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“It's one minute before 12.”
November 20, 2007 6:22 PM   Subscribe

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” (RealVideo) Al Bartlett, retired University of Colorado Professor of Physics, gives a stunning hour-long old-school lecture (overhead projector!) on exponential growth and its inevitable results.

The full title of the lecture is “Arithmetic, Population and Energy”, so yes, it does eventually deal with peak oil, but not until three-quarters of the way in. MP3, if you'd prefer an audio version. More from Barlett. Previous FPPs on the exponential function on the blue and the green.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul (83 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is there a transcript of the lecture? I don't want to watch an hour-long video.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:57 PM on November 20, 2007


This brings to mind the sage who wanted to be paid in grains of rice. One grain the first day, two grains the second day, four grains the third day...
posted by mullingitover at 7:12 PM on November 20, 2007


er, not each day, but for each square in a chessboard...2^64. You get the picture.
posted by mullingitover at 7:14 PM on November 20, 2007


Malthus is dead. Long live Malthus.
posted by datacenter refugee at 7:15 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


If there is not a transcript, why should I not conclude that the lecture was not worth transcribing, and therefore certainly not worth sitting through?
posted by gum at 7:17 PM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


I wish people would understand exponential growth just so they stop misusing the term.
posted by fleacircus at 7:18 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


The greatest shortcoming of the human race is a pretty big contest to be just going and naming a winner, isn't it? I'd vote for the capacity of self-deception, and/or the notion that faith is inherently virtuous, but the inability to understand the exponential function might make my top 10.
posted by finite at 7:19 PM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


Transcripts in English, French, and Spanish.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 7:20 PM on November 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


Complaints regarding lack of a transcript will grow exponentially.
posted by Tube at 7:20 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Or, until such time as I learn to use the Preview button...
posted by Tube at 7:25 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]



Transcripts in English, French, and Spanish.

Lovely, excellent, thanks!
posted by gum at 7:25 PM on November 20, 2007


Is there a non-RealAudio version? I tried to watch this a week or so ago and RA keeps crashing my machine.

He's given the lecture 1,545 times since 1969 (as of 2005), is this the only version on the web?
posted by stbalbach at 7:47 PM on November 20, 2007


Ok, found some YouTubish versions.

Since his first presentation in 1969, he has given the talk an average of about once every nine days. ("2005" link above)
posted by stbalbach at 7:51 PM on November 20, 2007


Just a few sentences into the above linked transcript, he says:
Well, you say, what's the exponential function? This is a mathematical function that you'd write down if you're going to describe the size of anything that was growing steadily.
What about things growing steadily at a linear rate?! I think he meant to say something like anything that was growing steadily at a rate which is a function of the current size, but maybe I just don't understand the exponential function. His main point is, after all, that we humans have an inability to do so. But, couldn't it be that professors' imprecise speech causes some of the confusion?
posted by finite at 7:54 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


One problem in this Malthusian arguement is that the Yea sayeers claimed that we continue to develop more and greater resources to take care of needs such as food etc no matter how large the population grows. Nay sayers such s E.O. Wilson note that more people not only eat up resources but make for more and more pollution and thus damaging the earth to the point where eventually it will eliminate itself. So it is not merely that Malthus was right about growth and food but that we can also see what further damage this growth entails, something Malthus did not consider.
posted by Postroad at 8:04 PM on November 20, 2007


Self deception is pretty broad but it doesn't make my top ten.

The inability/unwillingness to believe/behave as if we believed- that others have internal lives similar to our own.

The idea that being "the good guy" requires only that you be able to concoct a "good reason" for doing what ever you do. While not allowing "the bad guy" a similar license in acting on his "good reason."

The idea that evil people consider themselves to be evil people.

The idea that we are not the evil people.

The idea that we have earned the privileges we enjoy through anything other than an accident of fate.

The conflating of the preferable with the probable.

The tendency to assess risk based on how vividly it can be imagined.

The belief that what one is best at is most important.

The belief that each individual has a better idea what is true than his neighbor.

The idea that external factors have a more than trivial longterm impact on our happiness.

The idea that we ought to be happy and that there is something wrong with not being happy.
posted by I Foody at 8:06 PM on November 20, 2007 [25 favorites]


Within the first two minutes, he tells us how to calculate the doubling time, by taking 70% and dividing by the percent increase per time. That works ok for small values of the percent increase, but isn't very accurate for larger values.
posted by iconjack at 8:26 PM on November 20, 2007


Yawn.

