Saturday, August 30, 2008

Future Alternatives

I merged my two leading models of the relationship between resource consumption and population into one combined population model, which shows better than ever the constraints on future growth. The new model uses a generic definition of “resources,” measured in units of mass, and incorporates access to the resources and response to perceived depletion of resources into the mathematical description of consumption. Renewable resources (“capacity”) are counted as non-renewable resources which don’t begin to be depleted unless consumption exceeds the amount that is replaced.

We have several options:

(1) We can continue business-as-usual, which will result in a catastrophic depletion of resources associated with a population crash. The timing is the same as before, beginning with a population peak about 30 years from now.

(2) If we want to continue the growth in consumption and population we’re currently enjoying, we must access new resources by about 10% per year if we start in 2010. This growth can be sustained for a maximum of another 200 years, when we will be unable to move resources fast enough and be faced with the same prospect we have now – population collapse.

(3) We could stop growth in overall consumption. Beginning in 2010, this would buy us another 30 years or so.

(4) If we could somehow decrease our consumption without adversely impacting population (for instance, by distributing resources to poor people so the reduction doesn’t kill them), then we could stretch our resources longer. If the minimum per capita consumption is what the average was in 0 A.D., then we could stretch our resources no more than about another 1,400 years if we start in 2010 (less if we start later).

(5) We can attempt to increase the amount of renewable resources to a level just above the consumption that could sustain a preferred population size and keep our consumption constant. We would use non-renewable resources only as necessary to adjust to changes in renewable resources (and help make those changes). Starting in 2010, I estimate that to avoid the impending population crash, we would need to increase renewable resources by at least 16% per year while keeping consumption constant. While theoretically we could do this indefinitely, we would only have two years' worth of non-renewable resources to handle contingencies.

(6) We could use a mixed strategy of growth and sustainability. This would involve simultaneously increasing our access to both renewable and non-renewable resources while restricting growth in consumption. I estimate that in the best case (keeping consumption constant) we could extend resources more than 1.6 million years.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Cost of Growth

According to my speed model, the growth rate of consumption is approximately double the growth rate of population. That is, if the population increases by 1% per year, then the amount of mass consumed will increase by 2% per year. This is perhaps the most important practical constraint on the future, since we must locate and be able to distribute enough resources to produce the new members of the population and for them to consume.

Without fundamental changes to the ways we acquire and distribute resources, I project that the population is unlikely to grow beyond about eight billion people. If we do make such changes, our daily consumption must be able to grow by about a billion pounds per year for each percentage point of annual population growth (or half that for each percentage point of total annual consumption growth).

Since the biosphere is too stressed to provide more resources and services (we are currently consuming the biosphere itself to make up the difference between what we use and what it can give us), we must pay for our growth by effectively “eating rocks” on this planet, in space, or both. While mining already provides most of the materials and energy we use, we will need to begin converting what we mine into food and water (desalinating the oceans and piping water inland could work for a long while, though the side effects on climate will be a problem). We will also have to embrace our role as exterminators on a grand scale, converting mass (living and not) into human biomass and artifacts as fast as we can.

If we go into space, the Moon is the best immediate target for mining. It falls within the required transit time, but there are huge technical challenges involved in moving a billion pounds daily between there and here (never mind safety: this is the equivalent of a 300 foot-wide asteroid).

If we ever do come close to traveling near the speed of light, each of our worlds, isolated from the others in terms of useful resource transfer, will be annually consuming about one-thousandth of the mass of Earth (about one-trillionth of the mass of our solar system). Galaxy-wide, humans and human descendants would annually be consuming an entire solar system’s worth of mass.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Maximum Population

Faced with speed as a limit to the size of the human population, the optimist will conclude that all we need to do is increase the maximum speed to continue growing the population. Nature, however, has a maximum speed that the most elaborate conceivable technology would be unable to exceed: the speed of light. If we could reach the speed of light and the speed-population relation held, we would be able to grow the population to 9.3 trillion people, or 1,400 times the current population, which represents the largest group of people who could exchange resources in a useful amount of time. This isn't to say that there can't be many such groups; they simply would not represent a single population: over time, under many different circumstances, their members would likely mutate and therefore cease to be human.

If each of these largest of groups -- or “worlds” -- occupied a sphere, and explorers continued to move outward from the Earth at the maximum speed, then the number of worlds would be roughly proportional to the volume of a sphere whose radius was equal to the explorers' distance. At the speed of light, our galaxy's 100 billion solar systems (if each is as hospitable as our own) could hold more than 1,000 times as many human relatives as there are believed to be stars in the Universe (100 billion times 100 billion, what I’ll call a “universal unit”).

