Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Year of Focus

In 2008, I focused my “idea exploration” on three main areas: the relationship between consumption and population; conditions for alternative futures; and politics. My reason was, I hope, self-evident; that my research was showing this to be an extremely critical period of time, one that could determine whether or not humanity survives beyond this century, and it was important to examine the basis for this and how to achieve a positive outcome.

It is important to remind readers that, to my knowledge, the consumption models and “laws” have neither been confirmed nor proven wrong by others. The theory and conclusions are totally mine, though the results are encouragingly similar to those of many reputable students of the subject, at least at a low level of resolution. In my personal tradition of challenging beliefs, I’ve constantly tested everything I’ve done, using empirical evidence as much as possible, though undoubtedly there is much left to do (hopefully before the ultimate test). In the worst case, at least I’ve had something interesting to talk about.

The main conclusion I reached was that the life expectancy (and happiness) of individuals and the time it takes to exhaust their collective resources are fundamentally at odds with each other. As people become better off, they use exponentially more stuff, thus exponentially reducing the amount of time before that stuff runs out. In addition, the amount we all consume each year also seems to be proportional to transportation speed; by my calculations, we will need to be able to move resources faster than the speed of light to double the world’s current life expectancy.

Growth in world population has been practically in synch with growth in the amount individuals consume, resulting in an unprecedented number of people dependent on a large resource base that can be accessed rapidly. Unfortunately, we appear to be approaching a practical (if not theoretical) limit to how much we can use, forcing both per-capita consumption and population to peak and then decline beginning in about 30 years.

The best way to avert tragedy is, obviously, to add more resources, preferably of a renewable kind (eliminating the need to procure new resources to make up for what we use) while reducing additional consumption to buy more time. Following this strategy will have the added benefit of reducing waste which is increasingly harming Earth’s biosphere (“the environment”), causing a mass extinction comparable to that following a major asteroid impact.

As the world’s economy appeared to mimic my most successful model’s prediction of peak consumption growth, the leadership of the world’s largest block of consumers was up for grabs. It would be simplistic to say that Republicans stood on the individual’s side of the historical tug-of-war, while Democrats stood on the side of society’s long-term interests. Had the Republicans chosen to better govern (rather than sabotage government), they might have made a better case for improving the lives of individuals. If the Democrats understood the perils of overconsumption better, they would not have gone along with untargeted bailouts and stimulus packages. Nevertheless, I figured that the Democrats were the better pick; at least they were willing to make decisions based on reality over ideology. The future will determine if their success is a net positive or not (I’m betting it will be).

The coming year beckons us to take major steps toward creating a new and more rational world economy. I, for one, intend to do my part. The conceptual exploration I’ve done so far will continue as I look for ways to make more practical contributions. On this blog, there will likely be some back-filling on the implications of what I’ve discovered, for history and for philosophy. Current events will no doubt provide random fodder for speculation, which I will gladly indulge (assuming I can make a living at the same time).

Please accept, dear reader, my most sincere wishes for a happy, healthy, and fulfilling new year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


On December 8, 2008, I completed the culminating calculation of the five years since I began looking into the limits of population growth: the relationship between longevity of an isolated population and the life expectancy of individuals. The mathematical statement was immediately put on my research Web site, but it warrants repeating here:

Life expectancy in years = 21 * Log (Earth masses of resources / Depletion time in years) + 525.5, with a maximum of 134 years.

At the same time, I came up with a rigorous definition of happiness (satisfaction with life), which I incorporated into the Third Law of Consumption: Happiness is the ratio (in percent) of life expectancy to maximum life expectancy.

This was the pinnacle my high-level empirical/theoretical development on this subject. It will be followed by detailed investigation of its manifestations and applications, beginning with my own survival (on the same day, my wife and I were forced to go into debt to pay our bills).

In sum, what I proved over this period was that individual gain comes at a great cost in resources; and in the absence of growing resources, how long the population can survive.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Optimizing Happiness

Practically, increasing happiness involves creating a range of environments (sets of circumstances) that meets the desires of the most people in a population. One way this can be done is to increase the number and variety of environments; another is to create a single environment that is as close as possible to meeting the desires of an average member of the population. Mathematical modeling based on international statistics suggests that the first option is best for maximizing happiness for a fraction of the population; while the second option is best for maximizing the happiness of the most people. As a third option, we can compromise by providing a range of environments that serves as many as possible of the bulk of people near the average.

The more useful an environment is to a person, the more of it the person will use and the happier the person will be. As one example, good health is one of the primary needs of people and they tend to be more satisfied when they are healthy; life expectancy will increase with better health, and better health care requires more resources – especially for the older populations that it enables. This self-evident relationship between happiness and consumption is reflected in world data that additionally shows a logarithmic relationship between happiness and per-capita consumption: each incremental increase in happiness costs more in resources than the increment before it.

In a world of infinite resources (and potential ability to acquire and use those resources), ingenuity, social organization, technology, and time would enable us to create an ideal society where everyone was as satisfied with life as they could be. For most of history (and prehistory), this was a reasonable approximation of reality; as a result, the last two millennia have seen a doubling of average happiness and growth in per-capita consumption and population by a factor of 23, largely enabled by the discovery of cheap and abundant energy in the form of fossil fuels. Our success has rendered the approximation we depend on tragically inaccurate, as exponential growth uses up a substantial and increasing fraction of total resources and drastically reduces the time available to find, procure, and learn to use new ones.

It is natural to pick our leaders based on how much they can enable an increase in our overall satisfaction with life. The United States recently elected a president who understands that the key to greater overall happiness is to create a social and economic environment where the middle class – effectively, the statistical bell curve centered on the average person – can thrive. If he is successful, consumption will be maximized as well. On the world’s bell curve, the U.S. population is at the upper end of happiness and resource use (though not the highest), which depends enormously on the transfer of wealth from other nations; to achieve a similar level of success, other nations must either work toward either spreading the curve even more or moving its center higher, with either option resulting in greater global consumption.

Many world economic and political leaders, including the incoming U.S. president, are not blind to the evolving resource crisis and its hazardous side effects (such as catastrophic climate change), though they may underestimate its severity. While supporting the discovery and development of alternative energy sources whose use does not degrade the existing resource base or harm people, they are also encouraging the only way to get the benefits of higher consumption without its cost in resources: increasing efficiency.

The gains from these approaches could easily be overwhelmed, however, by increases in consumption caused by our pursuit of more life satisfaction by broadening the range of environments or making their average more useful to the typical person. If instead, we decreased the range of environments around their present average, we could potentially reduce consumption (perhaps by as much as one-fourth) without a loss in average happiness, with fewer people suffering poverty or enjoying rich lifestyles. This change alone could buy us another 20 years to find and develop new resources and efficient technologies that would fuel future growth. The alternative, without a lot of luck, is a catastrophic loss of happiness; and most importantly, people.

Monday, November 24, 2008


One of my criteria for an ideal world, happiness, is mathematically equivalent to life expectancy; perhaps because the longer we live, the more likely we are to achieve what we want to in life. This correlation dodges the question of what “happiness” would specifically require. As I’ve suggested in several different ways before, a possible answer to this question may be that everyone would be able to inhabit an environment conducive to their personality type.

Arguably the most successful model of personality is the Big Five, summarized by the acronym “OCEAN” which denotes its basic dimensions: Originality, Consolidation, Extroversion, Accommodation, and Need for stability. Originality is a measure of openness to new experiences. Consolidation describes how focused we are. Extroversion identifies how comfortable we are with other people. Accommodation involves our willingness to go along with what others want. Need for stability measures how emotionally impervious we are to our environment.

In a society that offers opportunities for people on either extreme of these personality dimensions to thrive, structure and lack of structure would be available in all aspects of life, as would high and low social interaction. Structure would help the incurious, focused, accommodating, and neurotic among us; while lack of structure would serve the curious, spontaneous, competitive, and self-contained. Opportunities to interact with lots of people would be available for extroverts, those who can easily handle stress, and people who prefer to serve the needs of others; while more isolated environments would be provided for introverts, people who are easily stressed, and those who are only interested in their own success.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Vision for America

For the first time that I can remember, a president or president-elect asked the American people to share their vision of what the country should be. Soon after his election, Barack Obama provided a Web page for doing just that; and I added my opinion, as follows.

