Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Heliovores and the Nanosphere


I think it's time to expand upon my ideas on the concept of a Heliovore (literally, a "sun eater" but in reality more of a sunlight eater) and the Nanosphere (a sphere of life based on self-replicacting molecular nanotechnology assemblers that surrounds the Solar System).  These concepts sprung into life during my article (in support go my futuristic board game 6 Billion on the future settlement of the Solar System) which explores energy levels throughout our Solar System

Stay tuned


The Exponentialist

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Malthus invented Memes

Just a quick post to point out the father of original thought...Malthus ...invented the concept of memes (though he called them specks, or germs):

"Intellect rises from a speck, continues in vigour only for a certain period, and will not, perhaps, admit, while on earth, of above a certain number of impressions. These impressions may, indeed, be infinitely modified, and from these various modifications, added probably to a difference in the susceptibility of the original germs, arise the endless diversity of character that we see in the world; but reason and experience seem both to assure us, that the capacity of individual minds does not increase in proportion to the mass of existing knowledge. The finest minds seem to be formed rather by efforts at original thinking, by endeavours to form new combinations, and to discover new truths, than by passively receiving the impressions of other men's ideas.(my bolding)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Robert Zubrin…Promoter of Hell on Earth

This is a follow up to my post Robert Zubrin; The Merchants of Despair - Initial Reaction

In Merchants of Despair Zubrin mocks the concept of limits to growth or finitude as he terms it. He calls it a “quasi-religious concept upon which the Malthusians stake the ultimate truth of their dogma” (Zubrin, 2012, p.123).

You’d expect then that Zubrin would take some care in demolishing this foundational dogma of his hated enemies, the Malthusians. Let’s see how he does.

Zubrin asks (Zubrin, 2012, p.124):

In what sense can a resource be regarded as finite if you not only never run out, but never experience any shortage? Our ability to turn the matter of planet into useful items is increasing daily. Someday it may all be useful.” (my bolding)

Zubrin must truly believe then that the Earth is an infinite resource that humanity can draw upon forever. But then, Zubrin acknowledges that the Earth has a finite mass of 6 trillion trillion (6 x 1024) kilograms. So the finitude of the Earth is not a quasi-religious concept but a simple scientific fact. This seems a very shaky start for Zubrin, acknowledging that the Earth is indeed finite. 

Zubrin explains that if the human population increased a thousandfold from 6 billion (this was our population in 1999) to 6 trillion we’d still have a trillion kilograms of mass available to each one of us. 

Mathematically this is true, as far as it goes. However, there are a number of considerations Zubrin does not discuss:

  • How quickly might this occur?
  • What sorts of technologies might allow us to support such a vast human population?
  • What would the ecological impact be to the rest of life on Earth if we increase our human population to 6 trillion?
  • What would the human impact be like of living on a world with a thousand times the number of people alive?
  • Will some nations expand their populations at the expense of others, in a repeat of Hitler’s quest for lebensraum (living space)?
  • is the future that we all want? 
A useful rule of thumb for calculating population increase is The Rule of 70.  Put simply, if you take the annual growth rate and divide it into 70 then you get the population doubling period. Taking examples from recent human population growth, if the annual growth rate is 1% then the doubling period is 70 years and if the annual growth rate is 2% then the doubling period is 35 years.  Hence, it took just 39 years for our global population to double from 3 billion in 1960 to 6 billion in 1999.

So how do we estimate how long it would take for our 6 billion to increase by a ratio of one thousand? Well, 10 population doublings slightly exceeds a thousandfold increase (210 = 1024). Hence, at a 2% annual growth rate 10 population doublings would take just 350 years (35 x 10) and at a 1% annual growth rate it would take 700 years (70 x 10).  Note that if the annual growth rate were to vary between 1% and 2% then our global human population would still increase more than a thousandfold somewhere between 350 and 700 years from now.

So in just 350 to 700 years, at very modest annual growth rates, our human population would be 6,144 billion (6 x 1024) or just over 6 trillion. Can we do it? Should we do it?

