Friday, December 28, 2007

Options Revisited

If the world’s population stabilizes at a constant value when the amount of available resources ceases to change (all consumed resources are renewable), my theoretical model of population and consumption projects that by 2278 the world’s population will be only twice the present population of the United States, and the per capita consumption will be practically equal to that of the United States today. Ideality (quality of life) would grow from 65 to 78. The world’s present population could live on 1/3 of its current per capita consumption (1/11 of that of the U.S.) if we reduced consumption immediately; and ideality would drop to 54. In both of these cases, business as usual and sustainability, the population would not crash, but we would be making a tradeoff between quantity and quality of life.

We could postpone the population decline by increasing our total available resources expanding into space until we reached the maximum speed attainable, but we would risk true population crash as per capita consumption was inevitably forced below what people needed for survival. If our per capita consumption continued rising at its current rate, and if we could travel at the speed of light (a physical impossibility), the population would crash in little more than about 3,000 years.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Better Fit

If per capita consumption is modeled linearly over time, rather than exponentially as I was doing it, there is a better fit to the footprint and population data in my theoretical model. The results are similar to what I found earlier.

With business as usual, the world’s population peaks near 8.1 billion people by 2049, then drops to a minimum of 590 million by 2280. It then may grow until the minimum per capita consumption is reached, with 51 billion people in 2621 before crashing abruptly. The sum of the Ideal World indices from 2000 (IWIsum) is less than 700.

If we stop population growth and cut per capita consumption by 0.2 hectare per year until we reach 0.89 hectare, there will be some population loss before the population levels out at about 6.4 billion people with an ideality of 54 percent.

The ultimate best case growth, with a maximum speed of half the speed of light allowing resource growth at 5.9 percent per year, would last until 4356 before the per capita consumption dropped below a minimum of 0.1 hectare (with an IWIsum of 6E+21, or 6 with 21 zeros).At that rate, we would need to consume a mass equivalent to the Earth in about 900 years, when the IWIsum would be 9 billion.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Increasing Resources

One fundamental decision will govern the future of humanity. We can either choose to live within our available resources, or we can try to increase the amount of resources.

To live within our available resources, we will need to do two things simultaneously: Stop population growth, and decrease our per capita consumption at a rate no less than 0.5 percent per year to 20 percent of its current value (by 2331). The population would level off without falling, and ideality would level off at 50 percent. If we could continue growing capacity (renewable resources) by 0.5 percent per year to a maximum of six billion hectares, then the target per capita consumption would be 30 percent of the current amount, reached by 2304.

If we choose to grow our resources, to maximize population as long as possible we will need to maintain a resource growth rate of at least 5.1 percent. Assume that by 2385 we can reach resources at the speed of an Apollo spacecraft on its way to the Moon and one global hectare of consumption is equivalent to a mass of 330 pounds; then our population could grow to a maximum of 21 trillion by 2440 and then plummet to zero by 2478. We could last until at least 2663 with a population of about three quadrillion people if we focused on consuming the entire mass of the Earth, but we would need to consume the entire Solar System’s (non-stellar) mass by 2855 to continue, which would require our consumption radius to be increasing at several thousand times lunar flight speed.

The sum of the Ideal World Index from 2000, to one significant digit, is 400 for business as usual; at least 3,000 for constant population; and 300,000 for growing resources (60 million if we consume the Earth and 3 billion if we consume the Solar System while continuing to increase resources).

Ideal World Index

I modified my theoretical model of consumption and population, introduced in the last post, to include exponential growth in the amount of resources available. I also accounted for the restriction of that growth after a maximum speed is reached (assuming a constant density of mass in an expanding sphere, and a constant mass per global hectare of consumption). In addition, I set adjustable minimum and maximum values for per capita consumption, and added a logarithmic curve fit of ideality (the average of lifespan and happiness) as a function of per capita footprint. While resources are increasing faster than they are being consumed, the population rate stays at its maximum level. When per capita consumption falls below the minimum, the population crashes.

Multiplying the size of the population by the ideality (as a fraction) for any given year results in a measure of the magnitude and quality of our experience as a species. Normalizing these values to the value for a particular year, yielding what I’ll call the “Ideal World Index” (IWI), allows us to compare experiences over time: the higher the IWI, the better we’re doing. Based arbitrarily on the year 2000, the IWI is projected to rise to 1.5 (times what the product of population and ideality was in 2000) by 2038, drop to 0.05 by 2144, and then rise to 20.4 where the per capita consumption drops below minimum (0.09 hectare) and the population crashes.

If the IWI is summed over infinite time (or a sufficiently long period) different scenarios can be compared. Those scenarios with a fixed IWIsum will have the population crash, while those that have a minimum value indicate that the population is sustainable. I have chosen the period from 2000 to 5000 for the scenarios I’ve studied. For all cases where resources are growing as long as possible, per capita consumption falls below the minimum by the year 4500.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Consumption and Population

At the heart of my dire projections of the world population’s peak and decline has been the apparent parabolic relationship between cumulative consumption and population. As each year’s consumption is added together, population grows to a maximum and then drops to zero. This implies that there is a maximum amount of total resources that we can consume, beyond which more people will die than are being born.

I have now created a theoretical model which explains this relationship, showing the parabolic relationship to be only an approximation.

Consider a system with a fixed amount of resources, of which a maximum amount can be replenished each year (the “capacity,” which increases exponentially each year). The world population has a basic, exponential rate of growth that it attempts to maintain. Each person consumes a certain amount of resources each year, which increases exponentially. As long as the amount of resources consumed by the entire population does not exceed the capacity, the amount of resources doesn’t change; if it does, then the amount of resources decreases by an amount equal to the excess. If the amount of resources changes then the population adjusts itself in proportion to the change (that is, if the resources decrease by one percent in a year, the population after its basic rate is applied also decreases by one percent).

The best fit of the model to the data starts in 1961 with a population growth rate of 2.0 percent, capacity growth rate of 0.5 percent, 2,800 billion hectares of resources, per capita consumption at 1.44 hectares, growth in per capita consumption at 1.6 percent, and a capacity of 3 billion hectares. When this model is applied to footprint and population data, the world’s population peaks in 2035 at 8.4 billion people, and drops to under one billion people by 2093, reaching zero by 2287.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Fighting Global Warming

It is important to focus on the main problem of a high ecological footprint, rather than mitigating the more obvious consequences of any particular part of that footprint. In the case of carbon dioxide, much of the public focus has been on dealing with global warming by reducing direct carbon dioxide emissions, while some technologists have sought to address the “warming” part by proposing the decrease of sunlight striking the Earth through cloud seeding or orbital sun shields.

Any “solution” to global warming must keep the overall ecological footprint from growing; otherwise, the solution might be as harmful as the problem.

Carbon dioxide emissions currently account for an estimated 76 percent of the maximum sustainable footprint (MSF), while other components of the ecological footprint (grazing land, fishing, forest use, nuclear, built up land, and crops) account for an additional 83 percent. Of the other components, crops have the greatest potential of growing in their impact on the environment: At 34 percent of the MSF, my projections show this component taking up an entire maximum sustainable footprint by itself in 2037 (carbon dioxide by that time will be 137 percent, with the remaining components summing up to 85 percent). One of the most popular proposals for dealing with global warming is to grow organic fuel to replace gasoline, since fossil fuel burning is the main contributor of our carbon dioxide emissions. Growing more crops for ethanol replacement of gasoline would necessarily increase cropland, and add to its ecological footprint. If the condition for our population crashing is having the ecologic footprint exceed the surface area of the Earth, then my worst-case projections do not rule out this component being able to kill us all by itself.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Reducing Carbon Dioxide

At an estimated 7.2 billion hectares, carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuel use is the largest contribution to humanity’s ecological footprint (more than double its nearest competitor, cropland). Indeed, of all the impacts we have on the planet, carbon dioxide is the only one that is identifiably and totally waste; and its destructive effects are well documented (global warming). If we could magically remove this impact, natural systems could easily support us and other species – humanity would be below the maximum sustainable footprint (currently 9.5 billion hectares).

If current trends continue, then by the early 2020s the footprint from carbon dioxide emissions alone will equal the maximum sustainable footprint (at that time, due to projected increases in bio-productive land, about 10.3 billion hectares). It is perhaps no coincidence that by then our population will have passed its peak.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Green Hectares

Of the estimated 11.5 billion hectares of bio-productive area in the world, a minimum of 2.1 billion hectares is necessary to preserve biodiversity. Humanity has overshot what’s available, using 15.9 of the maximum 9.5 billion hectares that we should be using (in an ideal world); this leaves at least 6.4 billion hectares that must either be reclaimed or replaced without using more.

With a population of 6.6 billion people, each of us should be using no more than an average of 1.4 hectares (3.5 acres); instead we’re using 2.4 hectares (5.9 acres). If current trends continue, the population will peak in 2020 with the average person using 3.3 hectares (8.3 acres) instead of practically the same amount we should be using today. The last time the world per capita footprint was 1.4 hectares, John F. Kennedy was president of the United States and the world was using half of its biocapacity.

