For much of this year I nursed a slowing computer while attempting to further my research and to do some writing within time limited by working a full-time job (luckily at home). As has happened in similar experiences, I built up a cache of insights that I could share when conditions permitted while sharing tidbits of related wisdom and information on social media platforms, most notably Twitter (@bradjarvis), which also served as a tool for collecting relevant source information. Just when my computer became unusable due to “upgrades” in the operating system and software that its speed could not handle, I capitulated to the need for a hardware upgrade (a new computer) to keep up with them and maintain the most basic functionality.
My new insights, as the most useful have, came from taking a fresh look at the essence of the mathematical modeling of historical data that has dominated my decades-long research into how basic values and resource availability are coupled to affect how long and how large a population can survive. This phase of the research focused more on what happens to groups within a global population than on projections of what happens to the entire population, requiring many more calculations to provide meaningful results. I had enough results by the time my computer became unusable to begin drawing conclusions that could be tested and used to extract a simple set of rules that embody their derivation.
The most fundamental insight of the model has been that human consumption of ecological resources (provided for sustenance of life in ecosystems) varies predictably with habitat density; where habitat density is the ratio of consumption for needs to the number of resources that remain (which are available to members of other species to meet their needs). One of my new insights is how consumption for needs (which is proportional to the number of people) increases with habitat density, and how the amount not consumed for needs (what I call waste) decreases with habitat density.
Economic activity, measured globally as Gross World Product (GWP) and on a national level as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is a function of the number of potential exchanges of resources, which varies with the number of people and the resources they consume. The distribution of people and resources derived from their relationships to habitat density can therefore be used to estimate the range of habitat densities occupied by an economically active group like a nation for which that activity is measured. Related aspects of people’s lives such as life expectancy and happiness show looser correlations with habitat density that can therefore be used on a society level to infer the dominant values associated with those aspects along with the more direct ones: population size and longevity (how long the society can survive with its resource base).
The upgrades to the underlying historical data and its analysis showed that, in general, nations have kept their minimum habitat density the same as the world’s while varying their maximum habitat density. This maintains a link to the people in the society with the most access to resources that can be used to meet needs and are paid handsomely for it. In the extremely rare exceptions where that link has been severed, it appears to have been accompanied by rapid demographic transition or government collapse. If, as most of my simulations of the world’s future show, the minimum habitat density climbs in response to critically depleted resources, what triggered those exceptions may also become outcomes in a self-sustaining feedback loop that accelerates the process, enhanced by environmental feedbacks that further reduce available resources.
For now, my new computer is performing as well as I hoped, apparently matching what my not-too-old computer was able to do. Like humanity’s instinctive drive to increase the number of people in the world, which seems to be our dominant value, my hard drive is filling up with the inevitable upgrades to my software and the files (and increases in file size) that I am generating with each new increment of my research and writing. Some time when I least expect it, a critical amount will be used and a new set of upgrades will threaten to make this computer inoperable, just as our planet is on the verge of becoming unable to sustain life as we know it, forcing us to quickly (and impossibly) find and move to another one or die. Refusing that next upgrade is still an option, as is reducing what we’re already doing with it so we can use fewer resources. Unfortunately, our planet – like my last computer – may be doing the ecological equivalent of changing the operating system so that functions we need can no longer be done without a lot of adaptation. Time is running out to find and implement a solution to this conundrum, and I’ll keep doing what I can to help that process.
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