Zubrin’s vision will require some pretty advanced technologies in order to manipulate Earth’s matter to meet an ever-growing human population. One of the most futuristic technologies is perhaps K Eric Drexler’s vision (Engines of Creation, 1990) of molecular nanotechnology, precision engineering of non-organic material at the molecular level. See K. Eric Drexler - An Exponentialist View for more. However, in his earlier work Entering Space Creating a Space Faring Civilzation Zubrin (p 240) suggests that the absence non-organic self-replicating entities and the omnipresence of organic self-replicating entities combine as strong evidence against the possibility of “Drexler-style nanotechnology.” Zubrin is betting on bioengineering and “human-improved microorganisms” instead.  Time will tell, but it’s interesting that Zubrin’s blind faith in human ingenuity does not extend to Drexler’s molecular nanotechnology.

And it’s a pity then that Zubrin hasn’t learn to respect the lessons that Malthus taught us back in 1798 (An Essay on The Principle of Population) as Drexler has (Drexler, 1990):

"Concern about population and resources will remain important because the exponential growth of replicators (such as people) can eventually overrun any finite resource base."

When it comes to imagining a world of filled with humans we cannot do better than the great American science-fiction author Isaac Asimov (refer Isaac Asimov - An Exponentialist View for more).   In one of his non-fiction works (Stars In Their Courses) Asimov imagined a world of 20 trillion (just two more population doublings from Zubrin’s 6 trillion would exceed this, at 24 trillion) with a population density everywhere equivalent to New York’s Manhattan Island (Asimov, 1974):

"There would have to skyscrapers everywhere. There would be hardly any open space. There would be no room for wilderness, or any plants or animals except those needed by human beings."

Like Drexler, Asimov warns us that in the end (Asimov, 1974):

"Science, in other words, cannot keep up with populations no matter what it does."

However, Asimov’s most famous quote on the impact of overpopulation comes from an interview with Bill Moyers in 1988:

“… democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies.”

This is the Hellish future that Zubrin promotes for humanity in the coming centuries here on Earth. His stark lack of care for non-human life is obscene, and his locust mentality for Earth’s resources to be turned into an endless sea of human flesh is just appalling.

Of course, the obvious next question is what next? What happens after we get to 6 trillion?  After all, Zubrin is meant to be dismantling the foundation dogma of the Malthusians that the Earth is finite. So why does Zubrin stop at 6 trillion? Well, it’s a big number of people and there’s still plenty of matter to go around (a trillion kilograms each…hooray!). By avoiding a timeframe, or explaining what sort of world it would be like, Zubrin promotes the positive and omits the negative.

In fact, Zubrin then avoids the challenge he set himself (to destroy the dogma that Earth is finite) by making the leap into space (Zubrin, 2012):

Long before we have six trillion people, or sixty billion for that matter, we will have mastered space travel.”

So Zubrin has cheated and sidestepped the question of what happens next on a finite Earth.  Why? Because he knows that the Malthusians are right!

Ah, you cry, but Zubrin is right as once we’re in space human expansion is potentially limitless!

Well, if the Earth is in fact finite then so too is our Solar System. Each asteroid, each comet, each planet, each moon and every other solar system will also represent localized limits to growth that space-faring replicators such as humans will be forced to face.

I think it's also worth repeating the idiotic claim of one  of Zubrin's heroes, Julian Simon, who won his famous (but comparatively irrelevant) bet on commodity prices against one of Zubrin's hated Malthusians, Paul R Ehrlich (Simon, 1995):

"We now have in our hands - in our libraries really - the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years."

Simon apparently revised that claim down to 7 million years when challenged. Professor Albert Bartlett's answer at the time was (Harding, 1999):

"Let us, Professor Bartlett said, assume that 7 million is what Simon had in mind. Assuming the present world population of six billion and the recent rate of population growth of 1 percent per year, how long would it take for the human population to equal all the atoms of the universe. The answer is shocking: just 17,000 years."

Also, do not forget that we left six trillion humans on Earth some time after we mastered space travel. So, Mr. Zubrin, what happens to that human population on Earth?  If they keep growing as you say they can - thanks to their limitless ingenuity - then they will consume the entire Earth and all non-human life on it. Read my article Human Global Ecophagy to see just how quickly humans could consume the entire planet and turn it all to human flesh…roughly speaking it could take as little as 1,600 to 3,200 years.

In conclusion then it is obvious that the mocking Mr. Zubrin has failed to make his point. The Earth is, after all, finite. The Malthusians are right on this point.

However a finite world does not automatically mean, as Zubrin (2012) claims (p252), that:

If the idea is accepted that the world’s resources are fixed with only so much to go round, then each new life is unwelcome, each unregulated act or thought is a menace, every person is fundamentally the enemy of every other person, and each race or nation is the enemy of every other race or nation….Only in a world of unlimited resources can all men be brothers.”

