Friday, July 27, 2007


The longevity of humanity is measured in years remaining until extinction, and the longevity of individuals is measured as years of life expectancy.

Threats to the survival of our species can be measured in terms of three variables: uncontrollability, unavoidability, and extinction time. Uncontrollability is the extent that humans cannot influence the source of a threat. Unavoidability is the extent that humans cannot escape the threat. If uncontrollability and unavoidability are expressed as probabilities, then the probability of extinction is the result of multiplying them together. Extinction time is the time remaining from the present before the threat totally assures our extinction. Dividing the extinction time by the probability of extinction results in a number, in years, that expresses the longevity associated with the threat. Our goal when dealing with a threat is to maximize this “survival time.”

Threats to individual survival can be measured in a similar way. Just substitute “death” for “extinction.”

Since the shortest survival time is equal to longevity, any strategy to maximize it must include identifying all threats and decreasing uncontrollability and unavoidability for those with the shortest extinction or death times.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

An Ideal World

Often when I have made suggestions about how the world should work, what I thought were reasonable and practical options, others have responded with condescending dismissals like “That might be true in an ideal world.” My gut reaction to such statements goes something like this: “The reason why we don’t have anything approaching an ‘ideal world’ is because people like you refuse to even TRY to improve it!”

I’d be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers to the world’s problems, maybe not even an appreciable fraction. But I don’t have to, and neither do you. What we can do is share our ideas with each other, test them, maybe make a few mistakes along the way and correct them. The worst thing we could do is nothing; to shut up and just accept things the way they are.

So for what it’s worth, I’m going to take the first step and share some of my thoughts about what we could do to make this a better world. I hope readers will take the next step and either challenge what I’m saying, amend it, or add their own ideas.

In the broadest terms, I believe we must maximize the longevity of humanity (for our species as a whole, and for individuals), quantity of life (population size), and quality of life (how happy we are as individuals). In the following discussion, I will elaborate on each of these approaches, including the measurement of how well we’re doing and strategies for improvement.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Energy vs. Population

The most important question coming out of my analysis of energy and population is whether there is in fact a maximum cumulative amount of energy that humans can produce before our population drops. This is another way of asking another question I’ve brought up before: Is there a maximum amount of resources we can consume before we pay the ultimate price?

When population is plotted as a function of either cumulative ecological footprint or cumulative production of energy, the graphs (of normalized values) are practically indistinguishable from each other. They show the same disturbing pattern: a gradual decrease in growth of population, which all curve fits from second to sixth order identify as the leading side of a downward-facing parabola.

For both footprint and energy, the peak in population occurs when the amount accumulated since 1990 reaches 43 times what was accumulated in 1991 and the population is 7.13 billion people. I’ve chosen 1990 as a reference point because, as I’ve noted elsewhere, it is the year environmental experts believe that humans started using more resources than our planet could replenish (the ecological footprint equaled one Earth). The population reaches zero when the total accumulated amount exceeds 89 times the 1991 amount. We are currently over 19.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Oil Reserves

In the most recent edition of Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies, radio host and blogger Gregg Jackson argues that oil production is not likely to peak because estimates of reserves are always increasing and because alternative energy sources are reducing demand for oil. For example, he cites about 1.5 trillion barrels of oil that may be recoverable from Saudi Arabia and oil shale alone; this is roughly four times the amount of proven reserves.

If the highest estimates for proven reserves for all fossil fuels are multiplied by four, then my mode case total energy model projects that oil will be depleted by 2125; natural gas by 2135; and coal by 2384. This assumes of course that the model is wrong about the population crashing in 2068.

There is good reason to believe that this optimistic estimate of unproven reserves may be wrong. The BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2007 includes a table showing how estimates of proven reserves of oil have changed over time, and the estimates appear to have reached their own peak, declining for the first time in 2006.

Jackson appears to assume that liberals WANT oil production to peak. Setting aside the objection that this is not a “liberal” issue, people who are concerned with fossil energy production trends embrace alternative energy sources for exactly the reason he mentions. The only way to keep demand from exceeding a clearly fixed supply is to find replacements.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Revised Energy Projections

I recalculated my world energy projections after finding an error in the timing for exhausting fossil fuel reserves, and came up with three different scenarios representing the best, worst, and mode cases (where the “mode case” represents the closest agreement between my assumptions). A PERT estimate was done using these scenarios to derive the most likely scenario. I also determined the associated population curves, based on curve fits of population vs. total cumulative energy use. The results, along with relevant assumptions, are shown on my Web site.