Ladies and gents, I give you the Simon-Ehrlich wager.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:27 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


mullingitover & finite: You should read a bit further.

This is excellent, Bora Horza Gobuchul. Thanks. I haven't finshed reading yet, but here's the punchline for humanity:

Imagine you're a bacterium in a bottle of bacteria that are doubling their population every minute. The bottle is full in an hour. He asks when the bottle is half full. Answer: A minute before it's full. Sure, we know that. But flip it around:

And the second question: if you were an average bacterium in that bottle, at what time would you first realise you were running of space? Well, let’s just look at the last minutes in the bottle. At 12:00 noon, it’s full; one minute before, it’s half full; 2 minutes before, it’s a quarter full; then an eighth; then a sixteenth. Let me ask you, at 5 minutes before 12:00, when the bottle is only 3% full and is 97% open space just yearning for development, how many of you would realise there’s a problem?

Bingo.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:31 PM on November 20, 2007 [4 favorites]


He's given the lecture 1,545 times since 1969

It's a good thing that he stuck to the linear rather than the exponential, otherwise he'd never start another for want of finishing the former!

This is a good find, and is giving my brains a lot to chew on as regards to freedom vs. necessity and the "bacteria in a bottle" analogy. Reminds me of reading JG Ballard's "Billennium", in which he writes about a possible result of overpopulation. Also, I like I Foody's list and the discussion so far.
posted by Zack_Replica at 8:32 PM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


Exponential growth.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:57 PM on November 20, 2007


This Bartlett dude is a good presenter. Excellent lecture.
posted by iconjack at 9:00 PM on November 20, 2007


Now I know what 7% means.

the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand this very simple arithmetic.
posted by stbalbach at 9:17 PM on November 20, 2007


Hope all you folks with more than 2 kids pause to think a bit.

It's interesting to think in my lifetime this will probably come to a head.
posted by maxwelton at 9:24 PM on November 20, 2007


Cool Papa Bell, you might want to re-read that wikipedia entry with a slightly more cynical disposition. It's a well-balanced article, and makes several good points:
  1. Relatively short-term bets on commodity prices was a foolish wager.
  2. Simon is essentially saying that human ingenuity is infinite: that we will always be able to finagle our way out of scarcity (in his lecture, Bartlett puts up a quote from Simon to the effect of "Oil is a product of the sun, and I'm pretty sure there's other suns around, so we'll just use those if the oil ever runs out.") Part of Bartlett's thesis is also that our solutions and fixes cause more problems long-term than they solve, and create an unsustainable spiral of ever-increasing complexity.
  3. Simon has turned down other bets since then.
To be clear, I'm not a complete doomer. But over the long term I'd rather bet on the exponential function than "Oh, we'll find something to replace it".
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 9:43 PM on November 20, 2007


Hope all you folks with more than 2 kids pause to think a bit. It's interesting to think in my lifetime this will probably come to a head.

Huh? Are you kidding?

These days anybody paying the least amount of attention knows that world population is levelling off and will begin dropping pretty soon.

In fact, too rapidly decreasing of a population will start becoming a problem in certain areas like Russia and Japan.

1972 called and wants its overpopulation panic back. Sheesh.
posted by Justinian at 9:47 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


The problem with this is that human population over the long run doesn't grow according to an exponetial function. The largest bursts in population where driven by cultural changes, first agriculture and then the industrial revolution. Simple Malthusianism is far to limited an analysis for something as complicated as the entire human population.
posted by afu at 9:47 PM on November 20, 2007



These days anybody paying the least amount of attention knows that world population is levelling off and will begin dropping pretty soon.


Oh, bullshit.

Setting aside nuclear holocaust, asteroid collision, mystery plague, and other cataclysmic variables, cite a study, even a preposterous one, that concludes that world population "will begin dropping pretty soon."
posted by gum at 10:07 PM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


CPB wrote: Yawn.

Ladies and gents, I give you the Simon-Ehrlich wager.


First of all, the fact that Ehrlich is the poster-child for bad predictions doesn't mean that overpopulation is a myth. I swear to god, if we're all sitting around one day in a world of 30 billion people, covered in our own filth, somebody will cry out "But Ehrlich was wrong! Obviously we can't be overpopulated!"

Put Ehrlich to bed. He's done.

Overpopulation isn't some kind of liberal-Marxist conspiracy to encourage abortions or build national parks or whatever. It's math.

It's math.

