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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 nonetheless true.
  • 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 same place.
  • 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 Soylent Green.

  • 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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