Based on the mode and best cases, the world’s petroleum supply will be exhausted by 2047, natural gas will run out by 2055, and the coal supply will be exhausted by 2157. The worst case has production drop to zero for all energy by 2037.

In all scenarios, the world’s population reaches a maximum in less than 20 years of about 7.1 billion people before either dropping or leveling out (the leveling out occurs with the “worst” case energy projection). The most rapid decline accompanies the “best” case, reaching zero population by 2048; this corresponds to my consumption model’s projection based on cumulative ecological footprint. The mode case projects a more gradual population decline, reaching zero by 2098. The expected case drops gradually and levels off at 2.1 billion people by 2097.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Option 2a

There is another interpretation of the second option for population and ecological footprint (proportional to annual consumption by mass) discussed in the last post. Suppose the footprint is on the same trajectory, but population retains the relationship to cumulative footprint that my consumption model assumes.

In this case, instead of reaching a maximum and then falling, the world’s population will level out at about 7.1 billion people around 2023 (close to the same value and three years later than where it would have otherwise peaked). The per capita footprint will be virtually indistinguishable from that of the second option, theoretically reaching zero in 2038, followed by a sudden population crash 11 years later. Note that by 2037 the per capita footprint would be at the level it is projected to have been in 1500, and with any luck it might level out there.

This alternative doesn’t offer much hope: We could either all be dead or living with an almost impossibly low level of consumption by the middle of this century.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Per Capita Consumption

We can gain some insight into the two possible trajectories of consumption by looking at how the ecological footprint (presumed to be proportional to annual consumption by mass) changes on a per capita basis.

According to my consumption model, the per capita footprint will climb to nearly 35 times its 1990 value by 2047 before crashing along with the last of the population. Alternatively, if the per capita growth rate of the footprint persists on its 40-plus year path, the footprint will peak eight years from now and then fall to practically zero over the following 23 years. We could either radically increase our impact on the planet (by four times its ability to replenish resources), enjoyed by a rapidly decreasing few, or we could exceed the planet’s replenishment rate by two-thirds before all of us suffer a rapid decline in resource use and population.

We may not have enough energy to pursue the high-consumption trajectory, though if global warming gets out of control it may continue on its own – without the benefits of increased lifestyle (which I estimate would peak at an average $2.4 million per person). My bet, however (subject to change by future enlightenment, not to mention actual events) is on the second option.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Increasing or Decreasing Consumption?

Is it reasonable to expect, as my consumption model predicts, that total consumption will increase more rapidly as the population peaks and then declines over the next 40 years? Or will consumption (represented by the global ecological footprint) itself peak and decline rapidly, as an extrapolation of its per capita growth rate suggests? The answers to these questions hinge on another, more fundamental question: Is humanity inclined to use increased consumption to grow its population?

In my experience, most people do not prefer to decrease their personal consumption (though they may be forced to by external influences). If we do not decrease personal consumption, then the only rational way to increase population is to acquire more resources to support the new people, thus increasing overall consumption. Emergencies (such as people dying) tend to require more resources for such things as health care and repair of physical infrastructure; in other words, we generally want to restore things and people, as much as possible, to the way they were (and perhaps a bit better).

For consumption to peak rather than continue climbing, personal consumption must decrease. Such a decrease could be forced by a lack of resources, the disabling of enough people (or their technologies) to keep them from acquiring more resources, or an increase of altruism in the population. Certainly with petroleum becoming more expensive, availability of energy and materials is likely to drop dramatically by the middle of this century. Pollution is increasing to such a point that people could be disabled on a large scale (by, for example, disease and global warming induced disasters including hurricanes and droughts). There are people responding to global warming and dependence on unstable countries for energy by voluntarily reducing energy use, buying locally, and recycling.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Reliability of Growth Rate Projections

The decreasing world population growth rate extrapolated from 1961-2004 data anticipates zero population by 2049, only one year later than my consumption model. If growth rate was the controlling factor, then we would expect population to be independent of ecological footprint.

