Perpetual growth, The Red Queen’s Race and Soylent Green
(Harun I., July 1, 2008)
Current energy proposals by everyone, including both presidential candidates,
presuppose continued geometric growth of population is possible and desirable.
First a proviso: I would like to point out that we have to be careful about
confusing correlation and causation. There are countless examples of organisms,
plants, trees and even galaxies that exhibit geometric patterns of expansion. Human
expansion may follow the same rules. Therefore without exhaustive study on my part
of the nature of human expansion I cannot definitively say that cheap, energy dense
fuel and medical and industrial technology are causes of human expansion but may
only be correlated to it.
Meeting ever increasing energy needs may be possible, however, meeting
geometrically increasing food and water needs is not sustainable.
Medical science and industrial technology has turned off most of nature’s human
population controls with the most notable exception being unchecked growth itself.
Therefore we are framing the problem incorrectly. The real threat to human
existence is geometric population growth. This is may be unpleasant but it is
Food, Energy, Water and the Red Queen’s Race:
All attempts to solve the energy crisis from the only the supply side become
the Red Queen’s Race – we have to run faster and faster to stay in place. In 2030
it is estimated that the world’s energy needs will have increased by 50%.
The problem with more oil is that the time that it takes to be brought into
production will be offset by demand and increased demand. Which means the rate of
discovery would have to increase by some exponential function just to stay in the
Bio-fuels, nuclear power, cold fusion (?), etc. may stabilize the energy equation
(technology will save us), however, it then it allows population growth to expand on
its current geometric trajectory, which begins the Red Queen’s Race for food and
water resources which must be delivered progressively faster at ever larger quantities
– which, by the way, takes more energy.
Biomass, how much does the earth need to produce an atmosphere inhabitable by
human kind? The eventual question that will slap us the face is: How much can we
defoliate the earth before such actions create an ecological disaster, a vortex
from which human kind cannot escape? More simply, how much of the earth’s greenery
can we destroy before the byproducts of the process of photosynthesis (the
absorption of CO2 and the release of life supporting oxygen) is so degraded that
our atmosphere no longer supports human life? We must face the fact that human
expansion has finite limits.
Bio-fuels either reduce food production directly (corn to ethanol) or indirectly
by reducing arable acreage for food production. But the more food produced the more
population will grow and the greater need for greater food production. We are already
behind and nature either hasn’t read or doesn’t care about our playbook. We have lost
ground and must sprint in order not to lose any more.
Soylent Green, maybe not so fictitious after all: Soylent Green is a 1973 dystopian
science fiction movie depicting a bleak future in which overpopulation, pollution,
and the resulting severe damage to the environment have led to widespread unemployment
and poverty. Real fruit, vegetables, and meat are rare, commodities are expensive,
and much of the population survives on processed food rations, including
Conceived in 1966 and set in 2022, Soylent Green, based on the book Make Room!
Make Room!, gives us a peak at the price of improperly framing the problem, i.e.,
intellectual and physical resources will be misallocated and inadequate solutions
will be implemented leading to disaster. While we probably won’t wind up implementing
industrialized cannibalism (processed human wafers), civilization will be overwhelmed
to the point that the systems of civilized life will break down and cease to function
(a new Dark Age). I am not the first or only person to realize that we have already
mismanaged the situation to the point of being relegated to crisis management for
the foreseeable future, e.g., Mr. Kunstler’s The Long Emergency.
Framing the problem:
Overpopulation: around 1900 there were a billion people on the planet; today
there are 6 billion. This six fold growth, were it to happen over the next century,
and would lead to a population 36 billion people. This will be impossible to reach
of course but just a few more billion will be well beyond the earth’s carrying
capacity. How do we manage population growth?
Problem number two (or perhaps a subset of overpopulation) is industrial
development. Now that most industrial systems, including agriculture are energy
intensive rather than labor intensive, this allows us to use tomorrow’s resources
today. This is enjoyed by only a few countries, most notably the US.
Economic policies of perpetual growth lead to consumption of resources at
geometric rates. The trick for the US is to keep consuming the majority of the
world’s industrial output in return for nothing other than promissory notes with no
real value. Without finding ways to increase wages or increase the ability to expand
consumer debt this theory runs into predictable limits and problems.
In order for industrialized first world nations to maintain their standard of
living they must retard or arrest the development of the rest of the world while
convincing them to give up their resources (via force or trade (goods in exchange
for worthless currencies)). The alternative is for industrialization to go into
reverse as first world standards of living revert to the global mean. Central banks
cannot undo this.
If you believe this hypothesis to be correct I will leave solutions for the
reader to decide. I have thought about this and have implemented what I think are
appropriate actions for me to do as conscious and compassionate being. It should
not take laws to encourage us to do what in our best interests. There are tough
decisions to be made. We may not see the disaster in full bloom in our lifetime.
But if we open a National Geographic and see the emaciated, bloated stomachs of
African children and imagine our great grandchildren and their children facing
such a fate we will gladly make the hard choices.
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