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Human Population Overshoot: What went wrong?
« on: February 27, 2012, 03:34:24 PM »
Originally posted at Our Finite World

Our Finite World Providing a wide view of what may be ahead Skip to contentHomeAboutGetting StartedOil Drum Posts← Three Major Journals Publish Articles on Limited World Oil SupplyWhy oil prices are so high: Production shortfall, Iran concerns, and low interest rates →Human population overshoot–what went wrong?
Posted on February 15, 2012 by gailtheactuary
13 Votes
There are seven billion people on earth now. I originally thought that the primary reason for the recent human population explosion was that fossil fuels enabled a larger food supply and better medicine, and thus a higher population.

Figure 1. World population from US Census Bureau, overlaid with fossil fuel use (red) by Vaclav Smil from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects.
While the addition of fossil fuels is part of the story, after reading Craig Dilworth’s Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Mankind, I realized that there might be another contributing factor. Animals of all types (presumably including humans) have instincts and learned behaviors that prevent population from rising without limit.

Dilworth talks about an experiment in which a few Norway rats were put into a cage of 1,000 square meters and provided plenty of food and water for 28 months. If they had produced as many offspring as theoretically possible, there would have been 50,000 of them at the end of experiment. If they had maxed out at the 0.2 m2 allowed for caged rates in laboratories, there would have been 5,000 of them. What actually happened is that the population stabilized at less than 200.

As I read about the mechanisms for keeping the population of most animals down, it struck me that there seem to be parallels in humans. Dilworth talks about many species being “territorial,” and how aggression among groups is one of the first approaches to keeping population down. When that fails (as with humans’ globalization), social power structures and hierarchies become more important. This seems to happen with humans also:

Paul Buchheit, from DePaul University, revealed, “From 1980 to 2006 the richest 1% of America tripled their after-tax percentage of our nation’s total income, while the bottom 90% have seen their share drop over 20%.” Robert Freeman added, “Between 2002 and 2006, it was even worse: an astounding three-quarters of all the economy’s growth was captured by the top 1%.”

This sounds exactly like the kind of hierarchical behavior observed in the animal kingdom when social species get stressed. If there is not enough to go around, resources that are available are concentrated in the hands of those at the top of the pyramid, marginalizing those at the bottom of the pyramid. If total resources are inadequate,  population at the bottom of the pyramid is reduced, leaving those at the top untouched.

In this post, I discuss some of the issues raised by Dilworth  and the parallels I see with humans. I also add a perspective of hope.
Craig Dilworth’s Theory: Too Smart for our Own Good

I won’t be able to do justice to all of the ideas in this fairly academic 500 page book, but let me try to explain some of Dilworth’s ideas.

Types of Species

Dilworth distinguishes between two types of species:

K-selected species: Species selected for Krowding tolerance. Their members are characterized by large size, slow growth and reproduction, few offspring with low mortality, parental care, relatively constant population size, and existence which is easily jeopardized by a new predation threat. Most mammals are K-selected, as are trees.

r-selected species: Characterized by small size, rapid growth and reproduction, short lives (less than 1 year), numerous offspring with high mortality, little or no parental care, and lack of territoriality, and populations characterized by exponential growth followed by crashes. Insects and annual plants are typical r-selected species.

With these definitions, humans are K-selected. Because humans are K-selected, they theoretically should have a stable population size.

Territoriality and other Mechanisms for Holding Population Down

In K-selected species, territoriality tends to hold down population size by restraining the number of breeding pairs. The territories chosen by instinct are large enough to ensure that populations do not grow to such a size that they undermine their own resource base. Thus, if territoriality is working properly, there is no problem with tragedy of the commons (excessive use of shared resources), because the territory selected by the male for his family group is large enough to feed the family, with much available food left over.

There are really two mechanisms at work in K-selected species: food availability and adequate territory. It really is Liebig’s Law of the Minimum that leads to adequate territory usually being the limiting factor for K-selected species. Liebig observed that if a crop needs several types of inputs (such as nitrogen fertilizer, phosphorus fertilizer, and potassium fertilizer), the crop yield would be determined by the scarcest resource, not by the total amount of resources. Thus, additional nitrogen fertilizer cannot substitute for some other type of fertilizer. In the case of K-selected species, such as primates, there are both food and territory requirements, but the limit on territory is usually reached first.

There are a number of  mechanisms for keeping K-selected populations in balance with the rest of the ecological system. For example,

■Too high population tends to cause stress and leads to violence against neighboring groups. The winner gets more territory; the losers typically are killed.
■Infants may be killed, to keep the population in line with resources.
■Learned behaviors or instincts may limit when mating takes place.
■High population will tend to attract predators (germs, in the case of humans)
■If population is too high, hierarchical behavior may appear or increase. Because individuals who do not need resources get a disproportionate share of the total, there is less for those at the bottom of the hierarchy, helping to reduce population size more quickly than if resources are shared equally. Those at the top are spared.
With social animals, altruism becomes important, because the instinctual drives that keep the population in check must not be allowed to operate at too high a level within the family group. Therefore, within the home territory, social instincts tend to over-ride more basic sexual or survival instincts. Groups of the same species often share resources, look after young, and protect injured individuals.

In  most instances, populations with these (and other) checks and balances will tend to remain in “dynamic equilibrium” with the rest of the ecosystem. One exception to this rule is  in “pioneering” situations, when both food and territory increase, or when predators are removed. Human’s use of stored energy (both wood and fossil fuels) is in a way a type of pioneering behavior, because it allowed us to expand our food supply and eliminate predators.

Figure 2. World per capita energy consumption is now at an all-time high, thanks to the increasing use of coal. (Based on energy data from Vaclav Smil's, "Energy Transitions" and BP Statistical Data; population from Angus Maddison)
Humans are also different from other species in that our intelligence has allowed us to substitute learning for at least part of instinctual behavior. This substitution of learning for instinct, together with the use of external energy, seems to have led to over-population.

