Saturday, June 27, 2009

Isaac Asimov's Warning - Part I

Isaac Asimov makes a crucial point at his Queen's Park Lecture in Barbados, on Feb. 6, 1976. This photo was part of a write-up in The Barbados Advocate newspaper.

When famed science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov arrived in Barbados in February, 1976, the entire island was in an uproar. Astronomy had taken off, with the courses being offered by members of the Barbados Astronomical Society, as well as visiting lecturers from the preceding year - starting with Prof. Kenneth Franklin of the New York Hayden Planetarium.

At the time of Asimov's arrival (on the QE II, since he never flew) we in the BAS were in the midst of another of our popular 'Basic Astronomy Courses'. However, for one evening the course lecture was called off so as many as possible could attend Asimov's. They were not disappointed.

Asimov's general theme was 'The Moon and What It means To Us' but - as usual- his lecture did veer off into other important areas, especially the increase in human population, and its dire effects on the welfare of everyone.

A metaphor that Asimov used to make his point then has since become known as "the bathroom metaphor" and it works to get people to understand the debilitating, disastrous effects of too many people. As Asimov noted, if two people live in an apartment, and it comes with two bathrooms, they have a comfortable life. Either one can use the bathroom anytime he or she wants, and can remain in there as long as they desire, even reading while doing business.

One can say, that for the purpose of "Bathroom freedom" - 2 is the carrying capacity for a two -person apartment. Now, let there be twenty people occupying the same apartment, and what happens? Bathroom freedom evaporates. Visits now must be regulated by the clock, and no one may stay in for too long. Indeed, a timetable likely has to be set up for each person's bathroom use. (Don't laugh too hard at the improbability of this example, since we now know of numerous cases where immigrants have been found crammed into such conditions - but usually in a house)

The point is, that the liberating use of the bathroom which applied for two persons, no longer applies with twenty, and probably evaporated by the time there were five or six occupants of the apartment. (And we won't even go into where each - unrelated- person sleeps, if there are only two bedrooms).

Such is the way overpopulation degrades the quality of living, and cheapens it for all, making it more discomfiting. "More" is definitely not merrier!

Is Asimov's example a tad too extreme or is there a real world, historical example to support it? In fact, there is, and it can be traced to Easter Island. The Easter Islanders went from a maximum 20,000-odd population ca. 1600 AD to barely 1,000 when the first Europeans landed in 1720. (Massive civil war broke out ~ 1680) The newcomers had found that the natives had descended into war and cannibalism. In the case of the E. Islanders, they expended all their wood, forest stores – and were reduced to living in caves by the time the Europeans arrived.

What happened? The Islanders grew too comfortable with their resources, and began to consume them at a rate beyond their replacement. This had a critical impact because of the fact: a) Easter Island was so remote - closest other island is Pitcairn, 1240 miles west, and b) the trees that formed the base of the resource supply were limited in extent.

Because of the trees, the Islanders could build adequate shelters, plus construct boats able to navigate many miles offshore to catch large dolphin (fish, not mammals) and eat heartily. But they became too sated too soon. Their ability to provide a bounty of food early drove their birth numbers higher. From a base population of ~ 3500, they grew to 5500, then 7800, then 10,000, then 15,000.

As their numbers increased on the tiny island, the demand for lumber did as well. Massive deforestation was now the rule, as they cut down trees to try to keep pace with the exploding population. Before long, new seedlings planted could not reach the maturity needed to build the sturdy fishing boats to go miles offshore and catch dolphin. The populace was now reduced to scavenge for small mollusks near the tidal basin, and to hunt whatever birds there were (the birds were hunted to extinction).

As people, then animals, soon descended to eating the seeds of the trees, collapse set in. By the time the Europeans arrived there were no more wood shelters, and the people had retreated into caves and had been eating each other for decades.

The above is not a pretty picture, but it IS what happens when ANY closed population exceeds its carrying capacity and begins to overwhelm its support system. It doesn't matter if it's an isolated island, or an isolated planet in space Earth. (recall the earlier image I posted of the Earth in space)

Asimov, as part of his lecture, warned that humans had two choices: decrease their population to the carrying capacity limit to live in an equilibrium with the Earth and its resources, or let nature “increase the human death rate” (e.g. by starvation, pestilence, wars over resources etc.)