We can’t go back to the early 1960s, nor would we want to. Carbon dioxide emissions from our depleting fossil fuel supply use up half of our global footprint, and these will need to be cut drastically to mitigate global warming. Alternatives to the cheap energy supply that was taken for granted in Kennedy’s era will be much different, if successfully exploited. With the need to make more land wild and common resources such as air and water cleaner, energy and the civilization it enables will be much more a part of Nature than a total break from it.

One thing that might be similar to Kennedy’s time involves sending a breeding population to Mars. At a cost of 110 million hectares each year over the decade or so we may have left before our population peaks, Earth’s life would have an insurance policy in place should we fail and civilization crashes.

Saturday, December 8, 2007


By 1998, humanity was using the biological equivalent of one-fourth of Earth’s surface area, four percent more than the area taken up by land and three percent more than the amount that was ecologically productive.

By 2020, the amount of ecologically productive land will have grown to 24 percent of the planet’s surface area, while the amount used by humanity will have grown to 47 percent. In that year, like what happened to other species in 1975, our population will begin to decrease.

If our use of resources continues to increase after that, our population will continue dropping, approaching zero in 2048, when we would be annually using twice the amount we were at our peak, or nearly the entire surface of the Earth.

In an ideal world, we all would recognize these facts, and be taking appropriate action both further increase the amount of bio-productive land and shrink our consumption so that we and other species can live on that amount.

The rate of growth of resource use (including rendering unusable by waste) is falling, but not fast enough to avoid disaster. We are now using 167 percent of the bio-productive land we should be using to live sustainably with other species, which means that today we should be using 60 percent of the natural resources that we are. Each year we wait, if current trends continue, that fraction will decrease by about one percent, falling to 50 percent by 2014.

Revised Deficits

Taking another look at the concept of “unprocessed waste” described in the previous post, I now realize that the ecological footprint already includes that waste in its definition. That is, unprocessed waste is really the difference between the footprint and the biocapacity.

By this more correct definition, our footprint will exceed available biocapacity by an amount equal to that biocapacity (that is, our waste will equal the world’s biocapacity) when my consumption model projects our population to peak.

Using the ratio of Gross World Product to ecological footprint as a measure of the value of each unit of bio-productive land, the 1997 value of available biocapacity comes close to the high end of the benchmark value of Nature’s services: $43 trillion (in 2007 dollars) by my new estimate, versus $28T to $45T in the benchmark estimate. The value of the fraction of biocapacity usable by humans while accommodating other species in 1997 would have been $36T by my estimate, marking the maximum GWP we could have had to keep other species from dying off.

I estimate that the current maximum GWP for accommodating other species is $41T, and project our actual GWP to be $66 T; with a difference of $25 T (matching the “maximum Nature deficit” I calculated using fixed biocapacity). Without other species, the maximum GWP is the current value of biocapacity, or $48 T, with a deficit of $18 T (versus the $9 T that I estimated earlier). In ecological terms, we have an estimated footprint of nearly 15.9 billion global hectares (Bh) and a biocapacity of 11.5 Bh, of which other species need 2.1 Bh.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Accumulating Waste

In my previous analyses, I assumed a constant biocapacity – the total available amount of bio-productive land on Earth – equal to its 2003 value (as stated in the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2006, where much of my data comes from). In fact, biocapacity has been growing, though much slower than the global ecological footprint (an accrued 0.5 percent per year since 1961, versus 2.8 percent for the footprint).

When the great die-off of other species started, the ratio of available resources to total biocapacity was 18 percent. Since the late 1980s, humans have exceeded the available biocapacity; and like trash piling up in the street because the trash collectors are out sick, the difference remains unprocessed. By 1999, the amount of unprocessed waste equaled our ecological footprint, and by 2005 the unprocessed waste was double the resources we consumed in a year (currently the ratio is about 2.5).

If every hectare had the biological productivity of an average hectare in 2003, it would take the entire surface area of the Earth (including the oceans) to process the waste we will have accumulated by 2010. By 2014, we will need 1.5 Earths to process our waste; this is the year my projections show the populations of other species crashing. By 2021, as our own population peaks, we will need three Earths to process 6.3 times our annual consumption.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Great Die-Off

The year 1975 may turn out to be one of the most pivotal in history. At or around that time, the populations of other species, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Index, began to drop precipitously.

Meanwhile, the amount of bio-productive land consumed by humans (the ecological footprint) was eight billion global hectares and growing exponentially. By next year, that number will have doubled and the LPI may have fallen to half of its 1975 level.

If we could suddenly replace all of the land and other resources we have taken out of service to Nature along with the creatures we have killed, then with our larger population the average person would be consuming less than one and a quarter hectares, or half of today’s average value. It can’t be stressed enough that simply cutting back our present consumption by that much will only buy time until our own population peaks; we must actively repair or replace what we’ve taken already.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Economic Growth and the Natural Deficit

To replace the services we have removed by destroying natural capital, the world would need to add at least $27 trillion to this year’s Gross World Product. Each year we wait, the deficit will grow by an additional $2T. The maximum level of GWP that we can sustain in addition to providing natural services is about $40T.

The above numbers do not reflect what it would take to accommodate the populations of species that existed before the rapid die-off that started in 1975. Assuming we could replace them on a human time scale, we would need to spend an additional $15T (our current deficit would be $42T), and our maximum allowable GWP would be only $24T.

With our natural deficit growing each year by twice the current total cost of the Iraq Occupation, we are facing a far more critical challenge than any so-called “War on Terror.” If we were to deal with the deficit by growing the economy to fix or replace natural systems in the time we have remaining, GWP would need to increase by 140 percent by 2020 (for only our species) or 163 percent by 2013 (for all species). If the growth was done exponentially, GWP would need to grow annually by 2.6 percent for us and 8.5 percent for all species over the respective intervals of time. For reference, the current GWP growth rate is an estimated 2.8 percent.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Total World Production

The classic book Natural Capitalism quotes a Pew study done in the 1990s that determined (p. 154) “the annual value of seventeen ecosystem services: $36 trillion on average, with a high estimate of $58 trillion (1998 dollars).” The study was published in 1997. In today’s (2007) dollars, these numbers translate into $28T and $45T respectively.

If the world started consuming the means of production of these services in 1990 (the capital has the same value as the services), then we’ve been depleting them since then by the amount of growth in our Gross World Product. In 1990, the services would have been worth $37T to $54T (2007 dollars, estimating inflation). Based on my consumption model’s projections of GWP, we will exhaust the supply of natural services between 2013 and 2020. Interestingly, the earlier date corresponds to when I expect populations of other species to crash (2014) and the later date corresponds to the year that I project our population will peak.

These facts imply that our planet is a closed economic system, with a fixed value that is the sum of humanity’s economic production and the rest of Nature’s ecological production. If true, the total value is between $77T and $94T.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Economic Alternatives

From a purely economic perspective, we must either replace the natural capital we are depleting, reduce our rate of depletion, or some combination of the two. Replacement may be done by repairing the damage we have done and enabling natural systems to recuperate, while providing more resources (such as land and water) for other species; or it may involve the creation of artificial alternatives. As I’ve already discussed, simply reducing the rate of depletion locks us into eventually reaching the final limit, and disaster (though we might give natural systems enough “breathing space” to partially recover and buy us more time).

Currently there are no artificial replacements for most natural products and services. The areas of technology most devoted to creating such alternatives, biotechnology and nanotechnology, are still years away from making a dent in the problem; and, it may be argued, they could make things much worse in the interim. Biotechnology in particular has already created a number of altered species of plants, which have the potential of invading and increasing the rate of destruction of natural ecosystems.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lean, Smart, and Dissatisfied

It’s hard to think of Thanksgiving without thinking of a turkey. A turkey, at least the domesticated kind, strikes me as having qualities that are the exact opposite of what each of us needs to be. Turkeys are fat, dumb, and happy. We need to be lean, smart, and dissatisfied. To be lean is to consume just what we need and no more. Being smart means learning all we can and using good judgment in what we do. To improve our lives and those of the people around us, we must be dissatisfied with what we see around us.

This is not to say that there is something necessarily wrong with turkeys or their metaphorical counterparts. It is actually healthy to spend part of our lives with extra things as a buffer for the times when what we need is hard to find; to limit our thinking so we can act instinctively as some situations demand; and to accept the world as it is so we can reduce stress. Problems surface when we make this a way of life. And we know how a turkey’s life ends.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Resource Limits

When birth and death rates converge, the world’s population will peak, plateau and then continue rising, or level off. The trajectory of each rate will determine which of these possibilities is in our future. A death rate increasing faster than the birth rate will lead to a decrease in population, and a birth rate increasing faster than the death rate will lead to an increase in population.

