Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why the elites are so ruthless that they destroy themselves

The recent announcement of a paper by Motessharrry, Rivas and Kalnay (MRK) on the collapse of complex societies has generated much debate, especially with the publication of an enthusiastic comment by Nafeez Ahmed who defined it a "NASA-funded" study. The term rapidly went viral - no matter how irrelevant the source of funds for the study is -  and the discussion soon veered to the kind of clash of absolutes that took place after the publication of the first report to the Club of Rome, "The Limits to Growth" of 1972. For instance, a rather heavy handed criticism of the study can be found in a post by Keith Kloor.

Apart from these rather predictable reactions, what can we actually say of this study? Is it really saying something new, or is it just another "cry wolf" study? Let me try a brief appraisal.

First of all, the MRK study is firmly grounded in system dynamics (even though the authors don't use the term in their paper), the method of modeling created in the 1960s by Jay Forrester. It has also many elements in common with the models used for the original "The Limits to Growth" study of 1972, and the subsequent updates. However, it is a simpler model which makes no attempt to compare the results with historical data. In this sense, it is similar to the "mind sized" models which I have been discussing in a paper of mine on "Sustainability".

Going into the details, we see that the MRK model is a simple, four-stock model. One is the "Natural Resources" stock which is gradually transformed into the stock that the authors call "Wealth" (which in other models is called "capital"). The other stocks are the two classes of the population: "commoners" and "elite". Both take their subsistence from the "wealth" stock, but only the commoners replenish it. The elites, instead, do not produce anything.

The results are not unexpected. Depending on a variety of possible initial assumption, the system may reach a steady state, oscillate, or show a series of peaks and collapse. The figure below, from the paper, is the result that most looks like the "Limits to Growth" "base case" scenario - except for the fact that the population stock collapses in two phases, rather than in a single one.

Here, he MRK model is telling us no more than previous studies did: qualitative models (e.g. Catton's "Overshoot" and Hardin's "The tragedy of commons") and quantitative ones such as "The Limits to Growth". In most cases, this subdivision of the population in two stocks doesn't change very much the results of the model in comparison to single stock ones (also reported in the MRK paper). But in some cases the authors observe rather surprising results, such as this one:

As you see, here society literally commits suicide by having the elites draw so much wealth from the accumulated resources that nothing is left to commoners - who die out. But, as the elites don't produce anything, the wealth stock disappears and the final result is that they also disappear. The elites are so ruthless that they destroy themselves.

Note that in this scenario, the nature stock recovers its initial level: collapse is not the result of lack of resources, but of the inability of society to access them. It is a result that eerily reminds a possible interpretation of the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Romans may have directed so much wealth to non-producers (the army) that producers (slaves) nearly disappeared. Since there was hardly anyone left to cultivate the land, eventually the whole society collapsed.

Of course, this is an interpretation to be taken with some caution. One reason is that in the MRK model commoners cannot become elite and elites cannot become commoners; the two classes are completely separated and impermeable to each other. This is surely an oversimplification: before dying out completely, the elites would at least try to learn to produce something. On the other hand, however, it is true that - for instance - government bureaucrats make very bad peasants.

Possibly a more important shortcoming of the MRK model is that it lacks the critical parameter of persistent pollution - present instead in the "Limits to Growth" model. Pollution, if it were considered, would likely play a fundamental role in this "labor shortage" scenario. It would likely show that the disappearance of the Roman Empire was mainly related, instead, by soil erosion - possibly a more realistic description of the events of that time.

In any case, these considerations illustrate the power of models to stimulate the interpretative capabilities of the human mind. We don't need any formal model to describe the final destiny of economic systems which grow on overexploiting the resources they use. In time, they must go back to a condition compatible to the available (remaining) resources. Most models tell us that this "return" happens as the result of a cycle of overshoot and collapse, which is indeed a characteristic pattern of those socio-economic structures we call "empires".

The MRK model has highlighted a factor that so far has been scarcely explored: how the unequal distribution of wealth affects the trajectory of an economic system in overshoot. This is an important parameter because, in this period, we are seeing an epochal transfer of wealth from the lower classes of society to the elites. Whether this phenomenon will accelerate collapse or slow it down, we cannot say. But surely it is something we need to study and understand.


