My Lost Adventure Games


Populationsixbillion1 How many humans is too many? Is our blue-green planet ‘full’, or is there still room for many more people? Who, in short, has the stronger case – alarmists who register panic when they face the subject of population, or sceptics who downplay the importance of the issue? The topic is inflammatory, because at its heart is reproductive freedom, and thus the ethics of population is also the ethics of procreation.

There are 6.6 billion humans on our planet, and this number continues to grow exponentially. Before we can begin to discuss the issues, it is necessarily to fully comprehend the acceleration of population growth we are currently experiencing. It took the whole of human history for global population to reach one billion people (roughly around 1830). A century later, it had doubled to two billion; then thirty years to three billion, fifteen years to four billion, and twelve years to five billion. The numbers vary slightly according to whose calculations you use, but at this point in time about a decade is all it takes for the global population to grow by another billion people, and the time required for each successive billion becomes smaller each time. 

There can be no dispute that the world population is growing extremely rapidly, thus opponents of “population alarmism” rely on other arguments in order to downplay its importance. One such approach to dismissing concerns about population is to contend that the planet can support a huge number of people – commentators who downplay claims of a population crisis sometimes quote figures as high as 100 billion people (how this figure is derived is less clear), with the intent that this somehow removes the problem. It does not. At the current rate of growth, we would reach such a figure in just a couple of centuries. 

We will not be able to agree on the “capacity” of the planet to support humans, as there are simply too many factors to take into consideration – on the one hand, there are people who claim the planet will comfortably support just a billion people or so and thus contend we are already overpopulated, and on the other hand are people who claim giant figures that project the problem into the future in a vain hope to brush it under the carpet. Fortunately, the actual number that the planet can support isn’t actually relevant to the discussion: if our species is to survive in the long term, global population growth must come to approximate zero at some point. This is true whether we are thinking about another few thousand years of human history, or millions of years of future history. Only a zero-growth scenario will suffice – even fanciful tales of colonising other planets will not change this situation with respect to the Earth.

Another argument that is used to undermine population concerns is that the problem is with rampant growth in the poorer nations and thus that richer countries, such as the United States, don't need to be concerned. It is correct that the United States growth rate of 0.97% is slightly below the world mean of 1.17%, and that almost all the countries above the mean rate are relatively poor nations. However, while the population of the United States is only about 5% of the world population, its citizens consume about 25% of the world’s energy (source: American Almanac), and depending upon the source cited, between 25% and as much as 40% of the world’s resources in general. This means that growth in the US population places a far greater strain on the world than growth in (say) Afghanistan  (3.85% growth) or Liberia  (4.5%). Furthermore, the excessively consumptive lifestyle that the citizens of the United States have crafted for themselves has become – in part as a result of the US media and commercial interests promoting this lifestyle around the globe – the standard of living that everyone seeks to emulate. Clearly this cannot be: we would need the resources of at least five Earths to make this possible.

The problem is not, as predicted by the original population whistleblower, Thomas Malthus (1736-1834), food. In fact, food production has continued to outpace population growth. We actually have more than enough food to go around, and will continue to do so for quite some time – the existence of hunger and famine is not a product of lack of food production, but of poor resource distribution. Wealthy elites throughout the planet are always well fed, but the poorer people living in the margins haven’t the economic or political power to ensure they get fed. Rather, the problem resources are oil (primarily as a fuel, but also for the manufacture of plastics and so forth), metals and increasingly drinking water. Less than one tenth of one percent of the world’s water is available for humans to drink, and as population continues to grow we should not be surprised to see water wars following in the wake of oil wars if we do not make a significant change.

A different kind of argument against population concerns is to draw upon faith in progress as a defence: we can’t fix the population problem now, so we will have to hope that developments in technology avert the crisis before its too late. This attitude is almost as recklessly irresponsible as the views of the few crackpot Christians who misinterpret the book of Revelations as mandating global apocalypse as a desirable outcome. While it’s probably the case that advances in technology will have a vital role to play in averting future catastrophe, there’s only so far this contribution will go if we do not first get the population itself under control. Furthermore, no technological advance can truly offset the loss of species diversity currently taking place, predicted to result in the loss of half the species on the planet (or more) in what has been dubbed by some “the sixth extinction event”.