There are currently 7 billion humans on earth; Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones in Atlas of World Population History estimate that human population would be expected to be in the 70,000 – 1,000,000 range, based on a comparison with gorilla and chimpanzee populations. Clearly human population now far exceeds its expected share of the ecological system, as one among many animal species.

My interpretation of Dilworth’s theory applied to humans

Primitive Societies. Dilworth indicates that internal population checks (including abortion, infanticide, and prolonged abstention from intercourse) were almost universal in primitive societies. If twins were born, often one was put to death. If a second child was born before a mother was able to take care of it, it would be put to death. These population checks were helpful, but did not keep the population level. At least part of the problem was that new territory and food sources kept being added, because of humans’ inventiveness. Humans began using fire about 125,000 years ago, and emigrated out of Africa and settled new lands about 90,000 years ago.

Religions. Religions have played a major role in encouraging altruism within their own groups, with teachings such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Religions  are also are a way of passing on traditions and building connectedness among members.

Modern religions have not done as well with population control, however. The command, “Be fruitful and multiply” is at counter-purposes with population control. When missionaries are sent to primitive groups who still practice infanticide, this has the effect of raising population. The practice of improving health care without providing free contraceptives and teaching about birth control also tends to raise population.

The “instinct” to fight those of other religions is helpful from a population control point of view, but most readers of this article wouldn’t find it an acceptable way to solve population problems. Unfortunately, if we were to try to parallel population control methods of animal species, death through wars with neighboring countries would need to become acceptable.

Hierarchical behavior. I mentioned that if population control doesn’t come by other means, hierarchical behavior may take over, to solve the problem. Hierarchical behavior was not known among hunter-gatherers, but once humans settled down and started accumulating property for agriculture, hierarchical behavior became more the norm.

Hierarchical behavior has increased recently. Immediate causes of the shift would include such causes as:

■Greater specialization as processes become more complex. Jobs that are at the top of the hierarchy pay very well.
■Globalization. Jobs at the bottom of the hierarchy may compete with foreign labor or workers in countries where wages are low.
■More debt. Debt tends to transfer interest-related payments from those at the bottom of the hierarchy to individuals at the top of the hierarchy.
■Tax schemes. Modern schemes favor the wealthy and corporations.
Charles Murray recently wrote the book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray explores the formation of classes that are different from those American has known in the past. The lower classes are losing many of the stabilizing influences they have had in the past–marriage; opportunity to attend schools with people of all classes; joining religious groups.

I might also note that economics, and the belief in economic growth as a savior for all, has become almost a new religion. If this “religion” is followed, there is little need for other belief systems. Economic influences are not new, however. Trade was started very early, even before the days of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament. This tended to break down barriers among groups, reducing the effect of territoriality.

Another source of belief systems is television shows. These seem to portray how family life operates and explain what is truly important (more stuff!).

All of these new influences conflict with our instinctual behaviors to stay with our family groups, and not live lives that deviate too far from what we have known in the past.

Hope for the Future

Dilworth doesn’t see much hope for getting out of our of current predicament well. He talks about the vicious circle principle. A particular lifestyle at some point ceases to provide enough food for a growing population, so we develop a new approach that is not really better–for example, farming instead of hunter-gathering, or applying chemicals for fertilizer instead of waiting for natural cycles to take their course. We end up with more people, but those people are not really better off, and we find ourselves further into overshoot.

I can think of a couple of possible mitigations for our apparently bleak future, or at least our response to it.

1. Higher Power Intervention.

If a person looks at how ecological systems work together, one cannot help but be impressed by how the whole system (except possibly for humans, which are out of synch) works together. Perhaps there is a Higher Power behind all of the religions of the world, who has devised the plan as a whole, and who has a continuing plan for humans. We cannot know this with certainty, but the hope can be helpful for some individuals.

2. Greater Flexibility and Focus on the Present.

I think of a letter I received from “Derek” who has spent considerable time in Kenya.   I put up a letter from him on The Oil Drum in April 2009. He talks about a very different life there.

What I experience there [in Kenya] is a society that does pretty well with VERY little energy, all things considering. This wouldn’t be ‘pretty well’ by any standard of the Western world, though. But survival – and happiness! – are pretty much possible. Oddly, a first-time visitor would think the Masai live quite horribly, but they are very happy people and wouldn’t want to change a thing.

It’s the mindset that makes most Kenyans experience a happiness most Westerners would not consider possible given the realities, as they see and experience them.

In Kenya, we do use electricity (hydro / diesel), if we can. We have constant power cuts. But that’s not the only limit. In fact, the vast majority of us, even the so-called middle-class, build our lives around limits. Limits are the basis for every decision we make, business or otherwise. It is, you could say, a way of life that is happy when it is not done in, and not unhappy if things go wrong.

People there – including myself – would celebrate every day that was a good day. And a good day is one where we got by. I would say, for 95% of Kenyans, life there is very much focused on the hour, and hardly ever on the future.

One secret Derek points out is how this works out, when there is a great mishap, like a child dying.

. . . I have also been witness to a great many situations where people lost their children, cried for a week, and moved on, had new babies, weren’t depressed – nor impressed. This is strange to me too, but that is the way it is. People in Kenya have a different view of things.

We have been led to believe that we can control our futures by going to the “right” colleges and getting the “right” degrees and investing in the “right” investments. It looks like these approaches are not going to work any more. Perhaps we need to have the flexibility to try new (to us) more traditional approaches. Along with this, we need the ability to move on, when things aren’t working. If a child or spouse dies, we will somehow need to move on quickly.

Another piece of what needs to happen is that we need to find a way to get more connectedness and altruism back into society.  This is part of what makes life in Kenya as positive an experience as Derek reports that it is. Religion has played a role in this in the past. It seems to be especially the marginalized groups of society that are losing this connectedness.

