Wednesday, May 9, 2007


There is a great deal of panic going on with regard to ghost energy because of estimates that the growth in our grave robbing can't continue. The idea is that we will want more and more of the deathly diet of coal, oil and gas but the amount we can disinterre per year will not increase so that an economic law will put prices so high that civilization will collapse.

This is sometimes clothed in biological language that comes from the application of differential equations to the study of (non-human) population dynamics. Terms like overshoot, carrying capacity and overpopulation get bandied about without even a hint that clear thinkers have understood for quite some time that the use of the term surplus applied to people reflects more on the shriveled soul and lack of education of the speaker than on the situation at hand. It is as if the contradictions of Jeremy Bentham's support for both the abolition of slavery and the punitive workhouse have not been outgrown. The power of ghosts is enormous until we learn to laugh at them.

So, what is so ridiculous about thinking there is such a thing as overpopulation or overshoot. Why are these over-the-top?

Population dynamics modeling is a fine example of the use of coupled differential equations. Set up a situation, say foxes and rabbits on an island, or goats and grass on an island, enter a rate at which rabbits or grass increase and a rate at which an individual fox of goat consumes rabbits or grass. Then, let the equations run. At first the rabbits multiply because there are not enough foxes but then fox kits increase and there are too many foxes for the number of rabbits and both populations crash until there are not enough foxes and rabbits multiply again. This oscillation comes from the lag in the response of the fox population to the increase in the rabbit population. With the goats, everyone likes to add an additional factor like erosion. Then the goats multiply until there is not enough grass, both populations crash and the recovery of the grass is reduced owing to the erosion so that on the next cycle the goat population does not rise so high and so on.

Here we see an illustration of overshoot: the fox population continues to grow beyond the number of available rabbits, an illustration of carrying capacity: the grass can only support so many goats, and an illustration of carrying capacity degradation: erosion leads to less grass so the goat population can never rise so high again. It is a little hard to pin down the term overpopulation here since it is really a value judgement. The populations are what they are in these kinds of models. Should we say that there is an underpopulation of foxes when the model first starts out? From the rabbit's point of view that would seem foolish. Rabbits don't usually chew up the roots (except for carrots) so they would be just fine without the foxes reaching a stable population. Overshoot is just a mathematical term to describe ringing in oscillating systems, but somehow it implies blame when we start talking about ourselves.

Now, here is something to understand about differential equations: they like boundary conditions. In these examples, we have islands and this is what makes the whole thing go. Without the island, if foxes eat up most of the rabbits, they won't usually stick around so they won't experience a population crash. Goats also are known for wandering in their foraging. The idea of carrying capacity is really strongly based on the idea of boundary conditions. This time the island is the whole Earth. The ecology, as it is, may only support so many humans. What if goats decided to practice soil conservation and improvement? What if they enhanced the amount of grass for food by realizing that they could produce energy more efficiently with a wind mill, build a seven story greenhouse with artificial light powered with wind, used that for food and leave the rest of the grass on the island alone?

All of a sudden, it is not an island but an open system with plenty of free (real) energy.

The concept of the artificial boundary condition was defeated in World War II. The idea of lebensraum was replaced by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our reliance on ghost energy makes some of us regress to the old way of thinking because we start thinking it terms of scarcity, but the truth is that the amount of ghost energy we use is minuscule compared to the amount of real energy that is available. With this real energy we are able to support and enhance the ecosystem. We have no idea what the Earth's ecosystem's carrying capacity can be because we have not really begun to apply our creativity to nurturing it. We should know that it is vast because even our feeble, ghost energy using, and short sighted efforts have had a tremendous effect already. Thus, we have every reason to welcome, as an infinite blessing, every new person who might bring their new creativity to helping with this and honoring every person who brings their wisdom along to a riper age who can help in guiding our newest people.

Surplus Population? Bah Humbug!

1 comment:

popmonkey said...

excellent post. i'm glad i found your blog in the otherwise malthusian fantasy world that theoildrum has become in the last 12 months.

when i was a kid, recycling was a new thing and we talked about an earth covered with garbage. the malthusians were convinced we would be out of resources in a decade or two and that the world woulb be completely polluted by garbage.

30 years later, no one even thinks twice about recycling, it is automatic, and there are no garbage will destroy the world doomers left.

i think the current green trends have gone from fringe to mainstream in an incredibly short amount of time. it's becoming cool, not nerdy, to own a hybrid, and soon true non-ICE vehicles as they come to market.

the VC community's new darling are green companies, every electronic device engineered in the last 5 years has low power consumption as its number one requirement.

entire homes and workplaces have converted to CFL and so far all i've really talked was demand destruction without the need for HUMAN destruction.

then there's the renewable energy movement and humbug to anyone who says progress is slow. reading slashdot alone one can see that PV solar has gone from fringe 20% to mainstream 40% efficiency in barely 2 years! the reason is there's huge money to be made in energy and while there's no doubt that PO is going to cause a big bump along the way, i don't understand this need for constant doom mongering.

i absolutely agree that when it comes to humans, you can't just plug numbers into human population/energy curves as if we were a petri dish colony. there's a dignity and ingenuity (doesn't have to be technological) that is completely overlooked by the die-off cultists.

there's a lot of bitter people out there and they want to see humanity suffer. i think they are the biggest problem we face. they'd rather sit on their asses and point out how things will fail than to try and make something out of our future. they tend to be bitter old men who see their own waning years as a metaphor for the waning years of humanity. it is selfish and it is, as you said at TOD, an insult to all human beings, those who struggle, those who actually are working on making a difference.

so thanks again and see ya around.