The existence of a finite resource limit ensures that the population will peak and then drop, because there won’t be enough resources for people to survive. If resources are replenished at a constant rate, the population will level off. If the amount of resources is effectively unlimited, the population will grow. A brief leveling followed by an increase of population would indicate a temporary period where resources are replenished followed by access to a larger amount of resources.

The slowing of population growth since its maximum in 1976 implies that we are approaching a finite resource limit. If the deceleration showed signs of easing off instead of getting greater, we might be forced to live with constantly replenished resources and the population would approach a constant value.

We can slow our approach to the resource limit by decreasing our per capita consumption of resources, reducing the birth rate, increasing the death rate, or any combination of these (preferably not the last one); but eventually we will reach the limit and our population will crash. If the current trend continues, the population growth rate will drop past zero in 2017.

Of the resources we could be running out of, the most obvious is energy. Based on several curve fits of energy production, I expect that production of petroleum and natural gas will likely peak in 2018 and 2020, respectively. To make up the difference beyond 2018, other energy sources would need to provide an additional 312 quadrillion Btu per year, which in terms of non-fossil sources is almost four times the projected production in 2018 and nearly six times this year’s projected production.

Although production of petroleum and natural gas would be peaking about the time that the word’s population reached its maximum, there would still be a few decades of reserves of fuel left (at the same rates). This implies that both population and energy are being limited by some other resource.

I’ve suggested that the resource we are actually running out of is natural capital, the infrastructure that provides food, water, temperature control, and a vast array of other things and services that until now we have gotten for free on a renewable basis. The “running out” includes not only consumption but degradation (typically by waste). Consistent with this explanation, my projection of the Living Planet Index, a measure of the populations of other species, falls to zero by 2014, highlighting the stress that other species (a major part of natural capital) are enduring.

There is no “replacing” other species, or finding some new reserve that we can import; at least within the few years we might have left. Reducing our consumption of everything may, as I’ve said, buy some time, but there is a limit to how little we can consume and still keep living. Based on my consumption model, if the average person had an ecological footprint of 0.1 hectare (1/4 acre, the world minimum according to the World Wildlife Fund), we would put off other species crashing for about 180 years and our own by about ten times that long. It is doubtful, however, that most of us would choose to live like an average citizen of Afghanistan.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Short History of Humanity

For most of human history, the birth rate and death rate have been pretty well matched, in large part due to limited resources. As more resources became available, a core population would be able to grow. If stress became too great, some people would move, taking their chances locating other resources, and in the process relieving the stress on those who remained. Over time, successful splinter groups might trade resources with other groups, effectively increasing the resource base of everyone.

Having taken over our entire planet, humanity is once again resource limited, and to survive our birth and death rates must once again approach the same value. Space exploration offers the same benefits to our “core population” that other regions of Earth offered our ancestors: Relieving stress by splintering off part of the population, with possible access to other resources. This is in addition to improving the chances that our species will survive if some catastrophe makes Earth uninhabitable. Fortunately, we have the extra resources to enable this “calving” of humanity, but we can’t count on those resources being available much longer.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Life or Death

If the $75 billion cost of transporting settlers to Mars were doubled to provide additional habitat and the result inflated by a factor of ten to account for pork barrel waste that might accompany a government program (a problem that could be fixed by less corruption), settling Mars would cost about as much as the Iraq war and occupation (between $1 trillion and $2 trillion), but without the associated death, pain, and displacement.

The United States, with 1/22 of the world’s population consuming 1/4 of the world’s resources, has apparently chosen death rather than life, and has gone into serious financial debt to do so. Contributing to its death-dealing impact, the fraction of climate changing pollution created by the U.S. is the same as its fraction of resource use, which is the largest in the world despite overwhelming evidence that human activity is causing the climate crisis.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Settling Mars

Getting a minimum breeding population of 160 to Mars would require at least 70 million global hectares of resources (4.4 percent of world consumption, the average consumption of more than 290 million people, or 25 percent of what the U.S. uses). Even if we doubled this amount to help start a settlement, the investment would be a reasonable one, especially since it is likely to be spread out over at least ten years (resulting in an annual rate of less than one percent), and most of the resources would be used here.

Any settlement on Mars would need to quickly develop the means to locate and utilize the resources needed for its survival and growth, independent of Earth. Unlike our planet, Mars is totally devoid of biological infrastructure, so initially settlers would be restricted to technological processing of raw materials. In one or more centuries, using the methods of terraforming, settlers might enable plants, animals, and microbes to grow and provide basic food and atmospheric processing services.

If the population on Earth chose to continue growing in number, people here would ironically be working toward more, not less, technological processing of materials. While Mars became more alive, Earth would be going the other direction.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Threats and Opportunities

Moving our population to Mars doesn’t make sense, especially since doing so will likely make Earth about as uninhabitable as the Red Planet. A smarter option is to move a breeding population to Mars (which has all of the non-biological resources needed for sustenance) and build adequate habitats for the population living here.

There are many threats to life on Earth, and humans are just one of them. Our planet could be hit by a stray comet or asteroid of sufficient size to create a firestorm followed by a devastating nuclear winter. Volcanic eruptions could make our atmosphere un-breathable for years. As our planet grows older, we are due for one last ice age and then the release of greenhouse gases from the oceans due to reduced circulation caused by the land-locking of all the continents. With the Sun growing hotter over time, Earth is due to eventually become much like present-day Venus: a hothouse on which nothing can survive.

A population on Mars would escape these local horrors, while being potentially subject to some of their own. But they would have time to develop the capability of moving people outward to other locations, perhaps including other solar systems. Starting such a population should be one of our top priorities as a species.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Moving to Mars

I estimate that for each global hectare of additional resource use in 1996, the Gross World Product grew by about $120. At that time, Robert Zubrin proposed in his book The Case for Mars that an extremely efficient privately funded plan for manned exploration of Mars could carry a price tag of about six billion dollars (or about one billion dollars per astronaut for a crew of six), including development costs. This translates into an equivalent of over eight million hectares per astronaut. Annual operating costs (after development) would be half of this. By comparison, during that year the average world citizen was consuming a little over two hectares. This gives us a good benchmark for the minimum operating cost of sending a person to another world: About two million times what an average person consumes.

We could move less than four thousand people per year to Mars if we used all of the resources the world currently consumes. It would take nearly two million years to move our entire population at that rate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Artificial Environments

Humans have been creating artificial environments for at least several thousand years, and will likely continue to do so for as long as humanity exists. If we were ever to settle other worlds this would be an imperative, since the worlds we know about – as well as the intervening space – are environmentally hostile to our form of life.

The bare minimum requirement for a human habitat is protection from the weather and uncomfortable temperature. This requirement is often extended to include storage for food and water, as well as waste management. Habitats not only protect us from harmful and uncomfortable aspects of the environment, they may also provide the means for much of our activity, including entertainment and work.

The per capita consumption for an average home in the United States accounts for nearly two-thirds of the world average or nearly one-sixth more than the entire consumption of an average Colombian. In a country like Denmark (applying for the ratio of overall consumption), this amount would be closer to the entire consumption of a citizen of Zimbabwe.

Using technology to enhance our habitats to compensate for the loss of natural services would surely cost much more. This compensation would speed the degradation of natural systems and force us to totally divorce our lives from Nature.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Big Picture

No matter how we look at the world situation, the options don’t change. We can live better individually and reduce the lifetime of our species; or we can live less happy and shorter lives individually and prolong the lifetime of our species. The option of extending the lifetime of our species is rapidly becoming unavailable to us: Soon we will have done too much damage to the Earth’s biosphere and supporting systems for even the most miserly people to survive.

The preferred option, living better while increasing the lifetime of our species, is denied us because much of the world’s population depends on Nature for survival while humanity insists on sabotaging the natural infrastructure that keeps our planet habitable. We might salvage this option if we had the energy and technology to create artificial environments for the entire population, but we have neither; and we probably wouldn’t have enough time left to implement such a solution even if we did.

I can’t help but return to the aspirations of the space community when faced with such dire prospects. A variant of the last scenario is the opening of a new frontier that would provide access to more resources (including energy) and reduce the human load on Earth by moving people to other worlds. Whether those worlds are planets or asteroids, artificial environments will need to be created for their inhabitants. Again, we have a timing problem: Could such a solution be implemented in 40 years or less?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Perceptions of Options

In my sample, the country that most closely approximates the average world population is Turkey. According to my consumption model, the population will drop to zero in 74 years, if consumption stays constant. By comparison, the population will crash in 31 years if next year we attain the best case consumption and quality of life, equivalent to Denmark. The best case for population and worst case for quality of life is equivalent to Zimbabwe, where the population would crash in 198 years if the world dropped consumption to its level next year and maintained it. The way conditions are currently changing, we’ve got no more than 40 years.

