Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Longevity Trap

A new set of simulations involving happiness, longevity, and population shows that when different isolated groups join together to form a larger, competitive group, population may be traded for longevity except when growth rate is the only difference.

Recall that longevity is the time it takes for a group to begin disabling the habitability of its environment by consuming species that keep alive the species it directly depends upon for survival, and that my calculations show that humanity recently reached that point. The simulations indicate that world history can be approximated by a lot of isolated groups, which is also equivalent to what would happen if isolated groups came together and allocated resources equally among them. If the world instead had competition among its subgroups for resources, then the average population over history would be smaller (such as 50%), and longevity would be longer by the same fraction (150%); happiness would have dropped only slightly (3%).

In general, any differences between isolated groups in population or per-capital consumption of ecological resources (footprint) will translate into differences in power to acquire resources and convert them into personalized environments. Those power differences will result in a loss of population when the groups are merged and they must compete for resources with too few available for some people to survive when the resources are allocated according to power. Having fewer total people enables those who are left to consume resources for longer at their current rates, thus increasing longevity. This is not the only way to increase longevity, though: by decreasing consumption rates, longevity can be increased without an accompanying drop in population.

Ironically, any growth at all ensures that a group's longevity will eventually reach zero. Pursuing more longevity, while insisting on growth, is therefore a trap. Even if we use the increased longevity to find more resources so we can accommodate more people, we will be forced to adjust and eventually limit the growth rate of consumption based on physical constraints of speed and availability of resources. To pursue more longevity and accept loss of life as its cost is to automatically assume that the casualties have less value than the survivors or their potential replacements.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


I spent the last two weeks immersed in environmental news, much of it associated with news about the COP-21 climate talks that were in progress during that time. The news came so rapidly that I took to Twitter to both track and comment about it. Coincidentally I was attempting to map out what the next ten years might look like in detail so I could do better personal planning and inform my research and writing (blogs and fiction).

The effort left me stressed and depressed, disappointed and exhausted. Despite the generally positive press about precedent set by COP-21, I saw the result as clear evidence that our global socio-economic system is simply incapable of adequately addressing urgent environmental problems that it has created as a function of its existence and values. Civilization needs to be slamming on the brakes of ecological consumption so we don't critically disable the means of maintaining habitability, but instead we're looking for ways to change the direction of our metaphorical train by tapping the brakes on only some of the wheels.

Toward the end of last week I began trying to frame my assessments of news in terms of the three basic values I've identified in my own research: happiness, population, and longevity. I dove back into my research, looking for a simple graphical representation of the relationships of their physical expressions to each other, and ended up creating a simple statistical simulation of probabilities for various combinations of the three variables.

The simulation showed that in September we likely hit the ecological limit I've been most worried about, an event that it calculated has a 28% of occurring. Furthermore, there was less than a one-in-ten-thousand chance that we would be able to increase our happiness, population, and longevity from their values a few months ago – even if the amount of total resources was twice what I expected. Decreasing minimum happiness from 66% to 60% provided a 3% chance of growing longevity and population with expected resources, and 2% for double the resources. Allowing 50% happiness, corresponding to its value in 1850, increased the chance to 11% with expected resources and 4% with double the resources. Allowing global warming to potentially decrease the amount of resources reduced the chances even more than the dismal numbers I mentioned.

If we did already hit the ecological limit, then we are possibly following one of the reference cases I discussed last. Trying to prevent it is no longer an option; we can only deal with what's to come and apply what we've learned in order to maximize the number of survivors over time. Unfortunately, we still have vestiges of our healthier past that support the delusion that growth is still possible; and there may be enough of a delay in the onset of consequences that we won't easily appreciate the causal link between those consequences and the environmental degradation that triggered them.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Future Reference

I hope that the next 30 years will be much better than my attempts at projecting the future have indicated. They will almost certainly be different – and interesting. At the very least, I want to be able to look back (assuming I live that long) without regretting the way I spent that time.

My latest projections are now being tested by experience. Interestingly, the latest element of my analysis is the subject of worldwide attention now: the potential progress and impacts of global warming. I have taken time off from writing and modeling to follow the COP-21 negotiations in Paris, and to acquire and process the latest news that pertains to my research. Coincidentally I am facing some personal and professional deadlines that require planning inputs just like the projections I have been working on. As a result, I've decided to use the projections I currently have, for both planning and discussion, with the goal of incorporating the results of those uses into a future update of the model that produced them.

I've created a part of my research Web site that is dedicated to this process, and chosen to focus on two sets of projections which I have discussed previously. The "default" case is the second of two stories that my research has revealed, where humanity begins consuming resources needed to maintain our survival. The "warming case" involves the influence of self-sustaining global warming in combination with our behavior in the default case, which drives our species to extinction by 2165.

Embedded in both of these reference cases is a fundamental assumption about values: that happiness, enabled by using ecological resources (footprint) to customize individual environments, is much more important than people's lives and the lives of the other species whose demise is causing people to die. As total resources decline due to global warming, some surviving people will be still able to consume much more than others, but humanity as a whole won't be able to recover its numbers.