What about the possibility that we promote education (especially for women), health and longevity in the Third World in order to foster a demographic transition and reductions in population growth rates? Every child would be even more precious if we voluntarily restricted the size of our families.

What about the possibility that in the future wealth and consumption are more equitably distributed rather than focussed in the Western democracies?

What about the possibility that many humans respect and care for non-human forms of life on Earth and for biodiversity? What about the possibility that  humans are willing to protect other life on Earth at our own expense?

Above all, we must avoid Zubrin’s blind faith in limitless human ingenuity (Zubrin, 2012, p.252):

That is why we must reject antihumanism and embrace instead an ethic based on faith in the human capacity for creativity and inventiveness.”

Zubrin’s unscientific, irreponsible and dishonest blind faith will push us towards human global ecophagy and the worst of all holocausts not just for humanity but also for all life on Earth.

Wake up…we live in a finite world (6 x 1024 kilograms, according to Zubrin himself) and we therefore need to plan to live sustainably on Earth even as we reach for the stars. 

Zubrin presents a false dichotomy, arguing our choice is either sustainability or growth. But we can do both - live sustainably where we must (such as Earth), and expand into space when we can.

Asimov, Isaac. The Stars In Their Courses. Panther. 1974
Drexler, K. Eric. Engines Of Creation - The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Oxford University Press. 1990.
Hardin, Garrett, The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia. 1999
Simon, Julian, The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving, Cato Policy Report, 1995 (based on the introduction to his 1995 book, The State Of Humanity)
Zubrin, Robert. Merchants of Despair Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism. New Atalantis. 2012.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Robert Zubrin & The Merchants of Despair - Initial Reaction

Robert Zubrin is perhaps best known for his pro-space lobbying and in particular his arguments for the human colonisation of Mars (ref. The Case For Mars, 1996). He is the founder of the Mars Society, an organisation to which I once belonged.

You see, I am also pro-space and in 1999 I even designed a board game called 6 Billion which depicts the human settlement of our solar system. Essentially this takes the human global population of 6 billion (12th October, 1999 was designated the Day of 6 Billion by the UN Population Fund) as its starting point for humanity as a nascent K-1 civilisation (refer Kardashev Scale) and then allows the players to experience our growth into a K-2 civilisation in which the solar system is fully populated. Zubrin describes exactly this scenario in his book Entering Space : Creating a Space Faring Civilisation (1999).

So far, so good. I'm a fan of Zubrin.

It was therefore a huge disappointment to me to discover Zubrin's latest book The Merchants of Despair. You see, where Zubrin and I differ is in our opinions of Malthus and Darwin and their valuable contributions to both population theory and evolutionary theory. Zubrin unfairly demonises both men. According to this article by Elliot Temple at Curi, Zubrin is also guilty of poor scholarship and misquoting.

In his book Zubrin presents a flawed summary of Malthus' argument (An Essay On The Principle of Population, 1st edition 1798 through to 6th edition 1826) and then uses this straw man fallacy to attack and demonise Malthus. I also criticise Malthus' argument (refer Malthus - An Exponentialist View), but do not reach the same conclusion as Zubrin that continued and sustained population growth here on Earth is a Good Thing. My conclusion is that sustained population growth on Earth is impossible (refer Human Global Ecophagy), even if we are able to colonise the solar system.

In Entering Space (p. 240) Zubrin is highly sceptical of K. Eric Drexler and his concept of self-replicating molecular nanotechnology. Yet Drexler's understanding of Malthusian limits to growth is far more balanced and mature than Zubrin's views (refer Drexler - An Exponentialist View).

Zubrin's claims against Malthus and Darwin in relation to various holocausts (including China's one child policy, the Nazi holocaust against the Jews, the Irish Potatoe Famine, famines in India and so on) rely heavily on overuse of the emotionally charged word holocaust to evoke outrage as Zubrin himself rages against anyone who believes that the Earth is finite and hence limits to growth do apply. Zubrin is right to rage against such events, but has failed to prove that limits to growth do not exist (they do exist) and is himself guilty of then viewing American history (in his various works) through rose-tinted glasses as he pines for a new frontier like the American West.

