December 03, 2003

World might need massive layoffs A new study(abstract) says that the current human population is unsustainable. There exists a decent risk of extinction via starvation and/or disease. The optimal maximum for a sustainable human existence is postulated to be a wordwide population of 6 million as opposed to the current 6.3 billion! The study examined 64 species, including humans and found that our contributions to carbon dioxide production, energy use, biomass consumption, and geographical range are the reasons for the eventually unsustainable species homeostasis. Ironically, the study doesn't seem to take into account human adaptability and mastery over technology, the very factors that have enabled us to reach the current state.
  • Man, I'd like to read the data the abstract is based on, but $1000 is a wee bit steep. I doubt extinction, unless we decide to use nukes. Maybe a reduction, maybe even a massive die off of 9 in 10 or something equally horrific.
  • The full article is availible in PDF form through a discreet link at the bottom of the abstract. Or at least, I was able to open it, but I am on a university server that subscribes to journals. If you are interested, and it doesn't work for you, email me and I will send you the PDF.
  • Turn around, touch the ground, bagsy me staying.
  • It's articles like this that make me realize even the smartest people can make some stupid claims.
  • There is some historical context for the idea of large-scale epidemic human mortality events (heh), like the Plague, the influenza epidemic around the turn of the last century, etc ad infitum, but a reduction by three orders of magnitude based on what look to be some fairly shaky theoretical underpinnings ("tribalism?") seems a little overwrought. Our technologies in food production and medicine continue to improve (current levels of food production easily meet demand - the famines experienced now are due to distribution or political issues, not lack of food, and I think GM foods will continue to improve on that), and war on the scale of what was common 50 years ago is gone forever from this earth, and it is my opinion (not undebatable, I admit, but still) that global capitalism will continue to thrive and create massive amounts of new wealth in areas where poverty has historically been the norm. I also think we should take into account that we have not yet exhausted (not even CLOSE) the volume of arable land, nor have we seriously looked at large-scale alternatives to traditional agriculture (i.e., ocean farming, large scale desalination, iceberg irrigation, alternative foods). And as a last resort, I don't think we should forget that humans have a tendency toward exploration, and we have the technology now to begin, if impetus manifests, near-space colonization (moon, mars), with concomitant opportunities for releasing population pressure.
  • global capitalism will continue to thrive and create massive amounts of new wealth in areas where poverty has historically been the norm. Lovely thought, but all I see in these places is the poor getting poorer by the way.
  • Like I say, it is an opinion that is not impervious to debate. But in places like Mexico, Brazil, India and China? I believe globalized capitalism is creating, and will continue to further create, opportunities for huge increases in wealth creation. On the individual level, the variables are often far more complex, but at the national and regional level, I think the trend will be upward.
  • Your argument and mine are not in complete opposition. At the national and regional level, the trend may well be upwards, but at the same time, the poor may get poorer. In my previous post, I meant by the day. But I'm a flustering idiot who doesn't pay attention to what he types, so I messed up.
  • When I read all this, and a couple of things jumped into my head: 1) George Carlin saying (approximately) that maybe the Earth produced humans so they would generate plastic. Now that the Earth has all the plastic she needs, humans can go. 2) The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess. In it, the world is over-populated so everyone starts building up (kind of like cities in The Fifth Element). Homosexuality becomes a status symbol, and the government begins orchestrating fake wars so they can kill off masses of people with "honor". (Of course that ends up breaking down into chaos and people start eating other people etc., but it was an interesting fantasy about population critical mass nevertheless.) 3) I bet bitches are sorry they cut funding to NASA now. (Or not. They'll be dead when this comes to a head anyway.) It's time to get right on that Star-Trekian utopia, no?
  • Honestly, I think we're OK, at least populationally. Ehrlichian pressures (although fun to discuss, in a gleeful whistling-while-pouring-gasoline-around-the-Colosseum kind of way) just simply did not happen. Food production technology and medical expertise improved faster than birthrates increased; third-world birthrates evened out, even while first- and second-world birthrates leveled off to replacement numbers or, with a lot of Europe, declining numbers. And we *still* have a great deal of excess food production capacity, along with technologies that we've only begun to investigate. Personally, I think the planet could support 10 billion (ok, admittedly I pulled that number right out of my ass, but nevertheless), even if statistically it will never come to that. I do wonder, however, what the AIDS pandemic is going to do over the long haul. Africa is starting to look like a graveyard, and it's going to get worse before it gets better; no one knows what's going on in China, but in light of the handling of SARS I bet it's not good. India as well. Russia and the ex-Soviet states are AIDS-ridden, too, plus they've been cooking up a particularly virulent strain of antibiotic resistant TB. That'll get loose in the world, and take it's toll on those people who can't easily get courses of antibiotics. And who knows whether another Ebola Marburg will hop an Air France flight from Mombassa to New York? Or some terrorist a-hole decides to make good on the so far unfulfilled promise of subway-tunnel-based Sarin or some new-and-improved smallpox variant? So I guess count me as optimistic, but cautious. Starvation is not going to be a problem. Disease might, but in localized regions.
  • I'm fairly optimistic as well. I think there will be a lot of turmoil as we figure these issues out, but I think we will. I believe there is enough for everyone--if only we had the distribution channels. The world is getting smaller and smaller every day and as soon as we all figure out that helping eachother directly helps ourselves, we'll be fine.
  • I've been doing a lot of thinking about food production lately (I'm in a course on agrarian studies), and so far I have learned that crops and choices about how they are grown are a lot more complicated than we all think. There are many assumptions we make about efficiency in farming that on closer examination just don't hold up. For instance, we often compare something like grain harvests, but never look at the fact that a lot of non-industrialized farms produce a huge variety of crops. They may not grow as much corn or rice per acre, but they may have beans or vegetables between the rows, which are also valuable foods and (in the case of legumes) can enrich the soil. Our high production farms in North America have terrible soil health (as well as producing some very bad tasting food), and continuous monocropping has created major pest problems that can only be answered with more chemicals - the whole system seems to be teetering precariously. Also, I'm not really a GM=Frankenstein type, but there are serious concerns, such as whether the increased yields come at the expense of genetic diversity (an essential protection against disease, etc), and whether those yields can actually hold up if the seeds are recycled (a common practice with non-Industrial farmers). You also have to wonder - where is all that extra crop coming from? Could these crops in fact be more stressful to the soil? To achieve the expected high yields, farmers using improved crops often find they have to use a lot more commercial chemical fertilizer, which brings its own problems, both environmental (pollution) and social (debt for poor farmers). So, this might seem only tangentially related to population, but it has shaken most of my faith that the answer to population problems is the next technical fix. That seems too much like spinning plates to me, and those plates are spinning faster and faster.
  • Hmm, I seem to recall we're still talking about this in the future. Now this is where it gets interesting.
  • You recall talking about this in the future? That IS interesting!
  • Still worried about it, though global warming has taken centre stage.