Furthermore, many technological developments can exacerbate the problem. Consider, for instance, how many comparatively new technologies lie behind the US’s giant energy requirements (including but not restricted to the automobile and the aeroplane, each just a century old). Additionally, we continue to invest in research intended to discover new ways of sustaining longer life, which gradually adds to the population problem. Between longevity and reproductive rights, something will eventually have to give; we can't easily have both without inviting population disaster.

Particularly catastrophic would be the biotech grail of immortality. Should it transpire that it is possible to make immortal humans (and I have severe doubts, just in terms of the natural age limitations inherent to our neural net architecture), the implications for population growth are overwhelming. Reducing the global death rate inevitably raises the rate of population growth - bringing it to zero would render sustainable habitation of the Earth impossible. Death is a vital part of life, and it cannot be safely eliminated.

Whether the global population crisis is on its way, or already here, action must be taken to bring the rate of growth to a standstill at some point in the near future. In some respects, China has been circumspect in addressing this issue. Recognising that their own population growth was out of control, the Chinese government instituted a system of incentives from the 1970s onwards intended to slow growth – offering rewards for those who underwent sterilisation procedures, and enforcing economic penalties on those who had more than one child (for urban families) or two children (for rural families, provided the first born was a girl). The measures have apparently been successful (China’s growth rate is only 0.58%), although they have been widely criticised both for violating civil liberties and for encouraging abortion. (Chinese families desire a male child as an heir, leading many to abort female foetuses). Whatever you think about these measures, this kind of draconian solution would probably prove impossible to implement in a democratic country – at least without a substantial change in attitude towards reproductive rights.

Surprisingly, it seems that heavy-handed government interventions may not be required to address the problem. Indeed, Europe's mean population growth has stabilised over the last few decades and is now just slightly negative. Many Europeans are choosing to forego raising a family, while others stick closely to the ideal of two children per couple (zero population growth), and those that still choose to raise large families are more than compensated for by those that do not. This achievement has been partly a consequence of the widespread acceptance of contraception in Europe, which has allowed for a more mature attitude towards family planning. In terms of the potential population crisis, Europe represents a success – all achieved through the collective free will of its people, in line with the Kantian ideal of Communal Autonomy, without the imposition of oppressive government measures.

The situation is not yet under control in other parts of the world, although there is every possibility that a desirable state of zero (or temporarily negative) population growth can be achieved everywhere, given time and increasing awareness of the scope of the problem. The poorest nations have the highest population growth rates (Africa’s population curve has the steepest ascent), but largely to offset high infant mortality rates and to compensate for lack of economic opportunities: in poor nations, a large family gives the best hope of ensuring collective survival. As these countries develop, we can reasonably expect the situation to stabilise, and most African nations could support a much larger populations quite comfortably with adequate advances in infrastructure and technology (provided foreign powers do not continue to drain African resources for their own benefit).

The biggest problem, therefore, may not be reaching a global zero population growth – this state of affairs may yet be achievable simply by making it abundantly clear to all why this goal represents the only sustainable option – but in controlling the runaway, resource-hungry lifestyle pioneered by the United States but eagerly adopted by any nation with the influence and resources to support it. A transformation of the way we think about our resource footprint, and relating to this, our environmental footprint, will be required.

In terms of energy, the situation is eminently soluble. The solar flux in the world’s deserts is more than sufficient to meet our excessive demands for energy, provided we make the effort to develop the relevant technology (a fact foreseen by R. Buckminster Fuller in the middle of the last century) – and fortunately, the recent fashion for environmental issues has created an unprecedented investment in just the technologies required to make Bucky’s dreams come true. New Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) technologies use mirrors to focus sunlight on a column of water to make steam – an ideal source of energy. It seems ever more likely that we can solve this problem just in the nick of time, although in the interim we will continue to lose species as long as our pollution and other forms of environmental damage are inadequately restrained. 