The United States, where I reside, is moving haltingly in Denmark’s direction. The required change in consumption is similar to an obese person eating 40 percent less. I have the impression that most of those who have come to accept the need to consume less believe that if the world’s average consumption were cut in half, a decent standard of living could be sustained indefinitely. While powerful countries like the U.S. might approximate Denmark, cutting the average by half turns Turkey into Indonesia, and the population crashes in 148 years.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Extreme Populations

Consuming nearly six global hectares per person per year (49 percent of the world’s maximum) with a life expectancy of 77 years (the average for men and women) and happiness of 82 percent, Denmark has perhaps the best quality of life with a low price in resources. In addition, income inequality is about 25 percent, and its birth and death rates are nearly matched (12 and 11 per thousand people, respectively). Based on my models, this corresponds to an ideality of 80 and an adjusted power of 83. Denmark lives in the narrow region of adjusted power where consumption is falling and ideality is peaking, beyond which the death rate skyrockets and ideality plummets.

If Denmark represents the best that any population can achieve, Zimbabwe is its mirror image. People there have a life expectancy of only 37 years and happiness of 33 percent. Income inequality is 50 percent, and the birth and death rates are double those of Denmark (25 and 24 per thousand). Ideality is 35 and adjusted power is estimated to be five. Per capita consumption is less than one hectare per person, or eight percent of the world maximum.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Future Income Inequality

Income inequality has two distinguishing characteristics which make it something worth avoiding. First, it is somewhat like an attenuated mirror image of ideality (quality of life): When ideality is low inequality is high, and vice versa. Second, inequality nearly parallels death rate, with both high at the same time and low at the same time.

It is therefore no surprise that my consumption model’s projection of population collapse is accompanied by a dramatic (if brief) increase in income inequality. For those who might hope to survive such a collapse, there is the morbid possibility of owning a majority of the scraps left in a severely damaged world.

If we reduced consumption by one percent per year starting now, the population would peak in 2024 and fall to zero by 2162. During most of that period, population would be falling at about the rate it is currently climbing, while ideality and income inequality stayed fairly close to their present values. At any faster rate of conservation, income inequality would dip briefly and then surge to its historical maximum as ideality fell gradually and population leveled off.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Income Inequality

Statistically, income inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) is very high for countries with low power and totally incorrect perception of how people can reach their goals. Inequality reaches a minimum just before some people start perceiving the correct things they must do to improve their lives. Inequality climbs several percent and virtually levels off as people gain more power and awareness. Beyond a minor dip at the point where everyone knows what “direction” (if not the total amount of effort required) to act in their best interest, inequality climbs again, most rapidly as everyone has a better than even chance of knowing how much effort to expend.

Applied to world history, the world had nearly 90 percent income inequality until the late 1800s, and then dropped rapidly to the minimum of about a quarter. It climbed to near its current value of about a third by 1900, and has stayed near there since then (the “minor dip” occurred in 1950, when ideality leveled off).

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Happiness and Resources

Does happiness truly depend on the fraction of available resources consumed, or on the absolute amount of resources consumed? In a closed, interconnected system like the Earth, where the people reporting on their happiness are aware of how well others might be living, the question is virtually meaningless (the two are practically the same). But if we were to increase the resource base, for example by opening up another planet for emigration or reclaiming the 95 percent of materials and energy that goes into the products we use, would everyone’s quality of life be perceived as worse than it was before?

It is reasonable to assume that human biology imposes a limit on how much an individual can physically gain from the environment, but psychology is another matter: The more we could potentially have, the more we want. There are several options for what to do with the excess, if we can acquire it. We could use the excess to grow larger families (a biological need that results in an increase in the population); we could distribute it to others (giving does make some people happier); or we could create more “stuff” that ends up underutilized (“waste”).

While we might experience a brief reversal in knowledge about how to improve our lives (while we learn how to make use of the new resources), thus reducing adjusted power as I’ve suggested, the long term impact would be an increase in population, possibly higher ideality (assuming an ideological shift that promotes giving), and ultimately more waste.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Trajectories and Resources

When adjusted power (a composite of personal power and knowledge) exceeds about 55 percent of the maximum (the “climbing point”), per capita consumption increases radically. It roughly doubles by its peak at an adjusted power of 75 percent and then drops precipitously. After increasing adjusted power (what I called the “second trajectory”) over nearly all of human history, the world approached the climbing point in the 1950s and then retreated (along the “first trajectory”), pausing briefly in the early 1990s.

If my model is correct, the retreat will stop as population growth stops, and then the second trajectory will resume as more people die than are being born. With fewer people, more resources will be available to the survivors; at least until the population totally crashes. As I’ve already discussed, the population peak will be a consequence of exhausting the Earth’s natural capital, and the obvious way to stop that is to repair natural systems and reduce consumption (be even more aggressive in following the first trajectory). With no increase in available resources, the consequences of the first trajectory are far from attractive: We will be effectively shutting down modern civilization.

An increase in resources would result in a similar trajectory (since per capita consumption is measured as a fraction of available resources), but with an important qualitative difference. Our decrease in knowledge and power would be relative to the use of the new resources – we would not actually “lose” anything, just be learning how to use something new.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Alternative Trajectories

As people become more aware of what is happening around them, they are more enabled to do something about it. The negative consequences of the world’s consumption patterns are becoming more widely known, and an increasing number of people are changing their lives in response.

My research suggests two possible trajectories for change given current circumstances. One trajectory is a retreat toward less knowledge and power over their lives. The other trajectory is an increase in knowledge and power.

The first trajectory is the one most feared by those of us at the high end of the consumption curve. It involves giving up technology and political freedom while becoming more vulnerable to Nature and living with more physical hardship. It could be a harsher world than history indicates, since we would also be dealing with less available energy and debilitated natural systems.

The second trajectory also leads to a reduction in consumption and freedom (caused by people having more power over each other), but carries with it the risk of a much higher death rate and steeper decline in lifestyle.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Harmful Consumption

If my projections are accurate, people’s lives began improving rapidly in the mid-1800s: The annual rate of increase in ideality (happiness and longevity) suddenly more than doubled and then gradually decreased, reaching zero 100 years later.

The transition occurred when the growth rate of ideality caught up to the growth rate of consumption. Population growth continued to increase after that, pulling resources away from improvements in the quality and longevity of people’s lives. In the 1970s, as the rate of ideality growth dipped slightly below zero, the rate of population growth reached a maximum that came close to the rate of consumption.

Since 1980, increased consumption has had a net negative effect on humanity. The decreasing population growth rate has not translated into an increase in ideality, which confirms that more and more resources are being converted into not just waste, but harmful waste.

Harmful consumption likely falls into three categories: Destruction of natural capital (which has occurred since 1990), direct poisoning of people, and war making. If we could stop poisoning people and repair the damage to natural infrastructure we have caused, we might at least stand a chance at long term survival. Even if we found some way to live without Nature’s services (“eating rocks” as I’ve indicated elsewhere), we would still need to clean up our environment. Stress from other people interfering with survival-related tasks can lead to the diversion of resources toward weapons manufacture and their use to reduce the number of people.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Replacing Capital

From an economic perspective, cutting consumption is a reduction of demand, which has the effect of extending the time that the supply can be consumed. Unfortunately, we are strictly speaking no longer depleting supply; we are depleting capital, the means for creating supply. That capital takes several forms, among them other species and naturally usable air, water, and land.

In an ideal world, we would not only cease our destruction by consuming less, we would repair and rebuild what we’ve already damaged and destroyed (including isolating dangerous toxins so they will not do harm in the future). This would take a concerted effort (thus my suggestion that the world unite) and probably require much of our remaining fuel reserves.

There is great resistance to this idea. As I’ve empirically discovered, reducing consumption carries the real threat of reducing happiness and life expectancy (ideality), which would be a reasonable thing to avoid if consuming more wasn’t likely to result in far worse consequences. A knee-jerk reaction I have personally experienced is to reject the whole notion of a disastrous future based on current trends and to instead have faith in our ability to increase the supply of resources or more efficient use of the ones we have.

While conservation may be reasonable, people’s feelings about their lives are unlikely to prompt them to action until they feel a change in their lifestyle. My consumption model shows that if we reduced consumption by four percent for forty years, the population would peak in 2040 but we would see a peak in lifestyle (IP index) as early as 2020. By contrast, with business as usual, lifestyle wouldn’t peak until 2029 (at the same level as with conservation), even though population would have started to fall. If people knew that not conserving (thus making less change in their lives) would increase the amount of time that their lives were improving, they would probably be less likely to conserve. In short, the demand for change wouldn’t exist until it was too late to do anything meaningful about supply (investing the “capital” saved by conservation in restoring Nature’s ability to provide for the future).

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Price at the Peak

Many environmentalists and ecologists believe that world consumption has already exceeded the amount our planet can naturally replenish (in 1990). At that time, the global ecological footprint, a measure of that consumption, was growing at an annual rate of about 1.5 percent; by now it has nearly doubled that rate.

Based on my projections of the footprint’s growth, the world’s population will peak when GWP per unit of IP index (average of normalized life expectancy and happiness, multiplied by normalized population) is 174 percent of its 1990 value. At that time, in 2020, footprint per IP will be 155 percent of its 1990 value. That is, the economic cost of our existence will be three-fourths more, and the ecological cost of our existence will be one-half more. We will also have just doubled the total amount of resources we were using in 1990.

