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).