Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Environment Control

In our pursuit of more happiness and longer lives, we humans have been modifying our environment, gradually bringing it within our control. My recent research suggests that in 1943, as the world's industrial base was ramping up in the midst of war, humans for the first time could control the average environment. Our control increasingly accelerated until 1965, as world oil discoveries were approaching their peak. We haven't been able to maintain that level of acceleration since then, and recently – 2007, as the world economy was tanking and we had arguably hit peak oil – our control began to actually decelerate. If current trends continue, I project that we will stop being able to control the environment at all in 2022, corresponding to when the world's population is expected to peak.

The research is based on a premise I've explored in the past, that we each have a set of conditions under which we thrive the most – are the most satisfied with our lives. Simplistically, this might be correlated to our personality, which expresses how we prefer to deal with the rest of the world. If our environment is matched to these preferences, then we will have maximum control over our lives and be as happy as possible and live the longest; to the extent that it isn't, then we are unhappy and don't live as long.

If we simply consider an arbitrary continuum between two extremes for the human population that represents our preferences, the average for the random population will likely correspond to the center (if the extremes are arbitrarily given values of zero and one, then the average of the population would be one-half). The environment (technically, the part that affects us) would have a similar continuum, but not be necessarily bounded as we are; that is, it could have a value less than zero or a value greater than one. Using these definitions, we have maximum happiness (and life expectancy) when our “value” and that of the environment are equal, and happiness decreases as the values get further apart.

With some reasonable assumptions, I used my historical estimates of happiness and their projection into the future to derive how the average of the environment's continuum might be changing over time. The small and virtually constant happiness in the earliest part of my simulated history forced me to accept the idea that the environment's continuum would largely be out of our control, represented by how much of it didn't overlap with the population's continuum. As the population has consumed more, corresponding to its growth in size, the overlap (control) has increased. Unfortunately, we are unable to continue this process for much longer, since the resources we depend on for that control are becoming harder to get and process.

The historical summary at the beginning of this post is my first attempt to assess how this new viewpoint relates to actual events, and the first evidence I can recall of a direct correspondence between my models and peak oil theory. What we may actually be seeing here is a glimpse into the difference in effects on consumption growth between energy supply and the depletion and degradation of the biosphere, which I expect to expand on further.


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