Gaming Malthus with “Fate of the World”

I have submitted this to the Record-Bee for my December Green Chain column.


“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” – John Stuart Mill

In 1901, while searching for giant clams for dinner, a Greek sponge diver named Elias Stadiatos found an encrusted bronze device near the wreckage of a 2,100-year-old Roman merchant ship. It was discovered off the southern coast of Greece near Antikythera (an-ti-ki-theer-uh) Island, so it became known as the Antikythera mechanism. Sophisticated imaging has revealed its elaborate gears and the inscribed names of places and months. It is an orrery—a mechanical model of the solar system. In a letter, Cicero describes such a mechanism which, “at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon, and the five planets that take place in the heavens every day and night.” It also computed equinoxes, solstices, phases of the moon, and eclipses of the moon and sun and, as an added benefit, the timing of future Olympiads. The Antikythera mechanism was a computer.

Stadiatos dived for dinner and discovered the past, now you can dive into the dystopian future—which a new video game purports to reveal—unless you can prevent it. The scenario for Fate of the World (FotW) starts in the year 2020 when climate change induced disasters strike. Then the “World Environment Organization,” (a turbo-charged United Nations), makes you the climate czar to “decide how the world will respond to rising temperatures, heaving populations, dwindling resources, crumbling ecosystems and brave opportunities.” Here’s an example from a review in Britain’s Guardian:

“Put an emissions cap on a growing economy, stifling growth, and they’ll get fed up and throw your agency out of the area. Encourage investment and prosperity and there’ll soon be environmental consequences. Each turn sends you forward five years – and you’re informed as the game progresses of the many changes that take place in the world as temperatures increase.”

Gabion Rowlands of Red Redemption, the game’s development company, claims FotW provides realistic glimpses at scary futures because it relies on current scientific models. He believes climate change will cause “population issues, land issues, possibly resource wars, mass migration; a whole range of disasters and impacts, in fact.”

Color me skeptical.

I could point out that 98.5 per cent (210 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide (CO2 is the greenhouse gas most mentioned) entering the atmosphere comes from natural sources in the world’s carbon cycle, while people add only 1.5 per cent (3.2 billion metric tons) to the total.(Christy 2002) (The IPCC says the the human caused CO2 figure is 7.2. Still a small fraction of natural.)

I could point out global warming is not likely to precipitate world chaos; after all, using previous warm periods as guides, the earth should be wetter (because of greater evaporation from the oceans), with fewer droughts, with more drinking water, and with higher crops yields. (Ridley 2010)

And, I could point out that all the models use a positive feedback to amplify effects. Without these yet unproven feedbacks doubling CO2 produces a 1C degree change over the coming century—hardly cataclysmic. (Lindzen 2010)

I will point out FotW’s undercurrent of misanthropy—people are the problem. FotW beats a familiar rented mule: overpopulation. Boil down the babble, this drives FotW: lower the number of people and you lower the output of CO2 thus saving the world. One of the game’s producers posits that a player could fix things by deciding to decimate much of the planet’s population with an engineered super-virus. “The first thing to say about this is the obvious, that killing every last person in Africa would have less impact on climate change than getting Westerners to use 10% less energy.”

So that’s the idea: damage occurs in direct proportion to the number of people and their affluence and technology. More effluence with affluence. It is “not rocket science,” according to biologists Anne and Paul Ehrlich. “Two billion people, all else being equal, put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than one billion people. Two billion rich people disrupt the climate more than two billion poor people.” Which is why North Korea makes a shining example and Eden-esque paradise.

The idea of people being mere consumers and not innovative producers is probably as old as humanity. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote, “The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death (through famine, war, or disease must) visit the human race.” In other words, people breed until they exhaust all available food and all natural resources; so keeping human population in check is necessary. Note that in Malthus’s time, population stood just shy of one billion. Today it exceeds six billion.

Malthus went onto computer chips in 1972 when a think-group calling itself the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth.” It is based on World3, an MIT professor’s computer model. The code that girded World3 followed the precepts of Thomas Malthus. Author Peter Huber explains one of World3’s subroutines: “Agricultural investment increased agricultural output, which increased birthrate but also pollution; pollution decreased agricultural output, and so on.” Instead of predicting higher temperatures as FotW does, the Limits to Growth predicted crippling shortages of gold, mercury, tin, zinc, petroleum, copper, lead, and natural gas within a decade. The shortages never happened.

To me, FotW looks like Malthus on a computer chip again—it is misanthropy cloaked in science. They conjure climate change as the latest trump card requiring draconian remedies. And, for being ‘just’ a game, it’s serious stuff. According to an opinion piece in the journal Nature, “Over the past decade, evidence has grown that computer-based play can support learning in schools.” A British government study “found that students whose lessons included interactive games were more engaged in curriculum content and demonstrated deeper understanding of concepts than those who did not use games.”

Now I have no window into our future and we should not be complacent, but let us consider what has actually occurred on this earth—not a model—since 1970. Despite the world’s population nearly doubling since 1970: we are three times richer (in real terms); the percentage of people in abject poverty has dropped more than two-thirds; we are better fed (the average person in a developing country eats nearly one-third more calories); forests still cover 99% of what they did in 1970; known mineral reserves have not grown too scarce; and, rather than shrinking, petroleum and natural gas reserves have more than doubled and quadrupled respectively. By the way, the world’s population growth rate has been falling since the 1970s; it is not expected to double and reach 12 billion, ever.

