Saturday, November 8, 2008

Twenty-Four Seven

The term “24/7” is normally associated with the limit to the amount of work someone can do in a week: Twenty-four hours a day for seven days. By a slightly different definition, this term may also refer to the maximum number of people that can occupy our planet on a sustainable basis.

There are several reasons to expect that the average smallest group size is around 24 individuals. Each small group (what I will call “Level 1”) may be one of a similar number of members of a larger group that enables individuals to identify with the larger group (what I’ll call “Level 2”). The Level 2 group can be one of around 24 members of a Level 3 group; the Level 3 group can be one of about 24 members of a Level 4 group; and so on. These levels are roughly equivalent to the more familiar community types (in order of increasing size): family, neighborhood (or tribe), city, county, state, nation, and world.

Empirically, the minimum per capita global ecological footprint is about 0.1 hectare. It is reasonable to assume that pre-historical values were at least half of this. Applying the first law of consumption to the consumption of ecological resources using either of these numbers (0.05 or 0.1 for populations above 300 million), the entire land area of the Earth would be exceeded with a population around Level 7 (4.6 billion people, or 24 multiplied by itself 7 times). Such a conclusion could be reached even with extreme errors in approximation of usable area (by my calculation, as much as 90%).

It is tempting to speculate about the cultural significance of this insight. For example, when a seven day week was established in early Judaic practice, might the commandment to rest on the seventh day (the Sabbath) have been a recognition that humanity would need to stop working – translating into no growth of per capita consumption and with it, population – at the seventh level in order to avoid exceeding the renewable resource base and causing a population crash?

In this light, Judaic injunctions against trying to become god-like may have been another part of a larger strategy to inhibit potentially disastrous growth. The spiritual (what I would call psychological) component of religion could then be interpreted as a means of providing a way for people to experience the happiness of increased consumption without its physical manifestation; similarly, the promise of “eternal life” may have been a way of faking people into believing that their life would be extended in a non-physical way.

Barring a major technological breakthrough in the time we have left before population collapse, something resembling a religious world-view may be useful in pulling us back from the brink. Whatever our solution we choose, it should be informed by the knowledge that we cannot maintain 24*7 hours or 24^7 people on a sustainable basis while we are dependent on biology for survival.

1 comment:

Pete Murphy said...

Rampant population growth threatens our economy and quality of life. I'm not talking just about the obvious problems that we see in the news - growing dependence on foreign oil, carbon emissions, soaring commodity prices, environmental degradation, etc. I'm talking about the effect upon rising unemployment and poverty in America.

I should introduce myself. I am the author of a book titled "Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America." To make a long story short, my theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption of products begins to decline out of the need to conserve space. People who live in crowded conditions simply don’t have enough space to use and store many products. This declining per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

This theory has huge implications for U.S. policy toward population management. Our policies that encourage high rates of population growth are rooted in the belief of economists that population growth is a good thing, fueling economic growth. Through most of human history, the interests of the common good and business (corporations) were both well-served by continuing population growth. For the common good, we needed more workers to man our factories, producing the goods needed for a high standard of living. This population growth translated into sales volume growth for corporations. Both were happy.

But, once an optimum population density is breached, their interests diverge. It is in the best interest of the common good to stabilize the population, avoiding an erosion of our quality of life through high unemployment and poverty. However, it is still in the interest of corporations to fuel population growth because, even though per capita consumption goes into decline, total consumption still increases. We now find ourselves in the position of having corporations and economists influencing public policy in a direction that is not in the best interest of the common good.

The U.N. ranks the U.S. with eight other countries - India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia and China - as accounting for fully half of the world’s population growth by 2050. The U.S. is the only developed country still experiencing third world-like population growth.

If you’re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, I invite you to visit my web site at where you can read the preface, join in my blog discussion and, of course, purchase the book if you like. (It's also available at

Please forgive the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph. I just don't know how else to inject this new perspective into the overpopulation debate without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"