Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Ideal human population is 100 billion. Off-planet.

My off planet assumptions are for 200-300 years; that the Moon, asteroids, and free-floating colonies have been settled with lots of people; that Martian life discovery protects Mars from colonization; and that Venus hasn't yet been terraformed. And that there's no Singularity - otherwise all bets are off.* There's lots of room out there in space, and changing some of these assumptions make mine a low-end figure.

I think this is the good way to approach it if you're a space nerd who's deeply concerned about population growth and how little any side of the political spectrum has done to address it. We're not anti-human. Live long and prosper! Just as long as it's mostly out there, where you can't take the sky from me.

On planet Earth, we're messing up big time. What the global ideal population would be depends on trading off numbers against resource constraints. If we don't want resource constraints, want everyone to live like kings, and want minimal harm to the environment, then I think we're looking at 100 million people. If you settle for the median American quality of life with some reasonable technological upgrades to reduce environmental impacts, then we're looking at a billion people, one-tenth of what we'll see in 89 years. For larger numbers with modest environmental impacts, the only way I can imagine an ideal life is if people get most of the high quality of life experiences through virtual reality.

It's a rotten shame that the left in the US has mostly forgotten about the population problem due to some overstatements decades ago, and a fear of doing anything that tar them with espousing a policy that's also espoused for racist reasons by racists. The right is even worse, either ignoring the problem for ideological reasons or dog-whistling racist or fear-inducing reasons to control population. All the above gets magnified tenfold when discussing immigration to the US, where we convert the usually-young immigrants into highly impacting Americans, with descendants.

Maybe we can take the latest milestone of 7,000,000,000 people to do something about population, and even about immigration, without playing into the hands of racists.

*I think we'll pass the Singularity point in less than 50 years.


Holly Stick said...

A science fiction writer whose name I can't recall at present pointed out that moving to other planets or to space stations requires resources, and that Earth would not have enough resources for everyone to move out there.

Brian said...

Wouldn't have to move everyone. Move some and reproduce heavily.

CIP said...

I really can't imagine why our robot overlords would want 100 gigapeople cluttering the solar system.

Nick Barnes said...

See also several recent posts on Tom Murphy's new blog, 'Do The Math', in which he points out (a) that exponential growth has to stop, (b) that Space Is Hard, and (c) that even if we go to space, Exponential Growth has to Stop. On all these subjects he got a certain amount of flamage from internet space cadets, a remarkable species whose faith in manifest destiny can blind them to basic arithmetic. The same thing happened to Charlie Stross when he tackled some of the same subject matter on his blog a while ago.

Re ideal population, it's unclear to me that there is any upward pressure on population once we are all rich. It seems more likely to me that, if we can get past the current crisis, we will stabilise at a few billion people, who will very gradually become more far-flung. Brakes on growth of populations have little to do with resource limits and much more to do with education and emancipation of women.

guthrie said...

Aside from "Do the math" the other go to for discussion of the singularity and colonisation of space is Charles Stross's blog.

And numerous other threads over the last 5 years and longer. If you are into SF and havn't read any of his books you need to go out and buy some of them now. Especially recomended are "Halting state", the Laundry series (Which contains scenes of eldritch horror which should be familiar to any of you who have worked in a burueacratic environment) and "Saturns Children" in which humanity has made AI's and robots but managed to die out because of low birth rates, pollution of the earth etc. So the robots carry on living without humans...

badger badger badger said...

Stross earlier wrote something specific to space travel -- it focuses at first on interstellar, but winds up examining the same problem within the solar system:

He quotes Bruce Sterling:

I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people setting the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes "Gobi Desert Opera" because, well, it's just kind of plonkingly obvious that there's no good reason to go there and live. It's ugly, it's inhospitable and there's no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it's so hard to reach.

Anonymous said...

Albert Bartlett's informative lecture on exponential growth:

People need to watch this lecture, or at least gain an understanding of compound growth. "Modest" annual growth of 1-2% becomes frightening when you start looking at numbers.

Jim Bouldin said...

"...internet space cadets, a remarkable species whose faith in manifest destiny can blind them to basic arithmetic..."

And the need that some humans have for certain luxuries to which they have become accustomed. Oxygen and water for example.

guthrie said...

badger cubed - I forgot about that thread, that's the one which seemed to start it all off. Of course part of the problem might have been that to many people, Stross was a singularitarian prophet, after the stories which were collected in "Accelerando".

Jim Bouldin said...

Imagined spherical cows, ok. Cubed badgers, I don't know.

Anonymous said...

Random thoughts about population:

The typical US resident is a heavy user of natural resources, and the population growth rate is very slow. Growth is mainly by immigration.

Much of the world's population suffers from extreme poverty and is barely avoiding starvation. The population growth rate is high.

