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May 30, 2009

Fact for the Day

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Those who are now over 40 have lived through a doubling -- or more -- of the world's human population.


Some previous yakfests about population sizes, breeding, not-breeding, etc: here, here, and here. Woohoo -- people get really touchy about these questions!



posted by Michael at May 30, 2009


This is why we need space colonies. I am totally serious.

Posted by: onparkstreet on May 30, 2009 8:43 PM

The REAL resource limits of planet Earth:

This is John McCarthy's website and is a little old (around 1995) but still technically valid. In short, around 15 billion people can live at Western standard of living if you assume conventional agriculture (U.S. midwest) and all mineral resources come from Earth. If you use extensive biotech for food production and you get some of your Platinum group metals from space (e.g. mining asteroids), then the population limit is around 40 billion.

Note that this is about the material resource limits to population. It says nothing about the desirability about such a crowded world. My point is to say that coercive attempts to limit human fertility for resource limits reasons are not justifiable. Likewise, the belief that there is NO upper limit on human population is also irrational.

It is well-known that increases in female education and economic development tend to reduce birthrates to replacement and below replacement levels. This suggests that the problems of population growth are self-correcting within the context of reasonable physical and social limits.

Posted by: kurt9 on May 31, 2009 5:31 PM

Likewise, the belief that there is NO upper limit on human population is also irrational.

I assume that this is just your belief. It is entirely possible that an unlimited expansion of population would be a positive.

Might be a good idea to factor in the possibility of dramatic de-population through nuclear war.

We're on the brink of nuclear war in the Middle East. Surprisingly, nobody seems to care much. Iran has nukes and missiles and has sworn to wipe Israel off the map. Such a nuclear attack might lead to a wider exchange of nukes.

I can remember when this scenario would have had the entire world in a panic. We might be just about to subtract quite a few people from the planet.

I'm one of the few people around here who actually identifies himself as religious. I don't see this "population control" mentality as a positive thing. The number of people on this earth is beyond my control, and probably beyond the conscious control of humans... as it should be.

This is an issue that belongs to God, not humans. Our attempts to wrest control of this from God, well, that's a sin... specifically the sin of hubris. Sins have far reaching, and unforeseen, consequences.

I don't agree that humans should consciously control their own numbers. There is, literally, hell to pay from going that route.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 1, 2009 6:07 AM


I agree with you that the neo-malthusian attempts at coercive birth control are wrong headed and I presented a link to factual information to discredit the wining of the neo-malthusians. You will also note my comment about population growth slowing down, not because of government coercion, but by free choice and free expression of life styles brought about by increased standards of living. I fail to see anything objectionable about my comments.

There is clearly a finite limit to how many people can live on the Earth, even though it is at least one order of magnitude greater than the neo-malthusians think. The Earth is a sphere with a finite surface area. Clearly you can understand this. Perhaps we can build ocean city-states ( once the land is all filled up.

However, as someone who lived for 10 years in Japan and Taiwan, I have to tell you that there is more to life than just a high material standard of living. Crowding in an of itself is not that pleasant. One of the reasons why I currently live in the Pacific Northwest is because of the lack of crowding (compared to East Asia). I like the outdoors and like to go places where I am not surrounded by zillions of people. I like outdoor sports such as sailing, kite surfing, and hiking. I also scuba dive (when I travel to tropical ocean places). I like to get away from it all from time to time. I like to travel to tropical beaches as well. I think a world with 40-50 billion people would be much less attractive even if technology allowed us all to live like upper-middle class Americans do today. Imagine how expensive and crowded it would be to go on holiday to the Caribbean or Hawaii in a world with 40 billion people. Perhaps the ocean city-states I envision would come complete with artificial beaches.

ST, do you really want to live on an Earth where everywhere desirable is as crowded as Japan's Tokyo area? I think that you would agree with me that this is not desirable.

