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I have just watched the most extraordinary video, link to  Arithmetic, Population and Energy - a talk by Al Bartlett

Now, if this current modest 1.3% per year could continue, the world population would grow to a density of one person per square meter on the dry land surface of the earth in just 780 years, and the mass of people would equal the mass of the earth in just 2400 years. Well, we can smile at those, we know they couldn't happen. This one make for a cute cartoon; the caption says, "Excuse me sir, but I am prepared to make you a rather attractive offer for your square."

There's a very profound lesson in that cartoon. The lesson is that zero population growth is going to happen. Now, we can debate whether we like zero population growth or don't like it, it’s going to happen. Whether we debate it or not, whether we like it or not, it’s absolutely certain. People could never live at that density on the dry land surface of the earth. Therefore, today’s high birth rates will drop; today’s low death rates will rise till they have exactly the same numerical value. That will certainly be in a time short compared to 780 years. So maybe you're wondering then, what options are available if we wanted to address the problem.

Here is another quote from the talk:

Bacteria grow by doubling. One bacterium divides to become two, the two divide to become 4, the 4 become 8, 16 and so on. Suppose we had bacteria that doubled in number this way every minute. Suppose we put one of these bacteria into an empty bottle at 11:00 in the morning, and then observe that the bottle is full at 12:00 noon. There's our case of just ordinary steady growth: it has a doubling time of one minute, it’s in the finite environment of one bottle.

I want to ask you three questions. Number one: at what time was the bottle half full? Well, would you believe 11:59, one minute before 12:00? Because they double in number every minute.

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 1?8th; then a 1?16th. 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?

It is absolutely vital that our society gain some comprehension of the concepts raised in this talk.  

Originally posted to penguinsong on Wed May 12, 2010 at 02:44 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

    •  I saw Prof. Bartlett give this talk in 1993 (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      at the Case for Mars conference in Boulder. It was impressive and extremely eye-opening.

      You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.
      - Jessica Mitford

      by Swampfoot on Wed May 12, 2010 at 06:27:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Vital, yes (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    trashablanca, tonyahky, penguinsong

    Thanks for bringing new attention to this.

  •  The bacteria ought to build cities (0+ / 0-)

    In a city, where there is little room for the wee bacteria bedrooms, and there are so many interesting adult bacterias around to talk to, they stop doubling so bad.

  •  Not gonna happen. (6+ / 0-)

    Even though humanity is already sucking up about 150% of the sustainable capacity of planet earth; even though we are careening toward catastrophic climate change and global socioeconomic collapse; even though populations of songbirds and ocean fish are crashing....people still just don't get it.

    People of all political persuasions look around them and see lots of open space, plenty of room for more people. Folks just don't comprehend that our "bottle" is already overfilled.

    But don't worry. Gaia doesn't mind. The coming environmental/ecological collapse will brutally, remorselessly, heartlessly reduce human numbers back down to a level the planet can sustain. Probably somewhere well south of 3 billion, with a lot less industrial activity.

    •  Be Green: Stop Breeding. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Caelian, G2geek, debedb, trashablanca

      It was "in" to have less children and actually be aware of the population explosion. Now? The attitude seems to be fuck it! Screw the environment, the animals, and everyone else.

      Sworn to avenge/Condemn toHell/Tempt not blade/All fear the Sentinal/ Judas Priest. Rob Halford is the Metal God.

      by pitbullgirl65 on Wed May 12, 2010 at 03:25:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  but, but, but MY genes are SO important!! Waaaah! (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Tam in CA, pitbullgirl65

        You see what the problem is, right?  

        Everyone thinks their precious genes are the most important ones on Earth.  

        This is not surprising given that genetic competition is one of the pillars of evolution.  

        That plus the penis problem.  Male erections are highly sensitive to psychology.  Give a guy the wrong thoughts and his weewee won't perform, all the more so as age takes its toll on hormones.  For individuals who are enculturated with the idea that doing the naughty without making a baby is a shortcut to a literal hell of eternal torture, that's a pretty good "wrong thought" to have while looking at their partners with lust in heart.  So they rationalize the lust and fix their transient hydraulic insufficiency, by saying that IF it's "intended" to make a baby, it's OK.   All of which gets praise from the various Popes and Mullahs, as we rush blindly toward the cliff.  

    •  oh my, you're a billion more of a doomer than I. (0+ / 0-)

      I was thinking we'd end up somewhere in the range of 4 billion or a little less, and you're thinking less than 3.

      Hmm.  We should compare notes.  