Backward extrapolation (to years before 1961) of both population and per capita ecological footprint turns out to be unreliable (for example, the population would have grown 339 percent in 1900), indicating that curve fits to growth rates are only marginally useful, and implying that the growth rates themselves may not be independent of each other. This last point is one of the fundamental assumptions of the consumption model, which assumes that population is a function of cumulative consumption (with annual consumption proportional to the footprint).

What I believe we are left with is a bit more confidence in the population projection of the consumption model, which I had hoped to throw doubt on. If our behavior continues as it has over last 45 years, then in ten years we should know which of the projections of footprint are correct: If the footprint peaks by then, the growth rate is the deciding variable; if it continues to climb, then the consumption model is right. Unfortunately, we would then be beyond the point of forestalling population loss.

There are signs that behavior is changing, and may change enough to make a difference. Leaders around the world are talking about thwarting global warming (one sure contributor to population loss, both in our species and others). Countries such as Great Britain are promoting “green” technologies and renewable energy. The major oil companies have stopped building new oil refineries, an indication that they no longer expect to get most of their business from petroleum. In my consumption model, this change in behavior corresponds to a decrease in consumption, and translates into direct changing of the annual growth of the footprint, which has a lesser impact on the growth of the population.

Sunday, July 8, 2007


The annual growth rates for the world’s population, per capita ecological footprint, and annual per capita energy production are not constant. They appear to be changing over time in such a way that the per capita footprint rate could peak in the next two years, and the population rate could drop below zero (we could start LOSING population) by 2017. The population and per capita footprint rates do not appear to be dependent on each other.

If these predictions are correct, we need to know why. For example: Will the decrease in population be due to excessive damage to the biosphere, or a voluntary decrease in footprint below a threshold of maintenance for the artificial infrastructure that supports the population? In other words, will we kill Nature so it kills us, or will we simply kill ourselves? The first option is by far the most likely, since the timing of the decrease in population corresponds to the decrease in per capita footprint, and we have experienced decreases in per capita footprint (in the late 1980s) without an accompanying decrease in population. There is also another reason to believe the first option is correct: My consumption model projects the total footprint to reach two planets by 2018.

If I’m right about the cause, what can we do about it? Repairing the damage comes to mind, but will we have the energy and the will to do so?

Saturday, July 7, 2007


During a recent interview on the PBS series Bill Moyers Journal, famed naturalist Edward O. Wilson brought to a national TV audience his warning that by the end of this century, if we don’t reduce our consumption of resources, half of all species will be extinct or on the verge of extinction. We will then have had an impact on life similar to that of the asteroid or comet that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Moyers brought up several arguments used to counter the need to do anything to stop the killing of other species. One of these arguments, which President Reagan subscribed to (and possibly George Bush also believes), is that Jesus will be returning soon, so it doesn’t matter what we do. Another argument is that it is human destiny to rule the Universe, turning our own planet, and then others, into artificial environments.

The first argument assumes that (1) Jesus exists; and (2) that he wouldn’t care that we’ve exterminated so much of his father’s creation. I personally believe that both of these assumptions are patently false, but the second one is the most important. Wilson’s latest book is a plea to evangelical Christians to respect other species because God would want them to.

When I heard the second argument, it disgusted me, and I finally understood the similar reaction I received from the Worldwatch Institute’s Christopher Flavin when a few years ago I suggested that the space community and environmentalists have common ground in promoting the long term survival of life. There is in fact a long standing debate among proponents of space exploration and settlement involving the ethics of terraforming (making other planets, such as Mars, hospitable to Earth life by changing their atmospheres and seeding them with life from Earth that is either natural or artificially modified). To my knowledge this debate is far from settled, but the issue may be moot: we are already “terraforming” Earth, fiddling with its ecology and climate in uncontrolled ways, including introducing artificial organisms into the environment.

Wilson offered several reasons for stopping our destruction of other species. One of these was economic and another was ethical. The rest of the biosphere provides free services such as climate control, food production, and pharmaceutical development that have been estimated to equal, in monetary terms, the total economic production of humanity. To eliminate these services would be, well, stupid. Our history and identity is directly tied to the rest of Nature; and as the newly evolved “brains” of the biosphere, we can appreciate its value both intellectually and spiritually (emotionally). We should therefore protect and preserve it for its own sake.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Exponential Growth

In a basic, simple model of exponential growth, the time that a resource is depleted by a population depends on three variables: the available amount of the resource, the amount of the resource consumed per person, and the number of people in the population. If both the per capita consumption and the population grow exponentially, the time until depletion is a function of the two rates and the available amount of the resource (typically the initial amount).