If we include Gerard O'neill's space colonization (remember the L-5 Society?) into the picture, then I agree with you that the upper limit to human population is essentially incomprehensible. However, only a tiny fraction of that future population would live on or even be able to visit the Earth. If the habitats are big and nice enough, they might not want to visit Earth (nanotech can make some very large habitats, passive femtotech might make them even bigger still).

Posted by: kurt9 on June 1, 2009 1:32 PM

"This is an issue that belongs to God, not humans."

He hasn't been around lately...

Posted by: anon on June 1, 2009 1:35 PM

Sure, the middle-east could have its nuclear war and I could be on the plane to my sales meeting in Japan or China the following week. Certainly oil prices would spike in the wake of such of an event and this would have an economic impact. In the following few years, the price of oil would decline as production would shift to non middle-eastern reserves. In the long run, this would be very positive as the supply of oil would be more decentralized and the rest of the world (think North America and East Asia) would no longer be consumed by the obsessive-compulsion of middle-eastern politics.

I do not consider the middle-east (both Israeli and Arab/Persian) to be relevant to my long-term future. The region makes up a very small fraction of the world's GPD. Certainly there are some very creative Israeli scientists and engineers. However, these guys are likely to relocate to the U.S. if such an event were likely to happen.

I see more upside than downside to the middle-east blowing itself into oblivion.

Posted by: kurt9 on June 1, 2009 1:45 PM

I don't know what I think of a world with double or triple the current population. I don't know what in the hell the future will bring. Nobody does.

These kinds of discussions are based on a faulty premise... that humans know what the future should or will bring. We don't. Anybody here remember when Marxism was viewed by the entire intellectual community as incontrovertibly "scientific? That turned out to be a crock, didn't it?

Just for fun, let's posit the opposite of a doomsday scenario in relation to population. (And, remember, I admit that I don't have a clue what's going to happen in the future.) Perhaps a world of 40-50 million people will produce a critical mass of intelligence and technical abilities that will create a world both of unimaginable wealth and environmental health.

I'm enough of a student of literature to know that predictions about the future have generally been ridiculously wrong. Every generation for several hundred years has pronounced itself the "new man" and announced that the horrors of the past were dead issues never to be repeated.

On the other hand, how can we be certain that a new age of disease and worldwide warfare will not decimate the population?

Arrogance (hubris, if you please) always ensnares the intellectual into thinking that he is called on to play God, to control the future and to redesign the world in a shape that strikes him as intellectual.

The intellect always plays its owner for a fool. We don't know what the future will be. We have absolutely no fucking clue. I sense here an aesthetic objection to being a part of a species that lives in the animal/insect world. Why? Why do you aspire to rise above this? Does it offend your pride to be a humble animal?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 1, 2009 4:39 PM

ST, why not? Aspirational types lifted us out of subsistence living, gave us art, medicine and even religion. It's a gamble of course, those same types also have wrought unbelievable destruction. I'll take that bet, though. What the fuck else are we supposed to do? It's a ride, man.

Posted by: JV on June 1, 2009 5:46 PM


You seem to be emoting more than articulating any kind of point. Indeed, you don't seem to be presenting any kind of coherent response to my points. You seem to be equating any rational discussion about population and resource limits to totalitarian communism. You seem to forget that in my original post, I stated that concerns over resource limits do not justify any coercive attempts by governments to limit human fertility. I did say that it is likely that human population will level off due to reasons of economic development, female empowerment, and greater range of personal choice. I said that this was good because, even though it is much higher than the neo-malthusians claim, there is a limit to how many people can live on the Earth because, golly gee, the Earth is a sphere with a finite surface area.

Instead of countering my reasoned points above, you simply call me a commie and state that any such reasoned discussion of these matters is somehow off limits.

This is quite irrational, you know.

Posted by: kurt9 on June 1, 2009 5:54 PM

ST, you usually make more reasoned comments in this blog. Perhaps you have a chronic medical condition that is flaring up unexpectedly today?

Posted by: kurt9 on June 1, 2009 6:05 PM

OK, let's go backward in time.

