Friday, February 23, 2018


Since November I have continued to struggle with the "Rabbit Hole," with a little more success. That success is, in part, due to a decision to give in to my troubleshooting instincts and follow a process that served me well as a test engineer: simulating the system under test, and then using that simulation to reproduce a problem in order to identify its cause and potential solutions. The fact that there are multiple problems made this approach even more attractive. Having done so, I am ready to share what I learned.

The main problem, as it's always been, is the limitation of humanity's population growth and collective lifetime due to unavailability of resources critical to survival. The other problems have to do with limitations to maintenance and growth of the quality of life for the people in that population, not to mention the ultimate consequence of our definition of members of other species as "resources": their dying to the point of extinction. Evidence for these problems is found in the news, results of scientific research, and personal experience that people share (as well as my own). One of the most obvious consequences is stress from growing uncertainty about our own fate and the fate of those we care about, and lack of trust in the people and institutions that we've counted on to reduce that uncertainty.

For me, understanding is a remedy for uncertainty, even if that uncertainty can only be measured. I already had a good start on addressing that. The "population-consumption model" I've been working on for more than a decade has yielded some interesting insights, which have been the basis of much of my writing over that period. To be useful as a troubleshooting tool, though, it needed a lot more refinement. It especially had to be able to address specific behaviors of people, which I considered one of its main deficiencies. It also had to better match the historical data, which was helped by the addition of more data about ecological impact as a proxy for consumption, along with economic activity.

The most basic output of the model was a presentation of the past and most likely future of global population and consumption, similar to what I generated with previous versions. This time, though, I chose to focus on types of consumption, needs and wants, and a new type of impact – waste. Needs are the resources consumed to maintain the most basic survival, while wants are additional resources directly used by people, and waste is everything else that was part of overall impact. I also tracked what is left to consume – mainly members of other species (nature) and what they produce.

Unlike previous attempts, though, I left open the possibility of simulating timelines of history that didn't necessarily match with real experience: thought experiments describing what might be in other universes whose past, present, and future look significantly different from our own. This appealed to me because it could provide valuable context what we observe in our daily lives; and it could suggest actions we might not have anticipated by sticking strictly to reality. It also would inherently reduce confusion between real history and simulated history in my discussions, as I referred to timelines rather than actual events.

The first timeline I simulated, arbitrarily called "Timeline 1," was my best match to reality based on personal judgement about the variables and methods used, as well as tracking of differences between my source data and the outputs. By contrast, the source data represents "Timeline 0," which is essentially reality, though subject to change as more data is added – especially about future events. In Timeline 1, humanity is producing vastly more waste than wants, leading to peak population in 2020, peak economic activity in 2025, and extinction by 2037 as nature is depleted to a point where needs can no longer be met. This is accompanied by, and facilitated by, individual economic reward for waste that is equivalent to reward for meeting needs and wants, along with what the model shows is an inevitable and increasing unequal trade of waste for wants.

I will be adding more detail later, but the main points I just outlined for Timeline 1 are very consistent with the lessons I've learned from the bulk of my research, which is an argument for its usefulness in troubleshooting the real problems the model was created to simulate. Since Timeline 1 is based on human activity and does not include the potential influence of external changes to the environment such as self-sustaining climate feedbacks, it can mainly suggest actions we can take to delay, if not stop, our extinction in the absence of those changes. For example, one such action would be to reduce or remove reward for waste, beginning with calling it out for what it is.

One of the discoveries I made in preparing the new version of the model is a mathematical relationship between ecological impact and economic activity. If it's correct, then the residents of Timeline 1 can't just redefine how economic activity is distributed throughout the population without factoring out the waste they produce. Such a redefinition would, however, alleviate the grossly unequal quality of life that is among the other problems some of them – and some of us – might want to address, and may be a feature of another timeline.