      Say more.

      •  I see nothing mitigating agricultural meltdown. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Climate change and desertification are going to take many of the most productive agricultural regions off-line. Just wait until the Ogalala aquifer is depleted, circa 2030. It will abruptly be impossible to grow corn or wheat from the Dakotas to Kansas. Done, finito, over. Then there'll be the collapse of petroleum/fertilizer based agriculture with the decline of peak oil, a wave of virulent pathogens spreading due to global warming, epidemic disease, mass warfare due to migration of millions of economic refugees across borders....

        I weep for my future grandchildren.

        •  don't weep, prepare. (0+ / 0-)

          Me & mine are preparing.  

          Close friends of mine who are on the land & doing their building, decided to have a kid last year.   I'll be moving out there in a couple of years as soon as the economics are feasible.  

          We have no illusions about how bad it's going to get in the world at-large, and we have no illusions of exceptionalism, but we have confidence in our instincts & intelligence, and we are not about to give up.  

          So I would suggest hooking up with others who are preparing and planning, and who are philosophically compatible with you, and then roll up your sleeves and do the doing.  

          Every single one of our ancestors right back to the first hominid that swung down from the trees and figured out what its opposable thumb was for, managed to survive the darwinian challenges of their own times.  We are the result of that.  I'd say it gives us pretty good chances.

          •  Metaphorically weep. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            We're reasonably affluent, and self-sufficient. We're aiming toward our own wind/solar within a few years.

            But for our society as a whole...

            •  for anyone else reading this: (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              Me & mine are definitely not affluent and we're managing to do it too.  One of these days I might be able to start publishing some of the details.  

              Being well off makes it easier to do, but almost anyone can manage the transition if they plan ahead.  

              •  That's what's so enraging about all this; (0+ / 0-)

                the very folks running the world's climate into the ground for their personal fun and profit will come out on top when the ecological apocalypse comes calling. Their wealth will shield them from the consequences, while the world's poorest citizens die by the millions.

                Gotta be a special place in Hell....

    •  I live in the one country that understands this (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      China's "One Child" policy has been criticized as inhumane since it's inception, but rather, it was a wise and visionary decision informed by a history of poverty, famine and human misery that was the result of unsustainable population.

      So our "One Child"(daughter) is very much loved, and enough.

      It's estimated that, since inception, this policy has subtracted about 400,000,000 people from China's population growth trajectory, and approximately at mid-centrury, population will peak and then start a rapid decline due to aging demographics.

      So now we are working on the other side of the problem, how to provide a better, sustainable life for these people since, as we climb the economic ladder, energy consumption increases and despite the fact our percapita consumption is relatively low, we now are the largest CO2 emittor.

      Unfortunately, world population may peak and dicline due to famine and ecological disaster, meaning the world will have learned nothing from our miserable experience.

      "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

      by koNko on Wed May 12, 2010 at 08:34:58 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Quite so. Compare China to India: (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        China took the very necessary step of putting the brakes on population growth before ecological collapse did it for you. There was lots of cynical and dishonest criticism from the "anti-communist" West, but it was the most humane option.

        India, by contrast...may be the "world's biggest democracy" and all, but it's racing off a cliff. Indira Ghandi tried, but the backlash against her enforced sterilization policy paralyzed any further response. India is in bigger environmental trouble than China, yet the population continues to explode even as drought and famine loom. It's going to be ghastly, a true holocaust, when things collapse; certainly within the next two decades.

        •  I hoping economic development (0+ / 0-)

          Does something good for India in terms of education but it's really a race against time and the cards are stacked against them.

          I think the one ray of hope they have is there are a lot of non-governmental leaders working at grassroots to improve the lot of rural Indians, but the big cities are kind of a nightmare in terms of population growth vs infrastructure & services.

          "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

          by koNko on Thu May 13, 2010 at 05:38:02 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Zero population growth (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Caelian, G2geek, tonyahky, Marja E

    is likely not to happen, humans will continue to be feral until they experience a collapse and die-off. A human race that could live within rational limits is not a human race that I know.

    In this age of falseness, only howls of agony ring true.

    by Paul Goodman on Wed May 12, 2010 at 02:59:31 PM PDT

    •  It "can"... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ...and it will. After nonrenewable resources are completely depleted, there will still be renewable ones that can support a much smaller population. Humanity as a species will survive, and the few who do so will do so sustainably, since there won't be an option to do otherwise anymore.

      I think the probability of there being zero humans on the planet in the year, say, 3000 is exceedingly remote. There are still humans on the planet that use almost zero resources and there will still be pockets of survival once things settle down.

