Suicide is not the highest form of self-interest

We have a little war going on in this thread. Some people are arguing that we shouldn't assume human beings are the most important creatures bar none around, while other people are angry that Eric Pianka would have such high regard for other organisms on Earth and would urge us to make room and restrict our population.

I'm personally more sympathetic to the egalitarian view that denies humanity a privileged position, except in our own personal esteem, but OK, let's play the game. Let's assume that human beings are the most important, most precious, most essential species on the entire planet—heck, the entire Universe. We must do everything in our power to guarantee their safety and prosperity. I will simply and unilaterally defer to the other side's opinion.

Now what?

What should we do to maximize the health and happiness of the human race? What are the selfish, self-centered actions that we ought to carry out to make the largest number of people maximally happy for the longest period of time?

I'm afraid that even with my immense concession, your best answer is to listen to the "enviro-wackos". They're the ones thinking in the long term about sustainability and diversity. They're the ones trained to understand all the interactions going on on a healthy planet, who not only appreciate the totality of life here, but are even aware of the rich species diversity here. They're the ones who realize you can't pave the planet and use the oceans for a sewer, and expect humanity to survive.

Do you even understand the argument? I'm not saying that we need to preserve the snail darter because it is a valuable organism in and of itself, but because we are screwing over ourselves when we smash and poison our environment to such a degree that as innocuous a creature as a small fish is unable to survive. I'm being greedy, not altruistic. It's a position both sides ought to understand.

People are trying to argue that we are not currently overpopulated, which is ludicrous. We're seeing rapid habitat destruction and a wave of extinctions all around the globe; we're seeing environmental catastrophes that are killing people. If we were in a sustainable balance with our fellow species, we would not be seeing these ongoing and irreversible losses. If your priority is humanity über alles, are you working to conserve energy and slow global warming? Why not? Do you realize that pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and overfishing the oceans and deforesting the tropics is going to reduce the number of people who can live here in peace and prosperity?

It's exasperating to see so many people pretending that holding humanity in the highest esteem means you've got the right to trash your home…your only home.

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I just don't happen to think there is a such a thing as a particular "sustainable balance" or a world spirit that pays back supposed wrongs done to it. There are many problems that mankind is causing both ecology and himself. Yes, we have to solve them for our own good, and frankly because we're biophilic.

But radically cutting back on the population? First of all, not going to happen. Second of all, population isn't itself the major factor anymore: its the level and application of technology. I respect Pianka and hate to see him getting attacked by a bunch of psychos. But come on. That doesn't mean I have to agree with him or his conclusions.

Ah, what the hell. The Rapture's comin' anyway......

Unfortunately, there's something right about Rocky's remark. If it's true that 30% of Americans are evangelicals, it seems safe to assume that about a third of Americans -- at least -- aren't concerned about environmental destruction because they are firmly convinced that they have a real home, a true home, waiting for them just around the corner (and getting closer all the time).

There's a Jack Chick tract about this, called "No Escape!," which is unintentionally funny, as all of Chick's tracts are.

But taking this into account, combined with the many, many others who simply don't perceive their utter dependence on a healthy biosphere, even the argument from anthropocentrism will fall on deaf ears.

I just hope that we don't end up hearing Planka say, "I told you so!"

I just hope that we don't end up hearing Planka say, "I told you so!"

Even if he's right then there's only one chance in a hundred you'll hear him say it, so I wouldn't worry.

More important to me than people deciding it's okay to trash their home is their presumption in choosing to smash mine too.

plunge: One way or another the human population is going to have to be "cut back on". Whether we do that voluntarily or nature does it for us in a most unpleasant manner, it's going to have to happen. I think it's better that we do it ourselves in the most humane way possible than ignore it for awhile and then have billions of people die in misery from famine and pestilence.

By Cyde Weys (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

"we shouldn't assume human beings are the most important creatures bar none"

Rubbish I'm the most important creature around and I'm not sure anything else exists at all, except this beer that is.

(Guess that's what comes from reading philosophy)

"no... sustainable balance...no ...world spirit that pays back supposed wrongs done to it"? what are you talking about? you don't need to think of mother nature as a spiritual entity to appreciate that we're trashing our earth. and how could there not be such a concept as a sustainable balance for human existance on earth? it's no more than the population of humans the world can keep providing for in the long term. it's not a hard concept. sure, we can increase that number by being environmentally responsible, but the current overwhelming strategy, of simply cutting deeper and deeper into our resources- that can't last.

we're like a city that is rapidly increasing its population without a commensurate increase in infrastrucutre. sure, for a while we can do things like use the existing infrastructure more efficiently, or tap into still existing but previously dormant forms of infrastructure- but after a while, you're going to see increased strain in various parts of the city- in transport, or in hospitals- and eventually, parts of those systems will fail, putting even greater pressure on the city to cope- but seeing as we can't import anything from outside the city, we're not going to be able to do much.

Now, I don't know how radical policies need to be in terms of cutting population- I have a strong moral objection to things like china's one-child law (and obviously, I don't think we ought to unleash airborne ebola- and I don't htink pianka thinks that either). but i certainly think that policies such as promoting birth control and providing free contraceptives in developing countries (where the current increase is happening) is a bloody good idea, and need a whole lot more priority- from individuals and other countries if the US govt won't get off it's backside.

you don't need to believe in a 'world spirit' to get that.

No, no, you aren't getting it.

They're not arguing that humans are the most important beings ever in some general sense.

They're arguing that *the humans who are alive right now,*, you and I, are the most important beings ever. That's in comparison to future people, and past people. Screw those guys. When was the last time untold future generations of children bought me lunch, or washed my car?

Again - we are but fleas agitating the hide of a far greater organism. Humans ain't squat. Christians are animals. My grandchildren are going to die a painful death the result of human hubrus, of christian, white, facsist pig-fawking arrogance. First thing let's do, let's kill all the christians.

By Thomas Ware (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

Rocky-

You stole my thunder!! Honestly, there is such a divergence between the exhortation in the scriptures to be stewards of the earth, and fundie Xtians belief that humans have dominion over all things . What can you do? Stewardship means work and planning, and dominion sounds like king of the castle ass whuppin time- which one would you pick if you had a choice???

By impatientpatient (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

For years, I have used the phrase "unenlightened self-interest" to describe most of the enviro-whacko movement. I'll admit that the first component of that description might be more or less applicable depending on exactly who you're talking about, but the second part is the absolute truth.

Saving the world doesn't do you any good if you're not going to be around to enjoy it.

Well said Thomas Ware - and without the slightest hint of irrational fear, hatred or stupidity in your tone.