He also remarked:

"It is now the willingly childless woman who is the heroine of our planet. She is the one who now deserves all the kudos and praise, for helping to do what is necessary to spare humanity from the ravages of over-population"

In the case of 6.9 billion on a limited orb called “Earth” the situation is very analogous-especially in terms of critical life-support resources such as water. In the ‘State of the World’ report (2000, pp. 46-47), it is noted that the ever increasing water deficits will likely spark “water wars” by 2025. As observed therein (p. 47):

“When a country’s renewable water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per capita (what some analysts call the water stress level) it becomes difficult for the country to mobilize enough water to satisfy all the food, household, and industrial needs of its population.”

Market “solutions” are absurd on their face since water is an absolute life necessity – not a commercial commodity, or one that a vast population can simply "move to" , to access!

The same State of the World’ report notes at present rates of decline and even without factoring in the worst global warming influences – the number of people living in water-stressed countries will rise from 470 million to 3 billion by 2025. More than a sixfold increase. Add in projected new climate change data and likely effects (see. eg. recent issues of Eos) and the stressed populations increase nine or tenfold.

The other point brought out by Asimov is the dangerous argument that "if we increase oil production, or coal production now we can provide for.....x number of people"

It is dangerous and irrelevant because it is always based upon increasing supplies for the existing (assumed fixed) population. Not reckoning in the growth in demand per year(now 2-3%) which will then outpace the supplies, if they can only increase at 1-2% a year!

To fix ideas: Albert Bartlett - in an article in Physics Today (November, 2004, p. 18), noted that in the 1970s there was about 2.2 liters per person per day of oil. Of this, nearly 1.3 liters went to food production, processing, preparation or distribution. And that was in a world with nearly 2.7 billion FEWER people!

Today, we are down to a production level of barely 1.6 liters per person per day while the consumption level approaches 4 liters per person per day. After Peak Oil, the latter will continue to increase, while the former will diminish by about 2-3% per year.

It doesn’t take a math genius to work out that this is a recipe for catastrophic crash – of the human population! Indeed, one can break it down to a basic differential equation embodying a related rate- in this case the rate of decrease of available cheap energy needed as the population continually increases.

According to current stats (Physics Today, Weisz, p. 47, July 2004), the global oil demand is expected to grow 2-3% per year, and the population by 1.5% per year. In this case:

-dQ/ dt ~ {rate of demand on Q per year + rate of population growth translated into a yearly demand on Q)

where the LHS represents the depletion rate of available oil resources, and the RHS gives the “sinks” that deplete them. Note the 1st term assumes only the pure economic, e.g. GDP-“growth” demands for increase, not population)

In concrete terms, if 500 billion barrels (dQ) of relatively cheap oil remain after next year, and (as of 2003), 28 billion barrels of year are consumed per year, and the combined term on the RHS increases this by 4.5% per year – what do you get?

Here is where it sits in most basic terms, in terms of the clear analogy of oil now with the trees of the Easter Islanders: The planet was endowed with ~ 3,000 billion barrels of oil – of which we’ve consumed 1,000 billion barrels. 500 billion barrels of relatively cheap oil remains, after which 1000 billion barrels of “break-even” oil remains (costs as much to access as it delivers), after which 500 billion barrels of very expensive oil remains (costs much more to reach it than it deliver in energy).

At the heart of these considerations is the net energy eqn. (cf. Physics Today, Weisz, July 2004, p. 51)

Q (net) = Q (PR) – [Q (op) + E/T]

In effect, for break-even oil one would find Q(net) = 0

Thus, there is no net gain in energy given the quantity that must be used to obtain it.For the last 700 billion barrels, Q(net) = negative quantity = -Q

since the rate of energy production (Q (PR) must be debited by the energy consumed for its operation Q(op), and the energy E invested during its “lifetime” Thus its Q(PR) will be small in relation to the bracketed quantity.Thus, the problem in a nutshell is not “running out of oil’ but running out of CHEAP oil. Bottom line, we need not run out of the stuff before the world economy runs into problems of untold, unspeakable proportions!

As if this problem were bad, another superimposed one is by way of ethanol. To produce ethanol takes about 0.1 gal more of oil than the quantity of ethanol produced (1.0 gal.) Thus, ethanol is already an energy SINK.

Now add to this that: a) ethanol is less efficient than oil, and b) consumes a food base to manufacture it (corn), and you have a recipe for massive disaster. Even worse, it is federally subsidized at ~ .51 a gallon, and worse yet, the new cap and trade bill has a provision in it to exclude ethanol from all greenhouse warming consideration!

It is as if the Easter Islanders, in addition to consuming all their wood resource base for shelter, boat construction, decided to eat up the tree seedlings at the same time.

Of course, this would have accelerated their total collapse by about 150 years.

Next: Part II Can collapse of democracy ensue with overpopulation?

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