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Thu Feb 7, 2013, 01:21 PM

A look at human sustainability

Last edited Thu Feb 7, 2013, 02:17 PM - Edit history (1)

One question that has always intrigued me is how sustainable the human presence on this planet is. This stems from my feeling that the answer, given our current population and resource depletion rates, is “not very”. The graph below puts a shape to my guesstimate of human sustainability at various population levels. The question is fraught with opinion and imponderables, but this is my current view.

Here is my definition of “sustainability period":

“The number of years that a constant population level can maintain a constant level of activity before they damage the biophysical terrain enough to cause the population to begin an involuntary decline.”

I assessed 5 historical data points, for populations of half a billion in Year 1AD, one billion 1800, three billion in 1950, six billion in 2000 and seven billion today. I estimated the sustainability period for each level of population at the activity level of the time: how long would a billion people with an average lifestyle of 1800 be sustainable; how long for 3 billion at a 1950’s level of activity; how long for 6 billion with a Y2K lifestyle, etc.

The numbers I came up with were: 8,000 years for half a billion with a Year 1 lifestyle, 1,500 years for a billion people living as the world did in 1800, 200 years for the three billion population of 1950, 50 years for the six billion of Y2K, and 30 years for today’s population. These are based on my own assumptions, and your numbers will be different.

When I plotted those numbers, I was intrigued (but not terribly surprised) to find they followed a virtually perfect power function.



What do you think our sustainability prospects are? Does my definition of sustainability resonate for you? Are my assumptions totally whacked? If so how, and what do you offer by way of rebuttal?

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Arrow 20 replies Author Time Post
Reply A look at human sustainability (Original post)
GliderGuider Feb 2013 OP
phantom power Feb 2013 #1
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #2
joshcryer Feb 2013 #3
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #4
joshcryer Feb 2013 #5
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #9
joshcryer Feb 2013 #10
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #11
joshcryer Feb 2013 #12
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #13
joshcryer Feb 2013 #14
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #16
joshcryer Feb 2013 #17
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #18
joshcryer Feb 2013 #19
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #20
eppur_se_muova Feb 2013 #6
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #15
Flying Squirrel Feb 2013 #7
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #8

Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Thu Feb 7, 2013, 02:09 PM

1. "estimated the sustainability period"

the concept of a "sustainability period" seems useful. Actually assigning a number seems like you'd have to pull a lot of assumptions out of... the air.

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Response to phantom power (Reply #1)

Thu Feb 7, 2013, 02:15 PM

2. Not just out of the air

I freely admit these are POMA estimates - pure rectal plucks. This is an idea - to stimulate thought and discussion, not policy changes.

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Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Thu Feb 7, 2013, 08:05 PM

3. 50/50

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Response to joshcryer (Reply #3)

Thu Feb 7, 2013, 08:16 PM

4. Our survival odds? nt

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #4)

Thu Feb 7, 2013, 10:34 PM

5. sustainability prospects

Survival as a species I rank at close to 95% if not higher. The reason it's not 100% is that there was a recent study that came out that showed that the planet is actually outside of the habitable zone. Therefore the effects of climate change could well render the planet uninhabitable to most any species, forget humans.

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Response to joshcryer (Reply #5)

Fri Feb 8, 2013, 01:53 PM

9. Interesting. I put our sustainability prospects at 0.

For any serious definition of "sustainable" at any rate.

The only truly sustainable human population is one with an I=PAT solution of PAT~0. Maybe 100 million people at a pre-agricultural level of technology would approximate true sustainability, but only if we could keep from ever growing beyond those limits in either numbers or activity levels.

Given that our brains are built to be hyper-efficient at solving energy scarcity problems, and that (according to HT Odum) all self-organizing complex systems inherently maximize their power throughput - which is what we use our brains to enable - I see no way of achieving anything close to this halcyon situation.

Absent an extinction or the complete loss of our brain power, the best I can imagine is a permanent oscillation down to ever lower levels of numbers and technology as time goes by.

Any other idea is just trying to bluff Mother Nature. Not that it's such a bad thing to try, but we should probably ante up with the expectation of losing our stake in the end.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #9)

Fri Feb 8, 2013, 02:38 PM

10. I don't see technology going away.

We're on the verge of having a cure for cancer, for example. Literally this decade. That's going to have an interesting impact on western populations and the demand for energy that they require. The developed world is not going to go quietly, but I can't imagine it being very peaceful as it heads down that route. The only way that technological knowledge is lost is if we have a cataclysm such as nuclear war or a meteorite impact that is an extinction event that is hard to preserve information beyond.