Here is what Malthus had to say about the "holocaust" against Native Americans in the context of limits to growth to continued population growth in the USA:

If the United States of America continue increasing, which they certainly will do, though not with the same rapidity as formerly, the Indians will be driven further and further back into the country, till the whole race is ultimately exterminated, and the territory is incapable of further extension.

Right again, Malthus. OK, perhaps not ultimately exterminated, but surely worthy of Zubrin's over use of the term holocaust. No doubt Zubrin would somehow contrive to blame this human holocaust on Malthus too.

If we round the current population of the USA off to 300 million then with a growth rate of roughly 1% per annum (using the Rule of 70 as a rough guide) the American population would double every 70 years and you'd have over 300 billion people living in the USA in 10 population doublings in just 700 years. That's over 42 times the current population of Earth, all living just in the USA! This is sort of stupidity that Zubrin is promoting.

In Zubrin's raging against population control he pays particular attention to China's one-child policy (see, for example, ZUBRIN: China's population-control holocaust), and highlights some of the resulting atrocities of said policy. It's odd then that he doesn't mention the previous practice of infanticide (particularly against female children) in China (and elsewhere) which is noted and criticised by both Darwin and Malthus as a barbarous practice. Surely as supposed demons of ant-humanism they would praise such a practice?

Zubrin also fails to note that even with the one-child policy China's population growth rate is still positive (about 0.5% per annum). Using the Rule of 70 as a rough guide, this would mean population doubling every 140 years and so in just 1,400 years China would need to feed not one billion people but one trillion people. This is sort of stupidity that Zubrin is promoting.

One  of Zubrin's heroes is Julian Simon, who won his famous bet on commodity prices against one of Zubrin's hated Malthusians, Paul R Ehrlich. The bet is irrelevant compared with Simon's idiotic claim (1995) that:

We now have in our hands - in our libraries really - the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years

Professor Albert Bartlett's answer at the time was:

"Assuming the present world population of six billion and the recent rate of population growth of 1 percent per year, how long would it take for the human population to equal all the atoms of the universe. The answer is shocking: just 17,000 years"

This is sort of stupidity that Zubrin is promoting.

Zubrin likes to claim that Malthus failed to take into account human ingenuity, but here is Malthus proving Zubrin wrong again:

The main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals, is the means of his support, is the power which he possesses of very greatly increasing these means.

Zubrin constantly claims Malthus' dismal predictions have failed, yet Malthus' main argument was in fact:

...this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present, and will for ever continue to exist, unless some decided change takes place in the physical constitution of our nature.

Malthus is arguing that we have in the past, we do now, and we will always have periodic famine and poverty. Guess what, this is the reality of the world we live in. The last reference to a change in our physical constitution could reasonably be taken as a hint towards today's concepts of  transhumanism or even post humanism, both of which would support the view that some form of humanity could continue to experience sustained population growth (at least, for a while longer).

It may be prudent for Zubrin to re-read his Malthus (assuming he actually read him in the first place, rather than relying on second hand sources). I recommend he read the 1st edition, the 6th edition and A Summary View (1830).

Malthus even had something to say on the subject of the human colonisation of space:

The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years.

Put that one in your book, Zubrin.

Zubrin's arguments are both fallacious and hypocritical, and ultimately fail to demonstrate mathematically how the limits to growth of a finite Earth can be overcome by human ingenuity and more people. To claim that human ingenuity is limitless is pure simplistic rhetoric...sounds nice, it would be great if it were true, but is it? To Zubrin every additional person is a welcome addition and...."the world needs more people" (ref Welcome: Child Seven Billion) because they add to this limitless resource. But every additional human is made of atoms, not ideas, and the Earth only has a finite supply of atoms that can be turned into human flesh.

I think Darwin put it best in a letter to his friend, and father of geology, Charles Lyell (1860):

...It consoles me that -- sneers at Malthus, for that clearly shows, mathematician though he may be, he cannot understand common reasoning. By the way what a discouraging example Malthus is, to show during what long years the plainest case may be misrepresented and misunderstood.

I'm not sure which critic Darwin meant by "--", but it reads just fine if you substitute "Zubrin" here.

Lastly, my own view is that there are flaws in the arguments of both Malthusians as well as Cornucopians such as Zubrin. Read my articles Paul R. Ehrlich and the Prophets of Doom as well as  Albert Bartlett  - An Exponentialist View. You can also read my earlier Exponentialist blog Malthusians Vs Cornucopians.