In terms of other resources, including oil (as a raw material), metals and especially potable water, we will have to somehow learn to share if we are to avoid more resource-driven wars, such as the oil wars that first began in World War II. In many respects, population and war are inextricably linked: when population outstrips resources, war of some kind must almost inevitably result, and many of the more powerful nations (including the United States and China) have a tendency to pursue pro-active policies when it comes to securing their resource supply, irrespective of the ethics of war. Avoiding these kinds of scenarios involves a substantial change  in how we think about international relations – a “winner takes all” mentality towards resources  can only lead to further war and terrorism.

Ultimately, and surprisingly, the population problem might not be the unavoidable global crisis it is usually claimed, although to be sure the environmental damage caused as we bring this problem under control is both serious and in many cases irreversible (even advanced cloning techniques may not be able to restore lost species, given the extent to which epigenetic information influences an organism’s development). There are still problems to be solved, of course, including but not restricted to widespread Christian opposition to contraception, but most of these are at least theoretically soluble. However, that the catastrophe could be avoided means nothing if we do not take the steps necessary to prevent it.

Shouldn't sustainability be the ultimate value in any viable ethics of population? Wouldn't it be wise to aim collectively for zero population growth, by adhering to (without enforcement of any kind) the ideal case of two children per family, while allowing larger families to offset those who choose not to procreate? We are already developing and implementing viable renewable sources of energy, with power production from solar-thermal “light farms” in deserts representing the most attainable option to date. Perhaps now is the time to consider more carefully our use of resources, and develop sustainable lifestyles to accompany the coming renewable energy supplies. All these goals are achievable – all we need do is agree to make these objectives our aim, and work together to accomplish them as rapidly as is humanly possible.

What do you think about population? Share your views in the comments.


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The planet earth has enough hectares of arable land to support at least 7 billion people with bio-dynamic, permaculture farming. Likewise, population growth tends to gravitate toward ZPC when people become more educated. So there's a solution to the issue that is humanitarian, short of what the oligarchy are currently implementing, which is a program of controlling oil supply chains to raise the price, eventually pricing billions of people out of being able to eat. Then when you factor in a post-Singular environment, there is theoretically no limit.

"In terms of energy, the situation is eminently soluble."

I don't want to be a downer, but its not as simple as switching to better tech.

Resources for producing energy are ALL scarce. Just because oil WAS plentiful, we have grown used to the idea of abundant energy. But most alternative energy sources rely on advanced materials tech, that just doesn't scale in the long term. Solar panels require silver, platinum, and plastic. Nuclear requires uranium. All these minerals need to be mined, and mining requires machines which MUST run on fuel, not electricity.

"Should it transpire that it is possible to make immortal humans (and I have severe doubts, just in terms of the natural age limitations inherent to our neural net architecture)"

I agree in principle - I've heard better informed people than I opine that human brains could work for no more than a thousand years, even with augmentation. But then, one can always go further than augmentation - past which point we can't really see.

"oil wars that first began in World War II"

Began with World War I. The German railroad to Constantinople - the Orient Express! Had they been allowed to push on through the allied Ottoman Empire, to Baghdad, to buy oil and circumvent the Suez, the Brits would have no longer been able to compete with the superior German industrial machine.
First British battalion deployed in WWI was sent to Basra.

"Shouldn't sustainability be the ultimate value in any viable ethics of population?"

And finally, I'm onto the topic at hand!
It struck me that sustainability at any cost might not be worth having, so 'ultimate' status might be a little rich, but putting the 'any cost' aside for another discussion, yes sustainability is key.
And the obvious answer is 0% growth. Absolutely necessary, as you say. Mathematically imperative.
Unluckily, we've never been a species big on homeostasis. So how can we change our stripes?
There's lots of potential solutions to different issues, ranging from just being more sensible about what we eat, to playing God with micro-organisms.
But these aren't the real problem. That is, we can't agree on which way to sail the boat. Most of us can't see the problems in front of us for the denial and displacement inherent in our natures.
So in the future, we need everyone to just be smarter. If we can survive the next 50 years with anything approaching civilisation intact, then it is breeding of smarter generations, who will shrug off the evil selfish ways of the older ones, that will guarantee the long-term.

Unfortunately, (unless its just a sign of my premature aging) what is being done right now in certain parts of the world seems to suggest an emphasis on dumber future generations...