Key to validating, understanding, and possibly mitigating these catastrophic trends is the identification of the critical "producer" species assumed to enable the survival of the "supporter" species that we directly depend upon for our survival. While I don't know what they are, I do have some guesses, chief among them the creatures that enable plants to survive, such as birds with their dispersal of seeds and nutrients, and the fish which keep many of them alive. I have recently been studying the condition of soil, which I expect will reflect our impact on producer species. The fact that one-third of remaining soil is degraded, plus the recently revealed fact that Earth now has two-thirds of the arable land that existed 40 years ago, means that we have less than one-quarter of the healthy soil we had at that time. Interestingly, my calculations show that we now have about one-third of the extra resources (resources not directly consumed by us and supporter species) that we had in 1975.

The first significant decline in our own population is projected to occur in the next few months, with around 200 million deaths due to lack of resources, most likely food. This will be the clearest possible signal that we have begun killing off the last producers alive on Earth; though we may not initially recognize it as such because we will directly be seeing its impact on the supporter species. By 2017 we will have recovered, perhaps due to artificial replacement of what the producers were providing along with some recovery of the producers. We will see a smaller death rate the following year as we attempt to consume more, and probably try a similar fix in 2019. By 2021 the two cases diverge: in the warming case, our recovery will couple with the effects of climate change and we will see the greatest, fastest population drop in history, with more than a half-billion people dead; and, after another recovery, a second drop will occur with almost the same magnitude. The default case, meanwhile, has its greatest population drop in 2023, with more than 300 million people dead, though there will be other, smaller "drops" in the future.

One thing (among many) that I don't account for is the impact of having births make up for drops in population, the most obvious part being the growing fraction of young children over time. That will foreseeably reduce the ability of humanity to maintain its growth in consumption, unless machines grow sophisticated enough to do so without human intervention. A similar argument applies to producer and supporter species, which must grow back, at least partially, and may not grow to be mature enough to provide the products and services expected.

The smartest thing we could do following a population drop is to resist growing the population back and to try lowering per-capita consumption to a sustainable level (at least long enough for other species to recover their numbers and maturity) and then maintain it at that level. If we don't do that on purpose, then perhaps the changing demographics will have the same effect.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Group Interaction

Based upon a simple model of interactions between two groups, the people in those groups will choose among six options depending on their relative populations, resources, and how much they value people, happiness, longevity (how long the population can survive), and the carrying capacity of their environment (the maximum number of people that can consume a given amount of resources per person).

The first option (isolation) has each group and its resources effectively isolated from the other group and its resources, and the other five involve one or both groups having access to all of the resources. Both groups can share their resources (sharing), which averages their consumption patterns (amount per person and how fast it grows). Group 1 can kill off Group 2, keeping all resources for itself (extermination 1), or Group 2 can do the same to Group 1 (extermination 2). The last two options involve the groups living together, with one dominating the other by imposing its consumption pattern on the other (dominance 1 or dominance 2).

If the two groups and their resources are roughly the same size and at or near their carrying capacity, then extermination 1 and extermination 2 each have roughly a 50% chance of being chosen, with practically no chance of any other option. If they each have more resources than people to consume them, then isolation, sharing, extermination 1, and extermination 2 will each have a 20% chance of being chosen; and dominance 1 and dominance 2 will each have a 10% chance of being chosen.

Where one group is much larger than the other group, isolation has the same chance (25%) of being chosen as sharing, extermination of the smaller group by the larger group, and dominance of the smaller group by the larger group. This is mostly due to the larger group having overwhelming power compared to the smaller group, and is independent of how close each group is to its carrying capacity.

The probabilities I've quoted are approximate averages of simulated groups, with each group "member" and each simulation varying from the average such that at any given time one option may dominate the others. In reality, I expect that all options will be attempted, perhaps simultaneously. I introduced this model in part 3 of my BIOME novel, and will explore its implications in the remaining books as a critical aspect of the plot. Here and in my other writing, I intend to use it as a tool for exploring real-world events, and to test it in the process.

Two predictions of the model are particularly relevant to current events, particularly those involving conflict and the potential for conflict between a large group and a small group, such as we've seen recently in terrorist attacks. Viewed from the perspective of the smaller group, there is a 25% chance of being physically destroyed by the larger group, and a 75% chance of losing cultural purity (total control over happiness and longevity as determined by consumption). To eliminate these threats, isolation can be re-established (accompanied by adequate resources), or full control over the larger group can be achieved by domination or by killing its members. Each alternative requires a huge increase in power, ideally in excess of the power available to the larger group, and we can realistically expect the acquisition of such power to be an early step in the process of pursuing one or more of these courses of action. Interestingly, the same actions that deal with these threats from the larger group may also be used to pose a threat to the larger group (and would be perceived as such by that group, regardless of the smaller group's motivation, thus making more likely the extermination option being taken by the larger group).

