The Bet

 

The Malthusian catastrophe simplistically illu...

The Malthusian catastrophe simplistically illustrated. For Malthus, as population increases exponentially while food production can only increase linearly, a point where food supply is inadequate will at some point be reached. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development‘s Brundtland Report (1987), Our Common Future, defined sustainable development‘s path as

“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It sounds simple. But how do we judge “the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”?  In fact, the Bruntland Report drafters believed the present was robbing the future due to our consumption (largely due to our rising population). The idea that we are spoiling the earth with our numbers and the earth/mother nature responding harshly is anything but new.

In the third century, Tertullian wrote,

“Most convincing as evidence of populousness, we men have actually become a burden to the earth, the fruits of nature hardly suffice to sustain us, there is a general pressure of scarcity giving rise to complaints, since the earth can no longer support us. Need we be astonished that plague and famine, warfare and earthquake come to be regarded as remedies, serving, as it were to trim and prune the superfluity of population.”

In the 18th century Thomas Malthus wrote,

“The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.”


In the 20th century Paul R. Ehrlich wrote,

Image credit: Amazon


“[within a decade] the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” – Ehrlich, 1968

 

In 2000, United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development codified a new charter to guide the transition to sustainable development. It stated:

The dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species. Communities are being undermined. The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Injustice, poverty, ignorance, and violent conflict are widespread and the cause of great suffering. An unprecedented rise in human population has overburdened ecological and social systems. The foundations of global security are threatened. These trends are perilous—but not inevitable.
United Nations, Earth Charter, 1987

In 1980, the late Julian Simon, an economist, famously posed a bet to environmentalists that the price of any raw material would decline indefinitely. (The price of a material indicates its abundance, the more abundant it is the cheaper it is.) Ehrlich took the bet. Ronald Bailey wrote about it in his book EcoScam, “In October 1980, Ehrilch and Simon drew up a futures contract obligating Simon to sell Ehrlich the same quantities which could be purchased for $1,000 of five metals (copper, chrome, nickel, tin, and tungsten) ten years later as 1980 prices. If the combined prices rose above $1,000, Simon would pay the difference. If they fell below $1,000, Ehrlich would pay Simon. Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $576.07 in October 1990.” The bet has now been documented in a book by Paul Sabin.

New York Times writer, John Tierney made his own bet on oil prices in 2005; “not because I knew much about Saudi oil production or the other ‘peak oil’ arguments that global production was headed downward. I was just following a rule learned from a mentor and a friend, the economist Julian L. Simon.” That rule was to have ‘skin in the game.’

As the leader of the Cornucopians, the optimists who believed there would always be abundant supplies of energy and other resources, Julian [Simon] figured that betting was the best way to make his argument. Optimism, he found, didn’t make for cover stories and front-page headlines. – John Tierny

Yes, our lives are sustainable. Despite the finite nature of everything we use. Stuff become resources when we (as a species) decide that the previous useless stuff now has value when used for energy, food, fertilizer, beauty, circuit boards, etc. And that realization occurs when we exchange ideas. Because we trade goods and services, the cross-fertilization of ideas happens as part of commerce.

As I have written before, it will be technological change (caused by trade) that makes the world more habitable for all its species, and not decisions to go without. Consider:

  • Land was freed up from agricultural production not by eating less meat, but by using machines for farming (since machines don’t need pasture).
  • It was the discovery of how to use coal, instead of wood, to power machines that saved forests, not from deciding to use less wood.
  • More land was freed up by making each acre more productive via synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, not by fasting once a week.
  • Whales were saved from extinction, not by lowering the amount of whale oil one bought, but by people buying the newer and more affordable kerosene (derived from coal) for lighting.
  • Even habitats can benefit from trade. According to Susan Hecht writing in the publication, Nature, El Salvador’s forests have increased, not shrunk, due to globalization, Salvadoreans working abroad send remittances to relatives so they no longer have to clear forests for subsistence farming.

In the 1970s, Ehrlich and Barry Commoner simply repackaged the classic Malthusian catastrophe into a formula to make it look sciency: I = P × A × T (where I = Environmental Impact, P = Population, A = Affluence, T = Technology).

