Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Values Realized

What we want out of life comes at the expense of Nature. This fact drives our relationships with each other and the other species we share the planet with, as well as how long and how many of us can survive.

No matter what group or groups we might be part of, we are all part of one group: the human species. The number of people in that largest group, its population, has been growing since the beginning of civilization, reflecting the value we collectively place on people. Like other animals, each of us requires a minimum amount of resources to survive, so the amount of resources we consume increases with how many of us there are. Since the populations of other species use or embody much of those same resources, the resources must be shared over time for the system of life to last as long as possible.

Most of us would prefer to live long and healthy lives. Because sharing resources is so critical, and we embody resources that other species can use for food, extending our lifetimes reduces the amount of resources available to other life during the time they are needed by those other species. Thanks in large part to our ability to develop and share knowledge and skills, and translate those things into material objects that can accelerate the process, we have enabled more people to live past birth and to thwart more of other species' attempts to consume us. As a result, we have increased consumption and more than tripled the average amount of time people can expect to live from birth (life expectancy) since the beginning of civilization.

We would all like to have satisfying lives. Happiness means different things to different people, but statistically it tends to increase with consumption in much the same way as life expectancy. This can be interpreted to mean that it is an expression of how well people are able to match their lifestyles to their personal preferences, which is enabled by economies that distribute resources among people through trade. Economic activity, which is easier to measure than happiness and tied more directly to consumption, is therefore often used as a proxy for happiness.

The Timelines model projects that, if we live like people in the simulated scenario Timeline 2, then global population, life expectancy, and happiness will reach their maximum average values between 2020 and 2022. The good news is that most people will get to see the pinnacle of human achievement, even though it won't feel good for half of them. The bad news is that life expectancy and happiness will reach zero for everyone between 2029 and 2030, and no one will be left alive by 2038.

Since Timeline 2 has 82% of its recent history in common with ours, it makes sense to use it as a baseline for discussion of the future. The values of population, life expectancy, and happiness are all dependent on what fraction of remaining resources people minimally consume: as the fraction grows, the values grow until the fraction reaches about 57%, falling to zero for fractions larger than that. 

If we don't want the values to drop (especially for population), then it makes sense to keep the population below its peak (affecting minimal consumption) and our additional consumption from growing (affecting the remaining resources). This is the logic behind the Fix timeline. We could alternatively let events unfold without intervention and hope that people will not overshoot the peaks; but if they do, that the apparent desire to consume more will be overcome by a desire to seek out the peaks, and they will voluntarily reduce their consumption to reach the peaks again.

The Fix and the "wait-and-seek" strategies include an implicit assumption that depletion of remaining resources is totally within people's control. The depletion beyond the economic equivalent of renewable products and services provided by other species is largely due to harm and killing of the species that provide them, and harm to species that those species depend on for survival. Those effects are caused by the same drivers as extinction: habitat loss, alteration of ecosystems by invasive species, pollution, use of common resources by the human population, and direct killing due to hunting and over-harvesting. Pollution in particular is having a greater role by changing the climate, whose predictability all species (including us) depend on for a variety of deep biological reasons, not the least of which being growth of plant life needed for food and oxygen production. When changes people make to the environment lead to cascades of changes that are self-reinforcing (positive feedback), then depletion multiplies beyond control.

In Timeline 2, the "waste" component of consumption (consumption in addition to basic needs and wants) accelerates its increase while population drops after the population peak. This may indicate that during that period it will be self-sustaining. If so, perhaps the significance of the population peak – and maybe the others – is that humans in Timeline 2 have a biological self-destruct trigger that activates when their actions initiate uncontrolled collapse of the biosphere they depend on for survival. The Fix timeline would therefore be impossible without some extremely powerful, and as-yet nonexistent, technology that could repair the damage as it occurs.

Another timeline diverged from ours and Timeline 2 in 1939. World War II was averted there, resulting in slower development of technology and science. The same desires and constraints existed, however, and the population peak was only delayed another 60 years...

