Thursday, February 24, 2011

Prime Happiness

Key events in the history and potential future of the world's population seem to be associated with prime number multiples of minimum happiness (life satisfaction). This may be a coincidence, or it may be an indicator of some deep biological connection with Nature's limits. Whichever is the case, it's extremely fascinating.

First, some background: Happiness, as a fraction between zero and 100%, appears to be related to how many natural resources we each consume per year. By estimating this per-capita consumption for the world's population, we can calculate what the happiness is. I have a mathematical model that does this, along with estimating the size of the population, how many resources there are, and how fast we must be able to move what we consume (transport speed). The model and its results are detailed both in this blog and on my Web site.

I became interested in happiness in an attempt to explain how population and per-capita consumption appear to be in synch with each other, and have been recently focusing how fast population and resources change. The clearest connection with happiness comes from how fast these growth rates themselves change, similar to the familiar concept of acceleration (the speed of something's speed). A pattern emerged when I compared these accelerations to multiples of minimum happiness for the past and for potential futures.

Minimum happiness is simply how happy people are when consuming the least amount of resources, which I expect to be equivalent to today's poorest people. Everyone was at this minimum more than two-thousand years ago, and the world had a stable amount of resources that humanity could eventually use. As the population grew, there was enough labor to extract more resources, which enabled further growth. Because total consumption – how much everyone was consuming – is proportional to the square of population, the total amount of resources decreased more and more rapidly (it accelerated).

By the time 10% of the initial resources had been consumed, in the late 1800s, happiness had doubled (the multiple of happiness was two). This also translated into an increase in life expectancy of nearly half. The speed of the population rate (the acceleration of population size) stopped increasing and began decreasing.

In 2008, we passed the tripling of happiness (a multiple of three). The population has already stopped accelerating, corresponding to a peak in the population rate, and the population rate is now decreasing toward what I project will be an eventual crash as it continues to fall past zero. At that zero point, when the population is as high as it will ever go, resources will once again be at a 10% point, but this time only 10% of the initial amount will remain, and happiness will be at a peak of 3.1 times the minimum. Life expectancy will be close to doubling (reaching a maximum of about 1.9 times its maximum), but never get there.

The only way to keep happiness increasing (but not the only way to avoid the crash) is to increase the number of resources. If we could do that, probably by settling much of the Solar System, we might be able to achieve 100% happiness for everyone, which would be nearly five times the minimum (actually, 4.9). It is odd and possibly significant that life expectancy would be a multiple of 2.7 times its minimum, very close to the value of one of the most important constants in mathematics: the base of natural logarithms.

There may very possibly be a biological limit associated with 100% happiness; but assuming there isn't, there is an ultimate limit to how much mass we can consume, set by transportation speed: the speed of light. Here is where we meet our last prime number. At the speed of light, happiness would be about seven times the minimum (actually, 7.3; the multiple of 7 would correspond to 0.4 times the speed of light). Life expectancy, meanwhile, would reach its highest level at 3.8 times its minimum.

I find it interesting that life expectancy shows an equally memorable pattern by nearly doubling when Earth's resources are exhausted, nearly tripling when 100% happiness is achieved, and nearly quadrupling at the ultimate limit. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this analysis is the existence of both patterns existing simultaneously. Whether it's coincidence, an artifact of my math, or the discovery of a fundamental aspect of our relationship with the Universe, finding it has been both a lot of fun and confirmation that asking questions and exploring the implications of their answers is well worth the effort.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Birth Control

Birth control is one of the most divisive issues in public policy, especially where it involves abortion. There are, I think, at least two reasons for this. First, it deals directly with one of the most important and personal decisions people can make, whether to bring a child into the world who will carry their genes into the future, and the question of who else can share that decision. Second, it brings into the focus the related questions of when a life begins, and when that life should be subject to protections against murder.

For most of human existence, these decisions were made in the context of the survival of the group that a person belonged to. Mating was sanctioned by the group, as it is still done by many families. As in much of the rest of Nature, the weak were killed or allowed to die as infants so the strongest could help improve the group's survival rate, and the birth rate was “controlled” by doing the same with the naturally higher number of females born. These methods primarily enabled a population to avoid extinction from overconsumption of available resources.