Well two can play at that game: I = P × A/T.  There, it’s all sciency.

I recommend the post, “Peak Everything” by Ronald Bailey.

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As we gallop toward 7 billion people, what can yeast teach us about population?

Love in the key of fermentation

This was written during February, the month with Valentine’s Day, which leads our thoughts to yeasts. Okay well, love. But love can lead to sex, and that leads to reproduction. Yeasts may not know about love, but they do know reproduction. So do we humans: our population here on planet earth will pass seven billion sometime this fall.

While making our bread dough rise or fermenting our potent potables, yeast eat and eat and eat, burping carbon dioxide and excreting alcohol as they go. Along with eating and excreting, they reproduce and reproduce and reproduce. While yeasts’ ability to double its population are infinite, its food supply and its environment are not. When they run out of food or poison their environment, they die as quickly as they bred.

The Reverend Thomas Malthus might have been thinking of yeast when he wrote an “Essay on Population” in 1798. The rev fretted that the human population could grow geometrically while our food supply could grow only arithmetically. We would, just as yeast do, grow too rapidly, and overtake our food supply (or poison our environment), thereby loosing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with their deadly scythes of war and high food prices (The book of Revelations speaks of a “quart of wheat” costing a day’s wages). After which, as they say on the cartoon series, Futurama, “We’re boned.”

You might well argue that we have more sense than one-celled organisms (then again, if you have seen such television shows as “Jersey Shore” or “Jackass,” your skepticism is understandable).

Korean Peninsula at night

Such well-respected academics as Jared Diamond reference Malthus, but they also toss in our society’s consumerism. Indeed, in Professor Diamond’s bestseller, “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” he warns that the West, “consumes 32 times more resources, such as fossil fuels, and puts out 32 time more wastes, than do inhabitants of the third-world;” worrying that the “low impact” people of the developing countries are becoming “high impact” people.

View from space of “low impact” North Korea and consuming South Korea

I question the low impact of low-consuming developing countries. After all, according to defectors from North Korea, the average “low impact” peasant lives more of a hunter-gatherer existence with the countryside paying the price. In the book “Nothing to Envy,” Barbara Demick says these non-consumerist peasants made “ Barbara Demick says these non-consumerist peasants made “traps out of buckets and string to catch small animals in the field…stripped the sweet inner bark of pine trees to grind into a fine powder that could be used in place of flour.” And, because they were desperate, “They picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals.”

I have no doubt that some of us consume excessively. Why would anyone need a Ferrari Français : Ferrari 458 italia equipe JMW ( pil...458 Italia, with its 274 cubic-inch engine, 0-60 in less than four seconds, boasting a maximum speed over 200 mph, and costing about one-quarter million dollars? Answer: because it’s cool; and because at least for males, we seek prizes to indicate our status and sexual worth within the tribe. That, and the car is s-o-o-o cool. I mean look at it…I apologize, where was I?

Even if our consumption is occasionally overly indulgent, let’s be clear: The world is getting cleaner, more livable for people and animals, safer, and more sustainable than it has ever been. Consider this from Matt Ridley’s book, The Rational Optimist, “In Europe and America rivers, lakes, seas, and the air are getting better all the time…Swedish birds’ eggs have 75 per cent fewer pollutants in them than in the 1960s. American carbon monoxide emissions are down 75 per cent in twenty-five years.” In fact, “Today, a car emits less pollution travelling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from leaks.”

“Okay,” you might be saying, “That doesn’t matter, we are running out of room to put everyone. We need to stop having so many babies!”

We are not breeding as if we were yeast cells.

Over the past forty years, the whole world has seen dramatic drops in birth rates with a demographic transition from high infant mortality and high birth rate to lower infant mortality, and lower birth rate. The United Nations projects that the number of children per woman will drop below replacement value in 2025—and continue falling. Current momentum will take the world’s population up to around nine billion, after which it, too, is expected to drop.

So, as you sit watching your television and drinking a beer, remember what yeasts do. That, as John Ciardi said, “Fermentation and civilization are inseparable.” And be thankful you are not like yeast.

Cheers.

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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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