[/sarcasm]

At a couple of readings in the Seventies, I heard Gary Snyder tell a story about a Japanese itinerant Buddhist holy man whose punchline was, "No need survive!" It got a laugh, but Snyder believed then what Dr. Myers seems to now, that destroying the environment in the long run destroys us. Snyder has written since that he had a change of mind: human life might yet survive in its own toxic waste heap of a planet where the only wildlife was rats and roaches. We could ride our SUVs armored against radiation and acidy smog over the desert of pavement past the factory farms to the fast food restaurants and still test as human.
But that prompts a normative question: would we be living a life worthy of human beings? Snyder doesn't put it that way, but I think he agrees that human nature is normative; to be worthy of the name human (and not merely to test as human), we need to rest our hands on treetrunks, to be startled at the birds we startle underfoot, to pick burrs off our socks, to negotiate the same trail as the elk, even to have our trash plundered by raccoons. Better to be shat on by the blackbirds than live in a plastic bubble.
On this showing, leaving the snaildarter's waters undammed preserves and renews us, however useful the power generated by the damming to such distintively human ends as electric canopeners and illuminated billboards. Being human in the full sense needs wilderness to fill the senses.

You want to control population? I've got the answer for you, and it's a proven answer: wealth. Wealthy people have, on average, fewer kids. As the world as a whole gets wealthier, birth rates will drop, and eventually the population will stabilize.

This discussion continues to entertain me. "We're important and special, so we need to take care of each other. That's why we all need to stop using energy and having babies, or the Earth will purge us with Ebola!" "No! You heathen baby-eating Darwinist liberal! Humans are all important and each has a precious soul of his or her own! That's why our loving God is going to rapture about a fourth of the world population to heaven and kill everyone else and roast them all in hell!"

This howler is great:

"Again - we are but fleas agitating the hide of a far greater organism. Humans ain't squat. Christians are animals. My grandchildren are going to die a painful death the result of human hubrus, of christian, white, facsist pig-fawking arrogance. First thing let's do, let's kill all the christians."

Oh boy... the trolls are hungry aren't they! Feed me! Feed me!

I've got a better idea. How about all the green ideologues kill themselves to reduce our burden upon the Earth, and how about all the fundies sell all their belongings and go off to some island somewhere and wait for the rapture.

Meanwhile, I'm going to go pick up some genetically modified food, turn on every appliance in my house, and sit back and watch Brokeback Mountain. Ahh... energy consumption, industrial farming, and a couple cowboys getting it on!

First thing let's do, let's kill all the christians.

That sounds like a modest proposal.

By Swiftboaters w… (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

PZ sayz:

What should we do to maximize the health and happiness of the human race? What are the selfish, self-centered actions that we ought to carry out to make the largest number of people maximally happy for the longest period of time?

Do you have a definition of what it means to 'maximize the health and happiness of the human race'? I can think of some wacko extreme examples that would accomplish this (mind altering "happy drugs" and a forced nutrition/exercise plan), but I doubt you had this in mind.

There are many ways to achieve what you want. How you get there is the bigger question in my mind. As for me, I'm most concerned with doing what is right. Maximum health and happiness will follow from there - at least I think so.

There obviously needs to be a balance between our freedom to do what we want and our responsibility to do what is right.

am I to assume "Thomas" is a troll?

Call me paranoid, but I'm half expecting to see a comment appear real soon now on a thread on some other blog (I won't mention names...) linking to "Thomas"' comment above and screaming "SEE? Those godless atheist darwiniazis want to kill us all!!!!!"

Or do I need to adjust my tinfoil....?

By Bored Huge Krill (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

First, it's important to point out that choosing the "humanity über alles" versus "humanity should give equal value to animals and humans" does change the calculation about the "right" number of humans. And if you start with Pianka's "humans are of equal value to animals", you're going to come up with a low number of humans as the "right" population level.

However, I'm not sure where that "right" number is. Perhaps the world is overpopulated when you start thinking about what happens when the third world starts using energy and resources at first world levels. (Case in point: the US uses 7.3 billion barrels of oil per year. If everyone started using oil at US rates, global oil consumption would be around 160 billion per year. Known oil reserves are around 1.2 trillion barrels; 7.5 years worth of oil at those consumption levels.) Obviously, the earth cannot sustain that kind of energy consumption. This means on of three things: (1) keep the third world at poverty level (which only delays the problem), (2) discover new technologies to handle the problem, or (3) depopulation. Obviously, we cannot continue to use the same technologies that we currently use. Personally, I think we're currently ok with the population levels, but we really can't add too many more people. Further, there a big unknown in the technology side of things. If we were having this discussion 100 years ago, when the population was much smaller and technology more primitive, I don't think any of us could've concluded that the human population could every reach current levels of 6.5 billion. Technology will likely allow the third world to become more prosperous without causing human civilization to collapse under overharvesting of resources. But, we should limit the risks by reaching replacement fertility levels worldwide, as most of the developed world already has.

BHK,

Such troll tactics are pretty common on other blogs, so I don't think your tinfoil needs adjusting.

"plunge: One way or another the human population is going to have to be "cut back on".

People have been saying this for centuries. I'm unconvinced.

"Whether we do that voluntarily or nature does it for us in a most unpleasant manner, it's going to have to happen. I think it's better that we do it ourselves in the most humane way possible than ignore it for awhile and then have billions of people die in misery from famine and pestilence."

While there are many ecological problems one can point to that can cause real harm, the general statements of vast doom if the population growth isn't curbed just don't convince me. There's a legitimate range of debate here.

And heck, if general trends continue, far from dying of horrible causes, our descendants will have a far higher quality of life than we do, and be much richer. If the redistribution of wealth is legitimate, we should be looking for ways to transfer some of that future wealth to ourselves in the present instead of looking for ways to make them even richer and better off. :)

But if we ruin the environment, what will happen to the PYGMIES+DWARVES!?!?!?

By darthWilliam (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

"If it's true that 30% of Americans are evangelicals, it seems safe to assume that about a third of Americans -- at least -- aren't concerned about environmental destruction because they are firmly convinced that they have a real home, a true home, waiting for them just around the corner (and getting closer all the time)."

I live in an area with a very large number of evangelical Protestants, whom I would consider to be fairly mainstream these days. It really does not seem to be a matter of "unconcern" for the most part; it is considered an actual GOAL. I have heard people happily speak of this destruction as a positive thing, something to hope for-- and something that will bring about the "Rapture", which they feel that they, as good Christians, should actively hope to see happen in their lifetime.

Adam larymenko--

It's actually education and not wealth per se that's correlated with lower birth rates; but you knew that, didn't you?

By phototaxi (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

Ever try convincing someone with an anthropocentric view that the extinction of the pupfish or spotted owl will lower their quality of life? There is a tendency to label all who predict environmental consequences as doomsayers. And, by the way, this is same category that covers the rapture-ready christians. What cliff can we environmentalists point to as a justification to apply the brakes?

"You want to control population? I've got the answer for you, and it's a proven answer: wealth."

And what do you think will be the environmental consequences of this increase in personal wealth? Six billion people (and counting rapidly), each with 1st world living standards?

I wonder if "humanity" in the civilization sence of the word is a detramental gene/meme combination. Remeber, after you die, you are little more than a future sedementary rock. Nothing cares after the planet dies. Frankly, nothing cares now: we're all a chemical reactions that interact and create the illusion of complexity.

I think you can make the same arguments for share holder profits. How often do you hear that a company has to make a certain decision to maximize the share holders money at the expense of long term stability? It really is quite short-sighted.

By Whimsical Monkey (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

BrianT - "rapture-ready Christians" Now, individually wrapped, microwaveable, single-serving Christians!