The users of the Antikythera mechanism set their model of an earth-centric universe in motion by turning a crank. At the front, pointers indicated the future location and phase of the planets and sun and moon. Because they had the earth at the center, planets went into “retrograde,” that is they appeared to move backward in the heavens. The most learned minds fashioned the orrery to mimic the way they believed their celestial sphere worked. (Though many had speculated about a heliocentric system, it took more than 15 centuries to upend the old model with Copernicus declaring the sun to be the center of our solar system.)

So too, do World3 and FotW give flawed answers via their electronic gears and cogs.

I am recommending a “Don’t Buy” for Fate of the World. Get a DVD of the old Soylent Green instead; in 40 years FotW futures will look as realistic as that movie does now.

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Should there be a new way of living for the top one billion? – iPat edition redux

Steven Earl Salmony of the AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, commented on Dot Earth’s, “Do the Top Billion Need New Goals?

Dear Timberati,

Do you think there is any chance at all that Paul Ehrlich, despite his poor showing as prognosticator and gambler, will be shown to be one of the greatest scientists of all time?

After all Paul Ehrlich is the forerunner for recent research by Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel that appears to indicate with remarkable simplicity that human population dynamics are essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species.

Since many too many population experts remain silent about this research and blogmeisters associated with the mass media refuse to discuss the peer-reviewed evidence, perhaps you could take a look at it, make your comments, and encourage by your example others to do the same. You can find the article, Human Population Numbers as a Function of Food Supply, by Hopfenberg and Pimentel on the worldwide web or at the links below.
http://www.panearth.org/
http://sustainabilityscience.org…
http://sustainabilitysoutheast.org/

—-
Now I visited the panearth.org site and came away unconvinced and with a feeling that even if it’s well-meaning, it hates humans.

I replied:
Dear Steve,

No.

Paul Ehrlich will be no more right than Tertullian was 1810 years ago, no more right than was Malthus 212 years ago, no more right than was Forrester 38 years ago, no more right than was et. al.

Again, to quote Macauly, “On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

This ain’t my first rodeo.

I am NOT saying that feeding the 9.2 billion people that will inhabit this earth in 2075 will be a snap. Certainly not, especially if governments and greens try to keep agriculture in the mid 20th century. Yet it can be done as Norman Borlaug wrote a year or two before his death [ed note: here I’m incorrect, the quote is from 2002 and Borlaug died in 2009], “While challenging, the prospects are good that the world’s farmers will be able to provide a better diet at lower prices to more people in the future.” By the way, after the population peak, the UN (and other demographers) projects world population to fall.

Here’s the human race‘s track record so far:

“The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going rapidly upwards for 200 years and erratically upwards for 10,000 years before that: years of lifespan, mouthfuls of clean water, lungfuls of clean air, hours of privacy, means of travelling faster than you can run, ways of communicating farther than you can shout. This generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light years, nanometres, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles and, of course, cash than any that went before.” (The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley)

This, not despite free trade, but because of free trade.

However, according to the panearth.org slide show, food production increase = population growth, or put another way, “If you feed them, they will come.” I disagree. While true for most animals, as ecologists are wont to point out the boom/bust nature of animal populations and food supply, it’s not true for humans. The number of children per woman links much better to infant mortality (arguably, if you want to lower birth rate you would feed people better not feed them less). So, the healthier (and more urbanized and wealthier) we become, the fewer babies women produce. (See Gapminder.org graphs: http://bit.ly/bjGoVN http://bit.ly/clvx0p and http://bit.ly/9jcCDX Note Mauritius and Botswana) Panearth.org packages Malthus’s theory as Powerpoint. I fundamentally find the panearth.org solution morally repugnant. It’s wildly misanthropic in its neo-Malthusian demand that we not increase food production because that will fuel a population explosion.

And, as you well know, population growth is plummeting. Not one country has a higher birth rate now than it had in 1960.

“Most environmentalists still haven’t gotten the word,” writes Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog fame), “On every part of every continent and in every culture (even Mormon), birth rates are headed down. They reach replacement level and keep dropping.”

Again, I am not saying things will magically become better. I am saying that increasing the wealth of all and placing resources in the places where we (the top one billion) get the best bang for the buck makes sense to me.

What should we top one billion commit to? (List from the Copenhagen Consensus Center)

1 Micronutrient supplements for children (vitamin A and zinc) to combat malnutrition
2 Enact the Doha development agenda to promote free trade
3 Micronutrient fortification (iron and salt iodization) to combat malnutrition
4 Expand immunization coverage for children
5 Biofortification to combat malnutrition
6 Deworming and other nutrition programs at school to combat malnutrition and improve Education
7 Lowering the price of schooling
8 Increase and improve girl’s schooling
9 Community-based nutrition promotion to combat malnutrition
10 Provide support for women’s reproductive role

You and I may not be able to reach an understanding with this one. This may be a case of what Easterbrook terms, “The collective refusal to believe that life is getting better.” For me, not only is the glass half-full, there’s evidence that everyone will have more to drink soon.

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I doubt that I can change Dr Salmony’s mind. After all, he believes enough in the inevitability of the population implosion, (where humanity runs out of food and other resources causing a dramatic drop in numbers. Billions will perish) that he heads a campaign and now is in competition to get attention and funds.

I do hope to change the minds of some who visit Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog. Instead of contributing to, what to my mind is a misanthropic endeavor, that they consider one or all of these three charities: FARM-Africa, International Policy Network, AgBioWorld Foundation

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