      Not that the post-crash world is one that anyone alive now will want to live in.

      (-5.50,-6.67): Left Libertarian
      Leadership doesn't mean taking a straw poll and then just throwing up your hands. -Jyrinx

      by Sparhawk on Wed May 12, 2010 at 05:27:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  we agree again. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        My scenario is basically similar to yours:

        Overshoot followed by major collapse and dieoff of > 50% of humans.

        Generalized dark age.

        "Speckles of light" amidst the dark age, similar to the role played by certain monasteries during the European dark age.  Most of these will be instances such as college towns, and small towns where local population is below local carrying capacity.

        Gradual rebuilding and eventual renaissance but at a much lower consumption level.  

        The critical question is whether we retain the capability for space travel and the raw materials & energy supply to pull it off.   If we can get to Mars, we have "off-site backup" and from there it is highly likely we can spread to other star systems.  

        If not, then eventually either (in declining order of probability) a) an asteroid will finish us off, or b) the sun will explode and finish us off, or c) some other intelligent civilization will rescue us before either (a) or (b), but we will then be treated more or less like a failed species that has to be nursed along until it becomes truly intelligent.  

        "Mom, look at the funny humans!  They don't eat their own poo like those other monkeys from Earth, why do you think they screwed up their planet?"

        Mars and the stars, or graves and the caves.

  •  i expect in 780 years (0+ / 0-)

    real estate prices on Mars will have increased quite a bit...

  •  But the Rate of Increase Is Solidly Declining (6+ / 0-)

    Growth from 2025 to 2050 is projected at half the growth from 2000 to 2025.

    The two most powerful population controls are a social security retirement program and education for women. Everywhere those things get established the population growth drops down quite low. And they are spreading.

    I don't see where an understanding of steady-rate doubling times has any bearing on our situation.

    If you've got evidence that we're near or beyond the carrying capacity, that'd be a much more realistic issue.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Wed May 12, 2010 at 03:21:50 PM PDT

    •  If you watch the video it is clear (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      G2geek, profh

      our present policies are going to lead to disaster.

      All our politicians and media and most of the people want economic growth, for example.  Well what does 3% economic growth per year bring.  It brings another exponential function.

      Too many people is a problem that creates exponential functions in our use of resources.

    •  here's your evidence: (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      One, all of the data on climate change.  We are pushing the ecosystem into a condition that has never existed during recorded history and is highly unfavorable to the continuation of human civilization.

      Two, all of the combined data on our present resource drawdown (source:, that show our current "ecological footprint" as 1.2, which means we are using the equivalent of 1.2 Earths' worth of resources, or 120% of carrying capacity: a 20% overshoot.  But unlike Republicans, Ma Nature does not tolerate a 20% deficit for long.

    •  Agree/Disagree (0+ / 0-)

      The trend is slowing, mainly due to the factors you mention and also declining fertility rates in developed countries due to aging demographics and economic incentives for small famillies.

      But we are already past carrying capacity and the situation is getting worse due to environmental factors (leack of potable water, dessertification and other loss or airiable land, and running out of fresh air).

      People are starving, dying of waterbourne disease, and these factors are accelerating.

      I have heard the arguements that this is merely a "distribution" problem but don't buy it; the fact is the victims are trapped, geographicly and economicly. The wealthy are not willing to give up what they have and their overconsumption is killing the poor who are trapped in a cycle of poverty, ignorance and lack of political access.

      Global warming affects most, those who cannot defend themselves, or struggle to do so.

      "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

      by koNko on Wed May 12, 2010 at 08:58:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  It makes me a bit more understanding of China's (4+ / 0-)

    otherwise horrendous (in the execution) One Child policy. They could project the point at which their society would collapse from sheer numbers, a date within the lifetimes of the not so young, and tried to do something about it, to make the subsequent generations smaller than the current one. They were only too prepared to take the heat of the "Why shouldn't I be able to have all the children I want." It conflicts with the ideas of freedom, the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and all that which most folk won't give up, or their subcultures won't when it comes to numbers or the only way for a woman to validate herself being having a baby and then another..., even in places where most of the babies die at a very early age from disease and malnutrition.

    One thing that struck me on this subject though, is, I think it was the Travel Channel, last weekend running a series called Tribal Life about a group on a remote island in Vanuatu (sp?), a small island group in the South Pacific which is an independent nation. The tribe in question had decided to keep to its traditional ways and not embrace modern civilization as we know it, and the show had an 'indigenous nudity' warning and the one and only modern object I saw was an axe.

