Chicken Feed

About 800 years ago a few Polynesians sailed to the shores of Aotearoa. Large flightless birds were abundant. The biggest were called moa, standing 12 feet tall --- a 500+ lb chicken burger. Presumably, the Polynesian population grew exponentially, for a time, because nowdays:
There ain't no moa
In old Ao-Tea-Roa.
* A gigantic Haasts Eagle attacking moa. Haasts Eagle and moa were extinct before European people arrived in New Zealand. The local Polynesians (Maori) had recently consumed the last of the moa and had turned to consuming each other.
Every discovery of a new rich resource, or a new technology for resource exploitation, has resulted in surging human population and resource depletion/destruction. The premise of a modern economy is that we can repeat this cycle indefinitely --- human ingenuity will always find a new resource and a new technology...

BTW does anyone remember the Newfoundland cod fishery? Never mind folks, the Newfies aren't eating each other, they've found oil!

Politically Correct Carbon Dioxide

Our industrial society uses fossil fuels. Unsurprisingly, measurements show the concentration of CO2 increasing in the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Some people thought the average temperature of the earth was increasing so they put the blame on atmospheric CO2. It became fashionable to "reduce ones carbon footprint". The cry went out, "tax the polluters". In a fit of self-flagellation, some people thought we should have a carbon trading scheme. Carbon traders got rich --- some of them also got caught.
* Ice cores can give us an indication of atmospheric CO2 over the last 200 years or more. Keeling started measuring atmospheric CO2 in 1958. The wiggles show seasonal fluctuations (not resolved by ice cores).
* It's not easy to measure the average temperature all over the world for a year but estimates have been made. It seems temperature may or may not be increasing. There are lots of wiggles in the plot. In the last 2,400 years there were warm periods and cool periods. The fall of Rome, the Dark Ages, and Black Death are all associated with cool periods. Europe emerged from the Dark Ages and Rome reached it zenith during warm periods.

Politically Incorrect Carbon Dioxide

* The thing that is truly related to atmospheric CO2 is human population. Of course, polite people don't talk about population. But there it is, plain as day. Even a capitalist former-pig seems to have figured it out.

Atmospheric CO2 tells a story about population

* We can see how much atmospheric CO2 varies over certain periods and compare it to how much human population has increased by over the same period. Thus the plot to the left compares annual increase in human population with per capita annual increase in atmospheric CO2.
  • Small carbon footprint: From the begining of the Industrial Revolution until the start of the 20th century, it took a billion people a whole year to raise atmospheric CO2 by about 0.12 ppm (parts per million). Those were the days of horses, oxen, and steam engines.
  • The internal combustion engine: The first half of the 20th Century was marked by two world wars and rapid technological development of oil-related technologies. By 1960, oil-related technologies were widely used.
  • Bigger carbon footprint: From 1960 to the present, in one year one billion people were able to raise atmospheric CO2 by about 0.30 ppm.
  • Before petrol and the internal combustion engine, people had a small energy supply and they could only grow their population slowly.
  • Petroleum technologies provided us with a much more powerful engine so humanity grew its population many times faster.
So what have we seen. Well, a doubling of carbon footprint caused a 10-fold increase in annual population growth!

Population tells a story about Atmospheric CO2

* We plot atmospheric CO2 against world population. The black line shows measurements. The red line shows output from a model that has two parameters: the big and small carbon footprints mentioned above. There can be no doubt, human population drives up atmospheric CO2. Don't waste your breath talking about other guff, it's population that counts!
Now comes the tricky mathematics. If we are to view atmospheric CO2 as representing a proxy for some sort of human impact on the environment then we see that that impact is the product of carbon footprint with population.... and it's increased population that explains most of the impact!

Environmental Impacts

Population Impact on Humanity

OK, we care about that! Let's talk. First, we need to learn a little history.

A biological theory for history

Colinvaux (1980) The Fates of Nations provides a biological theory for the broad sweep of history. The theory is grounded in ecological theory and calibrated to "historical fact" (ie "what happened", not some historians opinion as to "why it happened").

Here is a crude caricature of Colinvaux's thesis:

  1. The human breeding strategy is to maximize the number of offspring according to what couples they think they can afford.
  2. Human ingenuity can sometimes increase the availability of resources. For a time, the standard of living improves.
  3. Given (1), the population will eventually increase and this causes the standard of living to decline because available resources have to be spread amongst more people.
Colinvaux shows how human ingenuity and the human breeding strategy explain: class/economic inequity (including excessive bureaucracy), restrictive laws, trade practices, warfare, and some religious practices.

All in all, Colinvaux leaves us with a gloomy prognosis that is difficult to dismiss because it is so grounded in fact.

More recent research and some relevant observations

Big changes were obvious during the second half of the 20th Century. Any intelligent and educated observer of that period would likely reach their own conclusions that would be broadly similar to those of Colinvaux and May. Unlike out of this world fields, like General Relativity and Quantum Electrodynamics, human population is not that difficult to understand within the context of personal experience...

Freedom, on the other hand, may be more difficult to understand and much more difficult to achieve. The following passage from May (2010) illustrates some of the forces aligned against freedom:

"... it is worth noting that in 1992 the Presidents of the Indian National Science Academy, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society proposed a meeting of the world's academies of science, to prepare a joint statement about population, in preparation for the UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. Fifty-eight academies attended this `Population Summit of the World's Science Academies' in New Delhi in 1993. This meeting placed strong emphasis on the education and empowerment of women. The meeting had one fruitful outcome, in that it paved the way for the establishment of the Inter-Academy Council in 2001. But in its initial and primary purpose it was less successful. It provoked a counter-movement by a fundamentalist `coalition of the unwilling', led by the religious right in the USA, the Vatican and Saudi Arabia, which essentially took women's rights off the Cairo agenda and went on to the truly remarkable achievement of removing any mention of population from the UN's Millennium Development Goals."

That's right folks, the "powers that be" are often aligned against freedom and enlightenment --- it's not so unusual...

Opportunity knocked, once

Many great break-through human achievements happened way back when the world population was less than 2 billion people. I think it is safe to postulate that a world population of 2 billion people is more than sufficient to maintain and continuously improve an advanced human society.

The resources available for humanity were greatly expanded in the first 70 years of the 20th Century. That was the time to impliment ideas of the type advocated by May (2010):

Unfortunately, we got distracted by other things, many, other things --- it was the ultimate illustration of Colinvaux's theory.

Have you ever noticed how smart humanity is "after the fact". By the time Colinvaux and May had developed an understanding of the problem, it was already at least 50 years too late.

An optimists view of the future

Today the world is crowded. In keeping with Colinvaux's theory: freedom is diminishing, the distribution of wealth is ever more inequitable, per capita wealth is falling, trade is expanding, warfare is widespread (albeit, limited by the threat of nuclear retaliation), and the population continues to expand --- so we become even more crowded. Humanity is caught in a population trap of it's own making and most of our progeny seem destined for a diminished lifestyle. (A priviledged minority will improve their lot, as always.)

Presently we know of only one way out of our population trap. We need another great break through that greatly expands the resources available to humanity. Perhaps we have already found all the great breakthoughs that human ingenuity can achieve? I hope not.

If there is one more great breakthrough to be had, I hope that we will have the wisdom to channel it towards:

and not squander opportunity upon brainless breeding.