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A couple of weeks ago, a spoke in my bicycle snapped. I took the broken one out, got to the bike shop and handed it to the shop assistant.
“What wheel is that?” he asked.
“26 inch road bike’s” I answered confidently.
He wasn’t satisfied: “Well, what type of wheel?”
“Uh… round one?”
He was annoyed now: “What brand?”
Condescending now: “You don’t know what brand your wheel is?”
“Should I?”
He shrugged and went to rummage through the boxes and a couple of minutes later emerged with a replacement. I paid and went to fix my bike. That bizarre encounter wasn’t, after all, a sign that the world were about to end. Or was it?

I have recently come across a paper titled “Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies”. That paper describes an interesting thought experiment based on simulations with a simple model (HANDY) capturing, as the title indicates, dynamics of interactions between man and nature. The authors use the model to study expansion and collapse of societies or civilizations. The model is essentially an expanded version of a predator-prey model. You know, the classical: predators feed on prey–>predators grow in numbers–>large numbers of predators cause decline in population of prey–>lower numbers of prey cannot sustain predator population–> predator population reduces–>low predation allows for recovery of prey population… circle of life continues.

In HANDY, however, the man-nature system is a bit more complex. There are two additional elements that the animal systems do not have. Firstly, our human population is allowed to accumulate wealth, i.e. resources that can be used to sustain us in lean times. Secondly, there is social and economic stratification into two groups. Commoners (workers) actually produce stuff by processing nature’s bounty. However, in a way consistent with the principles of free economy laid out by Adam Smith, the Commoners are stripped of any excess over that what they need to survive. Elites (non-workers) do not produce, but play “executive, management and supervisory” function, and consume and accumulate wealth at rates higher than the Commoners do.

The model is of course crude, and there are numerous simplifications and assumptions involved in the model that one can argue about and disagree with (such as, for example, the authors’ approach to Jevons paradox). But the paper is, as I’ve mentioned already a “thought experiment” rather than a model of a particular society.

The authors investigate three types of societies: egalitarian (no Elites), equitable (Elites still “free-ride”, but consume at the same level as the Commoners) and unequal (well, more or less like we have it now).

So what are the results? Simulations with various parameters give one of three solutions: path to a sustainable equilibrium, “boom and bust” cycles, or path to irreversible collapse.

Path to sustainability can be achieved in any society, provided depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level. Each type of the society on a sustainability path has its characteristic level of sustainable per capita resource use. That level is lower in unequal societies than in egalitarian societies (because Elites tend to consume more per capita than the Commoners).

Collapses are twofold: either related to scarcity of labour (when Commoners cannot sustain the fast growing Elites), or related to scarcity of natural resources (when per capita resource use exceeds the recovery rate of the Nature).

The model is deterministic. It means that for a given parameter set, the society is locked on a particular path. To change that path requires changing of model parameters. In real life that translates to changing policies, or principles of the socio-economic system.

Under strong inequality levels, the collapse is, firstly, difficult to avoid. It is essentially possible only by reducing birth rates. Secondly, under inequality, the collapse sometimes takes a long time to occur. The society seems to be in an apparent equilibrium for hundreds of years, but the collapse is imminent. Accumulated wealth plays a significant role in that delay – its buffering capacity allows Elites to continue unconstrained consumption (and perhaps believe that all is well) even though the catastrophe is neigh.

So how do these results relate to the spokes and wheel brand? Simply, to me, the bike shop incident expresses the current drivers of our economy – it is organized for these people for whom brand of a product is important, not its function. For these who are willing to pay for the experience of an occasional mountain bike ride, rather than for these who could potentially use their bikes in everyday life to move about. The condescending expression on the shop assistant’s face reminded me that brands have long ago ceased to be the way of distinguishing better or worse or simply different products. They are a way of expressing a desire to identify with a particular lifestyle, to show that one belongs to a selected group of people. Obviously this selected group won’t be factory workers or farmers. We live in a system that apotheosizes financial and societal elitism, which is manifested best by conspicuous consumption and importance of brand selection.

Is this a situation described by one of HANDY’s paths to collapse? There is no argument that at the global scale we consume more than the nature could provide on a sustainable level. We do. Does the relentless promotion of consumerist lifestyle, manifested by branding, lead to an unequal society? It does. Do we have a plan, or do we just hope that within the current paradigms of the neoliberal economy we will “somehow” engineer our way out of dependency of limited natural resources and “somehow” transform our society into a more equitable one? You answer these yourself. Are we adapting the system of policies and social values so that we get into the very narrow path where we can avoid the collapse? We better do or the 21st century civilization will soon share the fate of the Roman Empire, the Mayans, the Hans, the Assyrians, the Mauryans and the Easter Island…

There is no anthropogenic climate change in HANDY. But the rhetoric of the responses to the anthropogenic climate change becomes increasingly oriented towards societal and systemic transformation, which is very much what HANDY suggests is needed. In the words of UNFCCC’s Christina Figueres: “This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time, to change the economic development model that has been reigning for the, at least, 150 years, since the industrial revolution.” Is seems we can no longer keep on replacing broken spokes; we need to develop a different type of wheel.

Cover photo snatched from

One Response to “Spoke or wheel?”

  1. peter

    “Spoken” like a true socialist!
    We live in a system that apotheosizes financial and societal elitism, which is manifested best by conspicuous consumption and importance of brand selection.
    This blog begs many much is enough? surely quality is better than quantity? Is being (comparatively) well off financial elitism? If we don’t actively work to change the system are we guilty of perpetuating and ultimately causing the final collapse?…or does the wheel just keep turning and we just keep replacing spokes…
    a great blog, Piotr!……now can I have some chocolate ??