If governments don't retain the information and technology (and I'm not talking about on digital medium, books, paper, is good enough), then people will, and they will try to survive if they can.

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Response to joshcryer (Reply #10)

Fri Feb 8, 2013, 02:54 PM

11. In that case your time horizons aren't out far enough.

It may not "go away" in the next 100 years, or even the next 1,000 - but I can sure see it devolving over those time scales. And remember, technology requires more than information. It needs energy, materials, supporting infrastructure, and above all a human requirement for it. If any of those declines, so does technology.

Push the time horizon out to 20,000 years (after all, we're talking about true sustainability here, not the fake "green growth kind) and it's fairly easy to imagine how technology could devolve back to Clovis points - even without meteorites or nuclear wars.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #11)

Fri Feb 8, 2013, 03:06 PM

12. I think after the great reset we'll be more rational about resource use.

We have to learn, as an intelligent species, that the capitalist grow or die paradigm is not viable. I expect that humans won't even look as we do in the next few hundred years, myself, but that's my transhumanist side speaking there. The problem that I foresee is that climate change is going to push back any possible transcendental action by the human species by a century or more. And it's going to be a very hard fought fight. Barring of course miraculous scenarios where we manage to prevent it (odds, 5% or less; geoengineering not gone awry, open source hardware being used to create green energy, thorium reactors or magical fusion like Polywell).

Of course, Kurzweil is wrong. I'm more of the Paul Fernhout persuasion.

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Response to joshcryer (Reply #12)

Fri Feb 8, 2013, 03:25 PM

13. There's a highly significant gap in Ferhout's list of influences

From his link:

Marshall Brain, James Albus, Martin Ford, Jane Jacobs, Charles Fourier, Richard Wolff, Richard Stallman, Albert Einstein, Morton Deutsch, Alfie Kohn, John Holt, Joan Roeloffs, John Taylor Gatto, Steven Slaby, Ursula K. Le Guin, James P. Hogan, Elizabeth Warren, Amelia Tyagi, Ivan Illich, Michael Mahoney, Freeman Dyson, Ted Taylor, Douglas Lisle, David Goodstein, Michel Bauwens, Eric Hunting, Kevin Carson, P.M. Lawrence, Iain Banks, Harvey Cox, G. William Domhoff, E.F. Schumacher, Jacque Fresco, Stewart Brand, Buckminster Fuller, Dee Hock, Michael Phillips, Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins, John Todd, Nancy Jack Todd, Manuel De Landa, Kenneth Rogoff, Carmen Reinhart, Gerard K. O'Neill, Frances Moore Lappe, David Brin, K. Eric Drexler, Hans Moravec, Victor Serebriakoff, Noam Chomsky, Herbert Simon, Robert Steele, Julian Simon, Larry Slobodkin, Patrick Grim, Philip Zimbardo, Slavoj Zizek, Dan Pink, Alan Kay, George A. Miller, Lev R. Ginzburg, Norman Spinrad, Gene Roddenberry, Alvin Toffler, James R. Beniger, James T. Liu, Alain Kornhauser, Jennifer Morgan, Juliet B. Schor, Marshall Sahlins, Suniya S. Luthar

As laudable as these high-flyers all are, what's missing is any representation from the systems science crowd, especially (sorry to beat the drum) H.T. Odum, but also peiople like Charlie Hall, the LtG crowd - Jay Forrester and the Meadows, and even Jorgen Randers - and so many more systems thinkers.

Given Ferhout's influences, it's not hard to see that he will come up with devilishly clever approaches, but to a problem he doesn't really understand. I'm convinced that we can't understand what's happening to us as a civilization if we insist on seeing it simply as a product of human choices and not rooted in self-organizing system behaviour. And no, humans don't control system behaviour at the level I'm talking about. The best we can do is build ourselves more comfortable nests inside the mechanism.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #13)

Fri Feb 8, 2013, 03:41 PM

14. I think you should check out his rebuttal to Kurzweil.

The people you list appear to me to have a more ideological influence than an intellectual influence (ie, they make him want to approach the problem a certain way, but he is not ignorant of other thinkers).

Ferhout incorporates primitivist thought in his critique of centralized capitalist industrialism as do I, and would I, if I felt like going into why human civilization is probably going to survive the coming onslaught and transcend to the point of being one with the galaxy and the eventual super galaxy that shall coalesce in 100 billion years. But I don't think that's part of the discussion for this forum as human action is causing an extremely dire situation for life on this planet and there's even a possibility that we extinguish it completely.

