Wealth inequality and the collapse of civilizations

04/07/2014 9:15 PM

04/08/2014 5:54 PM

If you’re worried about wealth and income inequality, the simple moral argument that it’s unfair doesn’t get you very far.

Witness the fast fade of Occupy Wall Street.

And as New York Times economic columnist Eduardo Porter observed in this space last week, it’s difficult to link inequality to more concrete effects — on social mobility, educational attainment, health and life expectancy, crime, politics and economic stagnation.

He cites Christopher S. Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard, who has shelved a 10-year effort to write a book about income inequality because studies looking for deleterious effects are failing to pin down direct consequences. On rigorous examination, their conclusions are sometimes exaggerated or wrong.

Jencks points out it’s also nearly impossible to prove there are NO direct consequences.

The conundrum just spotlights that inter-related factors are at play. Not the least of which, from my point of view, is the capacity of many individuals to overcome inequalities no matter what their starting stations.

But the income gap has surpassed the record set in the 1920s, with the top 1 percent seeing a 310 percent rise in annual income since 1979. The top 0.01 percent — one percent of the 1 percent — are doing even better. More people are rich because they inherited it rather than earned it.

The gap between CEO pay and the average worker’s wage is larger than ever.

And to drive home the point: According to the real estate website Trulia, 43.5 percent of the houses for sale in San Francisco, increasingly the home to super-wealthy tech employees and executives, are listed at more than $1 million.

Those lower on the economic ladder are actually seeing incomes decline.

Despite the failure to lash inequality to larger troubles, the thought that this can’t be good for us still nags.

So let’s throw yet another study into the mix — one brought to wider attention by the Guardian of England.

It was led by University of Maryland applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei and conducted for the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, which is in part supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The study, by a team of natural and social scientists using a new cross-disciplinary model called human and nature dynamics, has passed peer review and is to be published in Ecological Economics.

Its stunning conclusion: Rising inequality could lead to an unsustainable use of resources and the collapse of global industrial civilization.

The stark warning is based on a sound observation: Over the course of history, the collapse of advanced, complex societies is quite common. Although civilizations can last centuries, in reality they’re “fragile and impermanent.”

The study examined five key factors — population, climate, water, agriculture and energy. Collapse comes when improper stewardship of those five elements converges and society has to contend with both “the stretching of resources” from “the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity” and “the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses.”

Overconsumption and inequality, the study points out, have occurred in the collapse of every civilization over the last 5,000 years.

Other quotes from the study noted by the Guardian, while applied to previous civilizations, ring ominously for us:

• “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.”

• While it appears a civilization can be “on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this collapse is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of nature.”

• The wealth of the elites buffers them from the most “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners,” allowing them to “continue ‘business as usual.’ ”

• “While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving toward an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes Elites and their supporters could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”

The study’s authors say worse-case scenarios aren’t inevitable. Unfortunately, their recommendations aren’t inevitable either: Reduce economic inequality so that resources are shared more fairly, rely more on renewable resources and hold down population growth.

You can argue that the study still fails to build an airtight case, and even dismiss it as outlandish. Collapse certainly isn’t around the corner.

But you would also have to tell me how we can escape the tenacious grasp of history.

Videos

Join the Discussion

The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service