By Buffalo Gal (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

I hold the belief you are refering to. I realize that aour lives are not sustainable at the moment. I think that what is truly sustainable is sort of disappointing--trivial, pointless, and depressing.

The solution? Get off Earth, fill the rest of the universe, and prosper as long as possible. Satisfy the environmentalists long enough to ensure the spread of the human race, then throw away the Earth like a used tissue. I'm willing to concede that we need to control CO2 emissions if we are to last long enough to figure out how to do this. But I'm not discounting the possibility that we might have to accelerate past the point of no return in a final push to get off this rock.

By Mayonaise (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

Mayo - "get off the earth?"

Are you freaking serious?
Currently the most people ever lofted into orbit in one shot is seven.

Suppose we manage to increase the efficiency of our tech a thousand-fold... and suppose instead of launching those 7 thousand people 2-3 times a year, we can do it every other day.

That STILL won't make a dent.

All that will mean is that there's a certain very few lucky elites who will get to use far more than their fair share of resources in order to escape, while the vast majority of people stay behind and try to survive.

Brilliant idea. And where will those lucky few go? How about MArs? We can terraform it! Yes, that's right, we can't manage to not fuck up a perfectly evolved and self-regulating ecosystem, we're not smart enough - so the solution is to go to some third-rate planet that DOESN'T have a functioning ecosystem - and build one from scratch! Yeah, that'll work!!

It WILL work!

Can we send our surrent elites?

surrent is the new, hip way of saying "current" - in case there was confusion.

There is no feasible way to export people at anything close to the rate we build new ones. I won't dispute we need to get into space, but it's not so we can live there. It's so there'll be something to feed the resource needs we'll have when we have 16 billion people living here.

There is just no way that the existing population is getting off the planet with anything approaching technology forseeable in the next few thousand years, and there's still nowhere really viable to go. We're stuck here folks. Get used to each other. :)

"People are trying to argue that we are not currently overpopulated, which is ludicrous."

I haven't read the other comments here to see whether this has already been properly addressed. But either way, I think I can do so in a few sentences:

Symptoms that are regularly believed to be caused by overpopulation can also equally be seen as symptoms of poor population management. Given the right adjustments, Earth can sustain far larger human populations and population densities than it currently does, whilst also suffering far less from negative human impact.

The key is not in the numbers, but in how the numbers are managed. Reduction in the numbers would be a defeatist approach to the problem. Humanity does not need to lose out in order for the rest of Earth's occupants to have their situations improved.

People are trying to argue that we are not currently overpopulated, which is ludicrous. We're seeing rapid habitat destruction and a wave of extinctions all around the globe; we're seeing environmental catastrophes that are killing people.

Nonsense! The emergence of human technological civilization and the onset of the Sixth Great Mass Extinction are obviously only coincidentally juxtaposed. We'd expect a Great Mass Extinction every few dozen million years anyway -- it's not utterly unreasonable to think that one might happen to occur just as an event without precedent in the known universe takes place. Right?

Right?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

Mike, I was thinking that instead of spending the ungodly (ack!) amount of money necessary to send thousands of elites to a terraformed mars, we just spend a fraction of that on an ad campaign to convince them they're going to mars... and just enough on tech to get them to low earth orbit.

With no oxygen.

wait.... did I just advocate extermination? Egads!

Matt wrote:
"Given the right adjustments, Earth can sustain far larger human populations and population densities than it currently does, whilst also suffering far less from negative human impact."

How do you know that?

I suspect that all the simple Malthus style calculations that spell our doom could be wrong -- they do keep failing because we keep inventing ways to put off the collapse. For example, Norman Borlaug and his "green revolution" with plant breeding for improved seeds and better farming systems. It was Borlaug who probably tripped up Paul Ehrlich and his predictions in the book; "The Population Bomb."

"The key is not in the numbers, but in how the numbers are managed. Reduction in the numbers would be a defeatist approach to the problem. Humanity does not need to lose out in order for the rest of Earth's occupants to have their situations improved."

Maybe -- but you'll have to spell out how to convince me. You can't just assume we'll keep inventing our way out of this coming crisis.

By Norman Doering (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

'You can't just assume we'll keep inventing our way out of this coming crisis.'

Ironicly, the fewer people who do not just assume we'll invent our way out of the next crisis, the more likely we'll be successful in mitigation, adaptation, and/or prevention.

The point of getting off the planet is not to reduce the population of Earth, but simply to not have all our eggs in one planet.

If you look at the REALLY long term, no Earth-based strategy can be sustainable anyway: once the sun blows up, that's it for Earth. And there are plenty of misfortunes that could befall it earlier than that. Would you like to live on Earth during the next end-Permian or K-T event, or would you prefer to watch it from a safe distance?

Assuming such a disaster could be foreseen, we'll have to somehow either evacuate Earth, or those who survive (off Earth and possibly outside the solar system altogether) will have to carry on. Provided, of course, that you consider the long-term survival of the human species or its descendants a worthwhile goal. In case of a disaster that *can't* be foreseen far enough ahead to do anything meaningful, it's even more important to get part of the human species off Earth ASAP. Consider it an off-site backup.

Evacuating the Earth is not necessarily out of the question for a sufficiently large civilization using the resources of several other solar systems for the project; the fact that it can't be done using only resources *on* the Earth is not the same as saying it can't be done at all.

To paraphrase an old slogan: Think galactically, act globally.

Current rate of increase is, what, 100 million people per year? So you need to ship more than 250,000 people off planet every day to break even. I agree getting off the planet is a good plan for eggs-in-one-basket reasons, but it doesn't speak to population, which is the topic at hand.

Why do we worry so much about getting HUMAN life on other planets? I imagine that getting life with mitochondria or something of that nature would be more easily achived and would still represent significant portions of our genetic identities (compared to, say, utterly alien life). It would take current technology and enough support to send a couple thousand probes in calculated directions in order to be successful. We could even write a bible! Who gets dibs on Genisis?

Ahh, politics! One of these areas with more faith than facts, where we all make fools of ourselves. ;-)

"Let's assume that human beings are the most important, most precious, most essential species on the entire planet--heck, the entire Universe."

Humans aren't fundamentally but qualitatively different. It would be quite another loss if humans goes extinct. Our qualitatively different culture (compared to chimps, for example) would go too. I mourn this loss on this principle, even though I know that there will probably eventually be new such cultures too.

"If we were in a sustainable balance with our fellow species, we would not be seeing these ongoing and irreversible losses."

I prefer to think of it as each species or ecology is fundamentally as individual as much as each human is. So I mourn every loss on this principle, even though I know that there will eventually be new births too.

Having said that, how do we balance this conflict?

Looking at resources:
Obviously, prioritising humans will initially mean more specie losses but it should level off when population stabilises. Todays extinction rates are scary though. And we will have a poorer genetic diversity indefinitely.

Technology and economy have a tendency to replace scarce (pricey) resources with new ones. When the population level stabilises, there should be no problems. Projected population levels are scary though.

Looking at humanity:
Democracy and free trade seems to "maximize the health and happiness of the human race" by looking at statistics. It minimises conflicts, poverty and population replacement rates, of the known alternatives. Which is why population levels have started to look like they will stabilise. Todays poverty are scary though.