There was a thread a while back where the conversation turned to China's exponential growth and rising standard of living. I pointed out that at China's current standard of living, they were already using as much energy as the entirety of Europe, and we're in the process of building two coal-fired power plants per week. Although I'm not smart enough to do the calculations myself, I figured that it would take something like a Star Trek level of technology to raise China to anything near an American (or even Eastern European) standard of living. I made fun of the people who would just wave their hands and say "The Market will take care of it!".

Sure enough, they came. People started talking about economic levels of fusion power or orbiting microwave satellites. And yet those of us who realize the power of exponential population growth are derided for having "blind faith" in "something never proven".

At any level of exponential growth, even a fucking Earth-first wet dream of 1% per year, we will eventually run out of energy, food, room to grow or all of the above. It'll take a long time, of course, but it will happen. "But....but.....technology! We have technology! The future will be great! We'll have jetpacks and lasers 'n shit!!"

Great. Help me cook up some of these semiconductors -- I hear they're real tasty. The fact that our level of computing power doubles every two years doesn't mean that our population can do the same. You can't lithograph more humans per square nanometer with increasing efficiency. Read this paragraph from Bartlett:

"Boulder in 70 years could be as big as Boston is today if we just grew 2.58% per year. Now, if we thought Detroit was a better model, we’ll have to shoot for 3.14% per year. Remember the historic figure on the preceding slide, 6% per year? If that could continue for one lifetime, the population of Boulder would be larger than the population of Los Angeles. Well, I’ll just tell you, you couldn’t put the population of Los Angles in the Boulder valley. Therefore it’s obvious, Boulder’s population growth is going to stop and the only question is, will we be able to stop it while there is still some open space, or will we wait until it’s wall-to-wall people and we’re all choking to death?"

All the semiconductors, improved agriculture and processing power in the world is not going to make a Los Angeles-sized Boulder, CO possible -- or even worth living in -- if it were possible.

At the end of the day, we need to confront the fact that eventually the party is going to be over. Thats what this argument is really about. It's an argument between people who think that we're running out of booze real fast, and should therefore think about sobering up and going home, versus the people who aren't worried because we'll always find an extra bottle of booze somewhere in the kitchen, or that our methods of pouring drinks will become infinitely efficient so that the party can continue forever in perpetuity.

Whether or not the party ends at midnight or 6am is immaterial. It will end, and the hangover is really going to hurt.
posted by Avenger at 10:23 PM on November 20, 2007 [13 favorites]


Well does 2050 count as soon?

Overpopulation is mainly a problem in Asia. Europe and Africa both have an under population problem due to old age disease respectively.

I agree with pretty much everything in the talk. I just think our main problem is over consumption, not over population.
posted by afu at 10:37 PM on November 20, 2007


The quote that kicks off this post was cited in the subject of another excellent Mefi math post back in 2006. (On my birthday, it seems.)
posted by samh23 at 10:46 PM on November 20, 2007


Europe and Africa both have an under population problem due to old age disease respectively

Europe and Africa have their highest population levels in human history, and both continue to grow, though at somewhat reduced rates. That this somehow filtered down to you as "an under population problem" is proof positive that Dr. Bartlett's premise of gobstoppingly lethal ignorance is correct.
posted by gum at 11:05 PM on November 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


"our" inability? Speak for yourself, buster, I haven't had too much trouble with it.
posted by delmoi at 11:31 PM on November 20, 2007


And the second question: if you were an average bacterium in that bottle, at what time would you first realise you were running of space? ... when the bottle is only 3% full and is 97% open space just yearning for development, how many of you would realise there’s a problem?

Do these bacteria have Google earth?

Look, most predictions show the earth's population peaking at some point in the next few decades, then declining. The idea that we are going to just keep growing exponentially just seems kind of silly, at some point the growth must stop. And speaking of Google earth, it looks like there's plenty of room to grow around boulder. Maybe I'm wrong, but either way there are more people in NYC then LA, and they do it without too much space.
posted by delmoi at 11:41 PM on November 20, 2007


“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

That's a bold claim, but extend it to a poor ability to conceptualize math generally and you explain all kinds of superstition, poor planning, and inability to make rational decisions beyond the short term. I can't seemingly go a single day without hearing someone argue against coincidence, confuse correlation with causation -- or ignore correlation where actually appropriate because it isn't causation. It goes on and on.
posted by dreamsign at 11:45 PM on November 20, 2007


I was under the impression that the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the Time Cube.
posted by milnak at 12:24 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


The thing is, we don't have enough resources right now to support the world's population with a first-world lifestyle.