First and foremost, the United States must be true to its core principles, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Most critical among these is our recognition and respect of the equal value of everyone; given the interdependence and interrelationship of all of us, regardless of where we are in the world, I believe that we should apply this principle to everyone.

We are a nation of laws because our founders recognized that actions, not people, are inherently good or bad based on their positive or negative effects on people. Responding to behavior instead of the characteristics of people will go a long way toward achieving a just nation and world.

None of us can achieve what we want or get what we need, except by accident, unless we have access to accurate information, and as much information as is practical to obtain and process. To this end, we must value and promote forthrightness in all our dealings -- social, economic, and otherwise.

In the resource-constrained present and future that we are facing, we will need to focus on acquiring renewable resources and building infrastructure while controlling (if not outright abandoning) our appetite for unsustainable exponential growth in material consumption. To do otherwise will be to condemn our country and the world to extreme poverty, if not death, in this century (see www.bigpicexplorer.com).

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Twenty-Four Seven

The term “24/7” is normally associated with the limit to the amount of work someone can do in a week: Twenty-four hours a day for seven days. By a slightly different definition, this term may also refer to the maximum number of people that can occupy our planet on a sustainable basis.

There are several reasons to expect that the average smallest group size is around 24 individuals. Each small group (what I will call “Level 1”) may be one of a similar number of members of a larger group that enables individuals to identify with the larger group (what I’ll call “Level 2”). The Level 2 group can be one of around 24 members of a Level 3 group; the Level 3 group can be one of about 24 members of a Level 4 group; and so on. These levels are roughly equivalent to the more familiar community types (in order of increasing size): family, neighborhood (or tribe), city, county, state, nation, and world.

Empirically, the minimum per capita global ecological footprint is about 0.1 hectare. It is reasonable to assume that pre-historical values were at least half of this. Applying the first law of consumption to the consumption of ecological resources using either of these numbers (0.05 or 0.1 for populations above 300 million), the entire land area of the Earth would be exceeded with a population around Level 7 (4.6 billion people, or 24 multiplied by itself 7 times). Such a conclusion could be reached even with extreme errors in approximation of usable area (by my calculation, as much as 90%).

It is tempting to speculate about the cultural significance of this insight. For example, when a seven day week was established in early Judaic practice, might the commandment to rest on the seventh day (the Sabbath) have been a recognition that humanity would need to stop working – translating into no growth of per capita consumption and with it, population – at the seventh level in order to avoid exceeding the renewable resource base and causing a population crash?

In this light, Judaic injunctions against trying to become god-like may have been another part of a larger strategy to inhibit potentially disastrous growth. The spiritual (what I would call psychological) component of religion could then be interpreted as a means of providing a way for people to experience the happiness of increased consumption without its physical manifestation; similarly, the promise of “eternal life” may have been a way of faking people into believing that their life would be extended in a non-physical way.

Barring a major technological breakthrough in the time we have left before population collapse, something resembling a religious world-view may be useful in pulling us back from the brink. Whatever our solution we choose, it should be informed by the knowledge that we cannot maintain 24*7 hours or 24^7 people on a sustainable basis while we are dependent on biology for survival.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Holding Out Hope

On Election Day 2008, the majority of citizens of the United States of America rejected fear and selfishness as guiding principles. If we’re lucky, sanity will return to the leadership of our country in a few short months, and our chances of surviving and thriving will take a decided turn upward.

President-elect Barack Obama used his acceptance speech to set realistic expectations for the near future. Our problems will not miraculously be solved. Mistakes will likely be made but then corrected. Cooperation and hard work are required to build a better future. The process is the key to success: working and learning and caring about others.

Is it too much to hope that we will no longer be subject to collective delusion? That we will not blindly follow someone because we are in a crisis? That we will work together, instead of seeing each other as competition to be squashed like the contestants of reality shows and the management of large corporations? That all it takes is education and the right set of leaders to offset the worst of human nature?

While canvassing during the last days of the campaign, I was struck by the ways people have chosen to isolate themselves from an encroaching world. Dogs and signs on gates warned off visitors. “Security” lights made sure that anyone who made it to the door could be identified and dealt with appropriately (often by pretending not to be home). When I did get to talk to people, about a third of them were kind or thankful, half of them were barely polite, and a sixth of them were downright hostile.

I know from my own experience and study that decreasing isolation is a key to establishing a stronger sense of community, which itself is critical to our surviving and thriving both individually and as a species. As a former community organizer, our soon-to-be president apparently knows the same thing. By getting to know each other well enough not to fear each other, and incorporating more effective ways of doing this into our culture, we may together find a way toward a better future. Based on the results of the election, I’m inclined to hold out hope for this.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


For several days I found myself growing progressively more agitated about the possibility that my wife and I might join the ranks of the homeless. Job listings seemed to be getting scarcer, no recruiters were calling, and the economy was still in free-fall. Though the worst case was probably still a few months away, it was looking more and more probable. My years-long rumination about the future of the world and the satisfaction I found when my research seemed to reach some solid conclusions, were instantly replaced by trepidation about its very real implications for my daily life.

In addition to those concerns, the presidential election was coming to a head. Despite encouraging poll numbers, there was still the prospect that the worst of the choices – Republicans whose philosophy had been behind the screwing of the country and the world over the last eight years – might still win, by deceit or outright stealing. If John McCain did win and due to age or health problems couldn’t complete his term, his hand-chosen successor was likely to make an even worse mess as an amplified, if dumber, version of George W. Bush.

Then an event occurred that changed my perspective so radically that, had I still been religious, I might have assigned supernatural status to it.

Attendance was falling at meetings of a writers’ support group I headed (another disappointment); as I was getting ready to leave home for one such meeting that would possibly have no other attendees, my sister-in-law called for help. Her car had stalled on a side street, possibly because it was out of gasoline. I brought a gallon of gas to her, but the car still wouldn’t start. Deducing that the car’s incline might be interfering with the gas reaching the engine, I brought another gallon. As I was pouring the gas, a half-hour after my meeting was supposed to start, one of the brightest and most spectacular meteors I had ever seen flew by. The car’s battery was practically dead, but with some help from a passerby we were able to jump-start it.

On my way home I felt the warm glow of having done something selfless, a feeling I had felt many times in the past. But this time it had special significance because it so totally changed my mood. I was, in an odd way, happy again. Fear had been overcome by something other than its polar opposite, anticipation. The term “grace” came to mind, which I recognized as the state of willingness and acting to improve people’s lives – everyone’s – with no special priority placed on one’s own. It was a characteristic, when shared, which enabled people to come together and act together instead of pulling apart; that in a strange and beautiful way helped the individual more than self-interest ever could, but without the guilt of taking from others.

I felt that whatever the future might hold, the minute-by-minute experience of life, that in fact defined life, was what really counted. In an earlier time, I would have scoffed at such a statement or its common variant “live in the moment” as a hollow philosophy that was irresponsible or just plain ignorant; and I would have been right, if grace was not involved. With people interacting with each other out of care for each other (not just “working together”), truth and knowledge would flow freely, what I had long ago theoretically derived as a prerequisite for universal happiness. With a healthy respect for the rest of Nature, the future really would take care of itself, because the feedback mechanisms necessary for adapting to a changing environment would be healthy and functional.

Holding on to this state of mind, I was able to re-frame the conditions that had earlier lead to my fear, and better understand what drove others to embrace their fear. Simply put, we were all thinking of ourselves as being isolated in a hostile world. Substituting groups for individuals (those people like us, such as families, professions, or cultures) only partially dulled the sense of isolation that emanated from the “us versus them” approach to the world. I was seeing myself as corporations saw me, as an object (“service provider”) in competition with other objects and thus forced to sell a limited set of my “capabilities” in exchange for the right to survive. Politics is by nature competition, and I was afraid that “we” might be subject to the will of a “them” that thrived on the fracturing power of the arbitrary definition of “good” and “bad” people.