Of the two threats perceived by the smaller group, loss of cultural purity is the largest (by a factor of three). If this wasn't an issue, then the extermination threat might be addressed by improving the chances of sharing or domination. Where it is non-negotiable, then isolation is the most humane option. Isolation has been crudely implemented in the past through establishment of penal colonies; but, since the world is currently close to its resource limits, it is practically impossible. Note that space travel would be an option for isolation if habitable planets were already available and reachable, but any settlements in the foreseeable future would be operating dangerously close to their carrying capacities with additional risks to life that would require new consumption patterns and associated cultural adjustments. Incarceration, an extreme form of domination, is commonly used as an alternative to extermination, but of course it is the embodiment of cultural loss for a group that is markedly different from the dominant group.

As our planet changes its requirements for survival with the ecological disruptions of climate change, raw resource depletion, and species extinctions, I expect we will all perceive ourselves as parts of small groups struggling to adapt while avoiding extermination. We will also need to see other species as something other than other groups that can be exterminated, since they and the services they provide embody the "resources" that we need to survive. Our consumption patterns, which are major components of our cultures, will need to be more flexible than ever in light of these conditions; and above all else, we must adjust our values so that our preferred options are more aligned with extending longevity and minimizing death.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Earl's Myth

In the latest installment of a novel I'm writing in parts, a fictional industrialist named Earl recalls a myth he used to finance his nascent company. The myth was based on an ecological interpretation of businesses within an economy which in reality I made up while writing about it:

Economies functioned much like biomes, with companies acting like organisms, industries functioning as populations of species, and economic activity joining them in communities that, together with the physical resources such as people and materials that they collected and processed, functioned as ecosystems.

Of course, economies are artificial, but I wonder if most of us tend to expect similar things from both our artificial and natural environments. Evolution has shaped us to get what we need from natural environments if we follow certain instinctive behaviors, and to penalize us if we don't. Education serves a related function in relating to civilization by priming both our skills and our expectations so we can survive and thrive to the extent that we occupy useful niches within our artificial environment.

For the analogy to work, people must be equivalent to organisms in both types of environment, but there are many indications that it is no longer working. Perhaps the most obvious indication is the huge amount of wealth inequality in the world today, the equivalent of which would, I suspect, never occur in a natural system that wasn't about to include at least one population collapse. Instead, as Earl's myth described, we have organizations that are functioning as organisms, and people have been relegated to the role of "resources."

For the most part, the few people who have mastered control of the artificial organisms, through the acquiescence of their fellows and the illusion of embodied energy in money, still function as organisms themselves, and receive rewards commensurate with their occupation of the new niches demanded by the artificial world. The rest of us are simply used, then discarded, and perhaps recycled eventually (after extended periods of unemployment) while others are "consumed," all the while thinking that the work and personal degradation is an appropriate sacrifice for a better world created by the super-organisms (some of whom are still like us) that will eventually meet our wants and needs too.

Of course, the fact that our artificial organisms are using actual resources, and are crowding out the real organisms whose bodies and work enable our planet's habitability, means that the flesh-and-blood puppeteers of those organizations will also be part of the human population collapse facilitated by their efforts. Barring the success of fantastical efforts like that described in my book (a success we may not end up wanting), humanity will have to dispense with dangerous myths like Earl's and become reacquainted with Nature's reality just to survive.

Friday, October 2, 2015


Assuming my modeling of population and consumption is correct, then the famous 2° Celsius limit for global warming by century's end is twice what it should be. According to my first attempt to incorporate global warming into the model, if we are successful and the warming is already self-sustaining then we need to immediately start reducing our per-capita ecological footprint by at least 0.7% per year to avoid casualties between now and the year 2200.

A decline in total ecological resources due to degradation will have the same effect as consuming too much, eventually making it impossible for people to survive and our population will crash. Whatever causes it (global warming as an example) must be stopped before that critical threshold is reached, otherwise all we can do is delay the end date.

If, as I expect, humanity will soon be forced to consume less overall (through personally cutting back, losing population, or both), then our slowing rate of pollution will enable natural systems to process the lesser amounts resulting in the approximation of no net increase in the amount, and eventually a decline. In the case of greenhouse gases, I've assumed no decline in the next two centuries, which means that temperature (their effect on the environment) will not decrease either. As far as I can tell from my data, that effect has been masked by our overall consumption, so it hasn't yet resulted in a decrease in total resources; but with us now pushing against the envelope of those resources, there won't be enough left to both process our waste and provide for the survival of the species we directly depend on.

Perhaps by coincidence, my projected temperature will match with the historical trend in 2019, and others who are planning for future emissions seem to be targeting 2020 as their starting point. Also, I projected that direct emissions will decrease around the same time, except for short pulses corresponding to attempts to reach the resource limit after drops in population. For these reasons I chose 2019 as the starting time for a hypothetical decrease in total resources responding to global warming, and for attributing the difference in emissions to other factors that make it self-sustaining so that the temperature trend continues into the future.

