Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Year of Focus

In 2008, I focused my “idea exploration” on three main areas: the relationship between consumption and population; conditions for alternative futures; and politics. My reason was, I hope, self-evident; that my research was showing this to be an extremely critical period of time, one that could determine whether or not humanity survives beyond this century, and it was important to examine the basis for this and how to achieve a positive outcome.

It is important to remind readers that, to my knowledge, the consumption models and “laws” have neither been confirmed nor proven wrong by others. The theory and conclusions are totally mine, though the results are encouragingly similar to those of many reputable students of the subject, at least at a low level of resolution. In my personal tradition of challenging beliefs, I’ve constantly tested everything I’ve done, using empirical evidence as much as possible, though undoubtedly there is much left to do (hopefully before the ultimate test). In the worst case, at least I’ve had something interesting to talk about.

The main conclusion I reached was that the life expectancy (and happiness) of individuals and the time it takes to exhaust their collective resources are fundamentally at odds with each other. As people become better off, they use exponentially more stuff, thus exponentially reducing the amount of time before that stuff runs out. In addition, the amount we all consume each year also seems to be proportional to transportation speed; by my calculations, we will need to be able to move resources faster than the speed of light to double the world’s current life expectancy.

Growth in world population has been practically in synch with growth in the amount individuals consume, resulting in an unprecedented number of people dependent on a large resource base that can be accessed rapidly. Unfortunately, we appear to be approaching a practical (if not theoretical) limit to how much we can use, forcing both per-capita consumption and population to peak and then decline beginning in about 30 years.

The best way to avert tragedy is, obviously, to add more resources, preferably of a renewable kind (eliminating the need to procure new resources to make up for what we use) while reducing additional consumption to buy more time. Following this strategy will have the added benefit of reducing waste which is increasingly harming Earth’s biosphere (“the environment”), causing a mass extinction comparable to that following a major asteroid impact.

As the world’s economy appeared to mimic my most successful model’s prediction of peak consumption growth, the leadership of the world’s largest block of consumers was up for grabs. It would be simplistic to say that Republicans stood on the individual’s side of the historical tug-of-war, while Democrats stood on the side of society’s long-term interests. Had the Republicans chosen to better govern (rather than sabotage government), they might have made a better case for improving the lives of individuals. If the Democrats understood the perils of overconsumption better, they would not have gone along with untargeted bailouts and stimulus packages. Nevertheless, I figured that the Democrats were the better pick; at least they were willing to make decisions based on reality over ideology. The future will determine if their success is a net positive or not (I’m betting it will be).

The coming year beckons us to take major steps toward creating a new and more rational world economy. I, for one, intend to do my part. The conceptual exploration I’ve done so far will continue as I look for ways to make more practical contributions. On this blog, there will likely be some back-filling on the implications of what I’ve discovered, for history and for philosophy. Current events will no doubt provide random fodder for speculation, which I will gladly indulge (assuming I can make a living at the same time).

Please accept, dear reader, my most sincere wishes for a happy, healthy, and fulfilling new year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


On December 8, 2008, I completed the culminating calculation of the five years since I began looking into the limits of population growth: the relationship between longevity of an isolated population and the life expectancy of individuals. The mathematical statement was immediately put on my research Web site, but it warrants repeating here:

Life expectancy in years = 21 * Log (Earth masses of resources / Depletion time in years) + 525.5, with a maximum of 134 years.

At the same time, I came up with a rigorous definition of happiness (satisfaction with life), which I incorporated into the Third Law of Consumption: Happiness is the ratio (in percent) of life expectancy to maximum life expectancy.

This was the pinnacle my high-level empirical/theoretical development on this subject. It will be followed by detailed investigation of its manifestations and applications, beginning with my own survival (on the same day, my wife and I were forced to go into debt to pay our bills).

In sum, what I proved over this period was that individual gain comes at a great cost in resources; and in the absence of growing resources, how long the population can survive.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Optimizing Happiness

Practically, increasing happiness involves creating a range of environments (sets of circumstances) that meets the desires of the most people in a population. One way this can be done is to increase the number and variety of environments; another is to create a single environment that is as close as possible to meeting the desires of an average member of the population. Mathematical modeling based on international statistics suggests that the first option is best for maximizing happiness for a fraction of the population; while the second option is best for maximizing the happiness of the most people. As a third option, we can compromise by providing a range of environments that serves as many as possible of the bulk of people near the average.

The more useful an environment is to a person, the more of it the person will use and the happier the person will be. As one example, good health is one of the primary needs of people and they tend to be more satisfied when they are healthy; life expectancy will increase with better health, and better health care requires more resources – especially for the older populations that it enables. This self-evident relationship between happiness and consumption is reflected in world data that additionally shows a logarithmic relationship between happiness and per-capita consumption: each incremental increase in happiness costs more in resources than the increment before it.

In a world of infinite resources (and potential ability to acquire and use those resources), ingenuity, social organization, technology, and time would enable us to create an ideal society where everyone was as satisfied with life as they could be. For most of history (and prehistory), this was a reasonable approximation of reality; as a result, the last two millennia have seen a doubling of average happiness and growth in per-capita consumption and population by a factor of 23, largely enabled by the discovery of cheap and abundant energy in the form of fossil fuels. Our success has rendered the approximation we depend on tragically inaccurate, as exponential growth uses up a substantial and increasing fraction of total resources and drastically reduces the time available to find, procure, and learn to use new ones.

It is natural to pick our leaders based on how much they can enable an increase in our overall satisfaction with life. The United States recently elected a president who understands that the key to greater overall happiness is to create a social and economic environment where the middle class – effectively, the statistical bell curve centered on the average person – can thrive. If he is successful, consumption will be maximized as well. On the world’s bell curve, the U.S. population is at the upper end of happiness and resource use (though not the highest), which depends enormously on the transfer of wealth from other nations; to achieve a similar level of success, other nations must either work toward either spreading the curve even more or moving its center higher, with either option resulting in greater global consumption.

Many world economic and political leaders, including the incoming U.S. president, are not blind to the evolving resource crisis and its hazardous side effects (such as catastrophic climate change), though they may underestimate its severity. While supporting the discovery and development of alternative energy sources whose use does not degrade the existing resource base or harm people, they are also encouraging the only way to get the benefits of higher consumption without its cost in resources: increasing efficiency.

The gains from these approaches could easily be overwhelmed, however, by increases in consumption caused by our pursuit of more life satisfaction by broadening the range of environments or making their average more useful to the typical person. If instead, we decreased the range of environments around their present average, we could potentially reduce consumption (perhaps by as much as one-fourth) without a loss in average happiness, with fewer people suffering poverty or enjoying rich lifestyles. This change alone could buy us another 20 years to find and develop new resources and efficient technologies that would fuel future growth. The alternative, without a lot of luck, is a catastrophic loss of happiness; and most importantly, people.