In one of his first-ever articles for Energy & Capital, Chris Nelder asked, “Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?”
The question stems from research done by Dr. Albert Bartlett at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Here’s an excerpt from his findings:
Bacteria grow by doubling. One bacterium divides to become two, the two divide to become 4, become 8, 16 and so on. Suppose we had bacteria that doubled in number this way every minute. Suppose we put one of these bacteria into an empty bottle at eleven in the morning, and then observe that the bottle is full at twelve noon. There’s our case of just ordinary steady growth, it has a doubling time of one minute, and it’s in the finite environment of one bottle. I want to ask you three questions.
Number one; at which time was the bottle half full? Well, would you believe 11:59, one minute before 12, because they double in number every minute?
Second question: if you were an average bacterium in that bottle at what time would you first realize that you were running of space? Well let’s just look at the last minute in the bottle. At 12 noon it’s full, one minute before it’s half full, 2 minutes before its 1/4 full, then 1/8, then 1/16. Let me ask you: at 5 minutes before 12, when the bottle is only 3% full, and 97% is open space just yearning for development, how many of you would realize there’s a problem?
Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained. That’s simple arithmetic. It’s intellectually dishonest to talk about saving the environment, which is sustainability, without stressing the obvious facts that stopping population growth is a necessary condition for saving the environment and for sustainability.
The point is worth pondering.
As Dr. Bartlett also notes, if our 1.3%-per-year population growth rate continues, “the world population would grow to a density of one person per square meter on the dry land surface of the earth in just 780 years, and then the mass of people would equal the mass of the earth in just 2,400 years.”
It’s why he ultimately concluded: “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”
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I Fear for the Future
I don’t fear for my future.
I don’t even fear for my kids’ futures. (I don’t have any yet. More on that below.)
What I fear for is my great-grandkids’ futures, for the effects of the most severe problems we face today won’t be felt until that time.
It’s sad, but the effects are happening literally on a glacial scale.
If they happened faster, we’d act with more urgency.
I’ve been telling you for months the world’s population would hit 7 billion this year. The milestone occurred this week with little fanfare. I guess global resource woes are no match for news coverage against an early Northeast snow…
Anyhow, it’s this yeast idea that’s had my brain turning for the past few days.
And I’ve concluded that many of us are not smarter than yeast — or at least, we’re way more easily distracted. None of the yeast realized they’d be out of space in a minute’s time. Frankly, not many humans do, either.
Take a look at this chart of population growth since the Homo genus appeared:
Just like the yeast, we had plenty of space (and resources) for so long that we were unable to feel the coming constraints.
We only had 1 billion people on earth at the turn of the nineteenth century. Then something called the Industrial Revolution happened, making machine power more easy to come by than manpower and cheap food available to all who needed it.
From there, even though it took us all of eternity to reach 1 billion, we hit 2 billion in 1922, 3 billion in 1959, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999, and 7 billion just this week.
Notice anything there?
There are fewer and fewer years between each billion we add on.
It took 118 years to go from 1 billion to 2 billion.
It only took 12 years to get from 6 billion to 7 billion.
We’ll Try, We’ll Profit
It’s no coincidence that a chart of global population syncs up perfectly with a chart of corn yield per acre:The ability to get more grain from the same fields is, after all, the main contributing factor to our exploding population.
What allowed for this explosion in production?
Cheap oil and gas, fertilizers, hybrid seeds, mechanized equipment, etc.
Cheap is the key word here. Corn prices fell inversely to production increases:
But how much more corn — or wheat or rice or rye or soy or canola or, or, or — can we continue to extract from the same acreage?
How much more oil can we extract? Can we get it fast enough?
Make no mistake; many of the problems we face today can be directly attributed to a sharp rise in population: water shortages and disease in the Third World, immigration, health care…
No one can come out and say, “We must start limiting population.” (Death Panels, anyone?)
Instead, we’ll try to innovate and engineer our way out of the population problem. And our solutions will continue to push the limits of man and technology.
Think about it…
When we needed more oil in 1959, where did we go? We went to Saudi Arabia, where there was plenty of easy oil.
What do we do today? We heat up bitumen frozen underground in sedimentary rock using steam assisted gravity drainage. We didn’t do that with 3 billion people on the earth…
Ever hear of a rare earth shortage in 1987? That’s because there were two billion less of us needing electronics, advanced motors, and batteries.
The lead time between innovation and reality is tenuous, to be sure.
Remember the food crisis three years ago, where sharply rising prices in 2006 and 2007 (CORRELATION ALERT: because of rising oil prices) led to panics and stockpiling in early 2008?
Brazil and India banned rice exports. Riots broke out from Burkina Faso to Somalia. George W. Bush asked Congress to approve $770 million for international food aid. But by October, something else was on everyone’s mind…
Bush went from asking for food aid to signing the $700 billion TARP bailout into law.
And while the worries of recession still dominate the minds of many, those of us who understand the exponential function know more problems await us.
The arrival of our 7 billionth inhabitant felt like a good time to remind you of that.
Cheap energy and land are where your money should be. That’s where mine is.
Call it like you see it,
Editor, Energy and Capital
P.S. I wanted to pass along one other sentiment without having to claim direct responsibility for it. A comment I found on a related article while doing research allows me to do that perfectly. This commenter laments:
The real tragedy is that we are having the wrong kind of babies. That survival of the fittest is not happening but society is getting dumber. I know so many highly educated people who don’t plan to have any children and high school dropouts that are bragging about grandchildren at 40. All we are breeding into society are macho, aggressive males and females who are unable to count the days of the month. These traits are not going to work well as the environment goes down because of overpopulation. I fear for the future.
… me, too.