The world currently has remaining between 80 and 90 times the amount of fossil fuels it currently produces in a year (for the high end, see BP’s latest estimates). Between 1980 and 2004, the population grew at about 1.5 percent per year and fuel production per person grew at less than one tenth of a percent per year (actually 0.07). With these rates, we will deplete all of our fossil fuels in less than 60 years (assuming that all fossil fuels are equal, which is the best case). If instead we had available 1,000 times our annual production (over 11 times the known amount), depletion would take only about 180 years. A massive one million times our annual production would be depleted in 620 years.

Total energy production, which includes fossil fuels, renewable sources, and nuclear energy, is growing over three times as fast as fossil fuel production alone, at about one-quarter of a percent per year (actually 0.24). At this rate, we would use up 1,000 times our current annual production in about 170 years and one million times our production in less than 570 years.

The global ecological footprint, which my more complex consumption model assumes is proportional to annual consumption of all natural resources, has historically grown on a per capita basis at an exponential rate close to the average of the rates for fossil fuel and total world energy (again for the period 1980-2004). Unlike energy production, the per capita rate for the ecological footprint is rapidly increasing, a trend which started around 1995. It has now reached a value about 11 times higher than its long term value (it is currently near two percent). If, like fossil fuels, we have 80-90 times as many resources available as we annually use now, then at two percent growth we will deplete our resources in about 40 years, corresponding to the time that my consumption model projects the world’s population will crash.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


As we approach the birthday of the relatively young United States of America, I would like to advocate taking some time to collectively sit down and have a respectful dialog with each other about where we are as a people, how we got here, and where we want to go. I’m talking of course about our basic values, our economic and cultural situation, and both constraints and opportunities relating to our future behavior.

It is counterproductive to try to force, cajole, or deceive others into accepting any particular point of view. Indeed, we seem to have wasted a lot of energy, alienated a lot of potential friends, and generally created an unhealthy and uncomfortable environment for ourselves and others both here and around the world. Polarization has mutated into exponential fragmentation in the discussion of ideas and the activity that makes them real. When we choose not to respect other people, whether or not we accept their ideas, we inadvertently create adversaries, or at least sow enough doubt in their minds to keep them from considering what we have to say.

I hope in my writings that I have conveyed both a point of view (okay, maybe several of them), as well as a willingness to entertain the views of others. That is certainly my intent. Being an “idea explorer” means not being too comfortable with the ideas you currently have. Testing, modifying, and sharing those ideas is critical to developing a set that might have some practical as well as entertainment value. What you have at any one time is simply a snapshot of what experience and judgment has given you to date; it is not the end-all, nor should it be portrayed that way.

Please consider taking a deep breath and listening to those around you. Share what you think, and be willing to change. To do so is an important step toward success both as individuals and as a community.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Heart Failure

Last weekend, my wife’s elderly cat went into heart failure. As of this writing, my wife and I don’t know if she will recover. Over the two days that the cat’s condition dramatically worsened, we thought nothing of shelling out hundreds of dollars for medicine and veterinary care; our savings meant nothing compared to the life of my wife’s companion of 14 years.

In the middle of this, we took time to see Michael Moore’s recently opened movie “Sicko,” which exposes another kind of heart failure: that of the U.S. health care industry. There are many things that decentralized capitalism does well, but dispensing decent and affordable health care is not one of them. Moore convincingly illustrates that it is folly to put people’s lives in the hands of organizations whose primary motivation is the financial bottom line. Every other civilized country knows this; that where it comes to survival we must take care of each other, valuing people over profit, and the main tool we have for assuring this is fully functional government that is accountable to the people. The alternative is to depend on a heartless system that does not value life, only the concentration of power.

My wife and I are lucky to have some cash and credit available to help our cat survive. A part of me shudders to think of the potential deprivation we are causing other people because the resources spent on veterinary care are not available to them for their own care. But I suspect like most other people, I have behaved instinctively, protecting those closest to me.

And I am now much more deeply aware that my wife and I, and many people we know, are not much better off than our cat when it comes to our own health care.