After the population peaks, more people will die than are born. Over the following 20 years the costs of survival will spike to over triple their 1990 values. Within 30 years of the peak most if not all of the population will be dead.

If we buy time by conserving as I suggested earlier (reducing consumption by one percent per decade saved, maintained over the number of decades to be saved), the economic cost will rise even as the ecological cost drops. As with business as usual, when the additional economic cost (since 1990) exceeds three-fourths what it was then, the population will reach a maximum. The decline of population will however take much longer.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Increasing Waste

From 1965 to 2005, the world’s population grew a total of 94 percent (between one and two percent annually). Ideality and population multiplied together (the IP index, where population is percentage of the projected maximum of 7.13 billion) increased 86 percent.

Assuming our economy has generated ideality and population growth, we paid mostly for population growth plus something else. Gross World Product per unit of IP index grew from $482 billion to $1,053 billion or 118 percent over 40 years (about two percent per year).

If the principal product was IP index, the “something else” can be classified as waste.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Waste of Money

Through the 1960s, the world’s ideality barely changed from one year to the next, yet the Gross World Product and consumption (measured by the global ecological footprint) increased an average of five percent per year. By 1990, GWP was adding three percent per year and consumption was adding one percent per year, while ideality was still hardly changing. Now, GWP and consumption are both increasing at three percent per year while ideality remains effectively constant from one year to the next. From 1965 to 2005, GWP increased a total of 315 percent, consumption increased by 186 percent, and ideality decreased by four percent.

What has the world been paying for? From the viewpoint of happiness and life expectancy, our economic activity has been wasted and somewhat counterproductive. If we believed we were contributing to a better life, we were dishonest with ourselves or misled (an observation corroborated by the increase in ignorance indicated by the adjusted power measure).

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Unsustainable Growth

Exponential growth, by its nature is unsustainable. Even if we could consume all matter, the amount of resources reachable each year (consumption) would ultimately be limited by the maximum speed that we could attain, and even with the most advanced conceivable technologies, the laws of physics won’t let us exceed the speed of light. Consequentially a population addicted to such growth is bound to be disappointed.

Gross World Product, the world’s GDP, tends to vary linearly with cumulative consumption (total mass consumed). Exponential growth in the world’s economy is therefore accompanied by an exponential growth in cumulative consumption and its attendant waste. As we approach the limits of our consumable resources and the speed with which we can access them and process them into usable products, our growth is rapidly impeded by the deleterious impact of the waste we cannot “externalize” (put in a place where it won’t harm us).

Those parts of our population that consume the most have chosen to put their waste in places where it does not directly affect them, causing others less powerful to deal with its burdens. As the world has become more integrated, the quantity of waste has grown beyond the ability of the poor to deal with it. Everyone must now deal with the consequences: In decreased health, violence against the polluters, and damage to global climate and biological systems which support us all.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Information and Growth

Labeling on food and other products is one approach to providing knowledge to people when they make a buying decision, summarizing types of information such as contents and nutrition. Like the products themselves, there are competing demand for types of information, and except where government (as an agent of society) deigns to regulate it, the “market” tends to determine what is available.

The market and society have so far determined that most chemical compounds used in products do not need to be tested for their long-term health impact prior to being used. Now that people are discovering huge amounts of industrial chemicals in their bodies, this situation may change; but may enough awareness to influence demand come too late to avert the most serious possible outcomes (among them a massive health crisis)?

This discussion illustrates one possible explanation for the apparent increase in false knowledge over the past 40 years: a devotion to economic growth at the expense of due diligence in determining the impact of our actions on other people, thus providing information they would need to know to decide whether or not to support our growth.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Redefining Limits

There are two fundamental limits to future growth in ideality and population: power and knowledge. The apparent inability of adjusted power to get much above 50 in a period when energy has been cheap implies that the entire population is constrained in meeting more than one-fourth of its needs or at least half the population is destined to remain ignorant.

Power, the fraction of needs met, can be improved through technology, social cooperation (coordination of activity), and increased energy. Technology and energy have been ample, while cooperation has had a mixed record (consider, for example, the wars that have occurred since the 1920s, which exemplify attempts by a minority to horde resources and constrain the behavior of the majority). As we approach limits to energy and other resources, maximum power will tend to drop. Increasing levels of waste in our environment, which includes toxic chemical compounds and climate changing gases, are driving down the populations of most species and limiting ours through deterioration of health, natural disasters, and our dependence on those other species.

The ability of people to perceive the action required to meet their needs is a function of innate intelligence, access to complete and accurate information, and understanding of how the world works. This can be maximized through education (sharing knowledge), research (expanding the total amount of knowledge), and honest communication (sharing current experience). In my studies of theoretical populations, increasing everyone’s knowledge is the most reliable way to maximize happiness.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Declining Power

Based on a polynomial curve fit of happiness and life expectancy to per capita footprint, the steepest increase in population growth corresponds to the period since adjusted power first cleared 50, in the 1920s. Adjusted power leveled off until the 1960s, when it began a drop that corresponded to a slowing of population growth. There was a leveling of adjusted power around 45 between 1980 and 2000, followed by resumption in the decrease that I project will end about 10 years from now at about 40, when population growth will reach zero. Beyond that point, there are broadly two possible futures.

In the most unlikely scenario, driven by a lack of energy the population will drop to zero or near to it. The other scenario involves a drop in population, accompanied by increase in ideality and power (likely a result of the drop, because more resources will be available to the survivors – which they won’t be able to effectively use because of the lack of people for processing and distribution).

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Power and the Peak

In an attempt to equate a typical population of people to an abstract, theoretical population, I endowed the abstract “people” with “intelligence” and “power” as tools for moving from an arbitrary starting position to an arbitrary preferred position (or “comfort zone”) with a range of allowed positions. Combining the possible values of intelligence and power into a single variable called “adjusted power” and recording the distances of the abstract people from their comfort zones over an arbitrary interval of time, I was able to define a mathematical function that related adjusted power to the average distance. I then identified a characteristic of the model population that was equivalent to “happiness” in a real population.

Applying this model to my consumption model, the point at which increasing world consumption corresponds to a peak in population occurs when the adjusted power reaches 50 percent, and the population declines to zero as adjusted power increases to 100 percent.

There are two possible scenarios for 50 percent adjusted power. In the first scenario, half of a population has an accurate sense of the direction they must “travel” to reach their comfort zone from their current “position,” while the other half thinks the direction is opposite from its true direction. In the second scenario, everyone knows the correct direction to go, but the maximum power (fraction of the required distance that can be traveled) is only 25 percent. In the first scenario, increasing adjusted power means making fewer people ignorant of the correct direction; while in the second scenario, it means increasing the average amount of power.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Delaying the Peak

If current trends continue, we may have 13 years before the world’s population reaches a maximum of 7.1 billion people and then declines rapidly. This is due to an apparent correlation between consumption and population size: As ecological footprint increases, population peaks and then decreases. We can stretch the time until the population peaks by decreasing our consumption exponentially by two percent for 20 years; four percent for 30 years; five percent for 50 years; or six percent for 60 years (the latter resulting in 130 years to the population peak but a very low life expectancy of 31).

The amount of oil reserves remaining when the population peaks under business-as-usual conditions will be 33 years at the current production rate (it is presently 40 years). For each of the cases where we limit consumption the amount remaining at the end of the period will be 23-25 years of consumption at the current rate. These numbers imply that resource scarcity alone is not likely to be responsible for the decrease in population after the peak.

For my sample of countries, life expectancy seems to peak at about 75 years, corresponding to a peak in ecological footprint, marking what appears to be a condition of unstable equilibrium. Ideality, the average of life expectancy and happiness, likewise reaches a maximum of less than 80 and gradually decreases as happiness continues to increase. Could it be that there is a natural limit to humans, rather than our environments, that keeps us from living an ideal existence?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Buying Time

The least painful strategy for dealing with the depletion of a resource consists of simultaneously using less (allowing the current supply to last longer) while searching for alternative sources and replacements that will meet the same needs.

My projections indicate that if the world were to reduce its ecological footprint (corresponding closely to annual energy use) by five percent per year for 50 years, the Ideality index would drop to 40 (from 63) over that period; the IP index would fall to about 14 (from nearly 21); we would lose no population; and we would still have over 40 percent of our current oil reserves (part of over 80 percent of our fossil fuel reserves) to help find alternatives.

We would buy ourselves only 30 years if we reduced the ecological footprint by only four percent per year over that period. The Ideality index would drop to only 51, the IP index would drop to 18, and we would have practically the same amount of fuel reserves available.

Monday, October 15, 2007

IP Index Over Time

The connection between ideality and ecological footprint allows us to estimate how the IP index has changed historically and how it might in the future.