Can you imagine how wealthy society would be over the world if there were only 1 billion humans, instead of 7 billion? Nearly all of our problems would evaporate overnight. 1 billion people living in cities and small towns, managing their waste and energy use would have an almost invisible footprint on the planet compared to the one we have today.

Under-population is a myth propagated by real-estate agents and their ilk. Imagine you make a comfortable living selling hardware in a town of 1,000 people. Why do you need to sell to 1,050 the next year and 1,100 the next?

In any case, nature will take care of this, in a brutal way, eventually. One worldwide crop failure and arms dealers won't be able to manufacture ammunition fast enough.
posted by maxwelton at 1:20 AM on November 21, 2007 [3 favorites]


Yep. I've occasionally had brief waking nightmares in which I daydream of an entire economy starving at its computer keyboards.
posted by pax digita at 1:44 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Anybody else flash on this?

"I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I've realized that you are not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment. But you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague."
posted by pax digita at 2:14 AM on November 21, 2007


Can you imagine how wealthy society would be over the world if there were only 1 billion humans, instead of 7 billion?

Well I'm going to do my bit and kill the Brady Bunch.

I just hope the rest of you pick six other assholes and get cracking too.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:38 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


delmoi wrote: "Look, most predictions show the earth's population peaking at some point in the next few decades, then declining. The idea that we are going to just keep growing exponentially just seems kind of silly, at some point the growth must stop. And speaking of Google earth, it looks like there's plenty of room to grow around boulder. Maybe I'm wrong, but either way there are more people in NYC then LA, and they do it without too much space."

Firstly, Bartlett isn't saying that the population is going to grow infinitely. He's saying that we basically have two choices: lower our own population/consumption voluntarily or have nature do it for us. The first option is generally considered more preferable than the second.

Secondly, yes, there's lots of land around Boulder, CO. Lots and lots. But not really. Not with exponential growth. Remember the bacteria in the bottle? It's 11:59 and they've got a whole half bottle to expand into. Things are looking great! What could possibly go wrong?

But we don't need to worry about Boulder ever becoming the size of LA. We don't need to worry because the residents would either starve to death or die of thirst before that happened. California (mostly southern California agriculture) already uses more than 50% of the water that flows into the southern Colorado river. The really disturbing part of that stat is that most of the water delivered to California gets used to grow alfalfa for beef and dairy production. We use all that water to help us raise cattle and have you even seen the price of milk and steak lately? It's still going up.

So where are we going to get the water to grow the hay to feed the cattle to feed the new 10 million citizens of Mega-City Boulder? Nowhere. Because it's not there. It will never be there. Not at our standard of living, anyway. Maybe if, by some incredible miracle of science, we developed a way for people to live on nothing but ultra-low-hydrated tofu and algae pills and living in mile-high skyscrapers (heated by what? oil?), maybe then we could talk about 6% growth for another 70 years. But not until then.

"Well, maybe you’re wondering, does it make any sense to imagine that we can have steady growth in the rate of consumption of a resource till the last bit of it was used, then the rate of consumption would plunge abruptly to zero? I say no, that doesn't make sense. Okay, you say, why bother us with the calculation of this expiration time? My answer is this: every segment of our society, our business leaders, government leaders, political leaders, at the local level, state level, national level—every one aspires to maintain a society in which all measures of material consumption continue to grow steadily, year after year after year, world without end."

Pass the algae.
posted by Avenger at 2:51 AM on November 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Read the article I linked to, it's about the UN population projection, I don't think they can be dismissed as Realtors.

"The detailed projections for individual countries show 33 countries with smaller populations in 2050 than today. Japan is expected to be 14 per cent smaller; Italy 22 per cent; and a slew of eastern European countries, including Russia and Ukraine, will see their populations crash by between 30 and 50 per cent."

Human population growth is not as simple as bacteria in a jar. The age demographics of the population are extremely important. This is why China continues to grow despite the one child policy, so many young people. And it is why Europe and Japan are fucked by under population, not enough young people to support the old ones.

Can you imagine how wealthy society would be over the world if there were only 1 billion humans, instead of 7 billion?

I can imagine it, but it has nothing to do with current reality, and the only way we would get to a world of 1 billion people would involve such a catastrophe that I find it repugnant to consider it as an ideal goal.