But there are things here I'm (even more :-) naive about. Does markets need interventional reboots from time to time? (To avoid 'Microsofts', or people forever stuck in low income.) How can an assumption of exponential growth (interest rates) be sustained when population growth stabilises? (Effectivity enhancements may presumably only do so much.) Can we hurt markets with small taxes to try to make special efforts to alleviate poverty and sickness, or is *any* such effort selfdefeating?

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

For example, Norman Borlaug and his "green revolution" with plant breeding for improved seeds and better farming systems.

We currently use monocultures for the vast majority of our food crops. We use chemical fertilizers to replace the nitrogen and other nutrients our farming removes from the soil, which then leak into groundwater and choke wetlands with explosive algae growth. We use massive amounts of pesticides that kill off beneficial insects (honeybee populations alone have been decreasing dramatically in the last decade, and they're vital to pollination of many of our crops) and that have been linked to brain damage in humans, Parkinson's Disease as an example.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

"Evacuating the Earth is not necessarily out of the question for a sufficiently large civilization using the resources of several other solar systems for the project; the fact that it can't be done using only resources *on* the Earth is not the same as saying it can't be done at all."

Ok, lets tackle this problem.
First, we need something to hold all the people. Billions of people - this thing has to be really, really big.

Then we need to worry about supplies - food, water, air. It would be hard to pack it all... probably have to come up with some kind of system to regenerate waste into consumables.

So - we need something really really huge floating in space with a built-in system for recycling life-support resources.

man, if we only had one of those, we'd be all set!

Bravo, PZ. Bravo.

Craig I think I love you.

As a geology guy I have mixed feelings about change. Everything interesting I have learned about our little planet occured though dramatic change. The first disastrous change ocurred during the archean when plant life produced enough oxygen in the atmosphere to evolve higher metabolic lifeforms, that ate them.

Basically all sedintary lifeforms live in the're own poop. We do too, even though we would not consider ourselves sedintary, we live in our poop! History shows two options: poison ourselves, or create some higher lifeform that loves our poop and eats us.

Although we think we are supremely powerfull, we are not. We cannot destroy the earth, all we can do is change it. Extreme extinction events are common in earths history. Almost total lifeform population extinctions have happened repeatedly, the last one at the K/T boundary but several smaller ones have happened since. Each time higer lifeforms have taken over.

We are now in a period where the extinction rate is similar to the K/T boundary. We are in a period of rapid change. We are lucky to be in a position to witness part of it, all of us. We are not intelligent enough to stop it. Maybe we can document it in a way so that those that follow us can. They will be more intelligent than us!

there's nothing like a christian, a self-described "god lover", thumbing his/her nose AT GOD by destroying god's creation. yeah, i want to hang out for all eternity with Those People.

Not.

PZ assumes to know what will make future generations the most happy. Could the 1st century population know what would make us happy today? They'd have no clue. What made them happy is totally different than what makes us happy today. Do you think there is some unchanging, universal law of happiness that applies to everyone regardless?

Since I've already made a fool of myself in this question, I will append to the list of uncertainties.

I sort of agree with Caledonian and Dennis. Even though population and resources may be less of a problem soon, it's not certain that the system of our culture and Earth is approaching some sort of attractor. (If it is, I bet it's a strange one. :-)

Looking at risks:
Caledonian mentions "tragedy of the commons" mechanisms for risks (as also Pianka has pointed out). Risks are a different concern for stability than outright unstabilising forces, but they could be minimised.

There is the "singularity" scenario, that may unbalance resource demands indefinitely when passing it. It's hard to classify, but I will put it down in the risk category here.

Conversely, there is also the "senescence" scenario, that may mean high extinction risk due to the stagnation.

Both singularity and senescence will mean "all eggs in one basket". It may happen anyway, since the window of opportunity for space travel is said to be short. (People will eventually lose interest.)

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

Do you think there is some unchanging, universal law of happiness that applies to everyone regardless?

Not being sick or hungry or dead is a good start.

Not being sick or hungry or dead is a good start.

I dunno... have you ever met an unhappy dead person?

Do you think there is some unchanging, universal law of happiness that applies to everyone regardless?

Maslow's Pyramid is a pretty good qualitative description. Of course, as you observe, there's a lot more individual variation at the top of the pyramid, but if you mess with the lower levels, it pretty much causes unhappiness to anyone missing out on those factors.

I'm confused.
Mr Meyers, just the other day you had me convinced that yeast was the only life form worthy of preservation.

I meant, 'Mr. Myers' . Apologies for the mispelling.

PZ sayz:

Not being sick or hungry or dead is a good start.

In theory it's a good start. However there are plenty of healthy and never-hungry people walking around this world without a lot of happiness in their lives. Some are filthy rich too. Can't imagine anything being done about death.

If we can't solve people's happiness problems today, what hope do we have in solving them tomorrow unless we know what it is that makes people happy in the long-term?

Sorry if someone said this already. I'm too lazy to bother reading the other posts at this time of night.

But to me, preserving a diversity of species is comparable to perserving, say, the works of Shakespere (or whatever literary treasure you prefer). Sure, it's not necessary for survival or anything. But who would want to exist in a world without great literature? What would we be robbing our grandchildren of?

Great! Let's metastasize Mars!!!

By natural cynic (not verified) on 04 Apr 2006 #permalink

I don't understand what you're getting at, Lurker. Are you saying that there's no point to trying to make anyone happy? Are you saying that because we don't know completely accurately what will make future generations happy, we should just go ahead and erode the soil, burn the rain-forests, exterminate all the species?

In any case, after several thousand years of civilisation, philosophy, story-telling and even religion, I think we do have a fairly good grip on what makes H. sapiens happy. The problem is more down to ignoring the needs of others or the needs of future selves for marginal gains in short-term personal gratification.

Rocky wrote:

Ah, what the hell. The Rapture's comin' anyway......

...and for those Christians who say "The sooner, the better!" it's the Velocirapture...

By Ian H Spedding (not verified) on 05 Apr 2006 #permalink

So umm, can we have a carbon tax and better fishery management now please? Sorry to be all practical and mundane but there are things we can definately do to prevent a lot of the damage that we do to the air and the oceans and they aren't that expensive. We can prevent a lot of the damage that we do at the cost of only reducing the rate at which we grow richer.

Now I realise that spending a couple of decades just to stop things getting worse might not please some people, but it might be the best we can hope for realistically. Stopping most of the damage we do to the environment may cost us a thirty percent reduction in the rate that the first world gets richer. It's not that much to ask for and even then most of the cost is in the first few decades, but for some reason we seem to have a lot of people who appear to have given up and think nothing can be done and a few hyperenthusiastic people who seem convinced that nothing needs to be done.

There are things we can do and they are not that expensive or difficult. They just have to be done.

Shorter version of PZ's argument:

No species is an island, entire of itself
every species is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were
any species loss diminishes me, because I am involved in this planet
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
it tolls for us.

I think education, and low mortality rate for children, non-fundamentalist outlook (i.e., every sperm is not sacred), equality (in terms of decision making) of women are the things that go into smaller families.