The population of the world may have doubled in my lifetime... sure. The living conditions of the vast majority of people have also improved tremendously. In my lifetime, the U.S. has become insanely wealthy, with an infrastructure that is the envy of the world. Many countries that were formerly third world in standard of living are rapidly moving toward modernity and wealth.

Despite all the doomsayers, I'd wager that the environment is also much cleaner than it was when I was born. Certainly, the region where I live is almost too clean. The Hudson River is probably cleaner and more usable than at any time since the appearance of white people in North America.

Technology has taken off in my lifetime. Jet travel is now as normal as train travel once was. I've got a computer in my pocket that is a thousand times more powerful than a supercomputer circa 1965.

It could be argued that the doubling of our population is the reason for this unprecedented wealth, environmental progress and technological invention.

Why the doom and gloom, Michael? You like living in one of the most crowded places in the world. Why do you see people as some sort of infestation? (Or, and this is a pattern for you, why do you seem to prescribe for other people the opposite of what you seem to enjoy? Remember: you also sang the praises of cottage business, although you made your living by working for a huge corporation.)

Could it be (horrors!) that the more people the better? You seem willing to consider any apostasy but this.

Now, I'll go back to a theory I put forth a long time ago. Childless people develop this anti-natal argument in response to their parents' pleas for grandchildren.

Parent says: "Please, I want grandkids. I want to see my line continued. I want a stake in the future"

Childless kid says: "No, I can't do that. But, it's not because I'm a selfish. I'm too busy saving the environment."

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 1, 2009 10:30 PM

There is no correlation between a doubling of the world's population and the availability of pocket computers. Scientific and technological advancements are made by a very small group of people, the technocratic elite will always be a small percentage of the population. We could cut the population in half and technology will continue to advance.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on June 2, 2009 2:19 AM

The horrible fact is that much of the population increase in the last decades has done nothing to contribute to technological advances. Indeed, that is true even of much of America's population increase (not all of it, of course, just a lot of it).

Julian Simon called people the Ultimate Resource. It's true that the Ultimate Resource is the human mind. But it doesn't follow that that is true at the margin...that is, that an increase in people is always a net increase in intellectual power.

Some groups, some veeeery large groups, contribute nothing to the advance of humanity. Some are burdens. Their disappearance from the earth would make no difference to future advances...and might even speed them up, if only marginally.

Ask yourself which groups have contributed to human advancement in the past. These are the groups most likely to contribute in the future.

And, of course, it is precisely these groups that are failing to reproduce, thereby removing themselves from the gene pool. A world of 20 billion first worlders would be a damn sight more livable than one with 20 billion third worlders (if such a world didn't annihilate most of its people in plague, famine and war long before the 20 billion figure was reached).

Needless to say, even thinking this kind of thing means I AM GOING TO HELL.

Posted by: PatrickH on June 2, 2009 11:24 AM

Scientific and technological advancements are made by a very small group of people, the technocratic elite will always be a small percentage of the population.

This statement is absolutely false. I've worked on hardware and software projects. Major projects literally involve thousands of people working simultaneously at dozens to hundreds of institutions funding by huge federal grants.

The maturation of a software package... take WordPerfect for example... is the result of the interaction of developers and, literally, millions of users.

No, you're wrong.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 2, 2009 11:54 AM

There is just something about a society with scads of kids underfoot that compels the "adults" to have hope for the future. (and compels them to push past their immediate desires to make that future happen.)

You might not have been able to believe in God on your own behalf, but you go ahead and have four or five kids and then tell me you don't need someOne bigger than your own pitiful intellect to rely on.

Nihilism, I think, is for the childless.

Fuck nihilism!

Posted by: old married woman on June 2, 2009 1:24 PM

ST, you and those thousands of collaborators are among the very small percentage that comprise the technological elite. I'm in there too. Still not sure whether that makes us a benefit or burden to the human race.

Posted by: JV on June 2, 2009 3:08 PM

The sight of several painfully adorable children at Pentecost Sunday mass two days ago almost by itself completed my return to the Church. The deadness of heart of any genuinely childless society is simply not possible to achieve in the presence of children, nor is deadness of spirit.

