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A Three Dimensional Collapse Overview Model

The Limits to Growth was published in 1972 by a group of world class scientists using the best mathematical computer modelling available at the time. It projected the future collapse of global industrial civilisation in the 21st century if humanity did not curb its population, consumption and pollution. It was pilloried by many “infinite growth on a finite planet” economists over the decades.

However, updated data inputs and modern computer modelling in recent years (particularly by Dr Graham Turner of the CSIRO in 2008 and 2014) showed that we are in reality closely tracking the standard model of the LtG, with industrial collapse and mass die-off due sooner rather than later. The future is now.

The LtG looked only at 5 parameters, with global warming being a mere subset of pollution. Dramatic acceleration of ice melt and unprecedented, increasingly frequent, extreme weather events over the past two decades clearly demonstrate that global warming is progressing far faster and far worse than anyone could possibly have imagined back in the 70s. Global warming certainly deserves a separate category for consideration on its own, quite apart from the other manifestations of pollution.
The LtG did not include a specific category looking at the human dynamics of finance, economics and political manoeuvrings, which was fair enough, because it is impossible to mathematically model such capricious irrationality. Economists may beg to differ, however no economic mathematical model has ever been shown to accurately reflect the real world, nor ever consistently predict anything useful (unlike the LtG and other proven science based models), not least because of their hopelessly incomplete and deeply flawed ideological economic assumptions. Garbage in, garbage out. In 2013, the “Nobel-type” prize for economics (properly termed the Bank of Sweden prize) was jointly awarded to different economists who had mathematically modelled diametrically opposing ideas. That was akin to awarding the physics prize to different scientists who “showed” that the universe is both expanding and contracting at the same time.
Despite that, I do advocate that we should include finance, economics and politics in our subjective conceptual framework of collapse mechanics, because financial and economic troubles are triggers for political upheavals which can lead to conflict and the collapse of nation states. Syria is a prime example. This unquantifiable category, despite being subjective and unpredictable, will nevertheless significantly contribute to population die-off, just as any quantifiable category such as global warming or resource depletion or ecosystem destruction can and will cause human die-off. Economic collapse can lead to loss of healthcare, homelessness and starvation. Political madness can trigger global thermonuclear war at any time, causing our extinction.
All the categories contributing to collapse are deeply inter-related and intertwined. This is the basis of systems thinking, which is essential for making realistic judgements about our future and mitigating against the troubles ahead. How can we confer such complex ideas to the general public in a manner which is clear and understandable, yet does not significantly compromise accuracy or detail?
I first alluded to the idea of a 3D collapse overview model during my Griffith University Ecocentre presentation in March 2017

It is a refinement of my older, less complete, 2D model “the three horsemen and one big fat elephant of the apocalypse“, originally conceived as a joke, a play on a hackneyed biblical phrase, albeit with serious intent.

When various pundits try to analyse matters relating to sustainability, their biggest deficiency is often blinkered or tunnel vision. They focus on only one issue while ignoring other issues. Most global warming “solutions” advocated by climate activists fit this description. They assume limitless energy availability to deliver huge renewable energy infrastructures and massive carbon sequestration fantasies to enable an approximation of business as usual to support 10 billion people by mid century. 

In reality we are poised to fall off the cliff of net energy availability very soon 1,2and not even the most optimistic carbon sequestration fantasies (all of which will require colossal energy inputs and none of which are proven) will be able return us to a stable climate unless the total human footprint is also reduced drastically and immediately 3 (which will not happen short of global nuclear war – which in itself will exponentially release greenhouse gases, devastate remaining ecosystems and destroy industrial civilisation and thus our ability to technologically sequester GHGs).
Blinkered views produce flawed pseudo-solutions, which if attempted often exacerbate other problems, or at the very least are a complete waste of time and energy.

Here is a 10 second video-clip, my first attempt to make this 3D model in real life, “doom explained by confectionery abuse”
In my 3D model I have maintained the central position of the total human footprint as the “big fat elephant”, to emphasise that if this is not addressed, then nothing is being addressed. Few commentators advocate voluntary energy descent, reduction of consumption or simplification of lifestyles, however those are essential strategies to reduce our footprint. Even fewer talk about population reduction. This 3D model is a far superior way to visualise the predicaments we face, compared with disparate and disconnected one dimensional views or compared with simple mnemonic headings. For example, the three “Es” of energy, economy and environment represent a simplistic and incomplete text list, with no graphical demonstration of the links between each “E”.
Trying to further subdivide, refine or complicate this model is likely to be counter-productive. As it is, this 3D model, a six sided double pyramid with a proliferating tumour at its core, probably represents the limit of complexity which can easily be stored in the average mind as a visual snapshot. It is an easily remembered image which can be conjured up at the dinner table by scribbling on a napkin or by building the actual 3D model with meatballs and skewers, to both entertain and horrify your guests.
Compartmentalising the various intertwined global issues is obviously an artificial approach, but is necessary to help us understand the highly complex dynamics involved. It is necessary in the same way that compartmentalising the study of Medicine into specialties such as Cardiology, Gastroenterology, Neurology, Nephrology etc is an artificial but proven approach to understanding the highly complex mechanisms within the human body. Just as different bodily systems (heart, gut, brain, kidneys etc) directly interact with and influence each and every other system, each component of my 3D model also directly interacts with and influences each and every other component.


R affecting F: every major oil disruption eg 1973, 1979, has always resulted in economic recession. Another R affecting F example: diminishing per capita resources leads to economic hardships, shattered expectations and anger in the population, which leads to the rise of megalomaniacal fascist demagogues, multiplying the risk of global conflict.
R affecting F affecting R, affecting E and P: decline of conventional oil production since it peaked in 2005 has led to desperate harvesting of unconventional oils pushed through by means of political deceit, fraudulent market misrepresentations and financial/economic distortions. This Ponzi scheme will lead to an inevitable market crash dwarfing the sub-prime mortgage scam. It has also led to severe exacerbations of E and P.

R causing C: this is obvious

C affecting R affecting C: as heatwaves worsen, airconditioning use and hence fossil fuel consumption escalate, liberating more GHGs and worsening global warming
Unfortunately with today’s advanced state of planetary malaise, most of the feedbacks between components are “positive” or bad self-reinforcing feedbacks. Few are “negative” or good semi-correcting feedbacks. The reader will no doubt be able to think of many other examples of bidirectional feedbacks between components, both positive and negative.
I advocate that each article discussing sustainability (or lack thereof) should be slotted into the part or parts of this 3D model where it belongs, in order to appreciate how comprehensive or incomplete that article may be, and to enable other related discourses to be slotted into adjacent positions, so as to build up a more holistic picture.
As visual animals I believe this is a useful tool to educate ourselves. It can even be used in primary schools as part of their science curriculum (but will no doubt be banned amongst global warming denialist groups or neoclassical/neoliberal economic madrases). Children can make these simple 3D models with toy construction kits or plasticine and sticks. They should probably be discouraged from playing with their food, unlike us adults, who are terrible hypocrites anyway.
Geoffrey Chia is a Cardiologist in Brisbane, Australia, who has studied and written about issues regarding (un)sustainability for more than 15 years.

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    This is a novel way of explaining environment and economy to the students and grab their attention on important matters

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