But population growth will simply determine the magnitude of our crisis. Even if the population growth was zero from today onwards, sustaining 6 billion people who aspire to a current American lifestyle is unsustainable for the earth with the current level of technology. There simply isn't enough arable land to produce that much cattle feed for that many burgers. So something has to change. I hope it is not that a major portion of humanity is permanently condemned to poverty. Like it or not, we are on a technological treadmill, and have to hope that our ingenuity outpaces our problems.

... have you ever met an unhappy dead person?

Well, they sure don't complain as much as the living do, and skulls look like they have a permanent ear to ear grin.

By Norman Doering (not verified) on 05 Apr 2006 #permalink

Bravo! on the notion of enlightened self-interest for our species, but I suggest one little change. 'Environmental wackos' aren't trained in the scientists or even in rational thinking. These are the people who will happily sign a petition against 'di-hydrogen monoxide' because it has been found in our lakes and streams, and even in mother's milk!

So I'm not inclined to listen to them, but I do listen to actual scientists on environmental questions that relate to their fields. Would that our legislators and citizenry do the same.

We're not on a treadmill.
We're on a hamster wheel.

Clearly, if we're having trouble getting somewhere on our wheel, all we need to do is walk faster.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 05 Apr 2006 #permalink

If we can't solve people's happiness problems today, what hope do we have in solving them tomorrow unless we know what it is that makes people happy in the long-term? (Lurker)
Shorter lurker: let's not do anything because it might not work for everyone.
In the long term we are all dead and our happiness is no longer an issue. But how about '42'? It's the meaning of Life, Universe and Everything. Now that we know it, can we do something useful and/or fun?

By another lurker (not verified) on 05 Apr 2006 #permalink

By 1992, the biomass estimate for northern cod was the lowest ever measured. The Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans had no choice but to declare a ban on fishing northern cod. For the first time in 400 years the fishing of northern cod ceased in Newfoundland. The fisheries department issued a warning in 1995 that the entire northern cod population had declined to just 1,700 tonnes by the end of 1994, down from a 1990 biomass survey showing 400,000 tonnes, and showed no sign of recovery - just 1700 tonnes remained in a fishery that had for over a century yielded a quarter-million ton catches, year after year.

http://archive.greenpeace.org/comms/cbio/cancod.html

Thus, the ocean's output is limited. With technology, we might be able to have the ocean produce more cod. But otherwise, assuming that the Newfoundland fisheries eventually revive, there is only a quarter million tons per year of Newfoundland cod available for the world, whether its population is 300 million or 6 billion.

There simply isn't enough arable land to produce that much cattle feed for that many burgers. So something has to change.

And there's another way for technology to help us step out of the hamster wheel. If we can grow beer and cheese in vats, why not in-vitro meat too?

Do you realize that pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and overfishing the oceans and deforesting the tropics is going to reduce the number of people who can live here in peace and prosperity?

How do you know that global warming will reduce the number of people who can live on Earth? Seems to me that the United States and Europe are much more inhabitable these days, now that they are not covered in glaciers. If global warming continues for a few hundred years, we might see people being able to live in the vast uninhabited regions of Canada and Siberia. Right?

By Niels Jackson (not verified) on 05 Apr 2006 #permalink

Malthus was discredited in my view because he fell into the dangers of using asymptotic notation. This is a pitfall the CS people may find familiar. Population is growing as O(e^x) and resources as O(n^k) for some k. What didn't work with the argument were those pesky constants, whence in my view it is just a matter of time before they become insignificant. I think we're just about at the point of crossover on a lot of things, especially if the standard is the US.

Niels, it seems likely that global warming will disrupt the Gulf Stream, actually reducing the temperature of my bit of Europe by a lot more than general global warming will increase it. This will reduce the habitability of the UK and the productivity of its farmlands. Sure, people will continue to live here, but it won't be at the same level of prosperity.

If global warming continues for a few hundred years, we might see people being able to live in the vast uninhabited regions of Canada and Siberia. Right?
If what they say is true, then the current frozen areas will be inhabitable, but what happens to what now is tropical or desert?

There are very simple ways we can use technology to help in the coming population crunch. One is, stop driving cars so darned much. Another way is to stop driving huge cars; it really bugs me when I see Suburbans with one person shoehorned in the darned thing for their hard, 7 mile commute to work. Get a Civic, for Pete's sake.

Stop eating so much meat; beef is an incredible abuse of our land, water and grain-growing capacity.

And stop having so many kids. I have two, which is probably one too many, but I wouldn't trade either of them away.

This Rapture thing is something James Watt talked about in the 1980s. It's really a dumb, second-rate superstition. And yes, it is second rate, because good philosophy is in accordance with known physical facts (like evolution, and the impossibility of global floods, or of mustard seeds being the smallest seed on the planet).

I'm not even sure Pianka said that if ebola became airborne, it'd wipe out 90% of us. What he said was that ebola is fatal 90% of the time. If 100% of us got it, then yes, it'd kill 90% of us. But it won't, so we won't. Risks like this have been present since the first virus evolved.

Flying off the planet is a no-go, for a simple reason: When we flew to the moon, it used 1/2 of 1% of our nation's energy production for a year to be able to do it. That was to get 3 people off the planet. There is no technology to reduce that. It costs $10,000 to get a gallon of water into orbit.

Wealth won't do it either. To paraphrase "The Incredibles", "When we're all wealthy, none of us will be wealthy."

I'm rambling now.

A couple posts back, peole were talking about how important happiness is. If people are worried about being happy, why don't they just make pacemakers for the mesolimbic pathway. Or better yet, I bet we could make something in chemical form that would work just as well. Hmm ... cocaine could do it. Or any other street drug, really. I think we should get the whole population on these happy making drugs at once!

Alternitivly, we could examine why we get "happy". Hint: it's based in evolution and it has to do with getting organisims to seek out sex, drugs and rock & roll, I mean "and food."

For a really good look at what plaesure is, check out:
http://www.thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/index_a.html
Click on "pleaure and pain". on the top bar is 3 differant levels of explination and 5 differant levels of organization. On the left is "sub topic - pleasure and drugs" Under that headding, under intermediate and molecular settings, you can see how each drug "induces happiness."

In addition to being pretty cool AND Canadian (look at the address!) it also shows us the secret to happiness.

Mike

P.S. Obviously I'm being facetious. Happiness is a comparitive measure to previous surroundings. It's to maxamize survival. It isn't some sort of "ideal" that can be "obtained" on a long term basis. The "best" thing is most likely to preserve our genes rather than our memes, or to preserve them seperatly. Technology can carry the whole works of shakspear, including universal translation. Only living things can carry our genetic legacy.

P.P.S. THERE IS NO TENDANCY FOR EVOLUTION TO PRODUCE INTELLEGENCE! It's random! Frankly, intellegnce has likely been ELIMINATED several times as a mal-adaptive trait (which is why we only see it in monkies, err, humans, err ... us). There is evidence of this in the numourus other humanoid species that were intellegent and DIED ALOT and until died they couldn't die anymore. Get off your little green men / star trek(wars) induced mastibitory fantisies and lets be rational scientists about this stuff.