And you don't even need to like them! Glad that I do, though.

Posted by: PatrickH on June 2, 2009 3:30 PM

Scientific and technological advancements are made by a very small group of people, the technocratic elite will always be a small percentage of the population.

Yes, but as the whole population grows, the productive elite will grow in absolute numbers as well, assuming all else remains the same. From a resource and human creativity standpoint alone, a bigger population is better.

However, a population will not growth forever. I believe someone pointed out in a previous blog posting that if the population grows at 1% a year, that in 700 years, Every square meter of the Earth's surface will be occupied by human beings. If the population does increase to, say, 20-30 billion over the next 2 centuries or so, I would expect to see O'neill style space colonization on a massive scale in the same time period. At some point, a limit will be reached and the population will become steady-state.

There are many of us "childless" who are committed to creating an open, positive future for humanity. In my social networks, most of the people doing the real work to create the future (SENS life extension, cryonics, nanotech, fusion power) are more likely to be "childless" than to have kids. My personal experience has been that it is often the people with kids who seem to have a more limited vision of the future.

Posted by: kurt9 on June 2, 2009 5:10 PM

Wait, where is this childless society you speak of? I've got 3 kids, so maybe my vantage point is obscured, but pretty much everywhere I look, it's kid central, even in the Big City. People are waiting longer (though if you look at national averages, not much longer) to have them than in the past, but Christ they're everywhere. And that's a good thing.

If the practice of responsible birth control is equal to nihilism, than count me a nihilist, albeit one with three kids and a wife.

Posted by: JV on June 2, 2009 5:11 PM

Wait, where is this childless society you speak of? I've got 3 kids, so maybe my vantage point is obscured, but pretty much everywhere I look, it's kid central, even in the Big City. People are waiting longer (though if you look at national averages, not much longer) to have them than in the past, but Christ they're everywhere. And that's a good thing.

If the practice of responsible birth control is equal to nihilism, than count me a nihilist, albeit one with three kids and a wife.

Posted by: JV on June 2, 2009 5:51 PM

"Major projects literally involve thousands of people working simultaneously at dozens to hundreds of institutions funding by huge federal grants."

A lot of those thousands are administrative functionaries. You don't need thousands of people to write the code for a piece of software.

Steve Wozniak designed the circuit topology for the Apple I by himself. The Wright Brothers were only two. Edison was one. Tesla, one. Philo Farnsworth, one. Edwin Armstrong, one.

And, assuming for the sake of argument, that a technological innovation requires, let's say, 10,000 people, that's a tiny fraction of the total population now.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on June 2, 2009 6:06 PM

I think the relevant issue about population is not quantity, but quality. Specifically, I am talking about competent people of good character. Anyone who has ever tried to do anything real, whether it be to start a business or develop a new product or whatever, you very quickly find that there are many flakes and irritating people around. An example might be a supplier who tells you they can do one thing, then turn out to do something else when you actually get the sale. Or, if you are an employee (say, a sales guy, for example), you get the sale and the general manager screws it up so badly that you end up loosing the account. Or, if you work in production, you have engineers who don't have a clue about designing something that can actually be manufactured.

This is all on the individual level, what the economists call the "micro-level". It gets worse on the macro-level. We have these parasitical political/financial elites who managed to crater the economy by blowing up a huge bubble, along with all of the attendant market distortions, to the point that it blows up in everyone faces. Then the politicos step in and instead of allowing everything to self-correct, as is natural for a true free-market economy, they try to pump eveything back up by investing the public treasury into the same flunky institutions that created the problem in the first place. This is the people on top. Then you got all of the "Maury" and "Jerry Springer" people who create all sorts of problems and hassles as well.

Sometimes, I think I need to use technology to turn myself into a version of "skynet" and just wipe the slate clean, if only so that I can actually accomplish something without all of this hassle.

There is an existential reason for the recession.

Posted by: kurt9 on June 2, 2009 6:49 PM

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