It is one thing to intellectually acknowledge, as I have many times in the past, that people are not good or bad; actions are. It’s quite another to live it. We are all hardwired to objectify our world, and I am no exception. Grace, when we can attain it, enables us to transcend this basic flaw in our makeup; what the founders of Judaic-Christian religion might have really been referring to as “sin.” This state, which I now recognize in Barack Obama and that he appears to be triggering in many of his supporters, is what may ultimately save us all, in the truest senses of “save” and “all.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Government and the Economy

A familiar mantra on the political Right argues that the nation’s economy is best served by reduced government spending, taxes, and business regulation. To do otherwise is to restrict growth, encourage waste, and invite socialism. This argument assumes some things that have not been proven true: (1) much of the money spent by the government is wasted; (2) the government does not support economic growth and capitalism; (3) businesses are sufficiently self-regulating; and (4) the public and private components of the economy are interchangeable, except that the private component is inherently more efficient.

Of the assumptions built into the Right’s assertion, the last one blows the others apart. Government and industry have two distinctly different economic roles, and are therefore not interchangeable. Government’s purpose is to maximize the wealth and longevity of society, while private industry’s purpose is to maximize the wealth and longevity of individuals. There is some interplay between the two: By providing resources and infrastructure (both physical and social), government supports private industry and individuals, and therefore economic growth and capitalism; in return, industry and individuals support government by paying taxes and following laws. Since industry is composed of people whose goal is to acquire as much power as possible, it has no inherent stake in controlling its impact on anyone other than its direct suppliers and customers (self-regulation).

Because their purposes are different, the definition of “waste” must be different for government and industry: For government, resources (including labor) are wasted if they do not serve the public good; for industry, resources are wasted if they translate into costs that restrict choices available to individuals. The solution to excess waste in government is therefore not to reduce its inputs, but to make it more efficient, since society (industry included) depends heavily on what it provides.

There is a grain of truth in the prediction that increased taxes and regulation can lead to socialism (social control of the economy). Many taxes (and tax “breaks”) are used to encourage or discourage certain behavior, and regulation explicitly alters the behavior of business. The controls used by government (in our country, the society) are legitimate to the extent that they protect and provide equal access to resources and infrastructure; they lose legitimacy when they attempt to do anything else. Government intervention in the economy may temporarily appear socialist if it must wrest control of resources and infrastructure from private individuals or organizations who are limiting its access by everyone else. True socialism exists, however, when the government institutionally and permanently controls all aspects of the economy (private, in addition to common elements).

Like it or not, a society is most healthy when everyone has equal access to adequate resources and infrastructure, and individuals have the freedom to maximize their own happiness through what they do with those things. Because individuals can’t do everything, especially in large populations with highly complex interactions, they create organizations with specific roles. Government, one such organization, acquires and provides the basic requirements for everyone, while businesses in private industry are organizations that enable individuals to pursue their own happiness. As long as these organizations stick to their specific roles and perform them well, there is no reason for them to clash.

Unfortunately, the world is running out of useful natural resources, which is forcing a colossal shift in every economy – especially the rich ones like ours. Dissatisfaction with governments, given their responsibility in this area, will only grow as we get closer to the limit. We must be careful not to assign blame for this universal problem, to government or anyone else, but rather we need to all work together to deal with it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Preparation Deficit

If new economic growth must be prepared for by identifying additional resources and creating the infrastructure to consume them, then existing growth that is proceeding without sufficient resources and infrastructure should ideally cease until such preparation can be completed.

Every group, from families to nations, depends on a basic set of resources and infrastructure which has typically been provided for by Nature and primarily provides life support (air, water, food, and climate). That which cannot be supplied directly by Nature has been provided by institutions in a society (such as governments), and includes both physical necessities (for example, transportation infrastructure such as roads) and support of organized and non-destructive behavior (such as common rules of behavior and education). Built on top of the common infrastructure and using the common resources are the specialized transportation and processing structures that organizations within the population need to provide the variety of complexity they desire (enables consumption).

When activity becomes dysfunctional throughout a population, its most influential causes are likely to be systemic; this is the main reason that people expect their governments to address them. Troubleshooting the problem begins with the question of whether there is a deficiency in common resources, infrastructure, or both. Damage control must also proceed – minimizing the impact of any such deficiencies – which should include cessation of growth which tends to exponentially multiply the effects. The troubleshooting process should also include testing the validity of the society’s assumptions both about itself and the environment in which it operates (ongoing testing of this type is a role of basic research).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wasted Growth

One sure-fire way to accumulate waste is to assume uncontrolled growth.

In the case of an organization such as a corporation, growth requires that additional resources be located, extracted, and converted into useful products and services which in turn must be marketed and exchanged for other products, services, or resources. All of this requires infrastructure (or as businesses call it, “capital” and “overhead”), which enables everything else to happen.

If growth in infrastructure falls behind growth in operations (everything else), the tendency of many organizations is to skimp on the quality of the infrastructure. This may enable short term gain, but it will ultimately degrade the effectiveness of the additional operations, thus wasting some of the resources spent on them. The waste generated in this fashion tends to grow exponentially, since additional infrastructure (and the resources spent on it) often depends on existing infrastructure to function properly.

Degradation of operations due to inadequate infrastructure can lead to reduction of resources needed to fuel an organization’s growth, or even its survival. The mechanism for this is the reaction of consumers of the organization’s output to unmet expectations: choosing to pay less or find another supplier. The reduction translates into lower consumption by the organization and possibly further decline in quality and quantity of both infrastructure and operations.

To avoid this potential death spiral, infrastructure should always precede the operations it supports and be built and maintained with the highest quality. Resource availability should always be factored into planning for growth, with enough on-hand to support the organization before income from operations can be acquired, and the amount of total resources identified so that the lifetime of the organization can be estimated and its termination planned for (a vital step that is often overlooked).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Economic Consumption

Just as the interesting aspects of an electronic circuit are the variations in energy over time (“signals”) rather than the net amount of energy used, the world’s economy is primarily concerned with more than just the extraction of resources. Using the example of batteries and a light bulb, the point of the circuit is to create light, not to drain the battery.

Economic theory assumes that natural resources are inexhaustible. When one type of resource is running low, people will find and substitute another kind of resource for it. This same logic applies to the configurations of those resources -- products and services. The mechanism for substitution is the law of supply and demand, which in the electrical model corresponds to the truism that the amount of energy consumed by a load (such as a light bulb) can not exceed the amount of energy available in a source (such as a battery). To maintain constant power to the load (demand), the depleted energy in the battery must be replaced (the supply must remain constant, typically by switching to another battery).

The electrical term “load” can refer to any combination of devices, just as its economic analog can be a combination of factories, homes, and cars (among many mechanisms that people use to convert resources into artifacts and waste). Any electronic device can be modeled as a group of “impedances” -- resistances (which use up energy) and reactances (which modify how energy changes over time). The time variations in per-capita consumption (voltage) may therefore be explained as the result of a complex interaction between economic “reactances” within our “economic circuit,” as well as a set of impedances in the environment that permit resources of different types to pass into and out of the circuit.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Consumption Potential

The relationship I’ve identified between consumption and population is analogous to the relationship between power and current in a direct current electrical circuit. In the analogy, per-capita consumption corresponds to electrical potential (voltage) and the multiplier of population to get per-capita consumption corresponds to resistance (as in Ohm’s Law).

My mathematical modeling suggests that the overall “resistance” is unchanging in the world “circuit” and that “voltage” is the primary variable that affects “current.” The voltage varies exponentially with changes in the amount of available “energy” (resources), a variation that is primarily offset by control of the “voltage source” (resource extraction and distribution technology).

