Friday, January 17, 2014

View From The Peak

I recently wrapped up nearly six weeks of work developing the latest version of my Population-consumption model. The main goal of the model has always been to provide guidance in how to make our collective future better by providing understanding of how that future is determined. My next step, which I'm starting now, is to share both the understanding and guidance, while continuing to test and and flesh out more useful insights. The details of the new version are spelled out on my Bigpicexplorer Web site, which includes a non-technical overview of how it was developed and what I believe its main lessons are.

In short, I came up with a way of thinking about happiness, population size, consumption, and life expectancy that ties them all together and enables what I think are more reliable projections of each into the future. Those projections show that without access to a radically large set of resources to replace the ecological base we've already nearly depleted, our population is likely to peak in size within a decade, and drop to zero by early in the next century. They also show that there may be an ultimate limit to how happy we can be, as well as how long we can live, and if we further attempt to reach those limits we will complete the job of making our planet uninhabitable.

One intriguing suggestion from the model is that the huge uptick in economic and environmental problems we've been experiencing since 2008 may be symptoms of ecological collapse that has been in progress for thousands of years. Essentially, it's now directly impacting the environments we've built for ourselves, and any attempts we make to get more resources will only make things worse, because they're no longer "out there"; they're here. That intuitively makes sense, given all I've read, but now it can be seen in the numbers coming from simple analysis of some of the most basic, publicly available data. We've gambled everything on growth; and the more we try to grow, the harder it gets, and the more damage we do to ourselves.

Yet grow we must, because we are hard-wired to seek out total life satisfaction. As long as we perceive that there are more ways to find it, a larger set of environments we can inhabit in our pursuit of it, then we will do whatever it takes to get it, including growing our population so our descendants can help and have it too. Those who are happier with more of other species around will try to help those species survive and thrive. Others who prefer to be around people like them will have no problem crowding out everything and everyone else. What and who we grow depends on our particular wants and needs; but grow we will, until we are satiated or we simply can't grow any more.

My model confirmed that we are in an existential crisis, and the most realistic solution I could find – so far – was one I already knew, that we need to use less resources, and soon. The model puts a finer point on that last part: it's sooner than I thought, if not already too late. Instead of 2030, as the last version indicated, we're already on the peak; and it's just a technicality whether our population will reach its maximum size next year or in 2022. A healthy level of ecological consumption (because that seems to be the kind of resource we're most tuned to) is no more than about half what an average person is using now, yet to reach it we would probably decrease life expectancy by 26 years, which is a considerable sacrifice in a world that still looks healthy enough.

I'll finish with a caveat that deserves repeating everywhere this is discussed. The model, like most of the ideas I write about, represents my personal understanding of how the world works. It is a set of hypotheses, with some observations and testing to back it up, which I try to share where appropriate. I share it because others might benefit from it, just as I benefit from what others share, and because I believe that only by helping each other can we offset our own shortcomings and amplify each other's strengths. That's what gives me hope as I take in this new view from the peak.