The result, which is as close as I can currently come to a representation of future global warming, has consequences much worse than the case I first presented above, which is the best my model can achieve in terms of avoiding casualties with declining resources. Whereas my default case with no resource decline projects a world population of 5.8 billion people by 2200 (a "loss" of at least 1.5 billion), the global warming case projects that everyone will be dead by 2165. Adaptation in the form of limiting population and consumption growth adds only four years to that end date. For reference, in most scenarios I've looked at, the temperature above preindustrial times when the population crashes is about 2.5° C (it is currently 0.7° C, and would be 1.7° in 2100).

Friday, September 25, 2015

Two Stories

My efforts to explain and project global trends in population and consumption have yielded two competing stories about the past and our potential future. With critical new insight about the second one emerging from work over the past week that may have reconciled the two, this is a good time to summarize them.

The stories are based on several key observations. First, happiness (life satisfaction) varies predictably with the amount of resources people consume, as measured by their ecological footprint, with smaller and smaller increases in happiness as consumption increases, approaching a maximum amount as any one person approaches consumption of the output of Earth's entire biosphere. Second, there is a minimum amount of such resources each person needs to survive. Third, the population of an average other species decreases linearly with the total amount of resources that humanity consumes. Fourth, global economic activity is proportional to the square of the product of population and happiness, which I interpret as transactions of artificial environments that provide happiness. Fifth and finally, in small groups life expectancy increases with consumption much as happiness does, while in large populations it varies with the total resources consumed by the group.

The first story comes from mathematically simulating "worlds" that each represent a point in time with a certain population, ecological footprint, and total amount of resources. A world can only "exist" when: (1) the resources consumed by the population is no greater than the total resources; (2) an average "person" consumes no less than the minimum; and (3) average happiness is less than the maximum. As total resources decrease, the number of worlds decreases, and the remaining worlds are clustered around more restricted combinations of population, ecological footprint, and happiness. Using historical data to identify the worlds occupied by humanity over time, it appears that as our species has consumed more resources, it has targeted the most dense concentrations of remaining worlds, with the objective of occupying as many worlds as possible without decreasing population in the process.

Behind both narratives is a more conventional backstory. All species collect and recycle energy and material, using it to exist as long as possible and to maximize the propagation of their forms over time and space. As the distribution and types of energy and material change, they adapt by changing their behavior and their form (evolving). From the perspective of members of any one species, other species either assist them, impede them, or are merely parts of their background environment that may assist or impede them later. "Assistance" can understood in economic terms as the provision of products and services, collectively considered as "resources" that include food (a primary source of energy and material) and purification of water (processing a resource for use and eliminating threats to survival), and those resources can be provided either on a continuous basis or a one-time basis. "Impeding" includes removal and degrading of resources (or the species that provide them) and, of course, being treated as a resource yourself. Happiness, as experienced by us and possibly other species, is a consequence of the degree that an individual's environment is optimally suited to maximize personal longevity and propagation of the individual's unique characteristics, and increasing it means using as many resources as possible.

The second story begins with two people, each using the minimum amount of basic resources (such as nutritional food, water, and breathable air) needed to live long enough to produce two more people and keep them alive long enough to survive on their own. Those resources are provided by a core set of other species ("supporters") which are doing the same thing and consuming resources supplied by another set of species ("producers"). For the system to last a long time, the supporters and producers must be allowed to reproduce so that their populations remain at least constant, otherwise the amount of resources drops, as do the populations of the creatures that depend on them – especially us.

Consuming the minimum amount of basic resources corresponds to a minimum level of happiness and lifespan, since none is left over for significantly altering an individual's environment beyond providing basic needs. The creation of physical and social technology (such as economics), especially since the beginning of civilization, has enabled the use of more resources as well as other types of resources besides the basic ones. This has translated into increasing happiness, longer lifespans (due to better health care, protection from predators, and a more reliable food supply). It has also supported larger populations, whose labor and ingenuity (higher probability of smarter and more capable people being born) has reinforced technology creation and use.

While we've so far protected the species that provide basic resources, we've consumed more than what other species produce, and have been consuming members of those species themselves. This consumption has included conversion of source material and energy into forms ("waste") that cannot be recycled by other species in a timeframe useful to humans, and may be harmful to them, even to the point of killing them off.

This brings us to the most important aspect of the second story. Humanity is now on the verge of consuming the producers that keep the supporters alive. Keep in mind that only the basic resources keep us alive and healthy; the other resources increase the quality and length of individual lives, and they enable growth in population by getting access to more resources. What will happen next?

In the first story, humanity is forced to retreat to a lower-consumption "world" which allows other species to grow back partially, thus providing resources for more people. We try to occupy this new world and then do the same thing again, resulting in oscillations in population ("popscillations") with a downward trend to a new value dependent on how much the species can bounce back before we overwhelm them again. If, with the second story, historical population and consumption trends are projected forward in time, humanity consumes some of the producers and stops when after our population drops in response to a shortage in basic resources. Then, after some settling, population and consumption both drop to much lower levels, potentially zero.