P.P.P.S. Of course, there is no tendancy for intellegence to not to be able to evolve, per se, either.

OMG. Move over Ayn Rand, "The Incredibles" carries the torch for Objectivism now!

This is interesting, I have been having this discussion with a fellow liberal friend. His conclusion is the world is screwed, there is no solution to resource depletion, so we might as well continue exploiting the third world and using all the resources we can. "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die."

I can't accept that conclusion. Predicting that there is no feasible solution is just as bad as prediction that some magical solution will come along.

By Scott de B. (not verified) on 05 Apr 2006 #permalink

PZ, sorry about the multiple posts earlier. I swear, I didn't click post that many times. I think it was the buggy nanny-ware at the company I'm (mostly) working at this week. I'll leave it be for the rest of the week.

Nelc said:

I don't understand what you're getting at, Lurker. Are you saying that there's no point to trying to make anyone happy? Are you saying that because we don't know completely accurately what will make future generations happy, we should just go ahead and erode the soil, burn the rain-forests, exterminate all the species?

I'm not saying that at all. Before anything can be done, you need to know what needs to be done and how to go about it.

We have enough food to feed the world right now, yet people starve all the time. We don't seem to be lacking the food, rather we seem to have a surplus of corrupt leaders that take the food and let their people starve. How does PZ propose to solve this? It has nothing to do with what he is proposing.

What makes us happy? It depends on who you ask. Many are happy living in minimal/poor conditions, others are unhappy living in luxury. Will preserving the rain forest and reducing the onslaught of global warming make people happier? Personally, I don't think so. It may make them more comfortable, more secure and less worrisome, but I suppose another set of discomforts, insecurities and worries will take their place (jobs, money, etc). This doesn't mean we should wreck the planet of course.

Happiness is a state of mind and I think PZ is being overly simplistic in thinking the correct solution is to 'save the environment' and humanity will be happy.

MikeM,

there is a way to dramatically reduce the energy requirement for climbing out of earth's gravity well. It's the space elevator and essentially consists of a more than 100 thousand km long carbon-nanotube rope held up by the earth's centrifugal force, along which radiation-powered climbers would haul people and cargo into space. You probably would have heard of it already if the Bush administration weren't wasting NASA's resources on a nostalgia trip to the Apollo era.

The space elevator alone may not be enough to enable the construction of fully self-sustaining space colonies. Most likely nothing short of posthuman intelligence will accomplish that. But at least the reduction in earth-to-orbit freight costs will render commercial exploration of the solar system viable enough to vastly increase the pool of available natural resources.

We have enough natural resources already. When will we stop wasting them?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 05 Apr 2006 #permalink

A lot of problems with your view PZ. First, most places where massive species loss are happening are "not" being caused by the stuff that most of the environmental movement is babbling about. It "is" being caused by near-third world, underdeveloped countries, who are trying to catch up, not by drastically improving their technology, but by expanding populations "faster" than they improve technology. One farm in the US could feed half of some of these countries, but instead they cut down 1,000 acres of rain forest, set up 500 farms and then discover a year later that the soil won't sustain them. So they cut down 1,100 acres and build 510 new farms. In the mean time, 90% of the self proclaimed environmentalists are harping about franken-fruit, logging and globalization. The first and last of which could "solve" the issues causing the massive destruction and the second of which is over hyped bullshit. Depending on who you talk to, we are losing huge swaiths of forests (never mind the fact they lump "all" forests globally into the equation) or we have more than we did 100 years ago, but only if you look at the US, without adding in every place else.

Second issue.. Cities. Enviro-nuts hate them. In reality though, except for some of the back to earth types, who are ironically usually the ones doing all the damn complaining, populations are moving "away" from rural areas into cities. Yes, the cities are growing in size, often in stupid and short sighted ways, but much of that is "still" because everyone wants a suburb, instead of a city. Globally, the bigger the major cities get, the less other land gets used and in some places, like Japan, if they where in the tropics, instead of where they are, most of Japan would look like the Aztec civilization by now, overgrown by nature reclaiming it. If anything, the concentration of human populations in cities is "benefiting" the ecology.

And finally, birth statistics. Again, this is another, "Lump everything into one basket and scream about it being a horrible disaster". In reality, the more developed a country is, the more the population has reached near stability or has begun to show "negative" population growth rates. The only exception to this rule seems to be the US. And guess what... The primary reason is the stupid obsession we have, that most countries gave up on, of having 4, 5, 6 or 7+ kids in one family. And much of that is driven by religious stupidity. The less religious some one is, the less likely they are to have "any" kids or more than 1-2 of them at most. In reality, "most" of the huge population growth is happing in countries where like the US where everyone is so busy "multiplying" as per some religion **or** even more severely in countries that have almost no technology, a high mortality rate, nothing better to do, and where the religiou morons like Bush want to ban condom use, in favor of telling people that have done nothing but screw, fight and hunt for thousands of years, to just stop screwing... Yeah.. Sure...

Yes, there are other issues that need to be dealt with, like over fishing. But most of that gets drowned out of an endless stream of bullshit, funded all to often by groups whose only real complaint is that businesses that "know" how to produce 10,000,000 bags of grain in 1/100th the land mass "might" dare to sell it to someone that takes 100 times more land to produce the same thing, only to have 80% of it be rotted, bug infested or otherwise inedible before it ever even reaches the people that need it. And they will do this while eating a salad, whose ingredients they bought from a store that shipped them in from 50 different countries, while watching Brittish TV and surfing the latest anti-american BS from someone in Sri Lanka, all without seeming to grasp that the very globalized markets they are freaking out about is "responsible" for letting them complain and feeding them in the first place.

Sorry, but while I am all for environmentalism, I think that the movement has become too much a tools to fight any random establishment figure, than anything real anymore. The people that are trying to fix the problems are almost as likely to be attacked by them as the people causing the #$#@$#$ problems in the first place. In fact, in some cases, they are "more" likely to be the ones attacked. We need smart solutions, not an endeless stream of idiots that think every company is out to destroy them, no technological solution is valid and the solution to everyone's problems is for them to all eat pine trees (Believe me, there are nuts like that. My father knew a rather famous one living in the Sierra mountains, his catch phrase was literally, "Have you ever eaten a pine tree?".).

zoeific,

How many space ladders will it take to get 100 million people a year off the planet? Maybe... 1 million? How much energy will go into producing the spacecraft to carry the 100 million away (talk about resource depletion!)?

Don't get me wrong, space elevators will be a very cool way to launch probes, etc. But for a mass evacuation? Forget it.

That doesn't even get into where we'd go. I'm thinking Mars would probably be overpopulated with 10 million people on it. Given that it takes an infinite amount of energy to hit the speed of light, the next solar system over doesn't look feasible.

To me, using the space ladders, which currently exist only in theory, to evacuate, is a lot like all that "free" energy nuclear power plants were supposed to give us back in the 1950s. It's a cool idea, and it's fun to talk about, but just like free nuclear energy can never happen, mass evacuations using space ladders can never happen.