If we could not feed our population, we would not have such a population in the first place.

ZenBen raises a VERY good point which is basically about Diminishing Returns. Which all complex systems adhere to.

0% growth thats key, i agree. I think that taking a far-distance view of the whole matter will eventually show us that a dynamic equilibrium WILL be maintained. Anything differentiating too far off course will simply collapse back to a less complex more elegant state.

Some more:

The issue about education is flawed, the so-called educated masses ARE a huge part of the problem in that their ecological footprint is immense compared to the "uneducated" masses.

Our food consumption is big enough to sustain current levels of population but at a huge cost. We started applying the wonders of petroleum to farming at around the 1960-ies. We are effectively using non-renewable resources to increase our food production and thus creating even more people that will have to be fed. This cannot hold forever (dependency on a finite resource) and people will die on a massive scale. Poplulation growth will probably peak and then drop to more sustainable levels.

Increasing food supply is probably the least sustainable thing one can do and this poses us with a problem as im sure you'll understand.

ZenBen: you say we have never been a species known for homeostasis? You are mistaken here im afraid. we have lived with the land for thousands of years, in balance and what we would now call "sustainable" as if it was a new invention. Humans have lived about 98% of their existance in a "sustainable" way. The last couple of years are the exception and not the rule. I put it that humans CAN live sustainable without much trouble. This has not much to do with intelligence and intellect either.

Also id like to draw some attention to Jevon's Paradox which states that increase in efficiency = increase in consumption wikipedia that one I think it might be an interesting side note to the discussion.

Interesting points all around... Let's see now...

Patrick: resisted commenting on immortality tech, then? ;) Where did you get your data from connecting hectares to population supported, incidentally? I'd like to dig through the numbers...

zenBen: Regarding energy, I still maintain the situation is soluble. There's enough energy "on the table", and enough resources to build the infrastructure to exploit it. There *are* problems remaining to be overcome, but I stand by "eminently soluble" as an overall positive spin on what is usually given "the sky is falling!" treatment. :)

Now regarding when the oil wars began... I've studied a lot of the Great War recently for a game I'm working on, and I don't really agree that the oil wars began there - although I accept that this is a reasonable counter-claim.

As far as I can ascertain, it was around the end of World War I that the importance of oil as a resource was realised. People hadn't seen planes, tanks and so forth before, and hadn't really considered how vital these were going to be to future warfare. Consequently, most of the Great War is hideous trench warfare - but at least it was fuel efficient, as nobody moved more than a few yards! ;)

The British did gain control of Iraq under a League of Nations Mandate - they didn't invade it for oil, per se, although they were undoubtedly glad to seize control of it under the Mandate because they knew at that point how vital oil was going to be.

(Oh, and I *think* the Battle of Basra was in December 1914 - the British had already been fighting in Africa in August that year. Totally trivial to our discussion, though!)

Conflict with the Ottoman Empire was not about oil, per se, but about access through the Gallipoli peninsula (I'm simplifying, but the crucial point here is that war with the Ottoman Empire was not expressly motivated by oil).

Between the wars, it was apparent how important oil was going to be, but it wasn't until World War II with the North Africa campaigns and, most importantly, "Operation Blue" in which Hitler hoped to gain control of the soviet oil fields in Azerbaijan, that we have something that I would unequivocally consider an oil war.

There's room for debate - history is as subjective as anything else - but I still feel the case is stronger for WWII not WWI as the start of the oil wars. I'd be interested to hear other perspectives on this issue, though.

"If we can survive the next 50 years with anything approaching civilisation intact..."

Remember in the 1960s, when the Drake Equation was first drawn up, and scientists had to estimate how long technologically advanced civilisations would last? Some of the scientists advanced figures of just 20 or 30 years (living as they were in the fear of nuclear annihilation).

The moral of the story is never trust intuitions about how long civilisation is going to last. ;)

I'll pick up a few of your other points in response to Sankova.

Sankova: just to clarify, but when we talk about 0% growth, we're all talking about 0% population growth, yes? Because we can have 0% population growth and still have positive economic growth. Just a small point.