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Beginning in the 1960s, a growing number of people felt that something ominous was approaching. Scientists began warning that the global natural environment was degrading to unsafe levels, and that critical resources were at risk of overconsumption. Use of tools designed to model complex systems revealed that this jeopardized the survival of civilization and even the entire human species. While a majority of proposed solutions focused on acquiring more resources (especially energy) in less damaging ways while accelerating economic growth, a minority argued for reducing overall consumption – even at the expense of economic growth. 

After 1990, economic growth in Timeline 2 generated noticeably less wellbeing than people expected based on previous decades, despite acceleration of economic activity that reached a peak in 2006. Attempts to increase that acceleration by promoting consumption had the opposite effect because of its newly significant slowing effect on population growth, and in 2017 the rate of economic growth began dropping for the last time.

A third timeline was born of this last event. Its inhabitants had a better chance of surviving because a critical number of them simultaneously came to understand that an alarming degradation of social order in recent years was inextricably linked to the degradation of their world's natural environment, of which pollution-linked global climate change was only the most obvious manifestation. Their number was critical because radical change on a world-wide scale was needed immediately, and they had just enough influence to pull it off.

With only two years left before population reached its own peak and more people started dying than being born, stopping the growth of global consumption was the most effective strategy to use. This artificial peak in consumption would similarly require a decrease in consumption by some people that was equal to any increase in consumption by the rest. Ideally, to reduce pain and suffering (as well as social tension that could result in violence and death), the difference between the two would have to be small, and could be aided by avoiding replacement of people who died of old age. But since the passing of several geophysical tipping points had all but ensured that the amount of available resources would diminish without any additional consumption, everyone would still need to learn how to – and agree to – decrease their consumption to match the supply.

Without voluntary initiation of the strategy, the practical difficulty of social engineering required in its absence was too much for Timeline 2 to avoid catastrophe, and humans there would be effectively extinct by 2038. Immediately following the trigger that started the "Fix" timeline, current Gross World Product grew at a rate one-twelfth of what it did in Timeline 2, and within ten years fell to an annual increase of only half a percent.

Facing the threat of a rapidly uninhabitable planet if they kept living the way they had, more and more of the people in the Fix timeline split their newly "free" time between finding ways to survive that had lower impact on natural systems and removing or rendering harmless as much toxic material as possible. Those who insisted on doing otherwise were steadily deprived of the resources that enabled that behavior, isolated themselves, and then died off.

As natural disasters multiplied and people in the Fix timeline became more familiar with their artificial and natural environments, it became clear that most of the built infrastructure existing until 2018 could no longer serve its intended purposes. Useful and safe material was salvaged for use in new structures resembling Earthships, while the rest was rendered as harmless as possible before being abandoned. Various "hot zones" remained, such as nuclear power plants and weapons stockpiles, which were staffed by volunteers who worked on decommissioning them at high personal risk using what technology was necessary and could itself be rendered safe in the process.

Several fundamental shifts occurred organically as the population of the Fix timeline learned to survive in the long term. One was decoupling the economy from ecological impact. Historically, economic activity was a function of the number of transactions of resources, which depended on both the number of people and what was traded between them; all such activity was measured the same way, without regard to its individual qualities. As restricting both individual consumption and the number of people became more intrinsically valuable, this measure became useless. As people learned to reduce their experience to its essentials as a price for survival, they came to treat interactions with others as part of an almost artistic collaboration whose value was in the result rather than their individual contributions. Like their replacement of largely useless physical infrastructure from the past, they developed new ways to efficiently coordinate their activities based on net benefit, maximizing prioritized qualities over time at all conceivable scales, with survival having the highest priority.

Another fundamental shift was a reshaping of group identity. Taken globally, the world's many nations, cities, and smaller groups behaved as one composite population. The global environment was likewise a composite of ecosystems with their own subpopulations of myriad species with functional elements common to the rest. As physics inexorably moved energy and matter around the planet to create temporarily stable states independent of artificially defined boundaries, members of all species – including humans – had to be able to move to regions that improved their chances of survival, and then interact with others in those regions to get what they needed. If a small group of individuals or species attempted to dominate a region, it took the risk of being unable to adapt to specific conditions within the region that others could, and might otherwise assist them to do the same. The people of the Fix timeline were aware of these facts, and organized their groups to improve their chances of survival by maximizing adaptability. This meant that most groups would need a mix of knowledge, abilities, and environmental affinities that could be applied to a variety of places they might need to go. Emphasizing respect within those groups, and applied to other groups of people and species, would reduce the possibility of local population collapse in any given environment.