If the population tops out at around 10 billion, which is likely, we do have enough food to feed everybody, which is why I say over population is not a problem. However we do not have the resources for them to all live at an American standard of living; We have an over consumption problem
posted by afu at 2:55 AM on November 21, 2007


Never mind living with a first world lifestyle: agricultural production is now declining/stagnating in countries like India, the Philippines - the effects of the Green Revolution seem to have peaked. A lot of the discussion seems to be about a new agricultural revolution introducing GMOs (called, with a horrible inevitability, the 'gene revolution') but Monsanto et al are pushing improved cash crops not the staples. The public research guys, plus Swaminathan and some of the old green revolution heroes, are clinging on to the hope that science is going to save them. The farmers suiciding because inputs are too expensive seem less convinced.
posted by YouRebelScum at 3:17 AM on November 21, 2007


We'll get at least another couple of minutes from our arcologies.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:38 AM on November 21, 2007


I've beaten this drum before, but my favorite analogy is the Lily Pond. Only we're semi-intelligent lillies arguing that there is plenty of room left in the pond and we shouldn't worry. Other lillies argue that The Great Planter who put them in the Pond in the first place want them to spread without regard to circumstance. Slightly smarter lillies figure that we will stumble upon some kind of advanced lily technology that will make the pond bigger.

Life's pretty rough when you realize the only hope for the lily civilization as a whole is to have some renegade concoct a fast-spreading, slow-killing, incurable and particularly lethal plague with a sort of HIV + polio + Spanish Flu twist.
posted by adipocere at 4:57 AM on November 21, 2007


What have you got against the lilies?
posted by effwerd at 6:00 AM on November 21, 2007


And it is why Europe and Japan are fucked by under population, not enough young people to support the old ones.

Japan is under-populated? One of the most densely-populated large countries on the planet? Which has to import 60% of its food? Really?

Human population growth is not as simple as bacteria in a jar.

Sure. For example, the bacteria aren't smart enough to start killing each other with guns and machetes when resources get scarce.
posted by sfenders at 6:14 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Look, the pond is only half full of frogs today, who knows what it's going to be like tomorrow?
posted by Smedleyman at 6:18 AM on November 21, 2007


The idea that we are going to just keep growing exponentially just seems kind of silly

Not at all. Your missing the point, which is not only is population rising, but the resource usage per-capita is rising. Bartlett says the country with the worst population problem in the world is the US because we use more resources than anyone else. So, one person in the USA is like 30 people in India. Resource usage is projected, gleefully and happily, to continue rising in the form of year-on-year GNP growth, all of which takes energy and resources. So the problem is not only population (number of cars on the road) but the resource usage (average MPG gas usage).

Lets put it this way. If world population was 0%, but global GNP growth was 5%, we would still run out of resources and be overpopulated - the problem is not really population per-se, but how much resources we use per capita. Economic growth, rising GNP etc.. all that has limits.
posted by stbalbach at 6:41 AM on November 21, 2007


Isn't the worship of the infinite essentially a form of pre-mathematical respect for exponentialism?
posted by DenOfSizer at 6:59 AM on November 21, 2007


Japan is under-populated? One of the most densely-populated large countries on the planet? Which has to import 60% of its food? Really?

Maybe under population is the wrong word, but if japan had more young people, the general outlook for their economy and standard of living would be much better than it is before. My point was just that it is stupid to look at human populations like bacteria in petri dishes.

I pretty much agree with you. I'm just skeptical of over population arguments for first world countries because they are often used together with anti immigration arguments. Anti consumption arguments, which basically address the same issue, I find much more useful and practical.
posted by afu at 7:06 AM on November 21, 2007


How can I save the video on my computer?
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:30 AM on November 21, 2007


Assuming 4.5% interest (which is actually the average interest rate paid by the US Govt, which should be low) and a continuing current account deficit of 6% of GDP + the carrying costs for previous debt, in 40 years the interest charges on foreign debt will equal 100% of US GDP. In other words, it won't be that long before Americans are working exclusively to pay off the interest on the debt they owe to China.

People who think the dollar won't continue to drop don't understand the exponential function either.
posted by bonecrusher at 8:57 AM on November 21, 2007


"In other words, it won't be that long before Americans are working exclusively to pay off the interest on the debt they owe to China."

And people who say this don't understand money.
They debt the US owes China will be paid back in one day. With one ounce of silver...
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:03 AM on November 21, 2007


. . .or a Liberty Dollar.
posted by flotson at 9:52 AM on November 21, 2007


Maybe under population is the wrong word, but if japan had more young people, the general outlook for their economy and standard of living would be much better than it is before.

You still don't quite get it. Yes, there are a lot of economists screaming about how we're facing this negative growth crisis, but that's because the economic system is predicated on exactly the kind of permanent expontential growth that this lecture is cautioning about.