My new insight came from trying to understand that last drop, which at best seemed like radical overcompensation. After examining my underlying assumptions and being drawn back to the logic of the first story, I realized that humanity must be seeking a particular goal, manifested as reaching a limit in both population and consumption. Historical data showed that the best candidate was a condition where all that remains in the world is us, what we're consuming, and the supporter species. In short, we don't recognize the value of keeping producers around. Incorporating this into the story resulted in popscillation behavior like that in the first story: population drops in response to lack of basic resources, the species providing those resources partially recover, and the cycle starts over and over again, with an overall downward trend in our population. In this case, continuously increasing individual consumption repeatedly causes attempted overshoot of resources that drives down population in response.

As with someone who is banging his head against a wall harder and harder in the hope that it will move out of the way, avoiding further injury is best achieved by stopping the banging. If we're smarter, we'll avoid hitting the wall the first time (immediately stop population and consumption growth). Following this analogy, if the wall starts to move toward us, which is a conceivable consequence of climate change as species start to die off without our help, we should move backward (reduce our consumption) at least as fast as it is moving toward us. If we're lucky, and emphasize reduction of our greenhouse gas waste, the "wall" may slow down or stop before we are forced to reduce our population.

Monday, September 14, 2015


My latest simulation of the future, which integrates personal priority-setting like that discussed in "Groups, Goals, and Actions" with the potential futures described in "Shutdown Scenarios," indicates that the best way to reduce major casualties over the next few years is to have everyone in the world immediately stop increasing both population and consumption of ecological resources (ecological footprint).

The urgency is a consequence of the possibility that humanity will breach a critical environmental limit in less than a year, killing off species needed to sustain those species we directly depend upon for our own survival. With global warming getting worse and threatening to push us over the limit anyway, we need to also work on decreasing our footprint with an emphasis on greenhouse gas emissions. This is the equivalent of slamming on a car's brakes before it flies into a ditch, and then backing up to escape collapse of the eroding ground under it.

Changes to personal behavior have an effect on the global whole that is inversely proportional to the size of the population and therefore extremely small (currently one in 7.26 billion). The best way to have a significant effect is to therefore convince many other people to make the same changes. For the expected ("combined case") scenario, I estimate that about nine times as many people can be saved as are convinced per year to stop growth in population and consumption, with the potential for billions of lives to be saved over the next 16 years.

In the worst case, higher population growth is projected before we make changes, and this results in higher speed toward the limit. To avoid hitting the limit and to minimize casualties we would have to now be decreasing our personal consumption by twice the rate we increased it last year, and stop at no more than 88% (and no less than 60%) of the current global average by the end of the century. Ideally, we should be following this approach anyway, following the sound advice of preparing for the worst case and hoping for the best case.

That "best case" is not, of course, my best case – it is the "limitless case" that seems to be the main planning scenario for the world. For that, there is no need to consider changing anyone's way of life, except to convince them to help increase our own happiness, population, and longevity. Given that our influence over our lives and those of our friends and family is much greater than any influence we might have over the rest of the population, it makes sense under this scenario to focus only on these groups. Doing so inevitably results in more consumption and a growing population, which a lack of limits allows so long as the corresponding complexity can be managed.

If I am wrong about the nearby limit my models indicate we are about to hit, there is another limit behind that: the effective depopulation of other species that includes those we directly depend upon. If we can proceed along the trajectory of the limitless case, I estimate we will hit that final limit by 2029 with a population of 8.5 billion people. If growth continues after that, then we are indeed on a world without limits, and I will stand corrected. There is, however, the very real threat of climate change that is expected by scientists to get much worse in the near future, as well as verifiable increases in pollution and species extinction that are a source of justifiable worry for the foreseeable future. 

We already know, or should know, that as biological entities our fates are intricately tied to the fates of our fellow creatures, and that we are collectively responsible for their fates taking a catastrophic turn for the worst. If our species follows them, then our personal and familial priorities will be forced to include the "others," and it may be too late to stop the worst from happening to us.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Groups, Goals, and Actions

Motivated by the threat of global catastrophe that has become more real every day, I recently set about identifying personal goals so that I could determine what actions to take that would best serve my needs and values. That requirement made the scope of the search general and specific, global and local, and incorporated key findings from my research along with thoughts about the essence and physical manifestations of "right" and "wrong."

The result builds on the fact that we are each part of a family (or closely related group of people), which is part of a species, which is one of many species that interact and comprise the totality of life on Earth. It incorporates what I consider the most fundamental value of all: "good" is that which maximizes the quantity and variety of life over all time. Limitations in awareness and power force each individual member of a species, like us, to collaborate with other individuals like us in the transformation of the parts of the world not like us, living and non-living, into environments that enable us to contribute to this good; and for that we are rewarded with an increased sense of life satisfaction (happiness).