At the moment, we have the most in common with Timeline 2, and still barely have the option of branching onto the Fix timeline. To the extent that we can apply insights that come from imagining that timeline, we might gain more time for ourselves.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Waste Age

new version of my Timelines model introduces a simulated history, Timeline 2, that is a better match to real history than the previous one (Timeline 1) and includes more variables. The following discussion is based on that timeline with reference to events in our own pastReferences to years after 2013 are entirely based on projections for Timeline 2.

In the second decade of the twentieth century, science and technology was undergoing revolutionary innovation, especially in the areas of physics, medicine, and transportation. They both aided, and were aided by, the conversion of energy, material, and other life into forms that humans could not directly consume in the wild ("waste"), whose yearly impact on natural ecosystems for the first time in history exceeded what the entire population needed for basic survival.

Three decades and two world wars later, that innovation along with global awareness and social innovation was coming to terms with the consequences of that waste. Among the benefits was an increase in life expectancy (when the death toll of war was excluded) and increased potential to customize people's individual environments, reflected in life satisfaction (happiness). Costs included the potential for a few people to inflict harm and death on a large fraction of the world's population, intentionally or by accident.

By the 1950s, waste was more than double the amount humanity consumed to survive, and that ratio grew faster than it would any other time before 2020. By itself, our timeline's waste was one-eighth of all life-related resources on our timeline, while Timeline 2's waste was one-seventh of its resources. This included both reusable resources and the creatures that produced them; but the fractions of just reusable resources were three timesas much.

The limit of reusable resources was passed on both timelines in the early 1970s, with each converting more than three times as many resources into waste as were consumed for basic survival. By then, it was glaringly obvious that the environmental was deteriorating on a global scale, especially in response to pollution. At the same time, supplies of fossil fuels that had enabled much of the previous years' growth were becoming harder to find and economically extract. 

Scientific and technological research focused in response on increasing energy and material efficiency to reduce the speed of resource use and the harmful and costly impacts of continuing the lifestyle that waste had enabled. It also also turned toward repair of the damage already done and identifying how humanity could survive if the situation got worse. Biotechnology explored the alteration of biological systems, including food sources and ultimately humans, so that a variety of different resources could be used and harsher environmental conditions could be tolerated. Space exploration, initiated in the 1950s in tandem with mini-wars and rivalries that barely avoided devastating scenarios enabled by the last world war, served as a test bed for technologies that might help people escape Earth and survive in the most inhospitable of environments.

These developments were accompanied by a reduction and leveling off of the waste-to-needs ratio, which was a result of growth in population (and its associated needs-consumption) exceeding the growth of waste production. That waste, by 1998 in Timeline 2 and 2003 in our timeline, itself took up an amount of resources equal to the reusable resources (technically, an ecological footprint of one Earth per year), with needs taking up one-third as much. 

Until 2005 in both timelines, life expectancy could be expected to increase along with waste-driven economic activity. After that year, though, that advantage became a statistical disadvantage and then a liability. More affluent people were able to live longer, so the fraction of children (people younger than 20) fell for what was already a small part of the population to a level where life expectancy became effectively zero for the richest in 2016. Life expectancy continued to increase for the younger and less affluent, driving the population average upward as more people gained access to the technology embedded in the still-growing waste. 

By 2020, waste will have rendered dead or unusable half of the entire world's life-based resources. This would coincide with a peak in total human population, two-thirds of them adults, consuming enough in needs and wants to leave only one-third of the world's original resources intact for planetary life and life support. 

The urge to grow older might be behind what is likely to come next, if a series of possible natural catastrophes, perhaps related to climate change, doesn't reduce the remaining resources on their own. Continuing growth in waste that enables survivors to grow older will by 2022 cause the growth in life expectancy to stop for the average person in the population and decrease after that. This might be perceived as increasing protection of the younger people more likely to have children, but with more people dying than being born this will be a fleeting advantage at best.