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     About gailtheactuary
My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. The financial system is also likely to be affected.
View all posts by gailtheactuary → This entry was posted in Planning for the Future and tagged Craig Dilworth, ecology, overshoot, population, territoriality.. Bookmark the permalink.
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Newer Comments → badocelot says:
February 15, 2012 at 1:28 pm
I’m reminded of John Michael Greer’s discussion of K-selected and r-selected species in his book “The Long Decent.” While humans are a K-selected species, we’re living in an extremely r-selected society. Greer made a nice analogy between our society’s reliance on oil and a society of rats in an area where a grain truck has overturned and spilled its contents: in the presence of a sudden glut of food, they overshoot and finally starve, taking the carrying capacity down some with them.

As regards religion, there’s a deadly interaction between doctrines formulated in an era before technology and cheap energy made severe overshoot conceivable and their tendency to take on aspects of the cultural zeitgeist, including faith in eternal material and economic progress. Traditional Christianity throughout history tended to veer toward various forms of asceticism, forbid loaning at interest (the foundation of the modern economy), and the early church fathers would be aghast at the modern “family values” rhetoric — they promoted celibacy.

Not that there weren’t problems — I know I don’t want to go back — but they weren’t the problems the Christian Right are giving us with their denial of Peak Oil and climate change. It’s when the two mix and the belief in progress gets transfigured into the belief in a God-given right to consume that you get the particular form of short-sightedness we’re seeing.

Reply (@selfgovus) says:
February 15, 2012 at 1:37 pm
Both you and George Mobus have recently written about the spiritual aspect of the transformation this world requires.

I recommend a google search for #EtherSec 

 paul says:
February 15, 2012 at 2:03 pm
The Kenyan life style is, it seems, more likely to persist than the recently developed American lifestyle, which has hardly ever come to terms with resource limits. But …
Does the lifestyle of the 1% have much future? They are far removed from actually doing anything except rentier usuary, and consumption that it is hard to see how thay can fend for themselves in a resource limited world. I can’t see them forming family groups that stake out a claim to some fertile territory and defend their tenure of it with pikes and clubs. More likely wherever they go, they will become the prey of choice for more primitive predators. It is not a happy future for anyone, IMHO.

 gailtheactuary says:
February 15, 2012 at 11:33 pm
I am not sure it is a good future for anyone, but there will probably be some people with power. These people with power will probably not correspond to those with high incomes now, but there may be some overlap. The people with power will make sure that they and their families get a disproportionate share of what resources are available.

Quite a few wealthy are likely to lose their paper riches. Even physical riches can be taken away, for example by law changes or by high taxes.

 The REAL Dr. House says:
February 15, 2012 at 2:44 pm
Gail, your essay (and the work which you reference) raise some interesting ideas. However, at this point, I don’t see any way out of this predicament other than drastic die-off. I think the chance of a higher power helping out is about as good for us as it is that a higher power will save bacteria in a petri dish. When the food’s gone, it’s gone.

I like the insight you share with respect to greater flexibility. And while I agree that we need more of it to cope with what’s coming, I don’t see any way that will help prevent die-off. The question now is when and how much.

 gailtheactuary says:
February 15, 2012 at 11:40 pm
Maybe it is just as well that we don’t know when and how much. The timing looks like it is all too soon. The question then becomes how things work out. Some things may continue working for a while, even if some very basic things are missing, like imports, or even money in general. Things we own like clothing will continue to “work” for a while, until they wear out. Some of these things may soften the blow.

 St. Roy says:
February 20, 2012 at 9:55 am
Dr. House:
I agree. Once you understand our energy predicament and the 2nd law of thermodynamics, it’s very hard not to conclude that a major human die-off will take place during the 21st Century. Paul Chefurka’s article, ” Population, The Elephant in the Room” probably best encapsulates this future. I am just now reading Craig Dilworth’s book, “Too Smart For Our Own Good” that provides much more detail on the process of how populations decline.

 Robin Datta says:
February 15, 2012 at 3:08 pm
The non-theistic religions (Buddhism,  Jainism and Advaita ["non-dual"] Vedantic Hinduism) do not postulate a “Higher Power”. The reference to “The One without a second” found in many places in Hinduism and at least once in Kabbalistic Judaism (Sefer Yetzirah chapter 1, verse 7). This implies the exclusion of the duality of “I” and “G_d” (and everything else).

The idea of the interconnectedness of all things is acknowledged in Buddhism as Interdependent Co-origination, but has its roots in earlier Vedic traditions that describe the universe as “The Net of Indra” (Indra being the chief Vedic deity) in which each entity is a node in the net, being connected to all other nodes through the strands of the net.

The altruism of Eastern Traditions extends to all sentient beings, with even plants and inanimate objects existing within the spectrum of Universal Consciousness. Hence the Buddhist vow to strive until the last blade of grass realizes “enlightenment”.

A central theme of the Eastern traditions is to reside in the here and now, while operating as much as possible outside preconditioning and prejudice.

 Les D. says:
February 15, 2012 at 5:29 pm

I’m not surprised that Kenyans live happily on almost nothing (by Western standards). I read somewhere a while back that a survey of the standard of happiness in different countries had Nigeria scoring much higher than the U.S. Now I haven’t been to Kenya, but I have been to Lagos in Nigeria. It’s the sorriest excuse for a functioning city I’ve ever visited. And I’ve spent time in some of its competition in that field: Karachi, Jakarta, Manila, and Mexico City. But every Nigerian I met in Lagos — from a cabinet minister to a street vendor trying to sell me a “genuine Italian-made Rolex watch” for $20 — appeared to be happy.


 Ed Pell says:
February 15, 2012 at 6:55 pm
Evolution in action. There are segments of human society that are K-selected and segments that are R-selected. There are segments that steal, lie, and deceive. There are segments that kill, steal and occupy. There are segments that are kind, honest, and truthful.

The sheep are going to need to learn to understand the wolves if they want to survive.