    In one of the episodes, a young family which had three children and the wife pregnant again, sat down and decided they could responsibly have no more, and took the steps which worked and were understood well enough in that society that the doer could simply go out and gather the ingredients for the potion to get it done, that their third would be their last and the new baby would not be born, and they did it.There was also an element in the traditional solution and the potion to help the no longer going to be a mother recover her health and strength.  You don't have to be a rocket scientist to think responsibly.

    •  more often what happened... (0+ / 0-)

      ... in pre-industrial societies, to keep numbers down, was that cultures had the belief that a newborn is not a person.  And acted accordingly.  One could call it cruel, but hardly as cruel as what we're about to do to ourselves with our sheer numbers and consumption levels.  

    •  In China (0+ / 0-)

      We say "The first freedom is freeedom from hunger" and we know what that means.

      Personal freedom is a luxury of the wealthy. Poor people everywhere do not enjoy it, even in America.

      What is humane about starving children?

      To appropriate the title of the recent book "Love is for White People", I can honestly say "Personal Freedom is for Rich People".

      Most of humanity does not enjoy the freedom or wealth of the developed world, a few who live at the expense of the many.

      "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

      by koNko on Wed May 12, 2010 at 09:08:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wow. Professor Bartlett was my ... (6+ / 0-) physics professor and, although he was a terrific teacher, he seemed like 100 years old then, and I graduated 41 years ago. I imagine he's polished the lecture since then, but he was talking this population bit then, too. Thanks for the memories.

    I refuse to accept "no can do" as a proper slogan for progressives.

    by Meteor Blades on Wed May 12, 2010 at 03:41:18 PM PDT

    •  ssshhh! we need to keep it to ourselves... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      .... that if you embrace negative population growth, you get an extra fifty years of lifespan.  

      If the rightie-wingers in the Full Quiver Movement (hyper-breeders) find this out, they'll start demanding immortality for them and their numerous offspring, and then where will we be?  

  •  Not a problem for the developed world (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    This is not a problem for the developed world. Our population has pretty much reached a plateau, and the only population growth comes from immigration (ie. moving other populations here).

    In countries like Canada, the Scandinavian countries, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, the birth rate has fallen to dangerous sub-replacement levels.

    Even in places like Bangladesh, the birth rate has declined a lot since the 70's. The Population Bomb scenerio simply isn't happening outside of third world countries.

    •  We are already way beyond the population (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Sparhawk, Caelian, G2geek, koNko, Cliss

      carrying capacity of the earth.  We already likely beyond peak oil, and to carry our earth's present population we need oil.  

      Increasing population is only making an untenable situation worse.

    •  yes it is, because every American.... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Sparhawk, koNko, Cliss

      ... has the ecological impact of TEN Indians or Chinese.  

      Ecologically, the US footprint is equivalent to that of 3.5 BILLION Indians or Chinese.  

      So we also have to bring our numbers down by about half, along with bringing our ecological impact per person down by about half.

      •  I find it fascinating... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        ...that you and I disagree on economics so much, but agree on this so much.

        (-5.50,-6.67): Left Libertarian
        Leadership doesn't mean taking a straw poll and then just throwing up your hands. -Jyrinx

        by Sparhawk on Wed May 12, 2010 at 05:23:56 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  there's more leeway for... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          ... differences of opinions in economics, than there is in matters of hard science such as population/resource equations.  

          It's a good sign when people with divergent opinions about economics can agree on the ecological fundamentals from which all economics must necessarily proceed.  

    •  "dangerous" sub-replacement levels...? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Where's the "danger" in that, and how does it compare to the danger of what happens if populations continue to grow?

      •  Japan is solving this problem (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        They now face the problem of demographic economic meltdown and have relaxed immigration regulations to allow more young people to enter Japan as workers to support the economic system. They do not have full rights yet, but the effect is to provide for replacement population to support the economic system and it does provide the guest workers an economic opportunity to support their famillies at home.

        China will eventually face the same sort of demographic time bomb and there is much debate now how to deal with it while allowing the population decline that is the objective of the One Child policy. The immediate concern is social welfare/retirement benifits, obviously.

        "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

        by koNko on Wed May 12, 2010 at 09:27:56 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  the solution to that in many places... (0+ / 0-)

          ...where there is a strong "consumer" economy, is to shift toward the mode of greater savings and frugality, and higher taxes to support the growing number of elders.  Not popular but can be achieved with sufficient political will.  