Each of three basic goals can be pursued simultaneously, and to varying degrees, by any group: maximizing happiness, maximizing population (the members of the group), and maximizing longevity (how long the group can exist as a group with distinguishable characteristics). I include individuals, or the "self," as a group whose longevity is the same as lifespan and whose maximizing of population is the propagation of his or her genetic uniqueness. Each of these goals will be prioritized by the group on an ongoing basis depending on conditions, history, and success.

A group may even choose to work against one or more of these goals by, for example, serving one or more goals of another group. This may be justified, at least in the short-term, if the other group needs help providing resources that maintain the first group's longevity and population, and if that help can be provided by delaying or postponing growth. If future growth of both groups is impossible, then the population and happiness goals would have been reached and maximizing longevity would be the primary focus by preserving the production of resources. If longevity is threatened as it is for humanity and other species today, then larger groups will need to prioritize the goals of their sub-groups as resources become too scarce to maintain current happiness and, potentially, population.

Goals can only be reached through action. Theoretically, any action will have an impact on each of the goals discussed here, and can be prioritized based on both the relative impacts of other actions and on the priorities of the goals themselves. Other goals may be added and addressed, ideally as supporting sub-goals (if not, then as totally independent of the basic ones). I personally choose to include as my own, at least as placeholders, all basic goals for all groups, and to prioritize them based on my preferences and understanding of their interdependencies.

As I gain more experience with this approach, and because I consider "others" to have a high priority, I will share details and insights in future discussions that can be enhanced by them.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Shutdown Economics

The recent stock market nosedive was a reminder that future economic growth is far from a sure thing. It, and an immediate need for personal financial planning, led me to explore the economic dimension of my shutdown scenarios, which not surprisingly reflects trends seen in the variables I've already studied.

I focused on Gross World Product (GWP), which according to my population-consumption model is proportional to the square of the number of "happy environments" that exist. The two cases (projected and worst) bracketing business-as-usual both result in a total crash; and the two cases that involve holding population constant (best and hybrid) end with a smaller but sustainable GWP (29% below the 2014 level). The projected case has the largest increase in GWP after 2016 (about 12% above the level in 2014), which is bounce-back from the population loss that occurs over the rest of this decade, but it is also the last peak before GWP crashes.

The best case is of course the least-disruptive of the scenarios, with a shallow decrease toward its final value. This is due mostly to the unchanging population size while personal ecological impact glides toward sustainability by effectively enabling other species to use the resources in one-in-six of the number of happy environments that existed in 2014.

Businesses and governments appear to pay more attention to the rate of change than the total of economic activity. By this measure, 2020-2022 will be the best period of any scenario, but all years after 2016 will be zero or negative in annual change, with 2028-2031 being the worst years. Even the best case will see its worst year in 2029, with what now seems a disastrous 12% drop in GWP, but which is actually the smallest drop for any scenario's worst year.

I've neglected the unlimited case in this discussion, which unfortunately is also the likely reference scenario for economic planning. Comparing the other scenarios to this one, which averages more than 2% annual growth over the next 20 years, the future is an even uglier picture than the one drawn in absolute terms above.

Finally, it is useful to describe the result of fusing all scenarios into a combined case. In this scenario, GWP is currently growing at a measly 0.4% compared to 2.4% over the last year. In other words, today's investors are rightly worried about a slowdown. By mid-2017, the economy will be clearly contracting along with population, which will last another two years. The following two years will have a sharp spike in growth, and then GWP will begin a long fall that stops finally by 2032 when the population is only 801 million people (11% of its value in 2014). At that leveling off, the money spent by an average person measured as GWP per person will be 8% of its 2014 value, and the much-diminished civilization will barely be able to function.

This coming year is when all of us should be trying to ensure that the contraction only results in a decrease in consumption below the critical level, setting the stage for the gradual decline in consumption that marks the best case scenario. From an economic standpoint this might manifest as a distribution of wealth to the most vulnerable people, and perhaps most important, a focus on paying for reclamation of habitat and other resources for use by other species rather than using money to build more artificial environments. As personal income and expense falls, more natural means for meeting needs would be developed so the money does not have to be replaced.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Shutdown Scenarios

The first major test of my Half-Earth Hypothesis is in progress. Analysis of new data indicates that, if the hypothesis is correct, within a year humanity will begin consuming the ecological producers that maintain those ecological supporters that enable our basic survival. This will likely result in several hundred million casualties in the next decade, followed by several billion in the first half of the following decade, potentially leading to our effective extinction soon after.

This "hard shutdown" is a consequence of our historical behavior, but we may still have a chance of converting it into a "safe" shutdown by controlling both our population size and the amount of resources lost by our excess consumption. If competition for resources is the main cause of the initial casualties, we might in the best case be able to eliminate it and keep our population constant while reducing our individual consumption to a sustainable level and maintaining it there. This assumes that the lost producers can be recovered, and that their loss hasn't triggered a cascade of further environmental degradation.

If we can't control the population loss, then it may be kept from growing back as individual consumption continues to fall. In this case, protective policies might also prevent further casualties, and the drop in individual consumption may be stopped before it jeopardizes the maintenance of a civil society.