 Jan Steinman says:
February 15, 2012 at 8:41 pm
“The sheep are going to need to learn to understand the wolves if they want to survive.”

And vice-versa, no?

Wolves don’t survive for very long after they have eaten the last sheep.

 Owen says:
February 17, 2012 at 10:02 pm
True, but that’s no reason not to eat the sheep.

That’s why you get treated for disease. You’re going to die eventually, yes, but why hurry it.

Eat the sheep. Live longer.

 Prosperous Way Down (@TinyEnergies) says:
February 15, 2012 at 7:39 pm
Great post, Gail. A general hypothesis is that culture evolves to fit the energy pattern of the time. The mores of culture, religion, and even politics are our cultural DNA and tools by which civilizations self-organize. Do we need a new religion to guide descent? Or can we resurrect the old values of living within nature from the religions that we have? Is spirituality a part of the science of descent, and if so, how? How does the nature of equality and freedom change over time within cultures operating with surplus energy, versus those with less energy?

I’ve been following a lengthy discussion on the topic on one of the permaculture forums.
The Sturm und Drang is a reflection of our times?

 Bicycle Dave says:
February 16, 2012 at 11:21 pm
Thanks for the Prosperous Way Down Link – got me hooked as soon as I saw the Avatar picture (my favorite movie)! I’ll definitely check it out.

I looked briefly at the permaculture link, but I need to read more. I agree with an opening comment: I would be one of those who would “walk away” if there was even a hint of some underlying belief system that was not based upon solid, peer reviewed, mainstream science.

 gailtheactuary says:
February 17, 2012 at 12:44 am
I think we will always need multiple religions–even if people are working off the same document, they seem not to come to the same conclusion as to what that document says.

But it does seem like we need some changes of emphasis. Somehow, we need to recognize that there are limits, and we need to work within them. It will not be possible to keep every premie alive, and every great-grandma on a respirator, and encourage families to have an unlimited number of children. Somehow, we need some more up-to-date belief systems incorporated.

 pjc says:
February 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm
“We end up with more people, but those people are not really better off, and we find ourselves further into overshoot.”

Ummm…. we end up with more people, because less people are **dead**. Not sure how this figures into “not really better off”.

Suppose you have two population groups of 100 babies. By age 10, one group has been reduced by childhood mortality to around 20 children, 15 of whom are fit and atheltic, and 5 of whom are crippled.

By age ten, the other group has only experienced 10 fatalities. Of the 90 remaining, 15 are fit and athletic, 5 are cripplied, and 45 play lots of video games and are not particularly fit, and 25 are obese.

I think by Gails perverse reasoning she would reckon the second group to be “not really better off” … but that would be considered psychotic by most people.

By hey – a certain amount of aloof, disdain for the masses is part of the whole “finite world” worldview.

 OldStone50 says:
February 16, 2012 at 12:19 pm
But inversely, how do you confirm unequivocally that group two is better off? Simply because there are more survivors? Is longer life for individual members of the group the absolute measure of success and better off-ness for the group as a whole? That could be argued as true for each individual within the group, perhaps, but does that argument hold for the group itself? Why?
What if the cost of group two’s survival rate is that all the members of that group have to be in a strictly controlled, artificial environment with severe constraints on what is allowed? Does that change things, better off-nesswise?
Finally, let’s take a third group, but one that has only 10 members to start with and of which 9 survive childhood and 1 is crippled. How does group three compare in better off-ness with groups 1 and two?

 pjc says:
February 16, 2012 at 2:37 pm
“Simply because there are more survivors? ”

Let’s see …. I think you’ve got it there!

Oddly, most people prefer life to death. And see a society in which people die more frequently as being worse.

What a weird affectation, huh? Pretty hard to fathom….. Those silly Westerners with their “anti-death, pro-life” prejudices! Don’t they realize they’re being ethnocentric!

 Dan in KC says:
February 16, 2012 at 11:52 pm
I was going to post a different reply – but after looking at the rest of this thread it is clear that your sarcasm is a well honed shield to protect your world view that anyone projecting concern about the future trajectory of human society in the face of peaking resources must be trying to “get” something from you – perhaps to convince you to give up everything you hold dear. However, reality has a way of making itself known regardless of how confident you are that everything will continue with Business As Usual.

I don’t think anyone here ‘wants’ to see an increase in infant mortality or a decrease in lifespan but that seems to be the way you want to spin Gail’s post (by the way – very rude word choices : ‘perverse’, ‘psychotic’ but I suspect that is all part of the shield you put up – it must be scary to worry about what might happen to your children in the future, mine are grown but I do worry about the futures of my great grand nephews and nieces,

Talking about the potential for a reduction in human population (in whatever form or direction that may take; starvation, disease, war) is not the same as promoting it or wishing it into existence. Perhaps there is too much ‘acceptance’ of this happening for your taste, I can respect that perspective, but the discussion also serves to help explore avenues for mitigating the impact. In any event, Good luck with keeping that shield up!

 pjc says:
February 17, 2012 at 8:43 pm
There certainly seems to be misanthropic slant to these types of posts, what with the “we can’t keep saving every preemie” ramblings.

There seems to be a notable lack of celebrating the improvements in human health technology in these sorts of posts. Not one whiff of “it’s great that babies don’t die so much, but here are some new problems that are raised as a result”.

As to “Business As Usual” — what year should we expect to see global infant mortality decline? I’m happy to wager.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 17, 2012 at 9:37 pm
It would seem you wish to obliterate death. Death gives life meaning and cycles energy back into the system which allows for it’s operation to continue. By resisting the very nature of the system that both creates and nourishes, you move further away from any sense of inner peace and belonging. Would you also be in the camp that applauds seeking eternal life or immortality? This desire to overrule all the natural systems is a rebellion against what we are and only serves to create the very suffering you wish to abolish.

 pjc says:
February 17, 2012 at 11:06 pm
So, rooting for the continued decline in infant mortality is somehow a Faustian wish for immortality?