This planet is where the human species will face its last battles, whether they're natural or supernatural. All my money is on "natural," of course.

We just need to stop being so gosh-darned wasteful. Instead of only pointing out the problems, why don't we spend part of our energy on pointing out solutions? Education is the key.

OMG. Move over Ayn Rand, "The Incredibles" carries the torch for Objectivism now!

As an Objectivism-related aside, the only self-proclaimed Objectivists that I've ever met possesed an glaring lack of any capacity for objectivity. They substitute self-obsession. Oh, they say they believe in in the primacy of "reason," but in reality, they fetishize "reason" in the exact same way that Christians fetishize "faith" -- to the point of complete meaninglessness. And they treat those who don't share their beliefs with the exact same condescension.

In short, from what I've seen of it, Objectivism is a crypto-religion whose practicioners use it as little more than an excuse to be as much of an asshole as possible.

The population would fall rapidly if people had only one child, or even if many people had one or two -- and many other people had no kids. If everyone had only one child -- for the sake of argument -- the population would be halved in a generation. This could go one for several generations and population would quickly plummet. As I see it, having "too many" old people would be a small price to pay.

I was not born yesterday, and believe me, it was nicer when there were fewer people.

It is not a given that all old people have to be sick and dependent all of the time -- or even that they couldn't take care of each other, if some of them were old and sick.

China had a Draconian one-child policy but couldn't enforce it, it seems. Nevertheless, by 2050 they will have a majority of old people. But maybe Draconian policies are not needed -- people having many fewer children seems to be the natural tendency of female education and modern industrial society.

If I wanted to optimize the human population while minimising its impact, I'd take a close look at how we turn sunlight into human muscle power. A human takes about a hundred watts to run. 6.5 billion humans therefore represent about 650 billion watts. I had a map around here somewhere from when some eggheads Danes tried to ruin civilization by inventing cheap solar cells --

http://www.windsun.com/Solar_Basics/Solar_maps.htm#Map3

It doesn't seem out of the question to get 100 watts/m^2 from sunlight. Accordingly, we _could_ get enough energy to power all of the existing humans on an square about 80x80 km. In fact, if we were limited to some process of extreme suckage such that 95% of the light was wasted, a square about 360 km on an edge would do.

The area used to produce food for human consumption is much larger than that. Much, much larger. This suggests to me that there is considerable room for improvement.

we are screwing over ourselves when we smash and poison our environment

Yeah, I've been thinking for some time now that environmentalism basically consists of "don't shit on your dinner plate" and all of the corollaries that follow from that.

People are trying to argue that we are not currently overpopulated

The last argument I heard for that was from Kent Hovind, who calculated that the entire population of the Earth could fit into Pensacola County, FL.

Of course, all he did was allocate each person a square foot to stand in. He didn't factor in the air these people needed to breathe, or the plankton and trees to produce the oxygen in that air, or the water and dirt for them to live in, or animals and plants for the people to eat, or plants for the food animals to eat, and so on and so forth.

And then there are the little things that you don't normally think of. Wouldn't it suck if some large number of people died because there wasn't enough magnesium to go around?

"Let's assume that human beings are the most important, most precious, most essential species on the entire planet--heck, the entire Universe."

No, we can play this the other way. Let's assume that we are no more important to the general ecology than any other randomly selected social animal. Hmmm, I appear to have selected entirely by chance the ant.

In some regions, social insects can make up 25% of the animal mass. Now, it's true that this is usually not one species of social insect but we happen to be somewhat hominid deprived and so where the social insects have thousands of species to fill the various niches, the poor social ape must do with one species (The ranges of the other Great Apes are a bit too limited, I think).

A back of the envelope calculation suggests that if 25% of the animal biomass in the regions occupied by humans were humans, that might represent two trillion humans. I therefore suggest that we admit to our humble status and settle for two trillion humans, give or take, on Earth, leaving 75% of the biomass to other species.

Admittedly, this offers some interesting challenges. The margin between our current state and a global runaway greenhouse effect as the ocean boil turns out to be about 1/3rd of the solar power currently hitting the Earth. This is about 5,000x the current power usage by human civilization. Now, if we had two trillion people, that would only be about 300x as many as we have now, which would seem to leave a nice margin of safety. Unfortunately, if everyone uses as much power as a 1st Worlder, power use on 2THE would be 5x as high as the average now (when most people live in abject poverty), which means we would be using 1/3rd as much power as is required to start the seas boiling. That's a much smaller margin of safety.

The first obvious solution is to try not to use energy in a way that adds to the total heat burden of the Earth: only use incoming solar power, block incoming solar power in balance with the amount we add from non-solar sources, make the atmosphere more transparent to IR or some other method I have not thought of.

Blocking or intercepting light will have an effect on the plants, of course.

Just to repeat -- for the sake of argument -- If everybody had only one child --we could halve the population in a generation, i.e., go from six billion to three billion in thirty years without any bloodshed. Thirty more years -- one and one half billion -- thirty more years -- .75 billion and so on. Some people might regard it as a crash. I think it could be a blessing.

Obviously it is not going to happen so smoothly or quickly, but something like it is not impossible.

The joke, Kagehi, is that the OECD countries spend $300 billion a year on agricultural subsidies; the "poorly developed third world countries" want these subsidies ended, because farmers in these countries cannot compete against such subsidies. There would be an immediate increase in the standard of living of third world peasants if those agricultural subsidies were ended.

Think about it, farming is just another form of low-tech manufacturing. Farming jobs would offshore just as all other low-tech manufacturing jobs offshore.

e.g.
http://www.cfr.org/publication/9385/#3

The average EU cow is said to receive a $2.20 daily subsidy, more than the daily wage of 20 percent of the world's population.

"The last argument I heard for that was from Kent Hovind, who calculated that the entire population of the Earth could fit into Pensacola County, FL.

Of course, all he did was allocate each person a square foot to stand in. Just shows another way we americans are ripping off everyone else

Just show another way we americans are ripping off everyone else - everyobody obly gets one qsquare foot, but most americans take up at least two if not three or four.

man, could I possibly have screwed up that post any more?

In short, from what I've seen of it, Objectivism is a crypto-religion whose practicioners use it as little more than an excuse to be as much of an asshole as possible.

If I remember correctly, Dan, you once advocated the views of an individual who insisted that banks needed to be prevented from giving loans preferentially to those people most likely to be able to pay them back, since that would disproportionally exclude poor minorities and thus constituted a form of racial discrimination.

I think you're the last person who should be evaluating other people's use of reason.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 05 Apr 2006 #permalink

I am not sure how ending European subsidies would enrich third world farmers. Usually Historically, subsistence farmers who switch to cash crops were immiserated, since they didn't have time or land to grow their own food and transportation was lacking to get food to them. Usually it was the middlemen who were enriched not the farmers, but perhaps I am overlooking something. In an energy crunch isn't it more sensible to produce food locally?

MikeM,

as I said, it takes more than cheap transportation to build a new home of life equipped to keep going independently from earth. I also agree we need more education and less defeatism. Which in my book includes the acknowledgement that our ingenuity has only just begun to explore the realm of the physically possible.