Trust me, the impact of having too few young people / too many old people for a few decades is going to be a hell of a lot smaller than the impact of exhausting the earth's resources due to overpopulation. Neither is a good thing... the first is a big problem in the short term, but the latter is a huge catastrophe in the long term.

Nobody's saying that reducing population growth is painless, but it's a whole lot better than the alternative.
posted by reborndata at 9:56 AM on November 21, 2007 [4 favorites]


It's an argument between people who think that we're running out of booze real fast, and should therefore think about sobering up and going home, versus the people who aren't worried because we'll always find an extra bottle of booze somewhere in the kitchen, or that our methods of pouring drinks will become infinitely efficient so that the party can continue forever in perpetuity.

Or, it's an argument that we don't need booze at all, because some smart guy comes up with a different way to party, which is really the essence of the Simon wager.

Your missing the point, which is not only is population rising, but the resource usage per-capita is rising.

And you're missing the point, that both population and usage-per-capita don't have to rise forever. In fact, as we see with Europe, that population growth rates are stagnant, or even negative, as women gain more control over their bodies and destinies, and sustainable growth practices (Prius, anyone? Nuclear energy, anyone?) start to come online.

It's all getting better, not worse. It's not getting better at the same rate everywhere. But it's getting better. It will always get better.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:58 AM on November 21, 2007


Thinking about populations and growing numbers is evil. That way is udjennix.
posted by vertriebskonzept at 10:01 AM on November 21, 2007


"Can you imagine how wealthy society would be over the world if there were only 1 billion humans, instead of 7 billion? Nearly all of our problems would evaporate overnight. 1 billion people living in cities and small towns, managing their waste and energy use would have an almost invisible footprint on the planet compared to the one we have today."

because wealth is solely based on populatuion. Our ancestors in 1850 were all much wealthier than we are today. In fact, everything in 1850 was better than it is today.

I don't see anyone in the thread saying that exponential growth of human population or consumption would be bad. I do see people questioning if that correctly models human population, and a lot of analogies that show that it's bad if it's true but not that it's actually true.
posted by garlic at 10:51 AM on November 21, 2007


Garlic, I was hopefully implying that today's technology and resources shared among 1 billion, not 1850's.
posted by maxwelton at 11:04 AM on November 21, 2007


maxwelton -- I don't think robot butlers and landscapers and factory workers are advanced enough for this fantasy of yours.
posted by garlic at 11:41 AM on November 21, 2007


Or, it's an argument that we don't need booze at all, because some smart guy comes up with a different way to party, which is really the essence of the Simon wager.

Substitutability doesn't cover water or fertilizer. Nor does it magically create the infrastructure needed for use of material B over the now exhausted material A.

We're pretty close to peak agricultural output, I think. We can cram a lot more people in, for a while, as it's certainly possible for people to live without a home and survive on 800 calories a day.
posted by MillMan at 11:45 AM on November 21, 2007


Oh, bullshit.

Setting aside nuclear holocaust, asteroid collision, mystery plague, and other cataclysmic variables, cite a study, even a preposterous one, that concludes that world population "will begin dropping pretty soon."


Oh, bullshit yourself. Do some damn research.

Here is a starting point, from the united nations. Going to write off the UN economic and social affiairs population division as "preposterous"?

UN Population Projections

As you can see, the low and middle range estimates have world population starting to drop just before and just after 2050, respectively. The middle variant predicts it will then level off again and stay constant but that's, of course, just a wild guess.

The high variant is a "worst case scenario" that requires world fertility rates to suddenly reverse the current trend of dropping below replacement. There is no sign of that occuring.

This is a solved problem; educate people, particularly women, and they stop popping out babies every other year for two decades. And, as others have pointed out, in some places the lack of babies is more of a problem than the reverse. See e.g. Russia, Japan.

There's a reason Japan is pouring so much money into robotics research. It's because in the not-too-distant future they are going to have far more elderly people than they have young people to care for them in a reasonable fashion, and they are turning to robotics as one possible salvation.

So, you want to post a mea culpa now or what?
posted by Justinian at 11:58 AM on November 21, 2007


We're pretty close to peak agricultural output, I think.

I'm glad you think that. Now go to Washington D.C. and see if you can do something about that farm bill designed to STOP U.S. farmers from overproducing, year after year.

Peak agricultural output. Heh. We live in a country where people get paid NOT to grow corn.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:06 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Cool Papa Bell: "sustainable growth"

Very funny.

Peak agricultural output. Heh. We live in a country where people get paid NOT to grow corn.