My guess is you have no clue what the childhood mortality numbers even are … most doomers and “modern life is horrible, Kenya is wonderful” types can’t be bothered with such statistics.

At any rate, it’s around 6% of kids die before age 5 globally. It was over twice that 40 years ago. That’s our “predicament” – not that people are greedily reproducing more – it’s that kids are dying at less than half the rate they used to.

In the industrialized world it’s around 1/10th that rate. About 0.4% or 0.5%. (The US is abound 0.7%, Canada and Australia are slightly better, some European countries are way down at 0.3%).

Kenya, the example here, is almost 9%.

I suppose if the global number fell below 1% it might be reasonable to say “ok human health is pretty excellent – we ought to start thinking about some other priorities, like saving the snapping turtle or what have you”.

Good luck telling people a backslide towards Kenya is something they should accept philosophically, as the price for being less materialistic and less anthropocentric.

At any rate, I’m curious with re: to this disdain for “Business as Usual”. When can I expect to see the childhood mortality numbers stop their decline and start to increase? In a year, within 10 years, when?

 Justin Nigh says:
February 17, 2012 at 11:41 pm
I suspect your mortality numbers are a lagging indicator and just because they continue to accellerate doesn’t necessarily suggest they’ll keep doing so. Once the oil that has fueled that growth is taken away the trend would be expected to reverse, possibly faster than it ran up. I don’t profess to have a crystal ball and won’t walk into the trap of predicting when this will occur; what exactly are you trying to achieve by demanding such a prediction? You assume that a so called backslide to a less materialistic and anthropocentric life is something people will have to accept. Again this stems from your belief that humans are in control of nature. It’s not a matter of acceptance when nature shows it’s power.

 pjc says:
February 18, 2012 at 12:00 am
“what exactly are you trying to achieve by demanding such a prediction? ”

Declining childhood mortality is irrefutable proof that a doomer scenario is not occuring.

That’s the game you play with doomers and other delusionals. You say something like.

“Ok the end is coming? When exactly?”

Delusionals, when asked to give concrete proof that their delusions are real, sputter and flail around.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 18, 2012 at 12:16 am
I’m neither a doomer nor delusional. There is plenty of evidence that we’ve damaged the environment that supports us, eroded the quality of our topsoil, caused the extinction of untold species. How is this a lack of evidence? I’ve yet to see you provide evidence that irrefutably denies any of the above. A power down or die off is not suggestive of ‘the end’ at all. But if you are denying there are some difficult times ahead it is you sir who are delusional because it dismisses plent of facts detailed on this blog and elsewhere.

 pjc says:
February 18, 2012 at 12:44 am
“How is this a lack of evidence? ”

Things are always getting both better and worse. If you only look at the things that are getting worse, than it’s easy to argue we’re falling off a cliff. If you only look at the things that are getting better, it’s easy to argue that there is nothing to worry about.

If you take a really big, important statistic, that everyone agrees is very, very important, like childhood mortality, and say “so long as this is getting better, then the good changes appear to be outweighing the bad changes”, then you are making a reasonable attempt to see the world as it really is.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other problems or the world is covered in marshmellows. But so long as kids keep dying less, things are basically OK. Veil of tears and all that, but basically ok.

My beef with this post is it’s sort of backsliding on infant mortality. This whole post is saying “meh, 9% of kids dying before 5 isn’t really so bad. If we live in harmony with nature we can accept 9% of kids dying. Look at Kenyans”.

Nope. Not buying it – that’s crazy talk.

 gailtheactuary says:
February 18, 2012 at 9:58 am
I will have to admit that I do not see a need to get infant mortality down to a very low level.

If nothing else, there is the issue of genetic diseases. There is no point in increasing the number of people in the group who have serious problems of various sorts, to become parents in the next generation. There is also no point in increasing the number of children who live, but have serious disabilities–need to be cared for all of their lives. Even the fact that the baby is born very small would seem to increase the possibility of the same problem occurring in the next generation. Being a part of a large multiple birth group would also seem to increase the chance of giving birth to more multiple births in the next generation (unless engineered through in-vitro fertilization).

In a world with lesser resources, we will need to match up our resource use to what is available. Taking care of a disabled infant for a lifetime takes huge resources–perhaps the time and energy of two adults (because of the need for 7 day care) plus the need for modified homes, special transportation, not to mention more frequent hospitalizations. If we don’t have enough to go around, this is not a cost society can really afford.

Nature provides a fairly high level of miscarriages, to deal with babies who have defects that are incompatible with long-term survival. I see a fair amount of infant mortality as an extension of this. Most parents can have another baby, if this is their choice, so I do not see this as a huge burden on the family.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 19, 2012 at 7:52 pm
When I used to work in computer systems support, I would on occasion get a call from a colleague reporting their computer would not start. It powered on but the operating system failed to load. Not uncommonly the person would remark, “but it was working fine yesterday.” I found this curious and would reply, “well it always works fine until it stops working.” Systems can very quickly and suddenly go from a working to non-working state.

Up until this system failure, one could reference the metric “it turns on and works every day” as an indication that all is well. However, upon further examination and questioning, such as, “did you receive any error messages recently?,” I would often find there were warning signs of the failure. For example, the person might tell me they got a message that the hard drive was running out of available disk space, which if heeded, could have prevented the failure whereby the operating system was unable to load due to lack of hard disk space.

While your metric of infant mortality may be a good indicator that the system is working, focusing on this metric to the exclusion of other metrics that may serve as warning signs of impending failure can have disastrous implications.

Personally I prefer to pay attention to the warning signs. I would rather be in the camp that prepares for potential system failures and be wrong, than be in the camp that doesn’t and is wrong, because my camp has less to lose if we turn out to be incorrect.

 pjc says:
February 17, 2012 at 11:10 pm
Sorry typo.

“Business As Usual” for me means a continued decline in global infant mortality.

When do you expect this happy trend to reverse itself? In just a few years? This year? This decade?

