Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Longevity Trap

A new set of simulations involving happiness, longevity, and population shows that when different isolated groups join together to form a larger, competitive group, population may be traded for longevity except when growth rate is the only difference.

Recall that longevity is the time it takes for a group to begin disabling the habitability of its environment by consuming species that keep alive the species it directly depends upon for survival, and that my calculations show that humanity recently reached that point. The simulations indicate that world history can be approximated by a lot of isolated groups, which is also equivalent to what would happen if isolated groups came together and allocated resources equally among them. If the world instead had competition among its subgroups for resources, then the average population over history would be smaller (such as 50%), and longevity would be longer by the same fraction (150%); happiness would have dropped only slightly (3%).

In general, any differences between isolated groups in population or per-capital consumption of ecological resources (footprint) will translate into differences in power to acquire resources and convert them into personalized environments. Those power differences will result in a loss of population when the groups are merged and they must compete for resources with too few available for some people to survive when the resources are allocated according to power. Having fewer total people enables those who are left to consume resources for longer at their current rates, thus increasing longevity. This is not the only way to increase longevity, though: by decreasing consumption rates, longevity can be increased without an accompanying drop in population.

Ironically, any growth at all ensures that a group's longevity will eventually reach zero. Pursuing more longevity, while insisting on growth, is therefore a trap. Even if we use the increased longevity to find more resources so we can accommodate more people, we will be forced to adjust and eventually limit the growth rate of consumption based on physical constraints of speed and availability of resources. To pursue more longevity and accept loss of life as its cost is to automatically assume that the casualties have less value than the survivors or their potential replacements.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


I spent the last two weeks immersed in environmental news, much of it associated with news about the COP-21 climate talks that were in progress during that time. The news came so rapidly that I took to Twitter to both track and comment about it. Coincidentally I was attempting to map out what the next ten years might look like in detail so I could do better personal planning and inform my research and writing (blogs and fiction).

The effort left me stressed and depressed, disappointed and exhausted. Despite the generally positive press about precedent set by COP-21, I saw the result as clear evidence that our global socio-economic system is simply incapable of adequately addressing urgent environmental problems that it has created as a function of its existence and values. Civilization needs to be slamming on the brakes of ecological consumption so we don't critically disable the means of maintaining habitability, but instead we're looking for ways to change the direction of our metaphorical train by tapping the brakes on only some of the wheels.

Toward the end of last week I began trying to frame my assessments of news in terms of the three basic values I've identified in my own research: happiness, population, and longevity. I dove back into my research, looking for a simple graphical representation of the relationships of their physical expressions to each other, and ended up creating a simple statistical simulation of probabilities for various combinations of the three variables.

The simulation showed that in September we likely hit the ecological limit I've been most worried about, an event that it calculated has a 28% of occurring. Furthermore, there was less than a one-in-ten-thousand chance that we would be able to increase our happiness, population, and longevity from their values a few months ago – even if the amount of total resources was twice what I expected. Decreasing minimum happiness from 66% to 60% provided a 3% chance of growing longevity and population with expected resources, and 2% for double the resources. Allowing 50% happiness, corresponding to its value in 1850, increased the chance to 11% with expected resources and 4% with double the resources. Allowing global warming to potentially decrease the amount of resources reduced the chances even more than the dismal numbers I mentioned.

If we did already hit the ecological limit, then we are possibly following one of the reference cases I discussed last. Trying to prevent it is no longer an option; we can only deal with what's to come and apply what we've learned in order to maximize the number of survivors over time. Unfortunately, we still have vestiges of our healthier past that support the delusion that growth is still possible; and there may be enough of a delay in the onset of consequences that we won't easily appreciate the causal link between those consequences and the environmental degradation that triggered them.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Future Reference

I hope that the next 30 years will be much better than my attempts at projecting the future have indicated. They will almost certainly be different – and interesting. At the very least, I want to be able to look back (assuming I live that long) without regretting the way I spent that time.

My latest projections are now being tested by experience. Interestingly, the latest element of my analysis is the subject of worldwide attention now: the potential progress and impacts of global warming. I have taken time off from writing and modeling to follow the COP-21 negotiations in Paris, and to acquire and process the latest news that pertains to my research. Coincidentally I am facing some personal and professional deadlines that require planning inputs just like the projections I have been working on. As a result, I've decided to use the projections I currently have, for both planning and discussion, with the goal of incorporating the results of those uses into a future update of the model that produced them.

I've created a part of my research Web site that is dedicated to this process, and chosen to focus on two sets of projections which I have discussed previously. The "default" case is the second of two stories that my research has revealed, where humanity begins consuming resources needed to maintain our survival. The "warming case" involves the influence of self-sustaining global warming in combination with our behavior in the default case, which drives our species to extinction by 2165.

Embedded in both of these reference cases is a fundamental assumption about values: that happiness, enabled by using ecological resources (footprint) to customize individual environments, is much more important than people's lives and the lives of the other species whose demise is causing people to die. As total resources decline due to global warming, some surviving people will be still able to consume much more than others, but humanity as a whole won't be able to recover its numbers.

Key to validating, understanding, and possibly mitigating these catastrophic trends is the identification of the critical "producer" species assumed to enable the survival of the "supporter" species that we directly depend upon for our survival. While I don't know what they are, I do have some guesses, chief among them the creatures that enable plants to survive, such as birds with their dispersal of seeds and nutrients, and the fish which keep many of them alive. I have recently been studying the condition of soil, which I expect will reflect our impact on producer species. The fact that one-third of remaining soil is degraded, plus the recently revealed fact that Earth now has two-thirds of the arable land that existed 40 years ago, means that we have less than one-quarter of the healthy soil we had at that time. Interestingly, my calculations show that we now have about one-third of the extra resources (resources not directly consumed by us and supporter species) that we had in 1975.

The first significant decline in our own population is projected to occur in the next few months, with around 200 million deaths due to lack of resources, most likely food. This will be the clearest possible signal that we have begun killing off the last producers alive on Earth; though we may not initially recognize it as such because we will directly be seeing its impact on the supporter species. By 2017 we will have recovered, perhaps due to artificial replacement of what the producers were providing along with some recovery of the producers. We will see a smaller death rate the following year as we attempt to consume more, and probably try a similar fix in 2019. By 2021 the two cases diverge: in the warming case, our recovery will couple with the effects of climate change and we will see the greatest, fastest population drop in history, with more than a half-billion people dead; and, after another recovery, a second drop will occur with almost the same magnitude. The default case, meanwhile, has its greatest population drop in 2023, with more than 300 million people dead, though there will be other, smaller "drops" in the future.

One thing (among many) that I don't account for is the impact of having births make up for drops in population, the most obvious part being the growing fraction of young children over time. That will foreseeably reduce the ability of humanity to maintain its growth in consumption, unless machines grow sophisticated enough to do so without human intervention. A similar argument applies to producer and supporter species, which must grow back, at least partially, and may not grow to be mature enough to provide the products and services expected.

The smartest thing we could do following a population drop is to resist growing the population back and to try lowering per-capita consumption to a sustainable level (at least long enough for other species to recover their numbers and maturity) and then maintain it at that level. If we don't do that on purpose, then perhaps the changing demographics will have the same effect.