The world economy, measured in Gross World Product and wealth, based on transactions of products and services mostly consisting of waste, will continue to grow until 2025 and then fall as the loss of people able to make transactions offsets the growth in waste.

Average life expectancy will be zero in 2031, followed by population (and of course, the economy) in 2038. The waste created by humanity will persist longer, such as greenhouse gases that could still be warming the atmosphere for thousands of years. After we have briefly benefitted from it, it and the destruction it has caused will be our most consequential legacy.

Friday, February 23, 2018


Since November I have continued to struggle with the "Rabbit Hole," with a little more success. That success is, in part, due to a decision to give in to my troubleshooting instincts and follow a process that served me well as a test engineer: simulating the system under test, and then using that simulation to reproduce a problem in order to identify its cause and potential solutions. The fact that there are multiple problems made this approach even more attractive. Having done so, I am ready to share what I learned.

The main problem, as it's always been, is the limitation of humanity's population growth and collective lifetime due to unavailability of resources critical to survival. The other problems have to do with limitations to maintenance and growth of the quality of life for the people in that population, not to mention the ultimate consequence of our definition of members of other species as "resources": their dying to the point of extinction. Evidence for these problems is found in the news, results of scientific research, and personal experience that people share (as well as my own). One of the most obvious consequences is stress from growing uncertainty about our own fate and the fate of those we care about, and lack of trust in the people and institutions that we've counted on to reduce that uncertainty.

For me, understanding is a remedy for uncertainty, even if that uncertainty can only be measured. I already had a good start on addressing that. The "population-consumption model" I've been working on for more than a decade has yielded some interesting insights, which have been the basis of much of my writing over that period. To be useful as a troubleshooting tool, though, it needed a lot more refinement. It especially had to be able to address specific behaviors of people, which I considered one of its main deficiencies. It also had to better match the historical data, which was helped by the addition of more data about ecological impact as a proxy for consumption, along with economic activity.

The most basic output of the model was a presentation of the past and most likely future of global population and consumption, similar to what I generated with previous versions. This time, though, I chose to focus on types of consumption, needs and wants, and a new type of impact – waste. Needs are the resources consumed to maintain the most basic survival, while wants are additional resources directly used by people, and waste is everything else that was part of overall impact. I also tracked what is left to consume – mainly members of other species (nature) and what they produce.

Unlike previous attempts, though, I left open the possibility of simulating timelines of history that didn't necessarily match with real experience: thought experiments describing what might be in other universes whose past, present, and future look significantly different from our own. This appealed to me because it could provide valuable context what we observe in our daily lives; and it could suggest actions we might not have anticipated by sticking strictly to reality. It also would inherently reduce confusion between real history and simulated history in my discussions, as I referred to timelines rather than actual events.

The first timeline I simulated, arbitrarily called "Timeline 1," was my best match to reality based on personal judgement about the variables and methods used, as well as tracking of differences between my source data and the outputs. By contrast, the source data represents "Timeline 0," which is essentially reality, though subject to change as more data is added – especially about future events. In Timeline 1, humanity is producing vastly more waste than wants, leading to peak population in 2020, peak economic activity in 2025, and extinction by 2037 as nature is depleted to a point where needs can no longer be met. This is accompanied by, and facilitated by, individual economic reward for waste that is equivalent to reward for meeting needs and wants, along with what the model shows is an inevitable and increasing unequal trade of waste for wants.

I will be adding more detail later, but the main points I just outlined for Timeline 1 are very consistent with the lessons I've learned from the bulk of my research, which is an argument for its usefulness in troubleshooting the real problems the model was created to simulate. Since Timeline 1 is based on human activity and does not include the potential influence of external changes to the environment such as self-sustaining climate feedbacks, it can mainly suggest actions we can take to delay, if not stop, our extinction in the absence of those changes. For example, one such action would be to reduce or remove reward for waste, beginning with calling it out for what it is.

One of the discoveries I made in preparing the new version of the model is a mathematical relationship between ecological impact and economic activity. If it's correct, then the residents of Timeline 1 can't just redefine how economic activity is distributed throughout the population without factoring out the waste they produce. Such a redefinition would, however, alleviate the grossly unequal quality of life that is among the other problems some of them – and some of us – might want to address, and may be a feature of another timeline.