It certainly doesn’t appear to be happening right now – in fact, proportionately, the improvement in childhood health is accelerating.

 Dan in KC says:
February 18, 2012 at 11:06 am
I assumed that was what you meant to say. However – I don’t do annual predictions (that is Gerald Celente’s schtick). While it is true that infant mortality has declined I will point out that the dramatic decline observed from the 1800′s to the present also corresponded with the greatest increase in per capita world wide energy consumption. This extra energy was used to free up resources (time) which facilitated the efforts ‘society’ could extend towards medical research to develop better medicines and techniques as well as contributing towards better pre and post natal care of both the baby and mother through better nutrition and rest.

As per-capita energy declines (through both increases in population and flattening out, or declining energy production) then both the ‘rest’ component and nutrition component of the mortality reduction will be compromised. A huge number of individuals in the US are already unable to pay for their medical insurance and if the trend for society as a whole is to cut back on medical and social support networks because it does not have the excess resources (energy) to apply in that direction then the improvements we have seen in infant mortality will begin to reverse. The advances already made in medicine will still help immensely – but if people cannot pay for the medicine then what do you think will happen?

My ‘broad’ expectation is for global infant mortality improvements to first flatten out (similar to the flattening out of our energy production) then begin to show a reversal…When per-capita global energy production is half of what it is today I think there will be a clear reversal in the global infant mortality improvements (maybe not twice what they are today – but clearly worse than they are today). This will also be coupled with an observed reduction in life expectancy.


 Stu Kautsch says:
February 16, 2012 at 12:37 pm
“would be considered psychotic by most people”??
In what culture? Many primitive societies would agree with Gail, and some of them had a longevity much greater than what we have experienced so far.
Also, if group two ceases to exist in the near future, there will be *zero* individuals. *Then* who is better off?
Not becoming extinct trumps all other considerations.

 pjc says:
February 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm
“longevity much greater than what we have experienced so far”


Ummm…. nope.

Pre-technological societies have higher fatality rates and lower life expetancy.

Sure, some members live to a ripe old age. But as a whole, without some fairly complex medical interventions, people will die pretty young.

Some Westerners (usually ones with limited experience in youthful mortality among relatives) are somewhat blithe about this, as is Derek who spent time in Kenya.

Since childhood mortality is so much more common in Kenya, the society is better adapted to cope with it. But I think it takes some serious moral relativism to think this is some sort of “fair trade”.

The overwhelming majority of world population is going to see declines in childhood mortality as an unallowed “good thing”, and an increase in childhood mortality as a “bad thing”, and thus will see societies with high childhood mortality as being “worse”.

Just saying – Westerners preference for Western lifestyles isn’t based around a love of “Dancing with the Stars”. Most people understand at some gut level (even if they aren’t familiar with the formal stats) that pre-technologicial life comes with some very serious drawbacks. Like a significantly increased liklihood of an early death, or of watching your children die. You’re not going to get them to accept this by saying “in a week or two you’ll be over your kids death and will be so focussed on daily survival as not to care”.

 Stu Kautsch says:
February 16, 2012 at 2:57 pm
The longevity I was referring to is the society itself. A society that lasts 10,000 years is superior to one that lasts 200 years.

 pjc says:
February 16, 2012 at 3:37 pm
Yup, this whole “almost always, all of your kids will outlive you” thing is a relatively new deal. So whether or not a society that achieves that can last 10,000 years or not is an open question, since a low level of childhood mortality is a fairly recent achievement.

“A society that lasts 10,000 years is superior to one that lasts 200 years.”

Something like infant mortality is a clear statistic that can be objectively measured. The question of “how long a society lasts” is something open for debate. The are more speakers of “Romance Languages” now then at the height of the Roman Empire.

Personally, I suspect low infant mortality will be like farming – something that sweeps the globe and is maintained for more than 10,000 years (while various beauracricies rise and fall). But I will concede that I don’t know this for a fact, it is only a prediction.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 16, 2012 at 8:13 pm
What evidence do you have that our world’s resources are not finite; specifically oil? I don’t think anyone here would welcome a die off, just that it is viewed as an inevitable consequence of overshoot. I don’t think it’s fair to criticise someone for looking at the facts, when the facts reveal something we don’t want to hear (don’t shoot the messenger). While I agree that the earth is abundant in resources, I don’t agree we’ve used them conservatively or efficiently which presents us with the finite situation we’re in. I recognise your response includes an element of emotion and I commend it because I think it’s important to consider all things, including people, to be sacred. In fact I believe we find ourselves in this situation because of a lack of the sacred which has led to a wastage of resources and diminished appreciation for all life. I would argue that our great numbers are not borne of any sense of sacredness but rather of a selfish desire for more, bringing people into the world whom can’t be supported.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 16, 2012 at 8:32 pm
Some further thoughts on this topic.

Do you think that increasing the number of people diminishes or increases their value? Do we not consider the rare to be more valuable than the abundant? I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel less significant in a world of 7 billion, ever increasing. People become more easily expendable when there’s an abundance of them. A feature that fascists could easily abuse. Furthermore, when there is a lot of evidence that suggests more people beyond a point does not improve our species survival rate, as an ambassador of the species, as we each are, I’m not comforted by our expedition into overshoot due to the implications to our long term survival on both macro and micro levels.

 pjc says:
February 16, 2012 at 8:37 pm
“I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel less significant in a world of 7 billion, ever increasing.”

So we should welcome the die-off because it will promote the self-esteem of the survivors? That’s an interesting, albeit twisted, world view.