With civilization came the ability to access more resources on demand, enabled by technologies that enabled individuals to have more control over their destinies. As a result, the overall population began to grow as the birth rate grew and the death rate (which included infanticide) dropped. Value systems developed that promoted these trends, first in groups and then in governments, which assumed increasing responsibility for maintaining order as people became less personally involved in each other's lives. In the decreasing number of situations where increasing population could imperil people, the new values necessitated more humane methods of birth control; these were aided by both physical technologies (such as contraception) and cultural technologies (such as education and government mandates).

Demographers have noted that birth rates tend to fall as women become more economically empowered, which occurs in affluent societies such as the United States. My analysis of happiness shows that the world population's growth rate (essentially the difference of the birth rate and death rate) is nearly proportional to happiness, with an interesting difference: it stopped speeding up soon after happiness was twice the minimum happiness (in 1875), it stopped increasing by the time happiness was three times the minimum happiness (in 2008), and it will likely fall to zero relatively soon thereafter, in 2021. The apparent statistical correlation between happiness and population growth rate is consistent with the demographers' appraisal, and adds to the plausibility of a biological failsafe mechanism, like I described in the last post, which keeps our population from growing too large for our resource base. 

Unfortunately, without leveling off our consumption and compensating for our resource depletion, it may be too late to avoid an increase in the death rate – the last recourse in population control, which our ancestors used effectively in much more limited environments – as the final braking effort that becomes dominant after the peak and during the crash.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Two-Thirds Happiness

It's either the most incredible coincidence I know, or I've stumbled onto something approaching a natural law.

If you've been following this blog or my research site, you're aware that I've been fascinated with the mass of resources the human population annually consumes (extracts, uses, and converts into waste) and how it corresponds to our satisfaction with life -- “happiness.” Over the past few years, I've discovered what I believe to be key relationships between this consumption, the size of our population, and how fast we can move those resources in the process of making transactions with each other. I've used these relationships to project how our consumption has changed over time, and determined that humanity is headed for a population crash within the next twenty years if we don't make major changes to how we live, mainly because we appear to have started with a fixed amount of resources and we've become increasingly efficient at using them rapidly. Our happiness, subjectively measured on a scale from zero to 100%, appears to vary logarithmically with our personal consumption; that is, it takes progressively more stuff to increase our happiness by the same amount. I've used this statistical correlation to study how happiness may have varied over human history, how it's likely to change in the near future, and what we would need to do (mainly in the procurement of more resources) to satisfy the trend in increasing happiness we appear to prefer.

Happiness obviously isn't the same for everyone: there's a minimum, a maximum, and an average. Until a decade ago, the minimum happiness stayed pretty fixed, since and the maximum kept rising. In 2001, the maximum reached 100%, where almost by definition it would have been unable to exceed. Because the average kept increasing (evidenced by consumption), the minimum would have needed to increase to compensate (I suspect that the increasing investment in poorer countries has been the economic manifestation of this). Unfortunately, soon after, the rate of growth in consumption (that our economy depends on) began to slow down, and by the onset of the recent recession there were too few resources to sustain the entire population at 100% happiness for more than a year. If my projections are right, by 2021 the world's population will reach a maximum, and the the average happiness will be 64%. If it could continue increasing, the average happiness would get up to 65% by the time my projections show the population plunging to zero, in 2027.

As I discussed in my last post, if we somehow pushed past 100% happiness and could acquire more resources (not to mention keeping our planet from dying), we would eventually reach an ultimate limit to consumption, imposed by the fact that we simply couldn't move resources, and products we produced from them, faster than the speed of light (and technically, not even that fast). Happiness would be pegged at 149% no matter what we did.

Now, finally, here's the freaky part: 100% is pretty close to two-thirds of 149%; and as I mentioned, average happiness would be at 65% when I'm projecting the population to crash, if we avoided the crash, and that's pretty close to two-thirds of 100%. If that doesn't send chills down your spine, consider this: When the world's population was consuming all of the resources produced annually by the biosphere (Earth's “natural capacity”), the average person was two-thirds as happy as the average person might be if our population could grow to the point where it was consuming all resources that existed 2,000 years ago – 59% vs. 87%.