          That isn't so easily done in places such as certain rural areas of China that are still in the development phase, where there isn't a large amount of consumer "fat" to trim.  

          If you can say more about the debate in China I'd be really interested.  The Chinese leadership seem to be looking out for the longer future in ways we are not doing here.  What proposals are being discussed, and how are they being received in various sectors?  

    •  You are the problem for the poor (0+ / 0-)

      Developeed countries consume the resources and are fighting like hell to keep things that way.

      You live off the backs of the poor and object to them coming up the economic ladder because it comes at a cost you export to them and would be returned to you.

      That is why COP-15 failed. For once, the poor and developing countires did not sit passively and take orders from the wealthy, and you found it offensive, and possibly threatening.

      Developing countries can not follow the path of developed ones. We now get that, we breathe it every day. But likewise, we cannot play by the old rules of the developed world, and that is what troubles the weathy. The reaction to that is neatly encapsulated in the pending Climate Bill, refer to Section 700.

      Climate change is an economic issue.

      "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

      by koNko on Wed May 12, 2010 at 09:21:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I've often thought that if humanity were to come (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    to its senses before it's too late that the future could be full of promise for amazing human achievement.

    If the numbers the diarist quotes are to be believed, we will, even in smaller communities, eventually find ourselves needing to make better use of vertical space (building both higher and deeper) in order to preserve land for agricultural and other needs. But that would be a stop gap. I see us eventually having to go vertical with agriculture, multistory green houses of hydorponic fields on a ginormous scale.

    I could see us building cities above, below and on the surfaces of the earth's oceans. Of course that is assuming we get the Gulf leak plugged and agree moving forward that the earth's oceans are too valuable a resource to the entire population of the planet to allow a handfull of profiteers to risk their destrruction.

    Basically, if we don't destroy ourselves, human civilization could conceivably one day tranform earth into a Coruscant-like planet. In the Star Wars universe Coruscant is a planet in which the entire surface has been covered with one large city. I know that's nerdy as hell, but I'd love to be around to see it. Oh well, as long as I'm being nerdy, anyone know anyone with a time machine?  

    •  you'd love to be around to see.... (0+ / 0-)

      .... the complete obliteration of every last shred of wild nature, all of it covered by concrete and steel, with humans living like lab mice in tiny cages stacked in endless columns?

      That's not nerdy, that's just sick.  

      •  Asimov got there first: Trantor (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        See his Foundation series. Trantor was the Imperial capital planet, a solid shell of metal over every square inch of the surface. As the Empire crumbled and fell, the inhabitants  started ripping up and selling off the metal so they could farm.

        If it's
        Not your body
        Then it's
        Not your choice
        AND it's
        None of your damn business!

        by TheOtherMaven on Wed May 12, 2010 at 07:50:14 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Asimov's original Foundation trilogy.... (0+ / 0-)

          ... was highly formative of my thinking on certain subjects, and still is.

          My plans for dealing with the effects of the climate crisis are based on on what I call "the Asimov's Foundation strategy."  In brief:  A dark age is coming, so therefore cultivate numerous points of light and preserve knowledge that will aid the recovery phase (the Encyclopedia decentralized); and at the same time, introduce subtle cultural shifts that will have beneficial effects going forward (psychohistory but hardly as refined).  The goal here being to reduce the depth and duration of the dark age.

          However I don't remember the item about people ripping up the metal of Trantor in order to start farming.  Was that in the original trilogy or was it in the subsequently added books?  

          If that was in the originals, Asimov gets more points for that one.


  •  I used to think this is a problem (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    which will solve itself.  Too many people?  Not to worry.  We will outstrip our supplies, thereby sealing our own fate through starvation, wars, conflicts etc.

    The only problem with that scenario, is that we might end up destroying TOO much of the eco system before we reduce our numbers to some kind of equilibrium.  

    Just call us - self destructive.

    •  yes, that's the likely scenario. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koNko, Cliss

      We go way past overshoot, and then suffer a dieoff of about 60% of human population.  

      This means we reach about 8 billion (not 9.5) and then die back to about 3 billion.  During this century.  

      Wars, famines, pestilences, and plagues, and overt heat-death in the equatorial regions.  

    •  It's already happening (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      The effects of climate change are already causing famine and disease to spread (particularly water bourne and tropical disease) and the problem is that on the time scale of generations this is likely to be an irreversable climactic process.

      350ppm is just an estimate. Clock ticking.

      "Life immitates art, but takes license." - ko

      by koNko on Wed May 12, 2010 at 09:37:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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