In my opinion, the best case future is about as improbable as the one most governments and businesses appear to expect, which is predicated on limitless growth. Based on that expectation, the other possibilities represent risks that merit little attention in the form of tweaks to their plans that may account for only a few-percent of additional costs in the distant future ("distant" being more than five years out).

Combining the scenarios discussed here and using my own estimates of their probabilities, I anticipate that the world will experience a serious food crisis just as the U.S. presidential race reaches its peak. During the new president's first term, the death toll will mount into the millions and people will attempt to grow much more food, exacerbating the problem. The next election will occur just as the population begins to recover, but consumption will have already begun falling. How far it falls, and whether we will suffer a much more massive loss of life, will be determined during the following decade.

Whether or not these scenarios are accurate, they provide a useful context for discussing how carbon emissions may decrease, voluntarily and involuntarily. The obvious preference should be for the best case; and we should put the mechanisms for creating it in place, regardless of motivation. We can similarly study the mechanisms involved in creating the disastrous alternatives so we can reduce their probability of becoming reality.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Shutdown Time

With evidence continuing to mount that our ability to survive on this planet depends on stopping the burning of fossil fuels as soon as possible, it's time to start holding all governments and corporations responsible for the planning and implementation of a swift and safe reduction of the global ecological footprint to no more than half what it was in 2013, beginning with the total elimination of operations involving the use of fossil fuels. In short, it is now time for what I referred to in an earlier blog post as a "graceful shutdown" and bringing safe alternatives online that provide the basic physical and social needs of everyone alive today.

Reducing our footprint involves both lowering our consumption of ecological resources and rendering harmless the pollution we've dumped into places that harm the world's ecosystems, including the atmosphere. We also need to secure or render harmless substances like nuclear fuel that could potentially become harmful pollution.

Individuals and communities can do some of this on their own, perhaps best by using the concepts and techniques collectively known as "permaculture" and explored in test cases by the international Transition movement. By changing what they buy, who they vote for, and who they work for, as well as advocating for shutdown by the organizations they are part of, people can have a considerable impact on the probability of success.

Much of my recent writing has been devoted to exploring how long it takes to perform tasks, as well as the complexity of events and activities. This may have seemed tangential to my main focus of studying our potential future and how to avoid its negative trajectories. In fact, I have been using this immediately practical knowledge to start laying groundwork for how to plan humanity's next moves (and personally determine how I can maximize my contribution to creating a healthier world). Understanding learning curves helps us as individuals to judge the honesty and competence of organizations who we support or might potentially support, as well as the quality of what we do and what we get from others based on complexity. More than this, we have a useful tool for deciding between alternative actions that could get us to a goal or set of goals. My discussions of values, competition, and cooperation were intended to explore another, critical dimension to making plans: that of amplifying collective effort to accelerate progress instead of reduce it – or worse.

I spent a lot of time determining the likely trajectories of population and consumption, largely to assess the large-scale context for making responsible decisions. I focused particularly on the timing of the crisis revealed by the variables I analyzed, which has closely followed the projections made by many real experts in the social and environmental sciences and therefore gives me more confidence in what they are saying. It seems that no matter what angle is used for examining our immediate future, the conclusions are the same, and they are at odds with the technologically and economically optimistic orientation of most businesses I have studied in my attempt to meet personal financial responsibilities in the short term. From within a socio-economic system fixated on eternal growth in physical consumption and consolidation of power, the very concept of voluntary shutdown is akin to the worst form of heresy in the most conservative of religions, and I understand the potential costs of even suggesting it; yet the costs of not doing so and going further are likely to be much, much higher.

In future writing, I intend to explore what shutdown plans might need to include, and what they may look like in some detail. I also expect to discuss what "holding responsible" means, especially as means of assessing the legitimacy of organizations and their operating principles.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Error and Complexity

The learning curve model that I developed based on observations of how fast tasks are performed has yielded another valuable insight. The difference between expected performance of a task and actual performance over time, will tend to spike and then fall off gradually, which is likely to confound typically linear (and often overly-optimistic) approaches to scheduling its completion. Furthermore, the timing and amount of the spike will vary with the complexity of the task, which may not even be explicitly factored into expectations. The math shows that the timing and amount of this spike in what could be considered "error" is theoretically predictable.

In "Units of Completion," I suggested that the complexity of a task could be assessed in terms of a number of units that are simultaneously performed during the task, and which define how closely we can measure its completion. I've taken this another step, by using the concept of a unit to identify the highest meaningful efficiency that could be used to establish ideal expectations.

For example, if my task is to edit a page with 500 words, then the highest completion I could reliably measure is 499 words (500 minus one), which is 499/500 or 99.8% of the total. That fraction is also the highest meaningful efficiency, which translates into an expectation of editing 499 words in the best-case time. With average editing ability, I would have an efficiency of 50% instead of 99.8%; so during the best-case time, I will have only edited 50% of the total, or 250 words. If I'm responsible for meeting a schedule based on 99.8% efficiency, at the end of the best-case time I will be behind by 249 words (499 minus 250), or 49.8%, which is my error at that time, and it will take nine times that long to reach zero error. A manager tracking my progress up to the best-case time would see an even worse picture, because my error would reach a peak of 67% when I was at just 40% of the best-case time. Ideally, of course, the manager should plan for the actual time to achieve zero error, and not care what happens until then.