I agree that the use of petroleum products in farming is problematic, but everything I've seen still suggests food isn't our biggest problem. I'd like to see the source for Patrick's figures, though, so I could muse on this further...

And I agree with you that humanity is capable of homoeostasis - it looks like if you go back a few thousand years this was common enough. We're still trying to wriggle out from the problems foist upon us by the industrial revolution, but I haven't given up hope myself.

As for Jevon's Paradox - this has been seen with hybrid cars: greater fuel efficiency allows people to travel further, so they end up spending *more* on fuel. It's a crazy world! However, a change to our fundamental attitudes towards resources could change this, and that's partly why I'm willing to be cautiously optimistic.


Thanks for the comments everyone!

I have to respectfully disagree with both of you on the homeostasis issue. It is clearly written all over our prehistory, our cognition, and our tool use. In fact, you've both just alluded to how we cannot be homeostatic easily with Jevon's Paradox. If you invent the spear, then you use it to kill mammoths, and suddenly the capacity to feed population has risen dramatically, because the ROI is much greater. Invent farming, land has to be cleared. If we were homeostatic, we would still be living only in Africa! We've never been homeostatic, we've just had a lot of obstacles to clear, so it's taken a long time to get where we are. They extinguished species long before the Industrial Revolution!

Sankofa, I take your point on the education matter, but really the disparity between ecological footprints isn't a good counter-argument, because we all know how much more U.S. citizens consume, and how much less informed they seem to be (apologies Patrick). In principle, although it takes more resources to educate, this should be offset by a corresponding increase in ecological and social responsibility. You just need the right kind of education.

I mean, my arguments are getting slightly subjective and emotional here, but (for example) since learning about six degrees I've cut out red meat and started evangelising for as long as people will listen - it is not about how much you know, but what you know.
I say, the awareness of people is pointed in the wrong direction, and this is the main problem, because all the technical problems are soluble in the end.

(yes Chris I do agree with you, and yes I was nitpicking on the energy issue, and no I'm not sorry :D - as to that, my bets are on fusion for electricity and closed loop algal biofuel for transport).

zenBen: I'm slightly confused as to your position here. There are hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of human societies on the planet that live in homoeostasis, on every continent but Antarctica. We call them "primitive societies" for some weird reason! :)

Fusion for electricity? Do you have a lead on this I haven't heard about? It's been looking dodgy for me since I left the Physics department at Manchester University almost two decades ago now.

And closed loop algal biofuel: this intrigues me! Algae is a good way of making efficient use of sunlight, grows in water in giant algal blooms with low environmental impact... I can see how this would work. I had always thought of using algae as a food source, and never really considered it as a fuel source (but of course the two are equivalent).

Do you have a link to a specific version of this you had in mind?


My position is wrt to the global population - this is what we were discussing. Splintered segments of humanity who've slowed their expansion for whatever reason are by the by. The overall trend is definitively expansionary, and always has been.

The Australian aborigines and native americans have (or had) a close bond with the land, but did they always? How did they get to those continents? Expansion. Once they got there, what did they do, in addition to (probably) wiping out the majority of the large mammal species?

Anyway, how do you define homeostasis wrt to these 'primitive' societies? Over what timescale? How can you say they aren't non-expansionary because they are in fact dwindling away, out-competed by the rest of us?

On energy - no lead and no link, I'm afraid :) Just an idea that each might work...

zenBen: I must respectfully disagree that these "splintered segments" can be brushed under the carpet. The cause of the dispute between you and Sankofa and I in this respect is whether humans *can* live homeostatically. We use the historical and modern evidence that humans *do* live in balance with nature and each other as definitive evidence that they can. You, on the other hand appear to want to: (1) brush these societies under the carpet as irrelevant and (2) dispute that they are examples of homeostasis in humanity. :)

You have three relevant points. Firstly, whether or not these balanced societies (I'm going to start writing 'balanced' from time to time because it's easier than "homeostatic" :> but I mean to use the term as a synonym) were always balanced. Secondly, how do we draw the lines defining these societies as homeostatic. Thirdly, how can they be homeostatic if we are outcompeting them and thus eliminating them?