  1. Ugo
    Looking round, how might we define 'elites' nowadays?
    Should we see military for example as essentially 'elite cosumers'?
    Or perhaps, given what they consume, those who can afford to use air travel a lot or rely on air-supply for a significant fraction of their consumption?
    Or a whole society that averages high vehicle mileage?
    Is per capita carbon emission a useful indicator of, in world terms, a consumer rather than a producer?


    1. Need to redo this model with a slightly different approach: the "Elites" are to be defined as "non producing capital". I hacked a simple model about that and it does reproduce the results by MRK. Need to work a little more on it.

  2. In a metaphor, we may say that the elites are society's epiphytes.

  3. DO these models factor in robots as replacement for commoners? Because it should.

    A great deal of capital is being invested into developing technology that more and more effectively replaces the peasant class.

    It's nothing new, this trend has been ongoing since the industrial revolution but has definitely been speeding up over the past decade.

    Masses of robots and a few 'upgraded' humans will be all that are required to perform all the labor required to keep the system running as commoner populations fall drastically over the next centruy.

    I believe the elites think that this will be their get out clause.

  4. Climate Chaos is a huge piece missing from these models. It's the wild card of nature which seems to be happening much faster than expected and reported over the last 20 years.

    The changes are occurring today at such a rapid rate. Those previous collapses didn't have to face the outcomes of Climate Chaos. Even with a stable climate those previous civilizations managed to destroy their agriculture. They could at least move to another area and do more destruction. Today, the climate and weather changes are happening globally which will have and are having (California) major impacts on our ability to grow food.

    Hey, robots are great as long as they are programmed with the Three Laws created by Asimov (that ought to put the bee in the bonnet of the elites).

    It seems that more ad more are coming to the conclusion we are in the midst of an extinction event driven by humans (See Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction among others) which will have far reaching effects for everything on the planet.

    Humans don't understand that by driving 200 species a day to extinction, species we depend on for our own existence, they will be standing on quicksand and not solid ground.

    1. " by driving 200 species a day to extinction, species we depend on for our own existence, they will be standing on quicksand and not solid ground."
      that would seem to be obvious wouldn't it? My wife and I came to this conclusion several years ago one night while drinking some wine and started planning a pre-extinction party. The concept was that we should party now before we go extinct because we surely can't party after we are extinct. Nobody will be there to drink at the wake of our species. There will be nobody to organize the wake.
      The party was a great success. Everyone had a good time, but I doubt that anyone got the joke or understood the irony. We made no attempt to bludgeon people with the message.

  5. Many of the discussions to do with the decline and collapse of empires focus on Rome. Yet, as is often pointed out, our records as to what actually happened two thousand years are very meager and we have almost no statistical information.

    Yet there is a much more recent example of empire decline that no one seems to discuss - and that is the disappearance of the British and French empires following the Second World War. When compared with Rome, I note the following differences.

    • We do have a huge amount of written material, along with photographs and some videos. We can also interview people who remember those times. (I myself hitch-hiked over about a third of Africa in the years immediately following the independence of many nations from Britain.)
    • Neither France nor Britain collapsed after they lost their overseas territories. Indeed, they seemed to prosper.
    • The empires were huge in relation to the mother countries, particularly if we compare the ratio of the size of central Italy to the Roman Empire.
    • The empires maintained a relatively gentle touch (although I do have a photograph of the prison tower in Kuala Lumpur where the British hanged troublesome people).
    • The British Empire had two phases. The first was mercantile and led to the development of the American colonies (long since lost) and the Raj. It was followed by the industrial revolution, which was powered by coal — a resource that is now pretty much exhausted.
    • That industrial power allowed Britain to develop the biggest and best Navy in the world until the 1920s. But the British army was tiny — as the nation learned to its cost in 1914.

    Did these empires disappear (rather than collapse) due to over-complexity? I rather doubt it. It seems to me that they disappeared when the colonial peoples demanded their independence. There was no way that Britain and France could maintain their empires by force (although there were sporadic attempts in various places such as Kenya and southeast Asia). So they gave up.

    Therefore, in the context of this post, it would appear that the British and French elites were not all that ruthless; nor did they destroy themselves or the commoners or their own nations.

