Monday, January 24, 2011

Opportunity vs. Outcome

One of the central tenets of the politically conservative word-view in the United States is that society (represented by government) should guarantee equal opportunity in the pursuit of happiness, but should not guarantee outcomes. This is a variant of the notion that people should not be forced to help others (along with its corollary that individuals should not be held accountable for the indirect impact of their actions on other people). It is based on the demonstrably false belief that society will best benefit from enabling the maximization of individual power.

As with biology and physics, beliefs about happiness have been tested, and as a result it is better understood. For one thing, there is a strong correlation between happiness, life expectancy, and natural resource consumption: The more we consume, the happier we are, and the longer we live. This makes intuitive sense, and should come as no surprise. What may be surprising is the fact that while life expectancy is proportional to happiness, the two grow logarithmically with consumption; as a rule of thumb, consumption must double to increase happiness by one-fifth. As a consequence, maximizing happiness can be very expensive in terms of resources; and if there is a limited amount of resources available to a society, people who are happiest will use most of them, at the expense of the majority of other people, eventually causing the society to collapse.

There is a minimum amount of food, water, shelter, and other things that people need to survive. While there is controversy around what that minimum might be and what determines it, there is no doubt that such a minimum exists. This amount of consumption will correspond to a minimum level of happiness, below which people die. Societies where there is anarchy (“every man for himself”) virtually ensure casualties due to the typically random distribution of qualities and abilities in most populations.

Fortunately for those who abhor preventable death, many societies have managed to assure that the majority of people in them are able to survive by redistributing resources and their derivatives (such as technology), and creating and maintaining basic physical and social infrastructure. This is a reasonable interpretation of “equal opportunity” which also ensures at least a minimum “outcome.”

Now, as all of humanity faces a resource crisis due to excess consumption, we are facing the possibility of having to constrain the upper level of happiness so we can live within the narrow range of consumption afforded by Nature and the maintenance of a functioning civilization – what is likely a conservative's worst nightmare. The alternative, increasing total renewable and reusable resources, may be the only way to avoid this without casualties.

See the “Limits to Happiness” diagrams on my Web site for more information.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Limits to Capacity

BACKGROUND: My population-consumption model shows that the world's human population has, on average, been consuming resources as though they were non-renewable for more than 2,000 years. To survive indefinitely (barring any major changes in conditions, including moving to other planets), we would need to meet existing consumption using resources that could be replenished at the rate we are consuming them. I have recommended building capacity – the mass of renewable and reusable resources – as fast as possible to equal the amount of mass we consume annually. The effect of this solution is to eliminate our consumption of non-renewable resources, which is currently reducing our population growth and may lead to a sudden drop in population when growth stops (consumption and population will reach a peak).

I have assumed that we will somehow be able to exactly match our consumption with capacity that the biosphere can't provide, likely with efficiency technology. For example, we could create structures that can last as long as we need, which are effectively one-time uses of our remaining non-renewable resources. What if this assumption is wrong?

The model shows that if, beginning at the end of 2012, we held consumption constant, relied on available biocapacity, and reused an amount of resources equal to 90% of the remaining consumption, we would need to reach the maximum capacity within two years, and our non-renewable resources would last until 2377. Raising reuse from 90% to 99% would give us 65 years to reach maximum capacity and extend resources to 2864. At the low end, if capacity was limited to available biocapacity and no reuse, and reached in no more than three years, resources would last until only 2050, which is 29 years longer than if we had no capacity at all.

A sustainable alternative is to provide all of the 2012 consumption with biocapacity, which would need to be increased by at least 81%. In a crude sense, this may correspond to additional habitat, perhaps as land area that is available for other species to use. If we occupy that land for purely human use, we might have to abandon it. Because we would replacing non-renewable resources with renewable resources, what we consume it for would change. Because we could no longer extract and use the metal, oil, coal, minerals, and other resources that comprise our artificial existence, nearly every aspect of what we think of as “modern civilization” would be replaced by natural and very likely labor-intensive alternatives.

If we can't increase biocapacity or find an alternative to it (which seems unlikely given the time we have left), and don't want to lose population, we should reexamine the idea of reducing consumption. Cultural measures, such as government controls, might conceivably be used to keep people from killing each other while a rapid conversion is made to all-natural economy that uses no more than the biocapacity we have (and preferably less). If one hectare of global ecological footprint corresponds to 1,000 pounds of mass consumed, then a minimum of 1.5 hectares per person needed to maintain a society would, beginning with a 47% drop in consumption in 2012, allow us until 2133 to fully convert our economy.

In what appears to be a recurring theme in these discussions, humanity is faced with a tradeoff between lifestyle and species longevity. If no “magic bullet” technology can be found to meet our desires with replenishing resources, we must use only what a healthy biosphere can spare, and change our desires accordingly.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Running Out of Time

I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but I'm a big fan of the recently-ended television series 24. It seemed that in almost every season, the terrorist-fighting hero, Jack Bauer, would exclaim what could be the tag line of the series: “We're running out of time!” That's the way I feel these days.

Last week, I updated the numbers in my population-consumption model, increasing its accuracy and finding almost no change in its dire projections for the future trajectory of the world's population if we continue with our historical behavior. The alternatives that allow the longest survival time continue to be the exploitation of the rest of the Solar System (increasing the mass of resources by at least 5% per year if we start now and can travel no faster) and relying entirely on renewable and reusable resources (“capacity”) here on Earth by the end of this century (reaching half, by mass, of today's constant consumption by 2024).

Waiting longer to start requires faster changes, mainly because we will be consuming more resources and the cost of consuming less is a loss of population. While I still haven't identified most of why the consumption equation works the way it does, and there is evidence that many of us can live on far less than we do, the historical trends are clear. Whatever we do, it will be too late when the population peak occurs, in 2021. If we waited until 2020, a procrastinator's dream, we would either need to be getting half that larger amount from capacity by 2025 (28% the first year) or start increasing our non-renewable resources by 17% per year; it's highly unlikely that even the most ambitious technologies could achieve those goals.

Many of the so-called engines of industry are fighting to maintain their expected growth in profits by paying lower wages, cranking up demand for more products at lower quality, and buying off governments and disseminating propaganda to avoid paying the social and environmental costs of their activities. As access to non-renewable resources gets harder, this is a natural response for a competitive enterprise: restrict the number of people who can see growth at the expense of the others who can't (this may be a big part of the “reality” behind some of my model's variables). What I've decided is the most practical choice – increasing capacity – is almost certain to be extremely unattractive to a profiteer, especially the end state of using a fixed amount of totally replenishing and long-lasting resources.

As ocean ecosystems are decimated by oil spills and birds literally fall dead from the sky, the public is getting a glaring wake-up call that something really bad is going on, and we may be the cause. We certainly can't save other species by getting additional resources from other planets, without reducing the amount of resources we get from this one. Extracting more from the Earth results in less for other species, and when converted to waste, fouls their environments and ours. It's probably no coincidence that my model projects our own population to start crashing soon after the time (five years from now) that the amount of resources we're using corresponds to double the amount of ecological resources (ecological footprint) that the Earth can support.  We are clearly running out of time.