Ok, let's look at these in turn. Firstly, you say they weren't always balanced because they got to where they are through expansion. I claim you are applying your model of expansionism on a situation that doesn't warrant it.

In evolutionary ecology, one looks at how species proliferate. It is an observational fact (which is to say, a strong trend) that if there is an open niche, it will eventually be filled by an appropriate species. Sometimes this happens by freak occurrences (the "rat clinging to a log" type scenarios), sometimes by more direct means.

Humanity migrated and occupied most of the surface of the planet, but migration is not de facto expansionism. Opportunities that birds discover when changes in trade winds blow them off course while migrating open up new populations of bird species in different places, but the bird species are not locked into some mad expansionist policy - like any other species, they settle where they can, thrive where they can.

Thus I disagree that the "Out of Africa" migrations of humanity can be interpreted as part of a historical narrative of expansionism. That is a subjective option that you are welcome to take, but I personally feel it is inconsistent with the geological and DNA evidence. Yes, humanity filled the available niches. Once they did, most of them formed stable, balanced (i.e. homeostatic) societies. In South America, we have fragmentary archaeological evidence that societies there lived peacefully for thousands of years, and of course the Australian Aborigines and thousands of other more obscure tribes did so until encountering modern technology and capitalism.

Now a brief aside about killing off the giant animal species. You seem to be aware that this is a controversial interpretation, about which there is no agreement, so I won't bother shoring up that part of the counter argument. I feel it is important to remember that after the age of the dinosaurs, life on Earth went through a tremendous transformation, during which giant animals of all kinds became scarce (excepting only the blue whale and its kin). They can't all have gone from human hunting - megalodon was surely out of reach of early humans - it looks rather suspiciously as if the ecology was undergoing a massive shift towards its new equilibrium point, a balance point which could not include the giant animals any more for some reason (probably many reasons).

I have hypothesised before that the giant animals made sense in the age of the dinosaurs, and probably shortly afterwards, because size was a crucial element of survival during this era. But the rise of the mammals upset the applecart - size was less important when the deadliest predators used speed and cunning and not size as their principle advantages. Whatever the reason, the rules of the game changed, and the giant animals left the board as a result.

I might even go so far as to suggest that if the early Native Americans did cause the mammoths to go extinct (which I doubt), that wouldn't mean they didn't then achieve a homeostatic state from then until the arrival of European settlers.

This brings us to your point of how you define homeostatic with respect to "primitive" societies, that is, over what time scale. To me, this is irrelevant to the discussion: if they exist and existed in equilibrium for any significant length of time, that's evidence of man living homeostatically as far as I'm concerned. If you want, as proof of mankind's ability to live in balance, examples that show infinite time periods, obviously this isn't possible, so we can't possibly use that kind of scenario as our template.

Then we come to your final accusation: if modern technological societies are forcing out tribes that live in equilibrium, how can they be living in homeostasis? This is extremely fluffy logic - I'm not sure if you're trying to say they can't be homeostatic because non-homeostatic societies are eliminating them, or mankind can't be homeostatic because non-homeostatic societies are currently forcing out homeostatic ones, but either way the balanced societies are examples of homeostasis. That "civilised" man is changing the rules of the game to remove them from the board shows precisely that the technologically advanced societies haven't learned to live homeostatically; it cannot also show the same thing about the balanced societies that are now under pressure.

Sankofa and my position is simply that there is strong and ongoing evidence that humans are capable of homeostasis, of living in equilibrium. But this is not to say that change doesn't happen, because in ecology and biology change always happens. That an organism dies doesn't change the fact that when it was alive it operated in biological homeostasis, to give a trivial example.

You have constructed a narrative of expansionism that is consistent with many of the key facts, but it is a high level abstract model that you appear to be employing in an attempt to ignore contradictory data. Sankofa and I are saying the contradictory data is the evidence of homeostasis, and the fact this doesn't form a part of your narrative is a flaw in your narrative, not a counter-claim to humans being capable of living in equilibrium.

