An Update on NASA Doomsday Scenario Paper

March 21, 2014 – I received an e-mail this morning from Melissa Andreychek, Communications Coordinator, The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, University of Maryland, which contained the following information release pertaining to my recent posting about a NASA doomsday scenario. Here is the content which she provided me through a link:
Researchers from the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), the University of Maryland (UMD), and the University of Minnesota have written a paper titled “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies” that has been accepted for publication in the journal Ecological Economics.

The paper’s authors are Safa Motesharrei, a Ph.D. candidate in applied mathematics and public policy at UMD; Jorge Rivas of the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota and the Institute of Global Environment and Society; and Eugenia Kalnay, Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology at UMD.

Motesharrei received minor support from NASA (Award No. NNX12AD03A), through UMD’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, to develop a coupled earth system model. Some of this funding was spent on the mathematical development of the HANDY model. The research paper was not solicited, directed, or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity.

After the modeling was completed and the paper was submitted to Ecological Economics, Motesharrei became a graduate research assistant at SESYNC, which is funded through a National Science Foundation grant to UMD.

A copy of the paper is available for download at:

The views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions.

Which brings me to the whole issue of how the media has taken this paper and its mathematical model and turned it into national headline prominence. An example of just how widespread this has gotten, in this morning’s Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, the following article appears: Doomsaying math whizzes just don’t understand capitalism. Written by Brian Lee Crowley, and appearing in the Report on Business, the author condemns NASA as supporting the re-emergence of egalitarian socialism (as he describes, the socialism of Stalin and Mao) as the only way to save humanity from ultimate Malthusian doom. That’s because the paper in its HANDY model tries to quantify elites and the masses and points to inequities as destabilizing and leading to potential conflict.

I fully appreciate that this knee-jerk reaction to a widely publicized minor paper, which only indirectly received some funding from NASA for an entirely unrelated project, has gotten capitalists like Crowley all tied up in knots. Crowley, who is Managing Director of the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, a public-policy think tank located in Ottawa, Canada, condemns NASA mathematicians even though the authors clearly are not a part of NASA. He lumps them with Paul Ehrlich, Al Gore, Sir Nicholas Steme, the Club of Rome and others “peddling the apocalypse.”

That’s an interesting list to condemn. I’m surprised he didn’t mention the IPCC and climate change science. Crowley concludes, “What is missing from the equations of the mathematicians of doom is the institutions we have developed – individual freedom, trade, markets and liberal democratic capitalism – thanks to which we are rewarded for experimenting and learning previously unknown and unsuspected things, and adjusting to new and unforeseen circumstances.”

Does his unforeseen circumstances include adjusting to rising GHG emissions? Does it include our ability to adjust to an increasingly compromised ocean? What Crowley doesn’t state is that the consequences of our capitalist approach to commerce and growth is leading us to a point where human society will have to make choices. Can we continue to believe in growth as the method by which we can raise the quality of life of all who live on this planet. Or should we be considering Bhutan’s happiness index and developing a a sustainability model for our future. It is not because we are running out of food and resources, because we are not. It is because the Industrial Revolution has come with consequences, ones that are impacting global climate.


The End




Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...