As isolated as individual worlds would be, galaxies would be even more so given the large, empty expanses between them which are increasing as the Universe expands. To catch the fastest of the galaxies, I estimate that explorers would need to travel about 50,000 miles per hour, or double the current speed record in space. At that speed, a world would have 80 billion members; and our galaxy could ultimately have human relatives numbering more than 20 trillion universal units. The entire known Universe could hold more than 2 trillion-trillion universal units of relatives.

It appears counter-intuitive that increasing speed will decrease the total number of human relatives. The reason for this is that while the volume of the expanding sphere is proportional to the cube of the speed, the number of relatives is only increasing as the square root of the speed. From another perspective, fewer people are using more resources (a factor of more than 100:1 in per capita consumption between traveling at light-speed and traveling at 50,000 mph).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Path of Greed

Using my speed model to project per capita consumption, I discovered that for both it and the consumption model to be right, per capita consumption must increase after the maximum speed is attained. This would be a path of greed, taken by people who would rather sacrifice the lives of others than stop increasing their personal consumption. Such a path would almost certainly include deadly violence, direct (through war) and indirect (deprivation by isolation and economic means).

The alternative, keeping per capita consumption constant, would be a path of responsibility that limited both personal acquisition and population growth. Ideally it would be voluntary, integrated into culture as experience and knowledge of the required methods grew.

My modeling of community sizes indicates that the world population could stabilize with around 300 large communities (nations). Following the path of greed would reduce this number to less than 20 with the most precipitous decline (by half) during the first 50 years. It may be no coincidence that the remaining number of nations is in the range of minimum community size, a number that could more easily be monitored and controlled by a dictator – the ultimate icon of greed.

A large, stable collection of nations would provide room for freedom if they were not rigidly controlled and providing that they aspired to more quality and reusability in the resources they consumed, and valued the people around them more than having more of their genes in the gene pool.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Maximum Speed

The current land speed record of 763 miles per hour was reached in 1997, which is about as fast as passengers or cargo can be expected to fly. If my hypothesis is correct that transaction speed is proportional to the square of the population, then starting at 0.7 mph in 0 A.D. (the best fit to historical data, with a starting population of 300 million), the world will need to exceed the current record speed by 2040 for the population to continue growing. Interestingly, the timing of the projected population peak corresponds well with the peak that my consumption model projects from the depletion of ecological resources.

There are several differences between the projections of this new “speed model” and my consumption model. For one, the peak population values are different: 9.9 billion for the speed model versus 7.8 billion for the consumption model. The speed corresponding to the consumption model’s peak would be about 480 mph, or around two-thirds of the record speed and close to the Root Mean Square value that can be expected from observations of physical systems. The speed model does not inherently project the time that a population value is reached; the limit at 2040 assumes that the population would grow at a constant exponential rate starting in 2000 (a bit faster than reality, since the rate is decreasing). Also, the speed model does not require a decrease in population after the maximum speed is reached; if anything, the population should stay constant.

To properly compare the two models, note that speed is proportional to consumption. For every transaction in the speed model two resources are required to be exchanged, and the total number of transactions is one-half the square of the population (everyone in the group trades with everyone in the group directly or indirectly). For each resource, an average distance must be traversed to move the resource from its original location to a member of the group. Since we're dealing with a fixed amount of time, the amount of resources consumed (traded) is proportional to the number of transactions, which is proportional to the speed (distance traveled in the fixed unit of time).

When the maximum speed is attained, any increase in the number of transactions will result in fewer resources being consumed per transaction (and per person). Conversely, increasing the resources per transaction will force a reduction in the number of transactions and therefore the number of people (population).

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Transaction Speed

If everyone in a group traded resources with every other member of the community, I hypothesize that the number of movements of resources (and the total distance traveled in a given period of time) would be proportional to the square of the population of the group. As the population increased, the average attainable speed would need to keep pace (its value proportional to the square of the population). If the speed was unable to keep pace, the number of transactions would be limited; perhaps to the point of affecting the size of the population itself by reducing the amount of survival related resources available to each individual.

Two pieces of evidence seem to support this hypothesis. The number of trips from the National Household Travel Survey’s Summary of Travel Trends is linearly correlated with the square of the number of travelers in the United States, and more so than just the number of travelers alone. Projections of travel speed for the world’s population since 0 A.D. appear reasonable; beginning at one mile per hour, by the 1960s aircraft speeds of 200-plus miles per hour would have been attained.

To continue the expected trend in speed, resources would need to be transported at more than 900 miles per hour into supersonic speeds during the next decade. The unlikelihood of this happening given the record of non-military the supersonic aircraft suggests that the world may be near or at its maximum speed of resource acquisition, meaning that the population will be forced to stop growing exponentially.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Maximum Community Size

If the smallest community has historically consisted of between 12 and 36 members, is there a limit to the maximum size of a community?

One factor that might limit the maximum size is possible awareness by each member of the community of every other member of the community. Awareness depends on two variables: speed of communication and speed of information processing by each individual. The minimum speed of communication would be one message in a useful interval of time, and the message would need to be comprehensible. The maximum number of people that could be sensed by a member, subject to these constraints, would therefore be the maximum population of the community.