I feel significant because my two kids, wife, and rescued pit bull all love me to bits. Sorry if the decline of death in the third world somehow impairs your mental health.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 16, 2012 at 8:51 pm
I clearly stated in my post that I don’t welcome the die-off, but see it as inevitable given the facts. Would I like to see a world where billions of people could be supported without detriment to other equally relevant creatures who also have a right to existence? Of course. Sadly that hasn’t been borne out in the facts. Am I suggesting we enforce such a die-off? Not at all. Do you only place value on human existence? If the extinction of even more species and their habitats is a side effect of our population growth, do you feel that’s acceptable? While you claim I care not for the lives of people in Africa, your argument would suggest you care not for the numerous species who no longer exist in ANY numbers as a consequence of our numbers.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 16, 2012 at 8:57 pm
Your last comment about feeling significant I believe supports my argument as to why people selfishly want more children. Why should your self-esteem come at the expense of reducing resources available to others?

 pjc says:
February 16, 2012 at 9:58 pm
“Your last comment about feeling significant I believe supports my argument as to why people selfishly want more children”

The population stabilies with 2 kids per couple. Actually, it would decline slightly, since some kids will never couple, or will be infertile, etc.

At any rate, your welcome to think of me as “selfish” if you want. Personally, I think that whole “giving your time and energy to another person makes you selfish” notion pretty looney, but have at it.

“If the extinction of even more species and their habitats is a side effect of our population growth, do you feel that’s acceptable”

Pretty much. If the whole planet turns into a parking lot I’d be upset, but any rational assessment of acreage is that the planet is mostly unpopulated by humans.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 16, 2012 at 11:52 pm
There is a critical flaw in your belief (yes it’s a belief because it’s not supported by the evidence) that anything short of turning the world into a parking lot will not have serious implications for the stability of the ecoystem. The flaw is your argument is founded in a premise of humanity being above or outside of nature, which is increasingly unsubstantiated. Numerous scientific disciplines like ecology and even agriculture support the opposite. While perhaps beneficial short term, such views are unsustainable. What you haven’t understood is that we don’t need to pave over the Earth to affect other species; the mass extinctions are evidence of this. The amount of square footage humans occupy is not corrolary to the amount of damage we do. There are force multipliers, like pumping large volumes of waste into the environment, which do a great job of disrupting ecosystems and changing habitats even if we don’t occupy them physically. You also conveniently ignore the interdependence of all creatures and assume humans can carry on in some sort of vacuum where they have no bearing on our survival. How can an increase of a single species numbers and overall standard of living compensate for the diminishing diversity of organisms? If you understand network theory, which is what the ecosystem is, you’ll know that diversity improves the robustness of the network and removes single points of failure. You seem to believe other species are expendable and our natural systems will simply carry on operating without them but fail to recognise the system developed to where it is because of them. Might this belief be based on yourself being human, and having significant bias toward humans over other creatures? No no, it couldn’t have anything to do with that.

You certainly have some interesting viewpoints, those that could be argued caused the very mess we’re in, while you also seem to ignore there’s any mess at all and encourage and cheer on business as usual.

 pjc says:
February 16, 2012 at 8:34 pm
I’m not going to argue about whether or not the “power-down die-off” is inevitable, or even likely. Clearly, we disagree there.

” I would argue that our great numbers are not borne of any sense of sacredness but rather of a selfish desire for more, bringing people into the world whom can’t be supported.”

Well, that’s pretty much wrong. Any objective reading of the demographic patterns show human population has risen because of the exact opposite trend. I.e. population balance was historically maintained through premature death of offspring. The human population rose because people were dying less, not because they were reproducing more – which is basically the opposite of the “people the world can’t support”.

In fact, fertility rates tend to drop with industrialization – again, the opposite of your premise. Hence, the Gates Foundation strategy to control population by promoting industrialization – hoping to see the rising health and declining fertility that’s been seen in the industrial world recreated in the third world.

But hey, you folks are so much smarter than Bill Gates (and Warren Buffet, whose fortune is mostly going to the Gates Foundation). Those two are pretty dim.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 16, 2012 at 8:43 pm
There are all kinds of intelligence. Some intelligence gets us into more trouble than others. We’ll have to wait and see if Gates’ attempts to use mechanisms of control, which got us into our predicament in the first place, will prove successful. While industrialisation may serve to reduce fertility rates, it also serves to destroy the ecosystem on which our long-term survival depends. I also don’t believe snide remarks are going to win you any agruments.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 16, 2012 at 9:17 pm
It’s abundantly clear that you are anthropocentric and that’s something we’ll never agree upon.

 pjc says:
February 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm
Quoting Gail.

“I will have to admit that I do not see a need to get infant mortality down to a very low level.”

Yep – that worldview would be considered psychotic by most people. I’m glad the bulk of humanity doesn’t share your priorities.

I can only hope that if 9% of your childbearing frends and relatives had experienced the loss of a child you wouldn’t be so heartless.

At any rate, just let’s bear in mind that modern industrial society isn’t all about “greed and more stuff”. Reducing global infant mortality to a low level is a collective priority of society at large.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 20, 2012 at 6:07 pm
Your rejection of nature is heartless.

 pjc says:
February 20, 2012 at 10:31 pm
Well, let me put it this way – if you think Ron Paul’s “let’s abolish the EPA” idea is disturbingly popular right now, just wait until some of the predictions in this post start to materialize.

Long before the infant mortality rate in the US approaches that of Kenya, the EPA will not only be abolished, but so will will the Nuclear Regulator Commission, the ANWR drilling restrictions, any restriction on fracking, and any restriction on the Keystone Pipeline.

Heck Barack Obama is running on an “all of the above” energy platform right now. If some of these doomer scenarios start to pass, you’ll see how low “save the snapping turtle” is on the totem pole of priorities.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 20, 2012 at 10:53 pm
If that’s how events transpire they will only accellerate our mutually (humans and other species) assured destruction due to a lack of understanding that we indeed, as much as popular opinion believes otherwise, depend on those species and earth systems for our own existence.

 gailtheactuary says:
February 21, 2012 at 12:02 pm
I think I am more concerned about Rick Santorum, who opposes birth control and has 7 living children. We do not need him as an example of how others should lead their lives.

 pjc says:
February 21, 2012 at 2:01 pm
Sure, Santorum is a creep.