Because in a closed system “energy” (non-renewable resources) cannot increase, “voltage” must inevitably decrease – and with it, “current.” The world, in a sense, is like a light bulb and a fixed number of batteries; first one battery is attached to the light bulb, then another (in “series” with the first), and then another, until all the batteries are connected. Just as a battery has internal resistance that increases over time, causing the voltage across the battery to drop, the resources consumed by humanity become waste which inhibits further consumption, causing per-capita consumption (and population) to decrease.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Maximum Life Expectancy

The first and third laws of consumption can be used with basic physics to project the maximum life expectancy of the human population.

First, the bottom line: Maximum life expectancy is 134 years. This can only be attained if the average speed of resource movement reaches the speed of light. At this point, there would be nearly 9.3 trillion people occupying the space of a sphere half a light year across. To keep such a population functioning, we would need the equivalent of teleportation (such as Star Trek’s transporters), capable of connecting an average of nearly 300 thousand people per second and enabling the consumption of an estimated two-millionths of Earth’s mass per year.

The time it would take to deplete all accessible resources would be one 55-billionth of the time it would take for a population of 40 million people to deplete its resources, where 40 million is the size of a community (“super-group”) where members could be aware of everyone else if they communicated for one hour a day for an entire year. The number of super-groups in the entire population would be over 233 thousand, or the number of hours in more than 26 years – roughly the number of years in a generation! (If these facts don’t twist your mind into a knot, consider the following: The maximum life expectancy is almost exactly five times the actual number of “years” I just quoted.)

If we could divide Earth’s mass equally among 12 billion people (roughly twice the number now in the world) one of those pieces would be all that we now have left to work with. Accessing the equivalent of those other pieces would enable our current population to last as long as cosmic events allow us to with no increase in life expectancy, but reaching the maximum life expectancy would reduce the longevity of our species to less than 500 thousand years.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Peak Profit Growth

Businesses measure their success by comparing their profits from one interval of time to another. Profit – roughly speaking, the difference between income and expenses – is generally used for several purposes: to enable future growth; to help the organization survive future decreases in revenue (anticipated or not); and (for corporations) to reward those people who helped pay for past growth (investors).

For a business to be considered successful, its profits must always be increasing. An investor who pays 100 dollars expects to be paid a certain percentage of that amount out of profits (“interest”) after a year; if the original amount plus interest is reinvested, then the same (or higher) percentage of the new amount is expected by the end of the following year. The business must also make enough extra profit to continue growing if some of its investors withdraw all of their investments. As a result, businesses try to grow exponentially.

The economic success of a country and the world is also measured in terms of growth, where “profit” is equivalent to the increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from one year to the next. Economic activity and consumption of resources are closely tied together; so that as businesses or economies grow, consumption grows proportionally. Equivalently, the dynamics of consumption translate into equivalent patterns of money flow.

My combined population model (and the laws of consumption it embodies) predicts that world per capita consumption will stop accelerating this year and its growth rate will begin decreasing. If profit growth follows suit, which it should, then investment will decline; credit, which is a bank’s version of investment, will also drop. When per capita consumption (and overall consumption) stops growing entirely, the world population will reach its maximum size; after that, resource depletion will reduce consumption, more people will die than are being born, and the population will crash.

It is hard to ignore the similarities between my model’s prediction and those of the current economic crisis. Interpreted through the lens of my model, it appears as though speculators (whose job it is to anticipate future economic growth) expected growth to continue, assigning corresponding value to investments that turned out to be imaginary and ended up overvaluing those investments.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Consumption Rule of Thumb

My analysis of consumption, population, and group sizes leads to the following rule of thumb. As the daily time taken by the average person in a community to interact with others (consume resources) increases by a factor of three, the community’s size and per capita consumption increase by the same factor, longevity (time taken for the community to deplete all of its resources) decreases by 90 percent, life expectancy increases by half a generation (a decade), and the required speed increases by a factor of nine.

Using one full hour per day, the life expectancy is one generation (20 years), the community has 40 million people, and the speed is one foot per minute. In 0 A.D., longevity for one hour of interaction was about 3 million years; it is now 2 million years.

Beyond a full day of consumption, with a population of one billion people, automation must be used to enable the required interactions for consumption and life expectancy to increase (with such “productivity” squeezing out more than 24 hours in a day). Put another way, the world depends on technology to entirely support more than five billion people.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


In Maximum Community Size, I derived the largest size of a population of people who can consider themselves part of a community. I later defined a “world” as a collection of people who can usefully interact with each other (such as moving themselves or resources) over a year. These ideas led to my discovery of the first law of consumption; which, combined with the other two laws, can now be used to better describe such communities.

While a few people in any population will be able to process information at the maximum seven units per second, most people will process information close to the average of 5.5 units per second. At this rate, if another person represented a unit of information, someone could be aware of over 7 million people per year if attention was paid for just one hour per day; and being aware for every hour of every day would result in awareness of 17 million people.

When dealing with large numbers of things, most of us tend to group them. If instead of paying attention to people, we were only aware of groups (again, as units of information) and an average of 5.5 people constituted one group, then someone could be aware of more than 7 million groups over a year at one hour per day. Such a “super-group” would represent a total population of nearly 40 million people. Each additional hour per day devoted to this activity would add another super-group to the total population that the person was tracking as part of the “community.” If every hour of every day was spent, the maximum community size would be 954 million (or almost one billion) people.

Keeping in mind that this discussion is based entirely on theoretical possibilities in order to explore limits, let’s now see what the laws of consumption have to say about all of this.

It is reasonable to assume, based on historical data, that per capita consumption was fairly constant until the world’s population exceeded 300 million people; a single isolated super-group could therefore expect to live to the minimum life expectancy of 40 years. A population size of 300 million corresponds to between 7 and 8 super-groups, corresponding to (potentially) as many hours spent by each member with the others; this is interestingly close to one-third of a day, or a modern “work day.” If an average person needs 8 hours for sleep and 8 hours for personal activity (with limited exposure to others), 8 hours for social interaction may represent a natural limit to sustainable world population size – 318 million people. Indeed, if the population remained constant at this value, then the amount of total resources I’ve estimated for 0 A.D. would have lasted roughly 48,000 years if it was totally non-renewable.

In a world of fixed resources, the first and third laws of consumption strongly suggest that humanity has traded species longevity and time spent not dealing with other people for population size and longer individual life expectancy. In 1829, the world’s population exceeded a full day of (24) super-groups; at that time, I project that life expectancy was 61 years and there were 1,760 years of resources remaining if the population had not grown. There are now nearly 174 super-groups with a life expectancy of 69 years and 68 years of resources; the United States, by contrast, harbors more than 7 of those super-groups which are living much better than the average by effectively taking more resources from others.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Personal Parallels

My personal situation currently parallels, in microcosm, the picture I have painted of the world. My wife and I are both unemployed and depending for our survival on resources (our savings and her unemployment insurance) which are bound to run out. Our savings, comparable to the biosphere, is generating paltry interest (renewable resources) compared to our expenses (consumption), while money from unemployment, like non-renewable resources, is not replenished.

Next week, my wife will be starting a part-time temporary job that effectively offsets her unemployment insurance. Such a contract job is the equivalent of the world finding more non-renewable resources. It is likely that most of those new resources will be used for expenses, with the rest used by me to find a job of my own. If I get a contract job, some of what I earn will be put into savings (replacing the source of “renewable” interest), and some will be spent to find a job for us to start when our contracts are over (there are no more new resources).

In the worst case scenario, similar to the business-as-usual scenario that I and others have projected for the world, my wife will be unable to start her new job and I won’t find one. To make our dwindling supply of money last longer (and avoid the equivalent of a population decline), we have several courses of action, some or all of which may be done simultaneously. We can limit our expenses (holding consumption steady or decreasing it to a survivable level); sell what we’re not using or can live without (consume our waste); or we can invest some of our remaining money in an account that generates interest that we can spend (use non-renewable resources to provide renewable resources).