Editing ten pages instead of one could be treated as a single task, and the same fractions would simply apply to the larger number of words, with the minimum allowable error at the end now being ten words instead of one. If, however, this error was still kept at one word, then the highest completion (and the highest meaningful efficiency) would increase to 99.98% (or 4999/5000 words) and have significant side-effects which might together be considered a major degradation in performance. For one, the manager would now need to allow more than 12 times the new best-case time (which accounts for all ten pages) for me to reach zero error. My maximum error would increase to nearly 74%, occurring at 32% of the best-case time; and at the best-case time, my error would be slightly higher, at 50.0%.

My actual efficiency in editing pages is higher than the average, more like 70% than 50%, which would decrease the time and value of the maximum error, as well as the amount of time to reach zero error in each case. There would still appear to be a degrading effect on performance as the complexity increased (for example, the maximum error would have increased from 54% to 62%), and that could still raise an unnecessary "red flag" by a manager who was looking too closely and didn't expect it.

The real world is certainly messier than this theoretical discussion might imply. As I described in "Units of Completion," a lot depends on whether the task you think you're evaluating is one of these idealized pure tasks, a parallel combination of pure tasks, or a sequence of pure tasks. Since my analysis is based on actual observations (as are the other models I've developed), the behaviors I've identified are potentially observable in actual situations, and are therefore subject to test. They suggest a reasonable set of explanations for what may be unresolved or even unrecognized issues in actual applications, which is why I've brought them up.

One such issue, which I alluded to and can foresee, is an increase in waste: wasted time, wasted effort, and wasted physical resources. For example, a coordinated "task" such as a major industrial or government project might be terminated because of commitment to unrealistic planning goals that could not be met, and the waste of discontinuing it would be added to the loss of opportunity for meeting the needs it was intended to address. Spikes in what I've called "error" might result in the waste of resources to correct problems that don't exist, which rings true as a consequence of too much complexity. If more realistic schedules are impractical, either because they demand resources that aren't available, or because of competition with others who do not acknowledge their necessity, then the gains of previous effort should be preserved as much as possible until a new and more effective task -- or set of tasks -- can be devised. If preservation cannot be done, waste seems inevitable, and the ultimate objectives of the task are too important to abandon, then cooperation (rather than competition) may be needed between multiple entities who can together address the impediments to success.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Tree Line

In the late 1990s, I was on a group hike that nearly ended in disaster. About a dozen of us were above tree line on a mountain just as a thunderstorm threatened to move in. Our goal was to reach a small lake near the top, but the thunderstorm made it too dangerous to continue. A handful of people insisted on going anyway. Since it was an organized hike, the entire group needed to return to the trailhead together, so the rest of us waited at an abandoned mine so the others could find us when they returned from the lake.

We hunkered down in what little cover we could find just as the thunderstorm moved over us and began dumping torrents of rain. In the distance, we saw a couple of people become trapped on a rock face, and we were soon joined by a larger group of hikers who were less prepared than we were. We assisted the newcomers and debated just how safe we really were. The storm was bigger than we hoped, and it became clear to most of us that the risk of staying was too great. During a brief lull in the rain, we and the newcomers made a dash for the trees. Luckily, the rest of our group had made the same decision, abandoning their trip to the lake, and joined us at tree line. After hiking down the mountain as fast as possible, we encountered emergency vehicles waiting for the hikers we had seen on rock face.

I was reminded of this story recently as more bad news came in about humanity's sabotage of natural systems. Honeybees, critical to the survival of plants, are losing habitat because of climate change. Meanwhile, scientists have documented a mass die-off of seabirds that suggests serious problems with ocean ecosystems. Catastrophic seal level rise may now be inevitable, again due to climate change; and a new study indicates that we humans are critically reducing the collection and availability of energy necessary for ecosystems – and us – to function.

Like hikers determined to get as far above tree line as possible, we have defined "progress" as distance from Nature. We have done the equivalent of cutting down trees to fuel our ascent, altering the weather in the process and spawning the thunderstorm that threatens to maroon us, and then kill us. Heading back down the mountain is perceived as an act of cowardice, giving up on our dreams; so some people go ahead, while others compromise by waiting in the brush just above tree line until they come to their senses. Meanwhile, the risk is growing that lightning will cause the remaining trees to burn, cutting off escape, and that the thunderstorm will grow and last a very long time.

We can do the equivalent of retreating below tree line, and try to grow as many trees back as possible to reduce the risk; we could hunker down and hope the storm passes; or we could follow our original plan and keep going up. The option you choose depends on what you value; and if you value people's lives above arbitrary personal attainment, then the choice is obvious.