Friday, February 18, 2011

Two-Thirds Happiness

It's either the most incredible coincidence I know, or I've stumbled onto something approaching a natural law.

If you've been following this blog or my research site, you're aware that I've been fascinated with the mass of resources the human population annually consumes (extracts, uses, and converts into waste) and how it corresponds to our satisfaction with life -- “happiness.” Over the past few years, I've discovered what I believe to be key relationships between this consumption, the size of our population, and how fast we can move those resources in the process of making transactions with each other. I've used these relationships to project how our consumption has changed over time, and determined that humanity is headed for a population crash within the next twenty years if we don't make major changes to how we live, mainly because we appear to have started with a fixed amount of resources and we've become increasingly efficient at using them rapidly. Our happiness, subjectively measured on a scale from zero to 100%, appears to vary logarithmically with our personal consumption; that is, it takes progressively more stuff to increase our happiness by the same amount. I've used this statistical correlation to study how happiness may have varied over human history, how it's likely to change in the near future, and what we would need to do (mainly in the procurement of more resources) to satisfy the trend in increasing happiness we appear to prefer.

Happiness obviously isn't the same for everyone: there's a minimum, a maximum, and an average. Until a decade ago, the minimum happiness stayed pretty fixed, since and the maximum kept rising. In 2001, the maximum reached 100%, where almost by definition it would have been unable to exceed. Because the average kept increasing (evidenced by consumption), the minimum would have needed to increase to compensate (I suspect that the increasing investment in poorer countries has been the economic manifestation of this). Unfortunately, soon after, the rate of growth in consumption (that our economy depends on) began to slow down, and by the onset of the recent recession there were too few resources to sustain the entire population at 100% happiness for more than a year. If my projections are right, by 2021 the world's population will reach a maximum, and the the average happiness will be 64%. If it could continue increasing, the average happiness would get up to 65% by the time my projections show the population plunging to zero, in 2027.

As I discussed in my last post, if we somehow pushed past 100% happiness and could acquire more resources (not to mention keeping our planet from dying), we would eventually reach an ultimate limit to consumption, imposed by the fact that we simply couldn't move resources, and products we produced from them, faster than the speed of light (and technically, not even that fast). Happiness would be pegged at 149% no matter what we did.

Now, finally, here's the freaky part: 100% is pretty close to two-thirds of 149%; and as I mentioned, average happiness would be at 65% when I'm projecting the population to crash, if we avoided the crash, and that's pretty close to two-thirds of 100%. If that doesn't send chills down your spine, consider this: When the world's population was consuming all of the resources produced annually by the biosphere (Earth's “natural capacity”), the average person was two-thirds as happy as the average person might be if our population could grow to the point where it was consuming all resources that existed 2,000 years ago – 59% vs. 87%.

It's well known that our minds are predisposed to see patterns everywhere we look, and mine very much follows that rule. A rational interpretation, as I said at the outset, is that there's no pattern in what I discovered; it's just coincidence. But since I'm an “idea explorer,” it's tempting to consider the implications if it's not.

One of the most puzzling aspects of my work on the relationship between population and consumption has been the identification of the mechanism linking the change in population to the total amount of resources. What if happiness has a biological component that enables us to feel how close we are to a natural resource limit, and it is linked to another component that adjusts population controls such as fecundity and stress levels so we don't get too close?

Technology and culture were likely responsible for us clearing the first such hurdle, in 1857, when average happiness was two-thirds of what it would be when we consumed all of the natural capacity; humanity was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, which enabled access to the remaining resources. The world was consuming all the natural capacity in 1994, but only a relatively few people seemed to notice, which implies that by then feedback from our artificial environment to the putative biological controls was overwhelming the feedback from the natural environment. In the following decade, the negative feedbacks from our destruction of Nature's production and maintenance capabilities and our depletion of non-renewable energy sources became too large to ignore; at the same time, some of us reached 100% happiness while average happiness was at 60%.

Suppose that 100% happiness is a manifestation of a biologically-based indicator of maximum resources, and two-thirds of that (67%) corresponds to the depletion of natural capacity. This could have been set by evolution, translating into detectable (logarithmic) terms the ratio of ecological production (natural capacity) to the total mass of producers (natural capital) and natural capacity, which I estimate to actually be close to 1/96. If this is true, then it may not matter to our population trajectory if we find more resources; our internal sense will trigger increasing population control behavior, ultimately leading to a crash.

I must once again emphasize that this is speculation that just starts to explain what may be total coincidence. It needs to be tested. One way is to try falsifying it, such as posing the following question: If increasing happiness leads to dangerous behavior, are the people above the 67% threshold acting that way? I'll close by answering the question anecdotally, observing in the United States that the “rich” are clearly acting in a destructive way through their hoarding of money, sociopathic social agenda, paranoia, and continued demolition of the natural environment, despite evidence of the negative consequences for people and the climate (which they publicly dispute).

1 comment:

Bradley Jarvis said...

See the follow-up posts "Birth Control" ( and "Prime Happiness" (