I contend that humanity is perfectly capable of living in homeostasis for thousands of years (possible hundreds of thousands). I believe, with sufficient cultural adaptation, humanity can go on for millions of years (or even longer), but here I have moved out of science and into metaphysics. ;)

Thanks for pushing the counter-point here - I enjoyed expanding this argument. I doubt it will convince you, but I hope it at least shows you why Sankofa and I do not agree with you. (Oh, and I've assumed Sankofa and I are in sync on this point - but of course, he may pull in different directions!)

Best wishes!

I don't have any fancy arguments - I simply don't believe humans will (I believe they could, like I believe almost anything *could* happen) manage to live homeostatically.

Not unless there is an extinction event that only a small percentage live through. And as far as I am concerned we are currently living through the start of that extinction event. It doesn't need to happen in a single day.

Neil: it is, after all, a question of one's beliefs about humanity, isn't it...

I choose optimism, as I believe that the narrative of hope has the best chance of leading to the desired outcome. But for people such as yourself who have a more pessimistic bent, at least there's always the next asteroid impact to look forward to. ;)

Best wishes!

A good counter-counter argument Chris, and in the face of it I have no trouble admitting that some individual human societies may have been living in homeostasis for long enough periods to claim their model is a homeostatic one, whether or not this was intentional. (By long enough period, I'll settle on multiples of the individual time for expansion for that society into their current geographically accessible boundary zone - right now, thats the whole earth. For native americans, the Americas, etc. - by this logic the yardstick is, once you've reached the edges of your 'world', how long can you last without a Malthusian bust? That's homeostatis, baby :D ).

However, I think we've lost the original argument. The original point was "Unluckily, we've never been a species big on homeostasis."

That's the whole species. And for the whole species, if we were able to live homeostatically we wouldn't be having this discussion, and you'd never have posted on population at all. It is possible that there are contradictory examples of models of society, but it is the situation going forward with which we are concerned and you cant 'reverse engineer' that situation to the 'specs' of any of those societies, even if we did know enough about them.

So I say that it is the worst examples of profligately expansionist humanity that we need to address and come up with strategies to change, because it is the philosophy of these examples with which we are dealing. Forget the 'nice guys' of humanities past, they've finished last. To paraphrase Obama and the Hopi, we are the problem we have been waiting for.

Ps I think you ignored one of the strongest arguments in my accusation against humanity as a non-homeostatic species - the very Jevon's Paradox Sankofa mentioned, which accompanies our inherent technological nature, and means that whenever we come up with a new, more efficient means of production, we don't go back.

That's non-homeostatic, if ever I saw it.

I'll admit though, I haven't done the research to say there are no counter-examples, maybe someone somewhere has abandoned new tech in favour of old ways?

zenBen: I do take your point, but reasoning about mankind as a species isn't like reasoning about, say, squirrels as a species - because we have something the squirrels don't have: the capacity to affect our behaviour through our belief systems, via our language.

In essence, we are in agreement about the substantial points, we just disagree about how to frame the nature of the problem. You want to lay it at the foot of mankind the species (which is understandable), I want to lay it at the feet of post-Industrial revolution culture. But of course, in reality, we can't just separate species and culture in this way - so both of our arguments are, in some sense, incomplete.

Regarding people who abandoned new tech in favour of old ways - it depends how you want to call this. I'd cite the Luddites who attacked the machines of the industrial revolution, but you could reasonably counter that they resisted change, rather than going back. Then there's the Amish and other such societies, but the same point can be made there: splintering off to maintain the same way of life. But when you take into account people who leave to join communities such as these (consider, trivially, monks and nuns who join a cloistered society and give up to a certain extent the modern accoutrements) there are at the very least clusters of individuals who have been willing to travel "back in time" in this way.

I suppose my optimism is rooted in the feeling that once we acknowledge the problem, which is finally happening, we can find ways around it - we don't have to abandon modern technology, we just have to be smarter about what we make and how we use it.

People panic about the environmental effects of jetplanes, but the biggest threat to the environment (and the largest influence on global warming) is not what we're using but what we're destroying. Deforestation is the hole in the dyke that must be plugged; I feel we've time to sort out the technology problems if we can put a break on the direct environmental damages.

The thing with Jevon's Paradox is that it isn't and couldn't be a law. We can beat this effect - we just have to be smart and ready to teach the next generation a whole new approach to resources and the environment, a change I already see happening.