I'll live you with this (from his rebuttal to Kurzweil, relinking just in case):

As Marshall Sahlins shows, for most of history, humans lived in a gift economy based on abundance. And within that economy, for most food or goods people families or tribes were mainly self-reliant, drawing from an abundant nature they had mostly tamed. Naturally there were many tribes with different policies, so it is hard to completely generalize on this topic -- but certainly some did show these basic common traits of that lifestyle. Only in the last few thousand years did agriculture and bureaucracy (e.g. centered in Ancient Egypt, China, and Rome) come to dominate human affairs -- but even then it was a dominance from afar and a regulation of a small part of life and time. It is only in the last few hundred years that the paradigm has shifted to specialization and an economy based on scarcity. Even most farms 200 years ago (which was where 95% of the population lived then) were self-reliant for most of their items judged by mass or calories. But clearly humans have been adapted, for most of their recent evolution, to a life of abundance and gift giving.


In my arguments with primitivists in the past, I would use this exact same argument, and it left them baffled. Because I agree with them more than I disagree. It's really a frustrating thing to be sure!

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Response to joshcryer (Reply #14)

Fri Feb 8, 2013, 09:34 PM

16. Jesus, that wasn't a rebuttal

It was a fucking evisceration. And a masterful one at that! Yes, Fernhout has a deep and salubrious grasp of what's going on, and certainly of why joy is as more productive emotion that than fear. I love his writing style as well. Thank you for bringing him into my awareness!

A couple of thoughts occurred to me as I read those posts. The first is that Fernhout has a magnificent grasp of what's going on, but I think he's he's missing a fundamental piece of the "why". That's not much of a diss, though, because most of us don't. I'm convinced that Odum clued in, and got that fundamental piece right. Combined with Ferhout's grasp of the intricacies and implications of modern culture, as well as his obvious historical depth, I'd love to see what the addition of that piece would do to his thinking.

The second thought came up as a result of this quote:

"One of the biggest problems as a result is Kurzweil's view of human history as incremental and continual "progress". He ignores how our society has gone through several phase changes in response to continuing human evolution and increasing population densities: the development of fire and language and tool-building, the rise of militaristic agricultural bureaucracies, the rise of industrial empires, and now the rise of the information age."


What is telling to me is that each of the phase changes he enumerates represents civilization's next step up the energy hierarchy - to a higher level of energy quality, or "emergy" in Odum's terms. From simple fire at the bottom to the information age (information being the most sophisticated form of energy we have so far discovered). even Kurzweil's singularity takes its place in this hierarchy, as "everything" becomes information, as civilization ascends to the top of the energy quality hierarchy. I remain agnostically doubtful about the probability of the Singularity, but the idea at least puts it in its proper place.

What this looks like to me is civilization acting as an autopoietic system. It creates itself, regenerates itself, and creates and restructures its topology according to its own needs, inner rules, history and structure. In this framework it uses human endeavours in its innate self-development movement to maximize its energy use in both quantity and quality.

As an example, the complex, self-organizing autopoietic system of civilization "needs" to increase its activity levels and power throughput, so it has us create car factories for it. The interesting paradox is that processes like car factories that seem allopoietic to us are in fact autopoietic elements of civilization-as-system. The fact that we don't see it that way wouldn't (and apparently doesn't) make any difference to the system itself.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #16)

Sat Feb 9, 2013, 12:08 AM

17. I think the "why" is the nature of authority.

Authority is a human creation, it doesn't exist in nature, and when we invented it, we created a hierarchical grow or die paradigm.

But, I'm not terribly interested in whether the "why" matters because that's simply where we are. It's conceivable that there exist a reality that authority didn't take hold as it did in our current scenario. I do not think that technology itself is the reason for the authority (I think FUD, power relationships, and the relative difficulty of surviving in the wild is the reason for that). I accept that technology is a tool that authority has used to those ends, but yeah.

Allopoietic factories are actually a good example of why capitalist industrialism (or authoritarian industrialism) are inherently negative creations and a use of technology that results in the grow or die paradigm. I get into the basic concepts in this thread here. Interestingly I channel Gatto like Fernhout and have recently come to realize institutionalized education is the core social principle holding us back. Factories should be autopoietic, and I agrue, perhaps naively, that they would be if education was free form, pure, and allowed learners access to their full capacity as living beings with the full potential to choose whatever route that they want as opposed to being channeled into being worker-drones for a larger centralized system of authority.