Among our “expenses” is insurance; without health insurance we would be risking untreatable sickness (imagine a world without health care); and without car insurance, we would be taking unacceptable (as well as illegal) risks by continuing to drive, at least as long as we could afford a car (without fuel and replacement parts, the world’s cars wouldn’t last long). Losing our home, we might be able to rent an apartment for a while, camp in the woods, or wander the streets unprotected from climate or predators (including other people). All of this would resemble the world population peak, soon to be followed by decline.

As I write, the United States government is preparing to add half a trillion dollars to its already stupendous debt, buying defaulted mortgages to prevent an economic depression that would make the 1930s look like a shopping spree. At the root of the ongoing crisis is people’s urge to consume more without paying for it with new resources. Our nation can afford to do this, for a while, because ours is not an isolated population (just as my wife and I have family, friends, and credit card companies to help us in an emergency). But eventually the world must banish people’s ability to act on this unhealthiest of urges and focus on doing the equivalent of finding a new job and increasing savings.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Desirable vs. Achievable Consumption

Using the Third Law of Consumption, we can determine the amount that the average world citizen could consume (where the world is considered an “isolated population”) based on life expectancy.

With the number of years between generations (the “generation interval”) at 21 years and the minimum life expectancy at 40 years, a life expectancy of 65 years corresponds to a per capita consumption that is 15 times the amount for someone expecting to live 40 years. For a life expectancy of 70 years, the consumption ratio jumps from 15 to 27. If everyone lived to an average of 100 years, the ratio would be 720.

From the First Law of Consumption, we can estimate the average speed required to achieve different life expectancies for a given population size. A life expectancy of 40 for 6.9 billion people (roughly the current world population) years corresponds to 16 mph; a life expectancy of 65 years requires a speed of 250 mph; for 70 years, the speed is 430 mph; and for 100 years, we would need to be able to move resources at more than 11,000 mph.

The Second Law of Consumption tells us that even with the technology to move resources we will be severely limited by the amount of available resources, a fact which our population growth is already reflecting. According to my model, the depletion-related decrease in population is being absorbed by consumption, which in addition to growth is increasing the amount of depletion.

Adding life expectancy arbitrarily will only exacerbate the situation by drawing down resources even faster. If we consumed just enough resources to keep the population constant, we would have 65 years remaining at the current estimated life expectancy of 69 years, which would effectively only apply to a few (if any) survivors. It turns out that this strategy – keeping population constant by maintaining consumption – would only work for a life expectancy of 68 years, a point we probably passed in 2006. Unless we increase the overall supply of resources, a growing number of us are doomed to die sooner than we should.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Jarvis's Laws of Consumption

If I may be so bold, I would like to propose three “laws of consumption” which embody my observations and modeling of how consumption, population, and life expectancy are related.

FIRST LAW: The mass of resources consumed per unit of time (“consumption”) by an isolated population is proportional to the square of the size of the population and is also proportional to the average speed that resources can be transported.

SECOND LAW: The ratio of the consumption of an isolated population over one interval to the consumption over the previous interval is proportional to the ratio of remaining resources for the two previous intervals raised to an exponent equal to twice the base of natural logarithms.

THIRD LAW: For members of an isolated population, the average life expectancy corresponding to a given per capita consumption equals the sum of the minimum life expectancy and the product of the generation interval and the (base ten) logarithm of the ratio of the per capita consumption to the minimum per capita consumption.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Renewable Technology

There is an important difference between the terms “renewable resource” and “renewable technology.” “Renewable technology” commonly refers to the set of tools, materials, and methods that enables people to use renewable resources to perform a certain function.

Renewable technologies often rely on the use of non-renewable resources. For example, a technology that converts renewable (replenished) energy from the Sun into electricity could include non-renewable metals and silicon that have been processed using non-renewable chemical products; in addition, it is likely to depend on a large array of non-renewable technologies, including transportation and electrical distribution.

We can judge just how “renewable” a technology really is by assessing the fraction of total resources it uses that are renewable (as defined by the Renewable R's). The optimum technology will recycle all of the materials it uses (if not the preferably replenished resources it processes) into like or other uses (replacement), and if necessary include components that are functional over a very long time (reliable).

Currently life is the only truly close to optimum technology, and Nature's biosphere provides this technology practically for free. The result of many millennia of development and testing through evolution, it would be very expensive (if not impossible) for us to create such a technology on our own. Alternatives on the horizon such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, one involving tinkering with existing life and the other with something totally different, carry the risk of inadequate testing leading to potential disaster.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Renewable R's

When a “renewable resource” is consumed by people in a given year, it's consumption will not diminish the overall amount of resources available during that year. There are at least three ways this could happen.

The first way is for the resource to be replenished from some external source. Solar energy is “renewable” because the Sun is constantly emitting light, which replaces the light previously absorbed by us and other species. Wind is renewable because it is (usually) replaced by more wind. Members of other species are renewable if they reproduce themselves faster than we kill them.

The second way is for it to be replaced by us so it can be consumed again. A trivial example is a sand castle, which exists for a short time in its artificial form and then dissolves into its original state. Most of what we consume, however, assumes a different and often unusable form when we are done (“waste”); if we started consuming our waste, the original resources would become effectively renewable because we would not be depleting our supply of raw resources.

The third way is to slow down how fast we consume resources. By increasing durability and efficiency (collectively known as “reliability”), we can get many years of use out of what we produce, reducing the need to use new resources for the same purpose. Insulating our homes, sealing water leaks, and using materials that last long are all examples of this.

Utilizing the “renewable R's” of replenishment, replacement, and reliability, we can go far toward reducing our load on the resources we depend on without diminishing consumption and population.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Physics of Reuse

Earth's biosphere, what we commonly refer to as “Nature” or “Life” is constantly perfecting the art of reuse. Countless species that include plants, animals, and microbes ingest, process, and expel mass and energy, most of which can over time be used by others.

Mass exists either as atoms, joined atoms (called chemical compounds, found in one or some combination of gas, liquid, or solid), or unbound subatomic particles. Life is primarily concerned with chemical compounds, which may under specific circumstances be either inert or reactive. While inert compounds stay unchanged in the presence of others, reactive compounds join with others to form new ones, and in the process either absorb or release energy. Energy itself exists in any of several forms: chemical (exchanged between atoms), nuclear (exchanged between particles that form atoms), electromagnetic (carried by massless light particles), and gravitational (embodied in space and time, which connect everything to everything else). From a purely theoretical perspective, mass, energy, space, and time are likely to be manifestations of the same thing, ultimately indestructible and eternal in some larger sense that none of us will ever be able to comprehend.

Within the confines of our experience, however, Life “uses” mass and energy to maintain, propagate, and modify itself. Maintenance preserves the individual, propagation preserves the species, and self-modification includes not only reproductive experimentation (evolution) but also changing one's immediate physical and emotional condition. The grunt work of performing these functions is done by cells: biological micro-machines evolved over eons to build, tear apart, and move mass throughout an organism while managing the energy required doing so. When too many cells become disabled from wear and tear, reproductive errors or catastrophic external “modification,” the organism loses integrity and its parts are either disassembled for use by other organisms or more randomly broken down by non-biological processes for potential use over a much longer period of time (such as oil). Even artifacts, buildings and machines built by humans to control how they feel, will eventually be available for use, in some other form, by someone or something else.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Capacity Growth

An alternative to the one percent strategy is to increase the amount of renewable resources exponentially. Throughout my discussion, I have been using the terms “renewable resources” and “capacity” interchangeably, where they are both defined as the amount of resources we are able to use that is replenished on an annual basis. Capacity is more rigorously defined as the capability of replenishing a maximum amount of resources, where the amount of renewable resources actually consumed increases until the capacity is reached; any additional consumption is supplied by non-renewable resources. If we want to supply more renewable resources (reduce the drain on non-renewable resources) then we must increase capacity; and if we want to do it fast, exponential growth is a natural way to go.