Which group is causing the problem? If concerns about population are really driven by questions of resources, then the US population is causing most of the problem, not poor people in Bangladesh. Much of the urgency though is about the world's poor.

By the way, all of this is not a confirmation but a refutation of Malthus. Malthus believed:
if wages are greater than subsistence wages, then population grows.
if wages are below subsistence wages, then population shrinks
if wages = subsistence wages, then the population is stable (unchanging).
If these assumptions are all valid, then wages will not rise above subsistence wages.

Admirers of Malthus should confront his belief that the constant threat of poverty and starvation served to teach the virtues of hard work and virtuous behavior. Malthus advocated repeal of legislation to help the poor.

Jeffrey Davis said...

I have two space colonist fantasies. They both demand Benign Others to extricate us from our mess. I've never been able to decide whether I'd prefer to be one of those selected to go to infinity and beyond in our alien's human biodome project or to be one of the ones left behind to nurse a shattered Earth back to life.

EliRabett said...

In the limit of infinite free energy everything is possible. Reality sucks.

Anonymous said...

"Admirers of Malthus should confront his belief that the constant threat of poverty and starvation served to teach the virtues of hard work and virtuous behavior."

Well, in the case of many poor people in difficult circumstances, hard work and virtuous behaviour = having as many children as possible to fetch firewood, carry water from a distant stream and similar tasks. The tasks? Unskilled work that can be done piecemeal. Several children can simultaneously carry more water home in smaller containers in less time than one strong individual with a larger container could manage. Weeding the farm, shepherding the animals, feeding the chooks can all be done by small children with no more training than watching the older kids do it.

And it's more virtuous to have more children to ensure that there are always a some survivors.

Malthus of course knew nothing of modern contraception, and probably little more about the education of girls and women. What we need is for it to become socially unacceptable to be a grandmother at less than 50 years old. We don't need just to reduce the numbers of children women bear. We need to reduce the number of generations alive at one time for any given family.

If women for the last few decades had been producing _exactly_ the same number of children, but in an environment where the average age at first birth was 5 or even 10 years later than currently, we wouldn't have anywhere near 7 billion population. (Because 5 or 10 years later for the parents becomes 10 or 20 years later for the grandparents - much less generational overlap. Fewer great-grandparents. Great-great-grandparents - virtually none.)


David B. Benson said...

Its the chickens what are spherical.

Brian said...

"(a) that exponential growth has to stop, (b) that Space Is Hard, and (c) that even if we go to space, Exponential Growth has to Stop."

I don't have a problem with any of that, but I'm still unimpressed with the claim that we won't colonize space, especially if we relax timeframes. Think 200 years is too soon? How about 1000 years, or 5000? Still a blink of an eye.

I might have screwed up the post though, in that this SF idea I led with is interesting, but what we really need to do is focus on getting population under control.

badger badger badger said...

Spherical vs. cubed depends on whether you're going for an exact solution, or are willing to deal with a finite difference method.

Holly Stick said...

The best way to control population is to advocate women's equality, to educate girls and give women access to birth control.

Ian Forrester said...

The rubbish put out by Matt Ridley on climate change and climate scientists has been quite in evidence the last couple of days. His view on climate is not the only area where he is shown to be a crank. He also puts out rubbish on how a global population of 9 billion will be better than a population of 7 billion:

"The population may surpass nine billion by 2050. We, together with our 20 billion chickens and four billion cattle, sheep and pigs, will utterly dominate the planet. Can the planet take it? Can we take it?

Yes. Not only is such a huge population going to prove indefinitely "sustainable"; it is actually likely that the ecological impact of nine billion in 2050 will be lighter, not heavier: there will be less pollution and more space left over for nature than there is today".

Recovering in the Florida Keys said...

Eli, it is the journey, not the destination. Why consider a median American lifestyle is what is wanted? Different strokes for different folks. Elitism is just as bad as racism, after all. Survival itself may be reward enough. If we can muster the resources for deeper space colonization, the colonists will at least be out of sight and mind for a generation or two, then we can see how things play out. Perhaps shorter but much more lively lifespans are in order, so we can just ship the long lifers to space to pursue their longevity dreams.

guthrie said...

Ian - I had a look at the post on watts wrong with that.
Ridley manages to indicate that he is in fact both quite intelligent and really gullible and dumb. He accepts Montforts farrago, swallows denialist talking points whole without submitting them to rational evidence based questioning and generally shows why Northern Rock went bust.

Jim Bouldin said...

Good point badger3X.
I don't know exactly what it is, but I'm sure it's good.

More to the point of this post however:

Anonymous said...

ndcodeblue mentions Albert Bartlett's plain English lecture on growth

Interestingly, on David Archibald's carbon sympathetic thread at WUWT, many commenters are completely missing the point Bartlett makes.

I think that I might finally be running out of words to describe the ignorance of cornucopians...

Bernard J. Hyphen-Anonymous XVII, Esq.