It's well known that our minds are predisposed to see patterns everywhere we look, and mine very much follows that rule. A rational interpretation, as I said at the outset, is that there's no pattern in what I discovered; it's just coincidence. But since I'm an “idea explorer,” it's tempting to consider the implications if it's not.

One of the most puzzling aspects of my work on the relationship between population and consumption has been the identification of the mechanism linking the change in population to the total amount of resources. What if happiness has a biological component that enables us to feel how close we are to a natural resource limit, and it is linked to another component that adjusts population controls such as fecundity and stress levels so we don't get too close?

Technology and culture were likely responsible for us clearing the first such hurdle, in 1857, when average happiness was two-thirds of what it would be when we consumed all of the natural capacity; humanity was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, which enabled access to the remaining resources. The world was consuming all the natural capacity in 1994, but only a relatively few people seemed to notice, which implies that by then feedback from our artificial environment to the putative biological controls was overwhelming the feedback from the natural environment. In the following decade, the negative feedbacks from our destruction of Nature's production and maintenance capabilities and our depletion of non-renewable energy sources became too large to ignore; at the same time, some of us reached 100% happiness while average happiness was at 60%.

Suppose that 100% happiness is a manifestation of a biologically-based indicator of maximum resources, and two-thirds of that (67%) corresponds to the depletion of natural capacity. This could have been set by evolution, translating into detectable (logarithmic) terms the ratio of ecological production (natural capacity) to the total mass of producers (natural capital) and natural capacity, which I estimate to actually be close to 1/96. If this is true, then it may not matter to our population trajectory if we find more resources; our internal sense will trigger increasing population control behavior, ultimately leading to a crash.

I must once again emphasize that this is speculation that just starts to explain what may be total coincidence. It needs to be tested. One way is to try falsifying it, such as posing the following question: If increasing happiness leads to dangerous behavior, are the people above the 67% threshold acting that way? I'll close by answering the question anecdotally, observing in the United States that the “rich” are clearly acting in a destructive way through their hoarding of money, sociopathic social agenda, paranoia, and continued demolition of the natural environment, despite evidence of the negative consequences for people and the climate (which they publicly dispute).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Peak Happiness

NOTE: This post is a continuation of “Lessons from a Simulated History,” whose underlying data has been updated.  It has also been corrected with more accurate numbers since its original release on February 16.

If my analysis of global trends is accurate, the terrorist attacks of September 2001 may have been the equivalent of the first earthquake in a massive seismic shift. As some members of the world's population reached the peak of happiness and life expectancy, the relentless pursuit of its growth raised the level of the poorest for the first time in human history. A decade later, we are seeing repressive regimes toppling or under siege while the ultra-rich try desperately to push beyond the peak they are stuck at.

If these trends could continue, I conservatively estimate that the population would increase from 7 billion now to 148 billion in 2212, and level off when everyone attains maximum happiness. The total mass of resources consumed each year would be 432 times what it was at the end of 2010, and in the intervening period we would use 770 times the total amount of resources our planet has left. Because we would need to transport that material in at least one transaction each year, our speed would increase by the same factor as our consumption, and we would almost certainly be covering interplanetary distances.

This week's Time magazine features a cover story about the certainty some people have that by 2045 technology will enable humans to become effectively immortal by transferring our minds into computers. Meanwhile, biotechnology is progressing fast enough that we may soon be able to arrest and possibly reverse the aging of our current bodies. In addition, nanotechnology (the controlled atomic-level restructuring of matter) could conceivably allow us to use and reuse everything, thus eliminating the waste problem that forces us to seek out new resources all the time.