It’s actually quite bad for America that this clown is doing as well as he’s doing in the Republican primaries. The Republicans are going to win presidential elections in the future (probably not this one) and they ought to be nominating people who are more appropriate. The fact that they are freaking out over nominating someone centrist enough to be governor of MA is a bad sign.

Most people in industrialized society, when left to their own devices, chose to have small families. The numbers are pretty clear on that, to the extent that most long term demographic predictions show the population peaking and declining based on soley on increased industrialization and availability of birth control.

I don’t think the Santorum’s of the world will tend to have much sway. He couldn’t even hold on to his Senate seat. His views on homosexuality alone make him politically obsolete.

 St. Roy says:
February 20, 2012 at 6:29 pm
Lost in the nesting, I reply to your comment about the heartless post on infanticide:

Per Dilworth (thank you for introducing me to this book), population checks, including infanticide, are pretty normal throughout human history and are more or less practiced now in China. Let’s not make value judgements on the current norms of our society. Cultural values are in constant flux – ala women’s suffrage being just one of many. With the severe overshoot we are going to experience with less accessible fossil energy, I suspect that infanticide will become quite normal.

 gailtheactuary says:
February 21, 2012 at 11:53 am
Not everyone records infant mortality the same way. Many countries omit babies viewed as too small to live, so the data we have isn’t really consistent from country to country. (Whether it is consistent from year to year is another issue–perhaps it is.) This is an article called Global Infant Mortality Ranking Called Compromised.

 pjc says:
February 21, 2012 at 1:54 pm
Your point being what exactly?

This is a technical issue akin to determining whether or not Michael Phelps or Jeremy Lin is more physically fit.

It has no bearing on the observation that both Phelps and Lin are fare more fit than Kevin Smith or Jorge Garcia.

Again, the industrialized standard is for a very low infant mortality rate compared to what “low energy consuming” societies can achieve. Lots of babies that grow up to be very healthy and productive adults (i.e. the back-country skiing, marathon running, pediatrician who I roomed with in college) will die in a low-energy-per-capita world under anything remotely resembling current technology.

People are going to rally strongly around maintaining a high energy world society as a result.

Again, it’s not about “big cars and triple sized hot tubs and fast boats and super fancy jeans and big-screen TVs”. The pro-energy people have some strong human heath arguments that are going to trump any effort to “power down”.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 21, 2012 at 6:05 pm
I’m re-posting a previous post that I believe either got lost in the nesting or was just ignored. I think it’s relevant to your comment about people rallying to maintain a high energy world society. I don’t see evidence of a problem (to the extent discussed on this blog) being acknowledged by those who would do such rallying, let alone acting in any significant way that isn’t more of the same (the same that has been modelled and shown to be running out of time).

When I used to work in computer systems support, I would on occasion get a call from a colleague reporting their computer would not start. It powered on but the operating system failed to load. Not uncommonly the person would remark, “but it was working fine yesterday.” I found this curious and would reply, “well it always works fine until it stops working.” Systems can very quickly and suddenly go from a working to non-working state.

Up until this system failure, one could reference the metric “it turns on and works every day” as an indication that all is well. However, upon further examination and questioning, such as, “did you receive any error messages recently?,” I would often find there were warning signs of the failure. For example, the person might tell me they got a message that the hard drive was running out of available disk space, which if heeded, could have prevented the failure whereby the operating system was unable to load due to lack of hard disk space.

While your metric of infant mortality may be a good indicator that the system is working, focusing on this metric to the exclusion of other metrics that may serve as warning signs of impending failure can have disastrous implications.

Personally I prefer to pay attention to the warning signs. I would rather be in the camp that prepares for potential system failures and be wrong, than be in the camp that doesn’t and is wrong, because my camp has less to lose if we turn out to be incorrect.

 pjc says:
February 21, 2012 at 6:23 pm
Well, the infant mortality metric isn’t arbitrarily chosen to be misleading. It goes to the heart of the population growth referenced in this post.

Moreoever, infants and young children are the most vulnerable to a stressed environment (in addition to the elderly). So if you’re worrying about humanity committing suicide, you’d expect infant mortality to be a leading indicator, not a lagging one, as a more stressful, less healthy environment should impact them first.

Other than that, your overall post seemed sort of facile, so I ignored. Yes, some indicators are misleading, but, in terms of the strict lens of human health, this one isn’t.

Overall, you sort of sound like someone in the late 19th century screaming about the demise of the buffalo herds. There was a tremendous, and mostly pointless, loss of animal diversity when the great plains was turned into farmland, but it was irrelevant to human health. It was bad for the buffalo, it was bad for the tiny slice of humanity that lived off the buffalo, but not bad for humans at large.

At any rate, predictions of some vaguely futuristic doom and myopic obsession with only bad news doesn’t really interest me, or lend any insight into modern society. I think almost everyone agrees that declining infant mortality is a positive sign that represents “progress”. To my mind, the extent that the posters on this board see it differently explains the marginalization, rather than prescience, of their overall world view.

 Justin Nigh says:
February 21, 2012 at 6:57 pm
I often find people who like to criticise someone use words that actually describe themselves. Facile, delusional, psychotic are all words you’ve used which may very well be projections of your own psychology rather than anyone else on this blog. The emotion you’ve expressed is also a likely factor in your obscured view of the predicament.

There are many examples in history where the majority misses major trends and the minority sees them clearly. You’ve criticised Gail and others for their heartless and cold assessment of the potential for a large reduction of population, but yourself express the same in your comment about the ‘tiny slice of humanity that lived off the buffalo, but not bad for humans at large.’ This has been our argument, that if the loss of some human life to preserve the species at large were required then it would be considered justifiable. It also seems you have no problem being ‘heartless’ about the plains Indians; a people who I obviously hold a much higher respect for than you do the invading Europeans. Again an example of people calling another g
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