    1. Well, Britain is merely the shadow of its former self.

      One agrees, still able to import resources and food globally, and superficially prosperous. but highly polluted, over-populated, with an infrastructure increasingly difficult to maintain, socially rotten, and above all, highly indebted. Not a pretty picture.

      Loss of empire was but the first stage of the decline.

    2. And merely the client state of a greater informal empire, that of the USA.

  6. Carlos de CastroApril 4, 2014 at 4:36 AM

    Nature= plants
    Commoners = hervivors (prey)
    Elites = carnivores (predator)
    Similar to Lotka-Volterra results?

    May be some elites think that some elites must return to commoners (e.g. Spain, Greece, Italy...)

  7. I am always astonished by the "extinction" claims. Now, don't get me wrong, I strongly believe that there will be a serious "weeding" coming our way, best I can figure, without the simple pleasures of high density energy found in oil we are looking at a billion or so folks supported by the renewable stocks.

    But, when you think of it, that is the same population base that brought us some of our greatest thought and our greatest philosophies. Maybe we will be just fine in a couple of hundred years.

    Of course, getting there might be a bit of a bother.

  8. Well, I always say that the rich -rather than the poor - need to be saved. This explains pretty much why.

  9. mentioned your inspiring blog post here: and here:

    1. What a coincidence. I was in Pfaffstätten the day before yesterday. :-)

    2. Neven you are welcome for a chat...give me a short sms.

  10. I am not sure how population best could be divided into elites and commoners but I think doing so appropriately could be ONE step in the right direction towards somehow trying to take into account POLITICS which is generally missing from the various models. (even though it is one of the main reasons why the models and their conclusions have been persistently and "sustainably" misunderstood or maligned).

    I also agree with another comment above regarding the importance of including climate change and climate chaos into the model. (or of taking it into account by some other means) Although pollution was included in the original model I don't think the havoc caused by CO2 pollution in particular was necessarily anticipated or featured with the prominence it now deserves.

    Regarding the discussion about empires I tend to agree that maybe some more recent and much better documented examples of empires and their assorted kinds of collapses or transformations also should be studied rather than just the Roman or maybe even the Chinese empires. Though in this respect if anyone thinks the British and French empires and their elites were NOT ruthless they should perhaps ask the opinion of the Mau Mau in Kenya and MANY others.

    But one more general problem that I have with the entire "empires" argument is that although it is probably fairly clear by now that many empires collapsed due to various nefarious feedback loops or interactions having to do with resources, resources depletion, pollution, degradation or diminishing or even negative returns on increasing internal complexity as well as production systems, military systems, financial systems and etc. that empires also were and remain sub-systems of the overall world system and also had competitors and enemies of various kinds which could and did take advantage of the weaknesses caused by the empire's system dynamics factors. (hence yet another way in which politics -external or internal- played and still plays a role)

    But now we are considering the collapse of the entire World System and not just the collapse of one empire or another which is a sub-set of it. There are no "external enemies" unless one wants to consider Nature and the biosphere and the physics of planet earth as "enemies". The enemy is OURSELVES, our own numbers, our own per capita consumption and our own economic and political and cultural systems which we have developed or evolved.

    And there is also nowhere else to go or to or "migrate" to. So I wonder how useful the various downfall or collapse of empires arguments really are. (though they could provide interesting or useful indications and lessons on how to transition)

    I find more interesting the study of the collapse of islands or of island civilizations. For instance Easter Island but more so, Ireland. Islands of course exist on planet earth and therefore have an external environment. (like planet earth has the solar system or the galaxy) And some islands (again Ireland) were the victims of external empires. Namely the British one which cut down all its forests and put the lands into agriculture to feed Britain while preserving British forests. And although there could be some parallels between Ireland running out of potatoes (through fairly sudden blight) after its population had first exploded BECAUSE of the introduction of potatoes, to Earth running out of fossil fuels (after its population first grew from one to seven billions during the fossil fuels age) I don't think there is any "equivalent empire or island" to the current situation of planetary human society as a whole running out of resources or of creating too much pollution or of going beyond the complexity that can be sustained by its materials and energy availabilities. So in my opinion there is a clear "limits to growth" also in terms of the amount and kinds of "growth" of various analogies and parallels that apply and that maybe don't apply all that well.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)