In the context of my own research, these developments amount to pushing through peak happiness on an exponential basis, fueled by an increase in locally reusable resources. The fastest possible growth I can foresee is an exponential increase in minimum happiness. Coupled with an increasing maximum, transport speed would need to reach the speed of light by 2131 if we started now and were using non-renewable resources, consuming more than one-millionth the mass of Earth each year; this is the amount of mass we would instead be recycling. At that maximum speed, we would be at another peak in happiness, only another 49% more than the present maximum, with a life expectancy of 140 years. Of course, I'm still assuming we would be humans instead of machines that may require less. Whatever the assumptions, the mercilessness of exponential consumption would eventually reach a limit such as the speed of light, imposed by natural laws that can't be broken no matter how smart our machines become.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Perils of Abstraction

I'm a big fan of abstraction, mainly because it enables us to perceive and understand parts of reality we are not naturally predisposed to, which can lead to a greater degree of predictability and control over our present and future. I'm also very comfortable with it, perhaps more so than physical, visceral experience. This is perhaps why I enjoy writing, using abstraction to simulate alternative realities and then describing those realities in terms that others can use to imagine experiencing them. In the process, I've fallen into an old trap of expecting others to be inclined to see things the same way, if they are just properly introduced to it, and come to realize that there are real perils in focusing on this approach.

One peril comes from many people not being comfortable with very much abstraction, and therefore being likely to ignore, dismiss, or regard with skepticism any conclusions drawn from it. This may be the reason why mathematics and science have always seemed to be more popular in their application to technology (influencing reality) than as studies for their own sake, and much less popular than religion in describing the broader context of human existence. Emerging stories about biologists teaching creationism, climate change deniers seizing political power, and people dismissing the fate of endangered species in the pursuit of more jobs, suggest that the lessons from science most critical to the survival of civilization are not gaining the traction they need in the public consciousness (at least here in the United States).

Another peril comes from the success of entertainment and advertising – products of abstraction – in creating experiences that rival reality in people's minds. To the extent that they illuminate aspects of reality and prepare us for possible realities, they are good (I would like to think I'm contributing to that); but often they create totally false expectations and understanding, which in high enough doses lead their consumers to take inappropriate – and even harmful – actions in the real world, as most advertising is doing by increasing consumption of non-renewable resources. Amplifying the negative effect is the increase in demand for entertainment in the most economically powerful countries to the extent that it replaces direct experience with other people and natural systems that their behavior affects.

A final peril, which I've described elsewhere, is the use of abstraction to objectify people, which can cause the infliction of harm without considering it as such.

The healthiest way to deal with these perils is to spend at least as much time dealing directly with people and the rest of Nature as with the abstractions that describe them (especially the parts we can't detect with our senses) or the artificial creations that should augment rather than replace them. Because our senses and instincts are tuned to a very narrow range of experience, we must use the tool of abstraction to responsibly exercise the power we have in excess of that of our prehistoric ancestors; and to the extent that this keeps us from maintaining a healthy balance, we may have to reduce our personal power to compensate.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Lessons from a Simulated History

The Industrial Revolution was likely responsible for the first appreciable fraction of the world's population consuming more than what Nature could provide circa 1848. By 1979, the average person had passed this limit, and half the population was converting into waste what the other half depended on to produce what it needed, which also happened to be Earth's life support system.

In 2001, some of us reached the pinnacle of happiness, with a life expectancy to match; at that point, the only way to continue the average growth in wellbeing was to increase what the poorest of us could consume. The fraction of the population with the highest life satisfaction continued to grow while the fraction in the upper-middle part of that spectrum, corresponding to the West's middle class, stayed roughly constant.

By 2021, when humanity has consumed 90% of the natural world and its life expectancy has nearly doubled what it was at the beginning of the Christian era, there won't be enough resources left to maintain its growth and the population will begin to rapidly die off.

These are the lessons of my most recent simulation of world history, which up to the present time matches closely with reality.

Now more than ever, it is clear to me that the trajectory of our population is intimately tied to our perception of our ecological environment, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective since that's what our biology's development would have been most attuned to. It may well be that our population growth will always be offset by the diminishing of life around us, perhaps even to the point that we stop reproducing altogether when a certain threshold is reached, detectable by something as innocuous as the doubling of life expectancy. If these speculations are true, then how much fossil fuel we find won't matter nearly as much to our future as the ecological damage done by its extraction and use, and the same goes for every other technology we might imagine.