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A Biophysical-Economic Framework for Understanding Collapse in Modern Society

Updated: Oct 22, 2018

David Murphy

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies St. Lawrence University

Canton, NY


Energy and food represent essential items for complex societies, as energy is required to maintain societal function – i.e. the societal metabolism – while food is required to feed the population. Deficits in either one of these categories can quickly lead to destabilized societies. Modern societies utilize globalization and trade to survive, and in some cases flourish, despite large deficits in either energy or food production (sometimes both) by specializing in the export of one or a handful of commodities and using the revenue gained from their sale to pay for the deficits in either energy or food. Though this strategy may work temporarily, it reduces resiliency and is becoming increasingly risky in an era of a changing climate. This paper presents a framework for analyzing which modern societies are more vulnerable to collapse. We apply our framework to recent events in Syria, Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia to illustrate how the confluence of internal economic, external economic and biophysical factors can lead to crisis. Our analysis builds on previous work, merging theories from the collapse literature and net energy analysis. 

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