The article you link to is from 2003. Back then, failing to recognize that world food production was going to fail to keep up with demand would've been excusable. Today, not so much.
posted by sfenders at 12:20 PM on November 21, 2007


Back then, failing to recognize that world food production was going to fail to keep up with demand would've been excusable.

Well, sort of. On the other hand, this was published back in 1999. Most of the problems mentioned have just gotten worse since then.
posted by sfenders at 12:23 PM on November 21, 2007


The article you link to is from 2003. Back then, failing to recognize that world food production was going to fail to keep up with demand would've been excusable. Today, not so much.

I'm happy that you feel so good about yourself. But sorry, failing to see the forest for the trees and understanding historical trends is your sin. Overproduction has always, and will always, be the biggest economic problem for modernized farming. Hunger is a problem of distribution, not sourcing. In the U.S., the poorest people are the fattest.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:35 PM on November 21, 2007


This inevitable historical trend you speak of stretches all the way from about 1974 to 2003. We're going to need a second green revolution if it's to continue.

We live in a country where people get paid NOT to grow corn.

I mean, have you looked at the price of agricultural commodities lately? I think it's pretty widely-known by now that it no longer pays to use land to not grow corn.
posted by sfenders at 1:32 PM on November 21, 2007


Justinian, I heard about that report a ways back on NPR.

In terms of decreases it deals mostly with Western Nations and the demographics there. Populations in China, India, Indonesia and Africa are all projected to keep growing for a while yet. Note use of the words "probably" and "speculation."

So we could reach, by the modest projection, over 8 billion by 2150.

The report concludes, among other things, that that is not sustainable. And that is WHY there will population contractions.
posted by tkchrist at 1:41 PM on November 21, 2007


PS. It's NOT good news.
posted by tkchrist at 1:43 PM on November 21, 2007


Cool Papa Bell: Find a report on how many acres of land are being paid by the government to not be farmed. Compare to the number of acres used to grow corn worldwide.
posted by MillMan at 1:48 PM on November 21, 2007


PS. It's NOT good news.

That depends on what you consider "good news", doesn't it? It's news that's a heck of a lot better than constantly increasing population with no end in sight. It's news that's better than a crashing population.

The population in the next century is going to be higher than it is now with growth declining to about zero in about fifty years and probably going into a small population decline.

Compared to what people were predicting 30 years ago, that sounds like fan-fucking-tastic news to me. Are there going to be problems? Absolutely. But they are solvable ones. I'm not sure what population projection could be better than "growth is leveling off and we'll soon achieve approximately replacement level birthrates".

Continued growth? Worse. Crash? Worse.
posted by Justinian at 3:25 PM on November 21, 2007


It may be fun-fucking-tastic compared to Club of Rome predictions 40 years ago, but it is still the largest-scale disaster in human history -- it's just unfolding more slowly than we once thought. (Or so we presently think -- those 2000-2001 UN projections do not account for more recent, gloomier news about how quickly and significantly climate change may curtail the petrofertilized monocrop agriculture they depend upon. We may yet crash out at a lower peak population than we presently anticipate.)

The whole point of the OP is that exponential population growth gets us to the threshold of unsustainability, wherever it is, unless resources always grow at an exponentially greater rate and externalities (climate change, failure to substitute for critical nonrenewable resources, and so on) fail to transform the equation. Contraception, female wage labor, industrial agriculture, and the welfare state slowed the function. Now global climate change and growing energy scarcity may hasten it.

Either way, it's still an exponential path to the threshold of unsustainability. That's not a happy equilibrium, it's the tipping point to pure disaster.
posted by gum at 7:33 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Find a report on how many acres of land are being paid by the government to not be farmed.

Hmm, I found it. Interesting. Quite a lot of land actually. An area about 2% of the world's acreage planted to grains. Of course, not all of it is actually suitable for planting grains. Still there's probably a few more million acres there. Add in whatever reserve land there might be in other places around the world (Europe recently decided to reduce their set-aside land to zero) and you might find enough to keep up with another year or two of population growth, if there wasn't already a bit of a deficit of supply.
posted by sfenders at 8:39 PM on November 21, 2007


I live in a city, that for most of the last couple of decades, has been right up there with population growth - close to the highest in the world.

I remember a drought that was pretty bad - lasted 5 years - when I was younger, and the population in this area was around 500,000. The dams got down to 50%, it was TERRIBLE.

Today, after a drought of 7 years, with a population of 1.5million or so, we are looking at 18% in the dam. It's only been two more years - what's changed?