Based on my projections of ecological footprint, the IP index rose above a value of one by 1750, and doubled by 1820. It doubled again by 1900, and by the mid-1950s it had reached a value of eight. The index doubled to 16 by 1990 and is currently growing at close to its long-term rate of a little over one percent per year.

Because of its dependency on ecological footprint and the close correlation of footprint with energy production, it is very likely that the IP index will peak soon after oil production peaks. Based on my projections of energy production, the IP index will reach a maximum of about 23 to 24 by the mid-2020s, and then drop to zero between 2030 and 2100 (most likely by 2050).

Sunday, October 14, 2007

IP Index

There are at least two major problems with only 200 million people utilizing all of the planet’s renewable natural resources, one practical and the other ethical. The practical problem is that we do not have sufficient technology for so few people to do what it currently takes billions to do. The ethical problem is, quite simply, what to do with those other billions of people.

Since an ideal world, as I’ve defined it, depends on maximizing of the number of people living an ideal life for a maximum amount of time, our success at creating such a world can be measured by multiplying the Ideality index (a measure of personal longevity and satisfaction) by the size of the population, and we can try to constantly increase the result over time. To link this new index to required resources, the population can be measured in terms of the number of people sustainable by a specific amount of resources per year, and 200 million is an obvious choice. By this standard, I estimate that by the end of this year the world will have an “IP index” of 20.8 (the Ideality index divided by 100 to get a fraction, times the ratio of the current population to 200 million: 63/100 times 6.59 billion/200 million). Crudely, this number can be thought of as a multiple of the population that the Earth can support living an ideal life.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


A curve fit of per capita GDP to footprint yields values of about $250,000 per person for 100 years of life expectancy (7 times the current U.S. value) and $378,000 per person for 100 percent happiness (11 times the current U.S. value). The average of these numbers is the most likely actual value (based on the population-average of the sample countries under current conditions), or $314,000 (9 times the current U.S. value and 27 times the population-average of the sample countries). The average number of people who can be sustained by all available bio-productive land is 203 million people (168 million for life expectancy and 239 million for happiness), or two-thirds of the current U.S. population.

With a population of over 6.5 billion people, the world now has over 32 times the number that can live within the biosphere’s means under ideal conditions. Based on my sample of countries, the average of life expectancy and happiness (what I will in future refer to as the “ideality index,” measured in percent) is 67, or two-thirds of the maximum, with a footprint of over 2 hectares per person (according to the latest Living Planet Report by the WWF; in my sample, it is 2 for life expectancy and 5 for happiness, with an average of 3).

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bracketing Ideality Limits

Based on curve fits of happiness and life expectancy to global ecological footprint, total happiness would be achieved with 47 global hectares per person, and 100 years of life expectancy could be achieved with 67 global hectares per person. If all bio-productive land were used by people (none available for other species), Earth could sustain 239 million totally happy people or 168 million people living to 100 years old. If we left 10 percent of bio-productive land for other species (a purely arbitrary number at this point), then under ideal conditions the Earth could support 150 million people (half the current U.S. population).

Based on this and the previous analysis, we can say that under ideal conditions, a population between half and one times the current size of the U.S. could be sustained within the natural capacity of the planet. The GDP per capita would be between 13 and 27 times the U.S. value in 2000 (where the latter number corresponds to 67 global hectares per person).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Limits of Ideality

To reach a life expectancy of 100, I project that per capita GDP would need to be about $330,000. To achieve maximum happiness, the minimum is about $430,000. The corresponding consumption would be around 280 percent and 330 percent of the maximum footprint in 2003, respectively.

The projected consumption values correspond to 33 and 40 global hectares of bio-productive land per person. There are a maximum of 11.2 billion global hectares available if we stay within natural limits, limiting the Earth’s population to between roughly 280 and 340 million people living at a naturally sustainable level. For larger populations, either lifestyle will suffer for a large numbers of people or we will need to secure more resources.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Value and GDP

Based on my sample of 43 countries, proportional increases in per capita GDP can be expected to equal or exceed increases in life expectancy up to about $2,000 (over this range, increases in resource use, measured by per capita ecological footprint, also either exceed or equal increases in per capita GDP). For happiness, this number is around $4,000.

Break-even for per capita GDP and life expectancy is about $27,000 and break-even for per capita GDP and happiness is about $24,000. Break-even for per capita GDP and resource use is about $6,000.

This data implies that economic productivity, as currently measured, translates into meaningful changes in people’s lives over a very limited range.

Monday, October 8, 2007

GDP and Ideality

Per capita Gross Domestic Product, a commonly used indicator of a country’s production in monetary units, seems to track logarithmically with both happiness and life expectancy (especially the latter), which represent an individual’s quality of life and longevity, respectively. If we were to multiply (normalized) happiness by life expectancy, the result would be a measure of conformance to an ideal world, and would likely also vary logarithmically with per capita GDP.

These facts suggest that the difference between the world economy and an “ideal” economy may be as simple as the difference between a line and a logarithmic curve, where one is a crude approximation of the other.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Ideal Decision-Making

If we are confronted with two or more choices that will not decrease longevity or quality of life for anyone potentially affected by the decision, the choice that offers the greatest increase in these parameters is the proper one. As I’ve already indicated, any choice that decreases longevity or quality should be automatically discarded. If all choices result in a decrease, and the decision is unavoidable, then some means must be found to offset the decrease. Although it may be all but impossible to precisely determine the impact of an action, we should use our existing knowledge and understanding, aided by society’s enforcement of accurate and full disclosure of information, to compare the impacts of different actions.

Many would probably argue that following these rules is difficult, if not impractical. I fail to see how doing so would be any harder than considering supply and demand, two other variables which virtually everyone in the world uses to make routine economic decisions. Economic activity depends on imperfect knowledge of the present and future behavior of supply and demand. Supply is loosely related to longevity, and demand is loosely related to both quality of life and longevity; so one pair of variables may even be translatable into the other pair.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Minimum Information

Theoretically, my criteria for an ideal world can be characterized by two pairs of numbers. Each pair includes a measure of decision-related increase in longevity and a measure of decision-related increase in happiness (satisfaction); with one pair dealing with the individual most impacted by the decision, and the other pair dealing with the most people affected by the decision.

Practically, deriving such numbers (especially the pair dealing with the species) to any reasonable amount of accuracy for even the simplest kind of decision is all but impossible. Such a feat requires a comprehensive model of the world with current and comprehensive information about every part of it, not to mention computing power that far exceeds anything we are likely to ever acquire. Even approximations demand an unwieldy set of assumptions that may not even be testable.

Fortunately, since my criteria involve the maximizing of these four numbers, the minimum information we need to know when making a decision is whether or not all four numbers are negative. That is, we should reject any choice where one or more of the numbers is negative (indicating a reduction in longevity or satisfaction with life). For comparison, in our present system, buying decisions are typically made based on whether the individual buyer will be satisfied or not, representing the sign of only one of these numbers.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Requirements for Information

If people making a buying decision were directly aware of the benefits and costs to other people as a result of supporting a product’s production and distribution, the purists’ idea of competition might be workable. Consumers could then consciously choose to help or hurt others, as well as themselves. In an ideal world, producers would be forced to provide the information needed to do this. Of course if the world was in fact “ideal,” any product that caused harm would be outlawed.

The complexity of cataloging and projecting the impact of a product’s impact over its lifetime (resource extraction, production, use, and disposal or reuse) is more than most producers could handle on their own. Therefore, the effort would need to be distributed among everyone in the society (world), and coordinated in the most efficient way possible by an entity I believe would at least superficially resemble a centralized government. This solution also follows from the fact that there are vast numbers of products and people that would need to be simultaneously considered.

I can’t help but wonder if many of the world’s problems might be traceable to a lack of information sharing among the people of the world, as well as a lack of due diligence in its collection, assurance of accuracy, and interpretation.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Product Information

As a type of product is used by many people, knowledge accumulates about its most important characteristics, how it can be used most effectively, and the consequences of its improper use. This information may be included with the product when it is sold. For example, food comes with nutritional information; and drugs come with information about proper use and warnings about potential side effects. For some classes of product, producers are legally required to provide this information, especially where physical harm could result from its misuse. In the best cases, consumers can gain just enough knowledge to determine how satisfied they will be with a product before they purchase it. All too often, however, almost no information is available at the point of purchase (where a consumer buys a product).

Because expectations for a product depend mostly on its intended use, this demand-related information will not necessarily address any larger impact beyond the individual consumer’s happiness and health. If minimizing the negative impact on other people, such as the use of slave labor and generation of pollution in the product’s manufacture, becomes important to enough consumers, the producer may consider changing production practices (thus “adding value” to the product) and then advertise the fact as “information” that will help drive up demand.

