of civilizations such as the Mayans, the Guptas, Rome, the Han, etc, etc, and apply those analyses to modern society.

I read the piece through the lens of my IIADD, so I might have missed something. It looks to me to be rather objective, preliminary and inconclusive, which is not the sort of thing I have otherwise been reading about this peer-reviewed, not-yet-published work. More to follow, so as to avoid a tl;dr OP.

The study looks at the theoretical differences between nominally egalitarian societies vs. highly-stratified societies, plotting resource use, natural carrying capacity (what the ecosystem can support) and wealth accumulation (stored resources that can be drawn down). Population is, of course a major factor.

The pretty graphs I saw were all basically hypothetical patterns that showed how stratification of a society (uneven wealth accumulation) can lead to total system collapse, but that those who hold the wealth are insulated from the effects of the collapse until they end up exhausting their reserves.

However, there were also graphs that show egalitarian societies collapsing in a similar way, apart from the fact that no one is insulated from the effects (everyone gets hit at once). In addition, he shows models of stratified societies that can converge to a stable equilibrium.

None of the graphs I looked at were based on actual source data, they were just models with values plugged into variables.

The talk I have heard is that his modeling paints an apocalyptic picture, though I did not see where he showed a graph based on contemporary values. A few “news” sources are touting this as a major lesson about how we have but a few decades left before global society fails in a drastic or catastrophic way, but it is not clear to me how he expects to derive the parameters to plug into his model.

It does seem pretty obvious that if the people who control the bulk of the wealth in a highly stratified society are insulated from the broader, long-term effects of their actions and decisions, one cannot realistically expect them to make wise choices that look much beyond the immediate situation. In observing the behavior of bankers and investors, this outlook is quite apparent. If the decision makers are fairly safe from the hazards their decisions incur, is it sensible to place such power in their hands? This must be a concern with respect to social stratification, and perhaps a good reason to oppose it.

One thing that bothers me is the “wealth” concept. The models are an extension of simple predator/prey models, where the predator population rises until it overruns its providence, drives the prey population down, then declines to a low point, which allows the prey population to recover, followed by a recovery in the predator population, and endless pair of cycles (until the asteroid wipes them all out).

For humans, the cycles are complicated by wealth accumulation, which allows the humans to survive variations in resource availability. But, if the underlying system gets tapped out to where it cannot recover, humans merely survive a little bit longer than they would have without the stores.

But, today, wealth is typically counted in terms of the potential rather than the actual, so what we are looking at may be an inverted situation: the accumulated wealth is mostly abstraction, so when we go to draw on it, we will have a lot of IOUs rather than elevators full of grain.

So I guess the real question is “what can be drawn from this”? Some sites have been posting alarmist claims about how we are all doomed, doomed, I tells ya, claiming a fairly near-term collapse of global society (decades, or less), but if the actual plug-in parameters are not yet known, and the models are not fully representative, are they of any value?

I mean, many of us do see mounting problems with out accelerating use of our resource base (which is not solved by improved efficiency, that only encourages us to use more). And, as I noted, wealthy people may not be the best judges of how to employ their wealth. But does shrill alarmism harm the message beyond its value?

I gather the recommended course of action is to invest your money in canned food and shotguns.

I skimmed, but it sounded like his research was based on some methods developed by others to research collapsed societies. His work doesn’t seem to concern itself with trying to recreate history, just to model some of the basic factors that go into maintaining a functional society, and what values the variables need to be set to to achieve general equilibrium.

Overall, it didn’t look like a terrible study, but I don’t think society of the last 2-300 years is sufficiently similar to the rest of history for such a simplistic model to work. Humans are barely reliant on nature for sustenance, any more, and we’re quickly going to be processing raw minerals and manufacturing food at the same time as all of us live and spend most of our time in virtual worlds, with minimal consumption of worldly resources and (probably) a very low birth rate.

Throw in a few curveballs like AI and cold fusion, and the landscape looks entirely different. In his research, he’s considering today’s resources to be tomorrow’s, but in modern life that’s rarely true. Or even if they’re the same underlying resources, the efficiency of the mechanisms we have is so different that it’s about the same difference. Take for example the fact that there’s a hundred kilometers of copper wiring in a modern microprocessor - but it’s extracted so finely that the total quantity used is probably a small portion of a gram. Start using induced power to light all the LCDs in your room, and suddenly copper usage drops by another few thousandfold. Put solar panels on top of houses and the wiring from the power company to yours become redundant.

The world’s changing too fast for his model to be useful for today’s societies, so while interesting, and probably a fun project for him to work on, it probably is only of use to apply to ancient civilizations. But there, you’re going to have to do a good job proving that you chose your input numbers fairly - and not just reverse engineered them based on when the society actually collapsed.

uh huh

Cold Fusion is, up to this point, an absolute pipe-dream. Even “hot” fusion remains out of our grasp, so far. But even so, all it adds up to is a means to more efficiently consume resources. And the document does assert that increases in efficiency do not improve the dynamic, they just lead do increases in consumption that end up leaving the system at net-zero.

As far as “AI”, I am not sure what you think it adds to the equation. Artificial Intelligence is not a thing that will abruptly happen, it is a sort of spectrum of process function that develops over time. Machines will simply not become “self-aware”, because we will never be able to discern the difference between awareness and simulation of awareness. Machines will not become the dominant force, the singularity is modern mythology not reality, and it really does not change the resource<->usage function even a little bit.

Learning from past mistakes is pretty valuable. If we can plug in values that depict what did happen in prior cases, perhaps we can discover why it happened and apply it to the contemporary situation.

Some percentage of seafood is still naturally grown. The rest is more-or-less manufactured and can be scaled up or scaled down at need.

Hence why it would be a curveball (i.e. something unexpected).

For example, largely autonomous drones that can search deeper underground, the ocean, or outer space for resources - effectively boosting the total quantity of resources that we have at our disposal by several orders of magnitude.

“Grown in dirt” is far from synonymous with “manufactured”. We cannot, at present, just “manufacture” food without employing natural processes, and we cannot “scale up” with no regard for the natural/physical limitations of nature itself. And, in fact, things like Uranium or Thorium for powering nuclear furnaces are ultimately part of nature. As are the iron we use to make steel, aluminum, titanium, wood, cotton, on ad finitum. We are nowhere near beyond reliant on nature, nor will we ever be. Because, no matter how you look at it, we are, inextricably, part of nature.

Nonetheless, it bears on one of the points the author makes: techniques that improve efficiency (as fusion power, cold or hot, would) do not impact our resource usage – greater efficiency simply encourages us to use the same input at a higher rate, so the overall net result is zero. A free, open-ended energy source will solve nothing.

You seem to lack a basic understanding of “AI”. Autonomous drones are within the scope of contemporary technology. The “AI” thing (or “Singularity”) is completely unrelated to garden-variety sophistication of the sort you speak of. And, in fact, if we create self-aware machines, it is not at all certain that they would naturally be inclined to facilitate our habits of consumption, I would rather expect the opposite.