My combined population model achieves its lowest amount of error in calculating historical population (from 0 A.D.) when the capacity is zero. Because the original amount of resources is large (1.7 quadrillion pounds), even a capacity equal to the initial consumption of 300 million pounds results in a fraction of a percent increase in error. The capacity is unlikely to be larger than the amount calculated from the world ecological footprint, which I estimate to be 6.9 trillion pounds; this amount results in a 2% increase in error for 2005, which is too large to accept. The smallest the capacity could be (other than zero) is perhaps the 100 pounds per person estimated to be consumed annually in 0 A.D. (roughly the weight of a person).

When dealing with exponential growth, the starting value has a critical impact on the growth rate required to reach a final value in a given amount of time. If the world were to start increasing capacity in 2010, the rate the model predicts would be necessary to avoid population collapse varies from 9% (for a starting capacity of 300 million pounds) to 52% (with a starting capacity of 100 pounds); if the capacity were 6.9 trillion pounds, the rate would be less than half a percent. Given the stakes, I would argue for using the 52% rate if the one percent strategy was impractical (where the fraction of total consumption supplied by renewable resources is increased by 1% per year). Of course in both cases consumption must ultimately be limited to a maximum amount, which is much more likely to draw resistance than a position on the appropriate growth rate.

If we depend on Nature for renewable resources (the easiest approach to growing capacity, since the “technology” is already available), and its physical limit is the maximum capacity I mentioned, we will at best be able to support the population we had in 1980 (4.5 billion people). The rest, nearly one and a half times more, will need to come from us.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The One Percent Strategy

I estimate that the world currently has 62% of the resources that it had in 0 A.D., a fraction that is decreasing by more than 1% annually. By the time it falls below 20%, less than 30 years from now, we will be forced to consume less each year, which will likely result in a decrease in population. If we are unable to increase the world’s supply of non-renewable resources to compensate for what we consume, then to avoid a loss of population we must increase our use of renewable resources.

This can be done by first deciding how much consumption we want to have (proportional to the square root of the population size we want). We could choose, for example, to freeze world consumption at what it will be in 2010, or we could choose to let it grow to twice the 2010 level. Once we are able to supply that amount by renewable resources, we won't be able to increase how much we use without increasing the supply.

Next, we need to decide when we will start increasing the amount of renewable resources that we use; keeping in mind that waiting longer will force us to work faster. If we start at the end of 2010, we will need to add about 1% each year to the fraction of consumption supplied from renewable resources (the “renewable fraction”) while keeping consumption constant at the 2010 level. If we wait until the end of 2020, holding consumption constant at that level, the renewable fraction will be 1.5%. Waiting until 2030 increases the renewable fraction to more than 6%. By the population peak (2037), the renewable fraction will be 9%.

The renewable fraction is proportional to the total amount of consumption that we choose as a maximum. With consumption limited to what it will be in 2010 and assuming we are not using any renewable resources, we will need to get 1% of what we consume from renewable resources in 2011. In 2012, we add 1% to get 2%; the following year, we add the renewable fraction to get 3%, and so on. If we choose instead to double the amount of consumption, the renewable fraction doubles to 2% per year; we are still starting to increase our amount of renewable consumption at the end of 2010, but we are allowing consumption to grow as it has until it reaches the limit (around 2031). Note that for any given year, using the previous year's consumption to determine how much renewable resources we will use will reduce the actual renewable fraction somewhat when we allow consumption to grow to a larger target value.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Four Worlds

The outcomes of my combined population model match my definition of “worlds” – practically isolated systems that people inhabit: A small population (less than one-hundredth the present number) living off the land and the scraps of our civilization; a population a little larger than ours, limited to the Earth and relying on totally renewable resources; or a much larger interplanetary population, limited to the Solar System and using entirely renewable resources; or a population that grows and then sheds people, by death or emigration, while consuming no more than a maximum amount of renewable resources.

The first world would result from using almost entirely non-renewable resources. It could be realized between 50 to 200 years from now, depending on whether and how fast we acquire new resources.

The second world would be the result of extremely rapid growth of renewable alternatives to energy and production, with us using entirely renewable resources within 60 years. No new non-renewable resources will have been found.

The specifics of the third world depend on how fast we can acquire new resources. For it to exist at all, we would need to have enough non-renewable resources to offset the depletion of non-renewable resources being used to support the population and eventually accounting for all of our consumption (likely within 400 years).

In each of these alternative worlds, people would be limiting themselves to what can be regenerated on an annual basis. The conflict we are currently experiencing between competitors and cooperators will be present in each of these worlds as they deal with the necessity to curb consumption to the renewable resources that are available. In these cases where the speed of travel is limited, there would be no more resources for use in expanding the population and keeping it coherent; we would all need to become cooperators or at least restrain the behavior of competitors.

The fourth world would come into existence if the need of competitors to acquire more resources from themselves could not be controlled. The competitors could then either leave to start other worlds (emigration) or be allowed to kill people. Because the efforts of everyone are necessary to sustain consumption, overall consumption would drop with population, and resources would then be available for growth. The world would cycle between growth and death, growth and emigration, or some combination of both.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Expand or Die

In his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination for president, Senator John McCain summarized his primary philosophy of life, that all of us must fight for everything we have and hope to get, with country first. This followed a convention that promoted the world view that protecting, enriching, and growing the ranks of people like us is the duty of every American.

In a nutshell, this world view explains much of what has happened over the past eight years under ultra-conservative political domination: Military occupation and economic plundering of other countries, privatization of government, arbitrary detention and torture (of “others” who might pose a threat), domestic spying (finding the “others” among us), and environmental destruction (where the rest of Nature as simply a set of resources to be consumed). People who don't match their rigid definition of a “real American” as a Christian, heterosexual, economically productive Caucasian have been at best pitied, and at worst subjected to ridicule and restriction of opportunities to survive and thrive.

That many liberals choose to broaden the definition of “us” to include all of humanity (for some, even other species) is too much for ultra-conservatives to handle. They are lost in a world where “others” can't be easily identified and controlled; where behaviors rather than people are evil; and where survival depends more on cooperation than competition. Unfortunately for them, such a world is the one we currently live in, and pretending that it's something else can only lead to pain and suffering on a massive scale (as fundamentalists of other faiths and cultures continue to prove).

The “us versus them” attitude has had historical value. In small, relatively isolated groups, it has led to the evolution of different behavioral and physical attributes attuned to the unique environments where they reside. “Others” who did not have such attributes threatened the survival of the groups, which meant they either had to be assimilated, marginalized, or eliminated. As resources ran out and waste overcame them, groups needed to expand or die, which led to either conflict with occupants of areas they expanded into, or exploration and settlement of uninhabited areas that required a strong focus on taking risk for personal gain.

Most such groups have merged into larger communities with global reach (or are in the process of doing so). These larger communities are forced by common interest to cooperate with each other in an era where their actions can jeopardize the future of the entire human species. At the same time, our exponentially growing consumption of resources (such as fresh water, arable land, fossil fuel, precious metals, other species) and its attendant waste (pollution) is forcing our new global community to make the same choice its ancestors dealt with: expand or die. To expand, we will all need to work together as the problem is too big for any of us. If we choose to die, by complacency or mindless pursuit of self-interest, then competition will sadly become more valuable as resources run out and the environment gets more toxic.

Expansion cannot include the increased drilling and environmental exploitation that ultra-conservatives like John McCain champion. In fact, pursuing such a strategy will only make the problem worse, by adding waste and increasing the rate of depletion. What we must do instead is increase the amount of renewable resources we can use as fast as possible (and not using them any faster than they can regenerate) while limiting the amount of non-renewable resources that we use. We will need new non-renewable resources to be sure, but only to create and be able to use renewable ones. What this means immediately is that we must focus the majority of the world’s economic growth on developing our ability to use renewable energy, and reuse (or get more use out of) the products we make. What’s left of our growth should be spent acquiring more non-renewable resources to further this effort, without adding harmful waste; this may involve a serious and vigorous pursuit of the settlement of other worlds such as the Moon and Mars, a task well suited to those driven by competition and stressed by highly ordered and unavoidable social interaction.