The number of people drawing on this scarce resource. We are down to water restrictions that specify 140L per person per day total water usage. *IF* this target is met, and there are no problems with construction, the recycling plant should be built just in time to keep us from running out of water entirely.

And people are rejoicing that our fertility rate is up, there's a land shortage, and more people move into this area every day. People are bitching about having to install rainwater tanks in new houses, low-flow showerheads and toilets, and the like.

This is not sustainable. We simply don't have the water. It just isn't there. It will not be there magically tomorrow. This area, with this climate, and this culture, simply cannot support more people. It is not possible. Unless, of course, you want to give up sanitation.

We've reached peak water here. The most population we can support is the amount we can support during a drought.

Oh, did I mention - this area is also prone to bushfires?
posted by ysabet at 8:48 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Life's pretty rough when you realize the only hope for the lily civilization as a whole is to have some renegade concoct a fast-spreading, slow-killing, incurable and particularly lethal plague with a sort of HIV + polio + Spanish Flu twist.

What is it about these kinds of threads that brings out the little wannabe Hitlers. God damn.

Assuming 4.5% interest (which is actually the average interest rate paid by the US Govt, which should be low) and a continuing current account deficit of 6% of GDP + the carrying costs for previous debt, in 40 years the interest charges on foreign debt will equal 100% of US GDP. In other words, it won't be that long before Americans are working exclusively to pay off the interest on the debt they owe to China.

I think there is an old saying that goes something like "If you owe your bank a million dollars, they own you. If you owe your bank a billion dollars you own them"

In other words, if we can just not pay them. Or just devaluate our currency faster then our interest rate. Speaking of which, have you noticed any currencies devaluating lately?
posted by delmoi at 9:43 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm coming late into this conversation, but I feel the need to quote one of the great thinkers of last century:
"Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell."
-Edward Abbey
posted by Hactar at 12:39 AM on November 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


Hactar, exactly. What I always wonder, when reading threads like this, is this: Why the hell does the economy always have to post growth? What would happen if one year, there was no "economic growth"?

Pardon me for my lack of economics knowledge, but this is something I really don't understand. Is all investment, and thus the entire world economy really just a giant bet predicated on the idea that growth will continue relatively unchecked forever? Is that the lie that they've sold us?
posted by limeonaire at 9:50 AM on November 22, 2007


Is all investment, and thus the entire world economy really just a giant bet predicated on the idea that growth will continue relatively unchecked forever?

More or less, yes, it is. This is why it's called investment. Obviously, no one makes investments expecting them to fail.

This is what makes the world go round -- the expectation that your work will be rewarded by something you consider more valuable than the time and effort you put into it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:10 AM on November 22, 2007


Singularity will save us. Pay attention to your exponents!
posted by blue_beetle at 10:37 AM on November 22, 2007


Overproduction has always, and will always, be the biggest economic problem for modernized farming. Hunger is a problem of distribution, not sourcing. In the U.S., the poorest people are the fattest.

Actually, the biggest problem for modernized farming right now is where to get water for crops. Corn is a very high water use crop, higher than soybeans or cotton. Add to that that increasing ethanol production in the US may be threatening corn as a human food crop, and that meat producers in the US are bracing for increased feed costs and lower cattle weights and profitability, and the outlook seems much less rosy.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:42 AM on November 22, 2007


Another, even more depressing way to think about this claim: pick a random bacteria from the jar, before the maximum population was hit. When, in the history of that bacterial society, was it most likely to have been alive? Answer: right before the maximum was hit (and ensuing problems began). Given that we don't seem to have hit the human population peak yet, the fact that you were born at this point in human history, may serve as circumstantial evidence for you that we'll be hitting the maximum soon.
posted by gsteff at 3:29 PM on November 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


What I always wonder, when reading threads like this, is this: Why the hell does the economy always have to post growth? What would happen if one year, there was no "economic growth"?

First of all, we do have years of no growth or even negative growth, when the economy is in recession. But I think maybe what you're asking is, why do we see economic growth most of the time. One reason is increased population. In 1950, U.S. population was about 150 million. In 2000, it was about 280 million. But that is not the whole story. In 1950, U.S. GDP was about $1.5 trillion (source). In 1998, it was about $7.5 trillion. So a population that didn't quite double in size saw its GDP increase almost fivefold. The main explanation I've heard for this discrepancy is an increase in productivity, which in turn is a result of companies competing against each other to make money more efficiently. It's debatable how good this is for the human spirit, of course. But this competition-driven productivity growth has been going on for a while, and seems likely to continue.
posted by A dead Quaker at 6:35 PM on November 22, 2007


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