Economic purists would argue that the only legitimate way to make products support such goals is for the proponents of minimizing negative impact to convince enough people to value it as much as they do. “Public good” must thus compete with all other wants in an open market, and many people will likely get hurt (thus providing unavoidable information about this effect) before demand is significantly influenced.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Regulation and Information

Regulations have another distorting effect on the economy. Regulated businesses must pay for services (such as from lawyers and accountants) and products necessary to meet the regulations. Costs of all of the businesses’ products and services are likely to go up to compensate for loss in profits, and these increases are passed through the supply chains of businesses that use their products and services. Effectively, a supporting industry is created by and dependent on any given set of regulations, which arguably tends to reduce the efficiencies of everyone affected by them (by providing misleading indicators of supply and demand to the market through elevated prices).

I consider regulations to be “workarounds” (or quick fixes) to problems, rather than actual solutions. Like taxes that continue being levied after jump-starting demand for products based on new technology, they have limitations to their usefulness: They should just buy time until the required substantive changes to production practices are implemented.

In my view, a better role for government in the economy would be to ensure that consumers have complete, accurate, and useful information about what they purchase, above and beyond the vague rule-of-thumb indications of demand and supply that they get from price alone. This would in fact be one of the key roles of the “central processor” in my version of an ideal world, where people must be able to judge the impact of their actions on longevity and quality of life.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Government Control

While sales taxes can be used as a blunt instrument for reducing the consumption of a particular type of product, they will not necessarily stimulate higher consumption of a favored type. If the proceeds of a sales tax or rebate of other taxes (“tax deduction”) are used as capital for producers of a favored type of product, the chances may be better than those in a free market that consumption of the favored products will increase.

There are several problems with this approach to controlling consumption. One problem is that sales taxes, if continued after the jump-starting of supply, could end up providing inaccurate information to the market (about demand and supply). Another problem is that the approach could result in the concentration of power in the hands of a small number of people who may not be able to anticipate and deal with unexpected consequences, or may use the power to their personal benefit rather than society’s.

Just about every industry in the U.S. is regulated to some degree (another reason that the existence of a “free market” is fiction rather than fact). Practices deemed harmful to people are penalized by fines, imprisonment, revocation of licenses, and other measures. This approach depends on accurate definitions of what is “harmful,” in both the nature of products and the activities involved in their creation and marketing. It also depends on fair and reasonable enforcement of the regulations. It therefore has the potential of also falling prey to the incompetent or irresponsible exercise of concentrated power. In addition, since government has its own economic requirements (it must acquire and keep resources so it can operate), additional regulations will result in an increase in the government’s influence on (and potential distortion of) the entire economy through increased taxes, its main source of income.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Influencing Demand

Demand for a product can be thought of as the product of two numbers: How many people want the product; and how many units that each person is willing to buy.

The first number can be increased by simply exposing the product to a large number of people, informing them of its potential value to them (what they can gain from using it).

Manipulation of the second number involves maximizing the amount of value that people perceive. If the product is competing with other products, the producer can increase demand by demonstrating its relative advantages (including offering more supply than the competition, which is manifested in either a lower price or a lower cost to the buyer for acquiring the product due to more convenient access).

A government can influence both demand and supply by imposing a tax on a product. This effective increase in the price of the product gives the market the impression of increased demand, but it acts as an additional cost to the producer since the producer can’t use the additional money to increase the supply of the product. Because supply doesn’t increase proportionally to the “demand” the price continues to stay elevated. Actual demand will drop in the presence of other, untaxed products perceived by buyers as having equivalent value that are easier to get (because they have a lower price).

Friday, September 28, 2007

Product Lifecycle

The difficulty of adopting new technologies is a consequence of the typical product lifecycle.

The life of a product begins with a single unit of production and a single unit of demand, the producer. The producer creates demand by demonstrating its value to others. Price of the product increases as demand grows, pressuring the creator to increase supply, converting some of the demand into capital to provide the resources for doing so. As price drops in response, the producer (motivated by the potential for profit, getting paid more than it cost to produce the product) increases demand to bring the price back up; this involves exposing the product to more people and potentially adding value to the product (using capital paid for by either of the profit, or barring that, loans by investors).

If demand decreases, the producer loses incentive to increase supply; and if it drops irretrievably below the amount necessary to maintain any supply, the producer stops producing the product. Likewise, if the cost of maintaining the supply increases, the supplier must increase demand to compensate or reduce production.

“Technology” is what producers use to convert resources into products, and if there is no demand for its related products, a technology is literally worthless. A technology is truly successful if it is used in the creation of multiple products.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Time Constraints

We may have less than ten years to bring new energy and manufacturing technologies into common use.

“Peak oil” experts and my own projections of energy production rates indicate that oil production will reach a maximum within ten years and then rapidly decline. Over the past 30 years, populations of other species have declined by over 30 percent (by my projections, the fraction may be as high as a half), and the pace is increasing. One of the greatest impacts of pollution on the environment, global warming, may reach a point soon where it is self-sustaining; and experts predict that we must drastically reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases within a decade to keep from reaching that point (and the costs of not doing so could be catastrophic).

An economic change of this magnitude is unlikely to occur without a huge increase in demand for products and services based on the new technologies, and a corresponding decrease in demand for what people are currently buying. Demand is unlikely to grow based on just utility: New products and services are likely to be viewed as highly expensive replacements (expensive because the supply is comparatively low). Potential consumers must perceive additional value that justifies the difference in price.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Supply Options

If the current sources of fuel, materials (such as petroleum-based plastics), and service-providing elements of the biosphere are all we can ever have, the prices for everything we produce, as we approach the limits of supply, will rise rapidly. This prospect leaves us with the options of reducing consumption or finding alternative sources. We are in fact exercising both options: Consumption is slowing, and the research and development of alternative fuels, materials, and life is accelerating.

The decrease in consumption is due to several reasons. More women are becoming empowered, and this tends to result in lower birth rates. The growing worldwide conservation movement is gaining traction. And death rates are increasing due resource-driven wars, disease-causing compounds in what we consume, and pollution (what we deposit and then indirectly re-consume in the environment, as well as “external effects” like climate change and species loss).

Research and development of alternative energy sources includes renewable ones such as solar energy collection, wind turbines, and bio-fuels; and higher yield ones such as nuclear fission and fusion. The search for new life is dominated by bioengineering (literally, creating new forms of life or modifying existing ones to be more resilient and productive), but also includes the exploration of other worlds such as Mars, where we may be able to jump-start a whole new ecosystem. There is also some hope that new technologies such as nanotechnology might allow us to radically increase our efficiency and range of resource use and manufacturing, literally manipulating the essence of matter itself.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Natural Cost

Throughout history humans have “consumed” energy and mass in their environment, transforming some of it into people, some of it into enduring forms not found in Nature, and much of it into waste. Before we began creating new chemical compounds, the rest of life (comprising the other members of Earth’s biosphere) was able to recycle almost all of what we produced and wasted; and yes, even us.

As our technology has matured, an exponentially increasing amount of mass and energy has been consumed, so much that the biosphere can’t keep up; and much of what we’ve produced and wasted is unavailable for reuse, now or in the future. This is effectively destroying the biosphere because we’ve reduced the amount of resources available for other life; this is evidenced by an increase in the rate of species extinctions that may soon rival the result of a major asteroid impact.

The cost of what we produce includes these effects. We are not only depleting the supply of fuel whose energy drives our activities, we are depleting the supply of life that processes our waste, stabilizes the weather, provides food, and performs innumerable other services that enable and enrich our lives. In an ideal world, we would account for this cost in the prices we pay.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Chains of Dependency

The supply of a finished product or service typically depends on several inputs which contribute to its “cost,” what the producer and others paid to acquire, assemble, and deliver all of the components of the item. Everyone in the “value and supply chains” also adds a “profit” to the purchase price, a reward that in a healthy economy is used to keep them in business when supplies fall short and they need to acquire more, find substitutes, or grow their businesses to offer other types of items.

Generally as the price of something goes up, people (buyers) will try to find cheaper substitutes, reducing the demand and therefore the amount of money (and profit) received by the original supplier (including the supplier’s associated chains of production and delivery). This also provides an incentive for the supplier to maintain supply.

Since energy is an input to all products and services, it is no wonder that its price driven by the cost of extracting fuel, processing it and delivering it – affects the price of everything. As supplies of fossil fuels drop and people realize that they can’t increase, more money will be spent on alternatives. Believers in a free market economy (and the dubious assumption that the world economy approximates one) sustain the hope that “the market” will be able to replace the fossil fuel supply before it runs out. Unfortunately for them and us, there are hidden costs that make the problem much more complex, and are reducing the available time even more than consumption alone.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Money and Resources

Despite the disconnection of the amount of money to the amount of resources whose demand and supply are known, the fact that money is used for the purchase of real items results in a correlation between expenditures and resource consumption.

For example, annual U.S. personal expenditures (dollars per person) is the cube of the environmental global ecological footprint (in billion 2003 global hectares), which is a measure of the total human impact on the biosphere and is closely tied to annual energy consumption. Gross World Product (GWP), a measure of the total value (in money) of the world’s products and services, varies linearly with global ecological footprint (increasing by about one-tenth of the increase in footprint).