Thanks for reading,

David Coutts

Note: this is just my initial reaction to the book, based on a careful preview of the book via Amazon, and a reading of various related articles that Zubrin has published to promote his book. I have also read numerous reviews and some criticisms of the book. And I've read Zubrin's pro-space books.

I have ordered the book and will demolish Zubrin's arguments further in due course.  However, I felt it was necessary to say something now in order to highlight the sheer stupidity of claiming that the finite resources of Earth can sustain indefinite population growth thanks to the apparently magical limitless ability of human ingenuity.  On this point Malthus is right, and Zubrin is wrong. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Linear Vs Exponential, or Exponential Vs Exponential

Most readers of Malthus note his argument that the exponential growth of populations will outstrip the linear growth of food supply. Many, sadly, leave it there - they assume Malthus has made his point. A few notice that food always grows in populations and, therefore, must also grow exponentially.

So, on the one hand, "Malthusians" argue that because growth with an exponential nature of 1,2,4,8,16,32,64,128,256,512,1024 will always outstrip growth of the linear nature 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 Malthus must be right.

Sure, a mild acquaintance with numbers will indeed show that exponential growth does easily outstrip linear growth.

However, it is Malthus himself who demonstrates that food - in the form of sheep or grain - also grows exponentially. Hence, the competition is between the exponential growth of populations (1,2,4,8,16,32,64,128,256,512,1024) and the exponential growth of the populations of the food sources for those populations (1,2,4,8,16,32,64,128,256,512,1024).

It would seem that the problem of human overpopulation is solved by the equivalent overpopulation of the food sources to feed us. Yet roughly 1 billion people are said to be starving.

Imagine the exponential series (1,2,4 etc) is in billions. Now imagine that the series for human population is ever so slightly out of step with the same series but for food supply. So, a human population of 7 billion is fed with enough food for 6 billion. This is the world we live in.

Sure, we might produce more than enough food in the rich developed world, so perhaps 3 billion people's worth of food is fed to 2 billion people. And in the poorer nations it might be that 3 billion people's worth of food is fed to 4 billion people.

What matters are not the numbers relating to those populations who are overfed and overweight, but those who are underweight and underfed.

It's like for the poorer nations food is 1,2, whereas population is 1,2,4. The exponential series for food and population are the same, but out of step with more people than food .Of course, it is never quite so neat, numerically (the actual numbers can lie anywhere between the numbers on the exponential scale).

But this is nonetheless the true nature of exponential growth, that although food does indeed have the potential to keep up with population or sometimes exceed it, it also has the potential to fall short.

Falling short in an exponential series can be just as devastating as falling short when comparing linear growth to exponential growth. The result is still millions who starve.

Thanks for reading,

David Coutts

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Google hit results

Try this...

Search for:
Exponential Method
Exponential Growth
Linear Growth
Logistic Growth
Compound Growth
Rule of 70
Rule of 72
Population Doubling
Variable Rate Compound Interest
Fixed Rate Compound Interest
Brownian Exponential Growth

That'll do...

You'll find in most cases that an Exponentialist page is in your top 10 Google results. It's been that way for years now.


Monday, November 14, 2011

So....7 Billion

The UN designated 12th October 1999 as The Day of 6 Billion, and on 31st October 2011 our global population officially reached 7 Billion.

That's just over 12 years to add 1 billion people to our global population. Should we be worried?

That depends upon whether you see our ability to add an additional billion members to our running population total as a "good thing"...a testament to our the fittest species on Earth. Maybe.

But if we continue to be so successful at such speed our species will continue to wipe out other an ever increasing rate.

Don't worry about global warming, the financial crisis, the war on terror, or any of the other popular news topics. Worry about overpopulation.

The UN predicts that the global population growth will slow, so maybe we don't need to worry? But we are an inventive species and if there is ANYTHING to the possibility of the technological singularity then I predict that through our technological prowess we will extend the predicted growth window for our species not by decades but by centuries.

At a 2% growth rate our population will double every 35 years, so in just 10 population doubling there will be around 7 trillion humans on Earth.

So sometime in October 2361 the UN will no doubt proclaim the Day of 7 Trillion...

I hasten to add that I am NOT in favour of the human global population reaching anything like 7 trillion. I hope that we learn to live sustainably here on Earth as we also expand beyond the Earth.