There are those of us who are comfortable with fighting for what we want, and there are others who work best when we are cooperating with other people toward improving our common welfare. Both types of people are necessary in a society, but they must be free to be productive in their own way; otherwise they will clash and the resulting stress will become too great for all of them. There is no one left to fight except ourselves, and we can’t expect that learning to better live together will solve our problems. In the world we share today, converging toward a single community that faces the historical challenge of expanding or dying, the competitors need to be turned loose to find and develop new resources while the cooperators work on getting the most use out of what we have.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Strategy for Survival

Of the options for avoiding a reduction in population that I outlined in “Future Alternatives,” the mixed strategy (option 6) seems to make the most sense. One way or another, the world will be forced to support its population with new resources within the next 20 years.

My model projects that if we continue our historical increase in consumption (the “No Change” scenario), we will use 46 times this year’s consumption between 2009 and the population peak in 2037. By the time of peak, 144% of this year’s population will be consuming 210% of the resources we will this year. If we are not currently increasing resources, we may need to devote part of our consumption to this task, effectively reducing population growth in the process.

Holding consumption constant would give us a maximum of 17 times the amount we currently consume to use for resource growth. If we wait until 2014, we’ll have less than 10 years of that year’s consumption available. By 2019 we’ll have five years’ consumption available; and by 2024 we’ll have two years’ consumption available. At the end of 2027 we’ll have little more than one year’s consumption to use for resource growth, which is arguably the last chance we’ll have to avoid a loss of population.

If we focus on acquiring renewable resources, we will not need to continually add new resources to replace the amount that we use. We would get the most efficiency out of what we spend to get those resources, leaving remaining (and new) non-renewable resources for dealing with changes in conditions that might force alterations in infrastructure such as global warming.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Future Alternatives

I merged my two leading models of the relationship between resource consumption and population into one combined population model, which shows better than ever the constraints on future growth. The new model uses a generic definition of “resources,” measured in units of mass, and incorporates access to the resources and response to perceived depletion of resources into the mathematical description of consumption. Renewable resources (“capacity”) are counted as non-renewable resources which don’t begin to be depleted unless consumption exceeds the amount that is replaced.

We have several options:

(1) We can continue business-as-usual, which will result in a catastrophic depletion of resources associated with a population crash. The timing is the same as before, beginning with a population peak about 30 years from now.

(2) If we want to continue the growth in consumption and population we’re currently enjoying, we must access new resources by about 10% per year if we start in 2010. This growth can be sustained for a maximum of another 200 years, when we will be unable to move resources fast enough and be faced with the same prospect we have now – population collapse.

(3) We could stop growth in overall consumption. Beginning in 2010, this would buy us another 30 years or so.

(4) If we could somehow decrease our consumption without adversely impacting population (for instance, by distributing resources to poor people so the reduction doesn’t kill them), then we could stretch our resources longer. If the minimum per capita consumption is what the average was in 0 A.D., then we could stretch our resources no more than about another 1,400 years if we start in 2010 (less if we start later).

(5) We can attempt to increase the amount of renewable resources to a level just above the consumption that could sustain a preferred population size and keep our consumption constant. We would use non-renewable resources only as necessary to adjust to changes in renewable resources (and help make those changes). Starting in 2010, I estimate that to avoid the impending population crash, we would need to increase renewable resources by at least 16% per year while keeping consumption constant. While theoretically we could do this indefinitely, we would only have two years' worth of non-renewable resources to handle contingencies.

(6) We could use a mixed strategy of growth and sustainability. This would involve simultaneously increasing our access to both renewable and non-renewable resources while restricting growth in consumption. I estimate that in the best case (keeping consumption constant) we could extend resources more than 1.6 million years.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Cost of Growth

According to my speed model, the growth rate of consumption is approximately double the growth rate of population. That is, if the population increases by 1% per year, then the amount of mass consumed will increase by 2% per year. This is perhaps the most important practical constraint on the future, since we must locate and be able to distribute enough resources to produce the new members of the population and for them to consume.

Without fundamental changes to the ways we acquire and distribute resources, I project that the population is unlikely to grow beyond about eight billion people. If we do make such changes, our daily consumption must be able to grow by about a billion pounds per year for each percentage point of annual population growth (or half that for each percentage point of total annual consumption growth).

Since the biosphere is too stressed to provide more resources and services (we are currently consuming the biosphere itself to make up the difference between what we use and what it can give us), we must pay for our growth by effectively “eating rocks” on this planet, in space, or both. While mining already provides most of the materials and energy we use, we will need to begin converting what we mine into food and water (desalinating the oceans and piping water inland could work for a long while, though the side effects on climate will be a problem). We will also have to embrace our role as exterminators on a grand scale, converting mass (living and not) into human biomass and artifacts as fast as we can.

If we go into space, the Moon is the best immediate target for mining. It falls within the required transit time, but there are huge technical challenges involved in moving a billion pounds daily between there and here (never mind safety: this is the equivalent of a 300 foot-wide asteroid).

If we ever do come close to traveling near the speed of light, each of our worlds, isolated from the others in terms of useful resource transfer, will be annually consuming about one-thousandth of the mass of Earth (about one-trillionth of the mass of our solar system). Galaxy-wide, humans and human descendants would annually be consuming an entire solar system’s worth of mass.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Maximum Population

Faced with speed as a limit to the size of the human population, the optimist will conclude that all we need to do is increase the maximum speed to continue growing the population. Nature, however, has a maximum speed that the most elaborate conceivable technology would be unable to exceed: the speed of light. If we could reach the speed of light and the speed-population relation held, we would be able to grow the population to 9.3 trillion people, or 1,400 times the current population, which represents the largest group of people who could exchange resources in a useful amount of time. This isn't to say that there can't be many such groups; they simply would not represent a single population: over time, under many different circumstances, their members would likely mutate and therefore cease to be human.

If each of these largest of groups -- or “worlds” -- occupied a sphere, and explorers continued to move outward from the Earth at the maximum speed, then the number of worlds would be roughly proportional to the volume of a sphere whose radius was equal to the explorers' distance. At the speed of light, our galaxy's 100 billion solar systems (if each is as hospitable as our own) could hold more than 1,000 times as many human relatives as there are believed to be stars in the Universe (100 billion times 100 billion, what I’ll call a “universal unit”).

As isolated as individual worlds would be, galaxies would be even more so given the large, empty expanses between them which are increasing as the Universe expands. To catch the fastest of the galaxies, I estimate that explorers would need to travel about 50,000 miles per hour, or double the current speed record in space. At that speed, a world would have 80 billion members; and our galaxy could ultimately have human relatives numbering more than 20 trillion universal units. The entire known Universe could hold more than 2 trillion-trillion universal units of relatives.

It appears counter-intuitive that increasing speed will decrease the total number of human relatives. The reason for this is that while the volume of the expanding sphere is proportional to the cube of the speed, the number of relatives is only increasing as the square root of the speed. From another perspective, fewer people are using more resources (a factor of more than 100:1 in per capita consumption between traveling at light-speed and traveling at 50,000 mph).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Path of Greed

Using my speed model to project per capita consumption, I discovered that for both it and the consumption model to be right, per capita consumption must increase after the maximum speed is attained. This would be a path of greed, taken by people who would rather sacrifice the lives of others than stop increasing their personal consumption. Such a path would almost certainly include deadly violence, direct (through war) and indirect (deprivation by isolation and economic means).

The alternative, keeping per capita consumption constant, would be a path of responsibility that limited both personal acquisition and population growth. Ideally it would be voluntary, integrated into culture as experience and knowledge of the required methods grew.

My modeling of community sizes indicates that the world population could stabilize with around 300 large communities (nations). Following the path of greed would reduce this number to less than 20 with the most precipitous decline (by half) during the first 50 years. It may be no coincidence that the remaining number of nations is in the range of minimum community size, a number that could more easily be monitored and controlled by a dictator – the ultimate icon of greed.

