Monday, March 10, 2014

Better Worlds

The depressing news about climate change, other pollution, and resource depletion finally got to me a couple of weeks ago, despite my high tolerance for such things. Predictions of the impending end of the world, including my own, were too hard to take without some hope of proving them wrong; yet wherever I looked, things just looked worse. Whenever facing a seemingly intractable problem, I've tended to double-down and get more creative. To me, that's the ultimate benefit to "thinking outside the box": if the box is about to get crushed, it's time to look for another box.

Realizing that most of us won't have the luxury of settling other planets in the short time we likely have left before catastrophe strikes, I decided to try a combination thought experiment and mode of denial: I wrote short fictional news articles reporting good news, as a foil to the bad news I was reading. There have only been a few so far, and it felt good imagining what a better world might look like, but I needed something more substantial – a set of "worlds" that we might realistically be able to make our own.

Then I realized that I already had a tool for exploring more practical options. The "Population-consumption model" I've been updating since December was originally intended as a tool for forecasting our future and reinterpreting history based on new insights; it could also be used to search for specific alternatives that were not tied to our past. I began running random simulations, a scattershot approach to identifying the possibilities that I had found useful as a test engineer when a system was too complex for simple solutions to be derived.

In the previous version of the model, I discovered what appeared to be a clear relationship between how much ecological resources we consume and the populations of other species: the more we use, the less of them there are. I adapted that relationship to my new data, and used it as a proxy for the maximum amount of resources. Since any given "world" is defined by having a certain amount of resources, it will only exist when that amount is available. As history has progressed, humanity has moved from one world to another, and effectively destroyed many other alternatives that required more resources than we had left. My simulation showed that, since civilization began over 12,000 years ago, we've probably "destroyed" 98% of the alternative worlds that we could realistically inhabit over that period, leaving our current options extremely limited.

Only one of over 7,000 simulated worlds would support a population at least as large as what it was in 2013 and provide at least the amount of life satisfaction (happiness) we enjoyed then. If change occurs at historical rates, we could reach that alternative within two years, about the time my previous attempts at projecting the future showed that our population would peak and begin to decline. The basic premise of the model is that humanity is seeking out greater happiness by creating "environments" that best suit us; this involves seeking resources, distributing environments among us, and changing the number of people to get better use of what we have. On that basis, we can be expected to try to "move" toward alternative worlds that have more happiness than the one we inhabit. Unfortunately, the remaining alternatives with greater happiness have fewer people. There are a few alternatives with less happiness and no loss of people, but they also have lower consumption, which is correlated with lower life expectancy; we will therefore be forced to make a horrible choice.

What's worse, this is probably an optimistic scenario. There is ample evidence that we've already crippled our planet's life support system to the point where its habitability is at risk. Ideally, we should use fewer resources so other species can recover some of their numbers (a healthy fraction would be half what we used in 2013); the probability of us doing so is low enough that its alternative worlds don't show up in my simulation.

Looming as an even greater problem is climate change. If it isn't already self-sustaining, it may be soon, and will reduce the amount of available resources independent of whatever we do. All of the alternative worlds would be gone if we increased our consumption (ecological footprint) by half; it's conceivable that climate change will have such an impact all on its own.

So far, my search for better worlds appears to have turned up more evidence that we're on or near a peak in population, and what's better is between us and where the peak ends.

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