The supply of energy and the supply of resources available to the biosphere are becoming better known over time. Annually, we are exceeding the renewable resources available to the biosphere by 42 percent, and the fraction is growing by four percent (of the limit, 11 billion global hectares) per year. Fossil fuels, comprising 85 percent of annual world energy production, have fixed supplies (known reserves) that are 99 times our current annual production.

The situation with fossil fuels is a bit more complicated than the total would lead us to believe. We have 42 times our current annual production of oil left (which we count on for 37 percent annual energy production), with 62 years left for natural gas and 232 years left for coal (each accounting for 24 percent of our annual energy production). And the amount of each type of fuel we consume each year is growing.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Trading Money

One of the most significant deviations from a perfect economy is the buying and selling of money. This effectively breaks the definition of money as a representation of the value of tangible items; it becomes an item of value itself. As a result of this practice, money loses its utility in the functioning of a reality-based economy and the economy mutates into one that is mostly concerned with the trading of money (in the U.S., most if not all of the money currently in the U.S. economy is not backed up by anything real). Anyone who is part of such a system and doubts this should ponder the ubiquitous role of “interest” in personal finance; interest is purely a payment for money.

Before money became a commodity, its amount was tied to resources whose demand and supply were reasonably well known: precious metals. If it were to continue being used in an ideal world, a similar relationship would need to be established (though I would probably substitute energy for gold).

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Money and Price

In our economies, money is used to represent the value of resources, products, and services. Price – the amount of money we exchange for something – is proportional to the ratio of two amounts that have been measured with the same units. It measures how much of the supply of something that people want to acquire (demand) as a fraction of the supply.

As price goes up, the probability is reduced that supply will go down; that is, people won’t buy as much. In my electrical analogy, price acts like an inductor, resisting changes in current. Slowing the drain on supply provides time for the supply to be increased (while the high price provides an incentive for the producer to do so), thus decreasing the price. Over time, in a perfect economy (“free market”) with unlimited raw resources (people as well as material), prices will tend to stabilize.

A perfect economy is one where everyone has unrestricted access to producers and accurate information about the quality and supply of what they’re buying. Also, the consumption of a product or service will affect the supply or demand of other products or services in predictable ways (if at all), which everyone will be aware of. Since perfect markets (and unlimited resources) do not exist in reality, societies must exercise some control over their economies to approximate ideal behavior; and in the best cases this is done through government (in the worst cases, government creates or contributes to the problems).

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dynamic Demand

A combination of freedom and technology has enabled more and more people to create their own “circuits,” significantly influencing the quality and quantity of resources available to everyone (and everything) else. In an electrical analog, the result would be a degradation of the entire system’s performance, and in our ecological system we are seeing similar consequences. These facts are behind my belief that to create an ideal world we must reorganize our societies so that everyone coordinates their behavior with that of everyone else, or at least follows the same standards of interaction with each other and the environment.

One way that grids of electrical power can help their generators and components (such as appliances) stay within their operating limits is to use “dynamic demand.” A similar approach to the management of resources throughout the world economy would require that each “load” (person) have and react appropriately to feedback about the status of the entire system, using the equivalent of “local load control.”

Capitalist systems theoretically use price as a way to monitor and control resource distribution by keeping the ratio of demand to supply of products and services relatively constant. Unfortunately, the correlation between what people buy and the resources used has been corrupted so much as to be almost indiscernible, except in the case of energy, which modulates everything.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Freedom and Operating Range

Providing freedom to move and change one’s self is one tool for enabling people to live within their “operating range,” restricted only to the extent where they might damage others. The success of this tool depends not only on the amount of freedom allowed, quality of rules, and proper enforcement of those rules, but also on the operating range of the entire system. And the range of the system is ultimately dependent on its environment and quality of interaction (impedance matching) with that environment.

Humanity is apart of a larger system, the Earth’s biosphere, which interacts with the non-living Universe to extract resources and deal with its waste. The types of resources available, and our ability to access and process them, determines how much variability in conditions we will have to work with. So that resources will be continuously available, our “waste” must be processed back into resources (or at least not interfere with the production of those resources). Our ability to efficiently “complete the circuit” and the fidelity of that connection equally impacts our system’s range of operation.

Freedom, therefore, is simply one part of an overall strategy to maximize each person’s longevity and quality of life. The other two parts of the strategy are the management of interactions between people and the controlling of inputs and outputs of our population.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Matching Networks

Since one of the goals of my ideal world is electrically analogous to allowing each component (person) to operate within its preferred range of conditions, “impedance matching” is critical. Think of a filter: Only those signals that are within a component’s operating range can get to it (or through it); everything else is shunted somewhere else. Similarly, the “matching network” enables the component to attract signals it requires to keep operating.

In an economy or a society, pre-conditioning in the form of education enables people to be productive and to interact with others (in our analogy, modify and share signals without damaging other people). A certain minimum amount of resources allows them to at least live (passing signals that others might want or need). Where a people can’t adequately connect with others, they are helped by people who specialize in helping them (or, if they are destructive, reducing their impact); these specialize people are the equivalent of matching networks.

In the analogy, consumption of resources is equivalent to “power,” which is proportional to “resistance.” Like an electrical resistor, some of what we consume is converted to waste (“heat”). For people among us who have a high amount of intrinsic wastefulness, the resources (“current”) that reach them will likely need to be reduced, based on the requirements of the rest of the components. This reduction is also one of the functions of a matching network.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Product Analog

If we could view the economic equivalent of a spectrum analyzer, where each frequency (or combination of frequencies) corresponds to a product, the power reading could tell us, with some mathematical manipulation, how many there were in whatever part of the system we were connected to. By looking at different parts of the system, we could watch these products move around, get cancelled out, or be created, depending on the circumstances.

The movement of a product would be enabled in one of two ways. One way would be for a component or group of components to change the “impedance” of the path to a location of the “signal” enough to connect to it with minimum degradation; the signal would then be “shared” among all of the components in the path. Another way would be for the components generating the signal to physically move from one part of the system to another, with the “purchaser” providing energy for the move and establishing the appropriate connections to the new part of the system so the signal wasn’t degraded.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Operating Limits

The electrical analogy of an economy potentially may provide some insight into how to use an economy to meet my requirements for an ideal world (or at least learn the reasons why it can’t).

Assume that each person is equivalent to an electrical component, and that happiness or wellbeing is proportional to life expectancy (basically, the amount of time available to reach and stay within one’s “comfort zone”). Then the optimum situation, which also maximizes longevity, one of my ideal world’s other goals, is equivalent to an electrical component’s most efficient range of operating conditions.

Each person has something like minimum and maximum power limits (how much energy per unit of time can be handled), temperature limits (randomness in the environment that can be tolerated), and input and output impedances (the range of resistance to signal magnitude and variability that the person can work with among those that supply resources and those that consume the person’s “products”). If these limits are exceeded, then damage results, manifested as health problems.


For charged particles to move through an electrical system, the particles must be allowed to feed back into their source, establishing a “circuit.” If such a path is not provided, or it is breached in any way, significant motion stops, signals can not be created, and the system is effectively non-functional. Electrical engineers call such a condition an “open circuit.” Alternatively, a path may inadvertently be established that bypasses all of the components of the system, leading directly back to the source; this is called a “short circuit” and is equally useless.

Similarly, an economy will cease to function when part of the system disables the flow to the rest of the system (by either becoming incapacitated or too wasteful). If this happens or the system is “disconnected” from its resources, it will become the equivalent of an open circuit. If the extraction of resources requires most of the resources, leaving little or none for the rest of the system, the system becomes the equivalent of a short circuit. The system could also be disabled if part of the system establishes its own link back to the resources, thus bypassing the rest of the system (from the viewpoint of the rest of the system, this is considered a short circuit).

The world economy is well on its way to becoming an open circuit, with a combination of waste and using up of resources (becoming effectively disconnected).

Monday, September 10, 2007

Economies and Electronics

Electrical engineering has many analogs to economics. Often when creating an electrical system, an engineer will seek to create a certain type of signal (pattern of changing energy over time) at a specified place in the system, where the “signal” is analogous to a product or service in economics.

This effort typically involves the generation of charged particles (the generator performing a function analogous to the extraction of natural resources), the manipulation of the path those particles take (using resistors, which are analogous to “distribution”), and the creation of signals (using various components such as inductors and capacitors, which are like factories or service providers that merge resources into various configurations). Signals are passed from one major part of the system to another (producer to customer) through “matching networks” (combinations of resistors, capacitors, and inductors that preferably do not appreciably change the signal, but just compensate for differences between the parts of the system; these are analogous to marketing organizations, including retail stores). Inevitably there are costs, in energy (particles) and quality of signal (each “component” acts as a “customer” to some extent), which must be offset for the desired signal to appear at the right place at the right time.

An ideal capitalist economy can therefore be modeled as system of components that is evolving to optimize the efficiency of signal transmission and modification throughout the system, with each component having maximum influence over the characteristics of the signal at its location.