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Response to joshcryer (Reply #17)

Sat Feb 9, 2013, 12:41 AM

18. How do you break the hold of the system if you don't fully understand the system?

I agree that institutionalized education is holding us back. Where does it come from? From industrial society (back to the 19th century mill owners) that needs people to sit in rows doing repetitive tasks for hours and not rebelling. And where does industrial society come from? And back and back we go, until we're lost up our own sphincters like Augustinian monks looking for evidence of God.

I want to know what the fuck in going on around here, and I don't want pat half-answers that are mainly intended to make me stop asking why. I'm fine with the Beingness of What Is. But some voice in me is whispering that there's something I'm not getting yet. So I keep tugging on threads in the fabric of life and watching to see what else wiggles. This time I may have seen something move behind the curtain, so to speak.

Or maybe I'm just doing a John Nash. That's always possible. We'll just have to wait and see.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #18)

Sat Feb 9, 2013, 01:10 AM

19. "Why" is a great question. It helps us figure out the "what."

The "what next."

Institutionalized education is simply a manifestation of the tried and true method of authority.

Industrial society didn't "need" people sitting in rows doing repetitive tasks for hours and not rebelling, authority did. Industrial society would've happily trudged along if authority didn't exist and people were allowed to access industrial technology at a transcendent level, that level that Marx mocked Proudhon, where workers would, "arrive at the knowledge and the consciousness of the product." Hilarious, to be sure.

Of course, this is all really just a thought experiment more than anything else as we all know that society 1) is not actually moving in a more equitable anti-authoritarian direction and 2) that ultimately capitalist domination will do its damnedest to use up every ounce of fossil fuel left in the ground. What my view is is that we should either 1) adapt like freaking crazy or 2) try to do something about it on a more anti-authoritarian basis, as Paul Fernhout argues.

The problem is, Fernhout's arguments do not take into consideration the utterly alarming nature of climate change and how its effects are being felt now, in a very big way, and will get increasingly worse as time goes on. Each passing moment nothing is done means that it is harder to stop it, which leaves us with adaption as the only viable alternative.

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Response to joshcryer (Reply #19)

Sat Feb 9, 2013, 01:46 AM

20. A bit of resistance is never a bad idea.

And yes, no matter why it's "really" happening we all know what direction it's heading. And I agree that Fernout doesn't seem to have grokked climate change in the bits I've read. Neither has Kurzweil or the rest of the technotopian crowd. The general deterioration of the ecosphere and the spreading problems in the world's social structures don't seem to have penetrated very far - which is why I remain politely contemptuous about the singularity and related technological escape clauses.

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Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Fri Feb 8, 2013, 01:27 AM

6. Interesting, would like to see this fleshed out with more data.

I have thought for some time (based on nothing rigorous) that a planetary population of ca. 0.1 billion would be a much happier place to live, especially for nonhuman species.

I never supported ZPG because I thought they were insufficiently ambitious. It's negative population growth that offers the brightest future.

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Response to eppur_se_muova (Reply #6)

Fri Feb 8, 2013, 07:51 PM

15. Me too. This is just a mental doodle now, but it could be interesting to develop it more. nt

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Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Fri Feb 8, 2013, 07:00 AM

7. I seem to recall something more like a bell curve in my Biology class

The population within a closed system grows slowly at first and starts growing exponentially; then slows near the peak before crashing at the same exponential rate.

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Response to Flying Squirrel (Reply #7)

Fri Feb 8, 2013, 12:46 PM

8. You are misinterpreting the graph.

This isn't about population growth, it's about the maximum period of "sustainability".

Perhaps I could phrase it better as the maximum period before obvious unsustainability: "The maximum time a given population at a fixed level of technology/affluence can exist before the first sign of involuntary population decline appears."

Essentially this refers to how long a population/consumption combination can last before it hits reach the peak of the bell curve you're used to seeing.

How long that period is depends on the level of consumption technology or affluence, which is the isomorphic to the drawdown of natural capital. The drawdown of natural capital is the sum of the non-recoverable use of non-renewable resources plus the use of renewable resources above the natural replenishment rate. This amounts to a re-statement of the I=PAT equation.

I assume that the Earth has a fixed capacity for absorbing human impact. That means that when we have been around long enough to generate that much impact, we will begin to go away. What that maximum capacity is, is also open to debate.

The time period after we hit that MaxImpact point, during which our population declines, forms the other half of the bell curve you' saw in Bio.

The maximum impact point under current conditions could (perhaps) be estimated by balancing global warming, fresh water drawdown, the EROI of fossil fuels, and the unaided average productivity of agricultural land (without the help of nitrogen fertilizers or irrigation).

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