It's too early to say that humans, let alone their descendants, will remain stuck on earth. There are plenty of raw materials up for grabs beyond the (inconveniently deep) planetary gravity funnels, as well as a great deal of usable energy from hydrogen, methane, U-235, He-3 and solar radiation. The only thing missing (yet) is knowledge and the consistent smarts and wisdom to apply it. Centuries from now the asteroid belts could harbor a billion people or more, given sufficient mastery of bioengineering, automation, cognitive enhancement, artificial intelligence and so on.

Even travel to nearby stars is feasible, especially if a sentient AI is our pioneer of choice instead of a biological crew. The limits to travel speed should be a tolerable nuisance for an ageless scout who can entertain herself in a virtual environment indefinitely.

Neither will I categorically rule out a planetary evacuation - NOT as an alternative to birth control, but as a far-future means of getting out of cosmic harm's way. If the falling birth-rates in Germany and Russia are an indication, then the task might seem much less daunting by the time the next big asteroid hits.

Enough. I realize this isn't terribly relevant to Pianka et al. Take the above as a reminder that opposition to eco-fatalism and disgust with the hysterical slander against Pianka are in no way mutually exclusive. I can laugh at supernatural beliefs since science offers healthier hope than the moldy promises of the priesthood.

To paraphrase "The Incredibles", "When we're all wealthy, none of us will be wealthy."

No need to interpret this observation as Objectivist -- in fact, it tersely illustrates the folly of focusing on wealth acquisition. The trick is to find happiness separate from wealth. It's pretty hard to do that in a culture where money is the primary measure of significance, however, since it inevitably locks people into a zero-sum situation. The rules of the game need to change.

zoeific,

I can sum it up for you in one cliche:

Hope for the best; plan for the worst.

Which is exactly what Pianka was saying.

I think about the planners around where I live, who ask themselves every day, "What would happen if Folsom Dam broke?". I don't think they're hoping for that outcome, but they sure as heck need to figure out a plan, in case it does.

Asking the question doesn't make you a terrorist; in the case of Folsom Dam, it just makes you an engineer.

I think it's perfectly reasonable that someone working in the field would ask what'd happen if ebola became transmissable in a new way.

I'm going to Grand Canyon on Friday, so this is probably all I'll have to say about anything until at least next Thursday. All in favor of me bringing "The Incredibles" on the trip say "aye"!

Aye!

Mmmm... Objectivism and massive geological structures... together at last.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 05 Apr 2006 #permalink

James,

Your calculations are revealing, though some details could obviously be finessed. ;-)

But here is a small mistake, I think: "Accordingly, we _could_ get enough energy to power all of the existing humans on an square about 80x80 km." We would need a few of these around the equator.

"the folly of focusing on wealth acquisition"

This seems to be contrafactual with what absolute wealth confers. On a global scale, democracy and freetrade, the later driven by wealth acquisition, is connected to reduction of poverty, sickness, conflict, population increase. On a local scale, rich people are happier in studies because of opportunities wealth provides, AFAIK.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 05 Apr 2006 #permalink

"James,

Your calculations are revealing, though some details could obviously be finessed. ;-)

But here is a small mistake, I think: "Accordingly, we _could_ get enough energy to power all of the existing humans on an square about 80x80 km." We would need a few of these around the equator."

Actually, at the equator, we'd need less area because the sun angle is closer to 90 degrees and so there's somewhat more power per unit area.

A bunch of well distributed power sources is a good idea from the "what do you mean, Hurricane Andre just sucked the entire food synthesizing facility into the Gulf of Mexico?" point of view.

Historically, subsistence farmers who switch to cash crops were immiserated, since they didn't have time or land to grow their own food and transportation was lacking to get food to them.

Don't know which history that is, except in a colonial situation.

1. One hundred watts to run a person? Sunlight intensity is about 1,000 watts per square metre in Queensland for much of the day. My personal surface area for collecting sunlight is about 0.4 square metres. With fifty percent efficent photoelectric skin I could power myself almost 24 hours a day.

2. Cutting agricultural subsidies helps developing world farmers by raising prices but hurts developing world urban dwellers by raising food prices. I think agricultural subsidies should be gradually removed, but it's no silver bullet.

3. Sorry, a space elevator isn't really practical even can cheaply produce material stronger than diamond. Here are some details:

http://ronaldbrak.blogspot.com/2005/09/junking-space-elevator.html

"Just to repeat -- for the sake of argument -- If everybody had only one child --we could halve the population in a generation, i.e., go from six billion to three billion in thirty years without any bloodshed. Thirty more years -- one and one half billion -- thirty more years -- .75 billion and so on."

I am fairly certain the math does not work out that nicely, based on nations with below replacement level TFRs and rising populations.

The UN population model (1) I was playing with a few months ago has the population rise for some time after TFRs decline, as I recall.

1: This would be the one that steals from one of Herman Kahn's futurology books and realising that predicting "the" future is a mug's game, predicts a range of futures, from a AD 2300 with about a billion people to an AD 2300 with 40 billion people. For fellow SF nerds, this would be Imperial Earth vs Trantor (although it was never clear to me why Trantor, with only 40 billion, needed a world-city to house them all).

I had a long post on space elevators but screwed up posting it somehow.

Short form: space elevators are nifty and perhaps at some point offer a way to export a surprisingly high tonnage of finished goods (from machines to people) from Earth. Unfortunately, they don't actually have much to do with the basic question, which is "how many people do we want on Earth?" Even if we establish large populations elsewhere, Earth will presumably have a human population of some size and what size that should be will still be something people argue over.

Also, even with advanced people moving technology, it's fairly uncommon for a nation exporting people to experience a population drop as a result. The examples that come to mind have pretty much been hellholes like post-Famine Ireland.

"1. One hundred watts to run a person? Sunlight intensity is about 1,000 watts per square metre in Queensland for much of the day. My personal surface area for collecting sunlight is about 0.4 square metres. With fifty percent efficent photoelectric skin I could power myself almost 24 hours a day."

I think that's for a sedentary human, though. Adjust according to lifestyle [1].

As far as I know, a 50% efficient photoelectric cell would be a substantial advance on the current state of the art. Plastic cells run from laughable to 5% and silicon cells run up to 15%.

Assuming a converged Earth needs about 10^14 watts and the average spot of Earth gets about 200 watts/m^2, we could make do with around a million square kilometers of this 50% efficient material, or about 10% of the USA to power the whole planet at American standards of living.

I suggest we plate over Texas first: they are used to being net energy exporters.

1: I made a lifestyle error from the other direction: roomed with two nice Mennonite ladies who fed me like I burning 5000 Calories a day when in fact I was using a lot less. As a result, I soon had to be on the look-out for one-legged whalers.

I posted the other day, several points, amongst which was a list of how space efforts benefit us at home vs wasting money "in space". What happened to it?

James Nicoll wrote:
"I suggest we plate over Texas first..."

I suggest we build a Dyson sphere or a Niven style ring world around our sun to capture more energy and then use that energy to a run a matrix style virtual reality in a huge computer where we can be gods to the enslaved population of brains in vats tied to our computers.

By Norman Doering (not verified) on 06 Apr 2006 #permalink