A large, stable collection of nations would provide room for freedom if they were not rigidly controlled and providing that they aspired to more quality and reusability in the resources they consumed, and valued the people around them more than having more of their genes in the gene pool.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Maximum Speed

The current land speed record of 763 miles per hour was reached in 1997, which is about as fast as passengers or cargo can be expected to fly. If my hypothesis is correct that transaction speed is proportional to the square of the population, then starting at 0.7 mph in 0 A.D. (the best fit to historical data, with a starting population of 300 million), the world will need to exceed the current record speed by 2040 for the population to continue growing. Interestingly, the timing of the projected population peak corresponds well with the peak that my consumption model projects from the depletion of ecological resources.

There are several differences between the projections of this new “speed model” and my consumption model. For one, the peak population values are different: 9.9 billion for the speed model versus 7.8 billion for the consumption model. The speed corresponding to the consumption model’s peak would be about 480 mph, or around two-thirds of the record speed and close to the Root Mean Square value that can be expected from observations of physical systems. The speed model does not inherently project the time that a population value is reached; the limit at 2040 assumes that the population would grow at a constant exponential rate starting in 2000 (a bit faster than reality, since the rate is decreasing). Also, the speed model does not require a decrease in population after the maximum speed is reached; if anything, the population should stay constant.

To properly compare the two models, note that speed is proportional to consumption. For every transaction in the speed model two resources are required to be exchanged, and the total number of transactions is one-half the square of the population (everyone in the group trades with everyone in the group directly or indirectly). For each resource, an average distance must be traversed to move the resource from its original location to a member of the group. Since we're dealing with a fixed amount of time, the amount of resources consumed (traded) is proportional to the number of transactions, which is proportional to the speed (distance traveled in the fixed unit of time).

When the maximum speed is attained, any increase in the number of transactions will result in fewer resources being consumed per transaction (and per person). Conversely, increasing the resources per transaction will force a reduction in the number of transactions and therefore the number of people (population).

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Transaction Speed

If everyone in a group traded resources with every other member of the community, I hypothesize that the number of movements of resources (and the total distance traveled in a given period of time) would be proportional to the square of the population of the group. As the population increased, the average attainable speed would need to keep pace (its value proportional to the square of the population). If the speed was unable to keep pace, the number of transactions would be limited; perhaps to the point of affecting the size of the population itself by reducing the amount of survival related resources available to each individual.

Two pieces of evidence seem to support this hypothesis. The number of trips from the National Household Travel Survey’s Summary of Travel Trends is linearly correlated with the square of the number of travelers in the United States, and more so than just the number of travelers alone. Projections of travel speed for the world’s population since 0 A.D. appear reasonable; beginning at one mile per hour, by the 1960s aircraft speeds of 200-plus miles per hour would have been attained.

To continue the expected trend in speed, resources would need to be transported at more than 900 miles per hour into supersonic speeds during the next decade. The unlikelihood of this happening given the record of non-military the supersonic aircraft suggests that the world may be near or at its maximum speed of resource acquisition, meaning that the population will be forced to stop growing exponentially.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Maximum Community Size

If the smallest community has historically consisted of between 12 and 36 members, is there a limit to the maximum size of a community?

One factor that might limit the maximum size is possible awareness by each member of the community of every other member of the community. Awareness depends on two variables: speed of communication and speed of information processing by each individual. The minimum speed of communication would be one message in a useful interval of time, and the message would need to be comprehensible. The maximum number of people that could be sensed by a member, subject to these constraints, would therefore be the maximum population of the community.

For a useful interval, one year seems like a reasonable guess. Natural processes and activities that humans have mostly relied on for survival tend to cycle over this period. For example, the seasons affect agriculture, and businesses key their activities on transactions that occur over the course of a fiscal year. One year is also the amount of time a human could travel a distance equal to the world’s circumference at speeds attainable on foot.

We know from psychology that people can comprehend no more than seven things per second. If those “things” were pieces of information representing other people, then a person could be aware of no more than seven people per second. Over the course of a year, the maximum number of people in a community is therefore seven times the number of seconds that an average member can receive a message. If all 24 hours each day were available, the maximum community size would be 221 million people; this compares well with estimates of the world’s population at the beginning of the Christian era when the Roman Empire was at its peak.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Stressful Contact

Like other animals, I experience a noticeable increase in stress when eating with strangers. Phone calls or unannounced visits have the same effect. Thanks to caller ID and voice mail, my wife and I can screen out telemarketers, and we generally ignore people who come to our door during dinner.

As a volunteer in political campaigns, I’ve been on the other side. Few phone calls and knocks at the door are answered. I can sympathize, which is why years ago I discovered that I would never be a successful salesman. Yet, like an insane person, I keep hoping for a different result.

In a culture that has sacrificed community for trade, it seems like the only way to get anything done is to use methods that increase the stress in people’s lives. This leads to inevitable backlash: Issues and candidates become just more products that someone’s trying to get us to buy, and campaign volunteers get blocked by the same barriers we erect to keep out other salespeople. To fit through the shrinking holes in people’s armor, the messages become so distorted as to be practically meaningless.

Perhaps the loss of quality and imagination in our cultural artifacts and social discourse is merely a consequence of this trend and the distorted values behind it. If, instead, we re-established smaller communities with familiarity that diminished stress, and like the hierarchy of communities that originally defined our country made our collective decisions by interactions between representatives of these communities, we might actually get people more engaged in public life – the main prerequisite for a vibrant and healthy society.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Worst Case Government

Only a thorough investigation has a chance of revealing the full scope of the Bush administration’s illegal activities and the support of those activities by Congress. In lieu of such an investigation, the public is forced to guess what really happened, and the cynical among us (and believe me, I‘m far from alone) are likely to suspect the worst. Whatever the motivations of the administration (and there is some evidence that they actually believe they are doing what’s right for the country), the lack of transparency to their actions and deliberations coupled with almost daily revelations of wrongdoing tend to reinforce these suspicions.

Exploring the consequences of the worst case is a valuable exercise in that it helps prepare for them, or at least helps us find ways to avoid them; and in the example at hand, the survival of our nation may well be at stake. The worst case here is that our government is being run by a conspiracy that will stop at nothing to expand its power over the people of the world based on the mistaken notion that its members know what’s best for everyone. The consequences of this assumption are easy to guess in light of recent events, among them: attempts to rig the upcoming election in favor of the Republican nominee or the postponement of the election to keep the current administration in power; and the pursuit of total military dominance, domestically and internationally, including a strong intelligence-gathering component and expansion of prisons.

Thwarting the worst case and its consequences would involve several components. The most critical component is the establishment of total transparency, beginning with the investigations associated with impeachment hearings. Reestablishing the requirement for congressional declaration of war – any war – is another component. Banning the use of private military forces at home and abroad would keep this and future administrations from bypassing the will of the people (or providing for their subjugation). Reducing if not eliminating the role of money in elections would also help, since money is a major carrier of personal power.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Criminal Stupidity

In the August 11, 2008 edition of Time magazine, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi makes the following ridiculous assertion (p. 6): “You can’t talk about impeachment unless you have the facts, and you can’t have the facts unless you have cooperation from the Administration.” There is ample reason to charge the president and vice president (not to mention key members of the Bush cabinet) with high crimes, some of them war crimes. If they are guilty, it would be extremely stupid to expect them to cooperate by providing evidence of their wrongdoing.

Perhaps Speaker Pelosi meant to say that Congress doesn’t have any power of its own to compel discovery of the facts; that it must depend on the Justice Department, which is run by the criminals it is pursuing. If true, then she is guilty of not striving to fix such a serious flaw in the Constitution. If false (which I believe is the case), she is guilty of inexcusable ignorance of her power and should be removed.

In the article, Ms. Pelosi goes on to say that “the Republicans would like nothing better than for us to focus on impeachment and take our eye off the ball of a progressive economic agenda.” Congressional Republicans, many of whom may have enabled the allegedly criminal behavior of the administration, have actively blocked the progressive agenda along with the president. By suggesting that the few bills that have passed are worth letting criminals go free is to imply that the speaker is effectively giving in to blackmail, and not getting a very good deal in the bargain.