For a useful interval, one year seems like a reasonable guess. Natural processes and activities that humans have mostly relied on for survival tend to cycle over this period. For example, the seasons affect agriculture, and businesses key their activities on transactions that occur over the course of a fiscal year. One year is also the amount of time a human could travel a distance equal to the world’s circumference at speeds attainable on foot.

We know from psychology that people can comprehend no more than seven things per second. If those “things” were pieces of information representing other people, then a person could be aware of no more than seven people per second. Over the course of a year, the maximum number of people in a community is therefore seven times the number of seconds that an average member can receive a message. If all 24 hours each day were available, the maximum community size would be 221 million people; this compares well with estimates of the world’s population at the beginning of the Christian era when the Roman Empire was at its peak.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Stressful Contact

Like other animals, I experience a noticeable increase in stress when eating with strangers. Phone calls or unannounced visits have the same effect. Thanks to caller ID and voice mail, my wife and I can screen out telemarketers, and we generally ignore people who come to our door during dinner.

As a volunteer in political campaigns, I’ve been on the other side. Few phone calls and knocks at the door are answered. I can sympathize, which is why years ago I discovered that I would never be a successful salesman. Yet, like an insane person, I keep hoping for a different result.

In a culture that has sacrificed community for trade, it seems like the only way to get anything done is to use methods that increase the stress in people’s lives. This leads to inevitable backlash: Issues and candidates become just more products that someone’s trying to get us to buy, and campaign volunteers get blocked by the same barriers we erect to keep out other salespeople. To fit through the shrinking holes in people’s armor, the messages become so distorted as to be practically meaningless.

Perhaps the loss of quality and imagination in our cultural artifacts and social discourse is merely a consequence of this trend and the distorted values behind it. If, instead, we re-established smaller communities with familiarity that diminished stress, and like the hierarchy of communities that originally defined our country made our collective decisions by interactions between representatives of these communities, we might actually get people more engaged in public life – the main prerequisite for a vibrant and healthy society.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Worst Case Government

Only a thorough investigation has a chance of revealing the full scope of the Bush administration’s illegal activities and the support of those activities by Congress. In lieu of such an investigation, the public is forced to guess what really happened, and the cynical among us (and believe me, I‘m far from alone) are likely to suspect the worst. Whatever the motivations of the administration (and there is some evidence that they actually believe they are doing what’s right for the country), the lack of transparency to their actions and deliberations coupled with almost daily revelations of wrongdoing tend to reinforce these suspicions.

Exploring the consequences of the worst case is a valuable exercise in that it helps prepare for them, or at least helps us find ways to avoid them; and in the example at hand, the survival of our nation may well be at stake. The worst case here is that our government is being run by a conspiracy that will stop at nothing to expand its power over the people of the world based on the mistaken notion that its members know what’s best for everyone. The consequences of this assumption are easy to guess in light of recent events, among them: attempts to rig the upcoming election in favor of the Republican nominee or the postponement of the election to keep the current administration in power; and the pursuit of total military dominance, domestically and internationally, including a strong intelligence-gathering component and expansion of prisons.

Thwarting the worst case and its consequences would involve several components. The most critical component is the establishment of total transparency, beginning with the investigations associated with impeachment hearings. Reestablishing the requirement for congressional declaration of war – any war – is another component. Banning the use of private military forces at home and abroad would keep this and future administrations from bypassing the will of the people (or providing for their subjugation). Reducing if not eliminating the role of money in elections would also help, since money is a major carrier of personal power.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Criminal Stupidity

In the August 11, 2008 edition of Time magazine, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi makes the following ridiculous assertion (p. 6): “You can’t talk about impeachment unless you have the facts, and you can’t have the facts unless you have cooperation from the Administration.” There is ample reason to charge the president and vice president (not to mention key members of the Bush cabinet) with high crimes, some of them war crimes. If they are guilty, it would be extremely stupid to expect them to cooperate by providing evidence of their wrongdoing.

Perhaps Speaker Pelosi meant to say that Congress doesn’t have any power of its own to compel discovery of the facts; that it must depend on the Justice Department, which is run by the criminals it is pursuing. If true, then she is guilty of not striving to fix such a serious flaw in the Constitution. If false (which I believe is the case), she is guilty of inexcusable ignorance of her power and should be removed.

In the article, Ms. Pelosi goes on to say that “the Republicans would like nothing better than for us to focus on impeachment and take our eye off the ball of a progressive economic agenda.” Congressional Republicans, many of whom may have enabled the allegedly criminal behavior of the administration, have actively blocked the progressive agenda along with the president. By suggesting that the few bills that have passed are worth letting criminals go free is to imply that the speaker is effectively giving in to blackmail, and not getting a very good deal in the bargain.