I've said it before, and I'll doubtless say it again: "It's not too late to save the planet!" We just have to communicate the crisis issues on this side of the equation, listen to the counter complaints from the other side (i.e. economic concerns) and chart the course we need to follow. I choose to believe we can do it. Whether or not you do too, I hope you'll work on the problem as if it's not too late, because without the hope of success we are surely doomed.

Really enjoyed chewing through this issue with you! The Ethics Campaign began by discussing religious ethics, which was quite outside of your bailiwick, but ended on topics you'd already been discussing on your blog - in some respects, we sailed into your harbour. ;)

Hope you have enjoyed yourself!

Your productivity amazes me - I am yet with a backlog to read your posts and will comment in greater haste than I would like to.

Population growth. As mentioned - I'm not too concerned about Europe, I think our growth will continue to go down. If the problem is lack of contraception the issue of contraceptive rights is a dark one. Do we really have an ethical right to force people to stop reproducing because our half of the globe is consuming too much? Just as we shove consumerism, technological growth and the necessity of speaking English as imperatives, shall we try to force the rest of the world in our image? Natural the concern is valid, but I object strongly to the thought of playing god. ;)
China paid a huge price for their regulations. Among it tremendous orphanages where children were abandoned and starved to death. Some might posit murder would at least have been more humane.
Again, I am confident that this was not the intended message, but I believe the counter points are sufficiently strong to necessitate clarification!
An awareness of what increased population growth and as you hint even more so our degree of consumption is likely to go a long way. I do see the population growth slowing down in Africa, it is simply a question of time.
And why I certainly don't advocate inventing even more advanced technology as a solution to the problem, it just *might* buy us enough time to stabilize. But regardless of whether it can or can't - a change of lifestyle might be a healthy prescription overall.

A small note on food. From what I can tell there is an ongoing issue with grains, reserves continue to shrink world wide. Part of this seems to be because grain is increasingly used for biofuels (maybe not that sustainable after all, and yet another reason to look at our habits rather than perpetual patching), or maybe because we are running out of water. Not sure it's just a problem of distribution any more - but distribution could certainly be remedied. Not the best source, but a quick reference:

On homeostasis. I think we would have to largely forget about material status symbols, and individuality. Values would have to be measured in sustainability and perhaps contribution to the global community. I think it is possible, but right now it would be like releasing cattle into the wild. Transition rather than transformation. Or transformation with a large loss of life (possibly caused by a huge natural disaster). :(

PS solar-thermal farms look promising

nomad: thanks for your thoughtful comment. I particularly appreciate the additional report on problems in China as a result of the measures they took; I only skimmed the surface of the problems with State mandated control of population. But as I say in this piece, I believe we can stabilise the population issue without something so heavy handed as bringing the State into family planning.

You mention the use of grain to make biofuels - this recently hit the news, since while biofuels seem like a good bet, diverting food production towards fuel gives us issues as to where the food to replace this comes from.

You hint at the end of your comment that we either have to go through a period of transition, or have a transformation through disaster. I think this is fair; if disaster happens, it happens - in the absence of this, transition has to be the way forward.

Human culture is proving to be impressively adaptable, and I remain confident that we can make the transition - probably gradually, over a few generations. Although I feel that the global warming bugbear has taken too much of the spotlight, at least it has fired interest in sustainability, and that at the very least is valuable.

As for my productivity, I'm well aware that I often produce material faster than people can read it (writing is how I earn my living, and I do it at lightning speed). I'm considering reducing the pace of the blog, but now that this campaign is over I think things should naturally begin to settle down. I tend to get a manic streak together when the end of something is in sight, and this certainly drove content in the last few months. :)

Thanks again for the comment!

Thanks your reply, and hats off to comprehension of a comment typed in haste.

A continuation of the question - do we have enough food or are we "running out"?:


nomad: thanks for the link! It's interesting to see the issue of hunger couched in terms of poverty, rather than availability. This also brings up once again the issue that biofuels actually create as many problems as they solve, since the arable land is being diverted from food to fuel production.

I think I have time for one more comment this morning...

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