Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It's Hard Being Right All The Time, vol 2: A Rebuttal

Bakakarasu dropped by to rebut my overpopulation post. Though my point was more that the drivers of media-manufactured hysteria (in the service of totalitarianism) will need a new focal point, and that overpopulation is a great boogie man. So, let's play:

Yeah, it must be hard being right almost all the time ;-)

One of the jokes of being a programmer is that you work with tools that constantly point out your stupid mistakes. You make hundreds of mistakes an hour if you're being very productive. And yet, the quickest way to make a programmer bristle is to suggest there's something wrong with his code. (Usually, they'll get mad without even a trace of irony.)


You don't have to hate people to believe in science, statistics, and concepts like carrying capacity limits.

Here come da science!

We’ve already exceeded global carrying capacity. We are now in “overshoot”. Global population is nearing 7 billion. Different theorists using different methods seem to end up agreeing that global carrying capacity is probably about 2 billion. (This assumes some level of social justice and a moderate, low by US standards, standard of living. More is possible if you accept a cattle car / Matrix-esque "life".)

I have a different theory about overpopulation. It's a matter of numbers. Some numbers are simply overwhelming. Billion is one of those numbers. I think people get overwhelmed by numbers and look for justification for their trepidation. (That's why they always use counters.)

Malthus had the science, too: Unchecked, population grows geometrically while food grows arithmetically. So in the time the food supply doubles, population quadruples. Neither of those things are necessarily true, however, and they proved not to be. (Actually, I remember reading an Ancient Roman author bitching about overpopulation. And the kids these days!)

In one of the great ironies--and contrary to the Civilization games--a well-fed population reproduces less than a starving one. If one were to theorize, one might suggest that there are triggers that occur when the body is low on, say, protein, that causes it to kick into reproductive overdrive.

A wealthy population reproduces less as well, too. Life is good and safe, we don't worry about the next generation being there.

Other, less pleasant things suppress population as well. (See USSR.)

As for food growing arithmetically, well, if that were ever true, Norman Borlaug shot it to hell 50 years ago.

"Carrying capacity" is just a modern version of the arithmetic growth of food. The current mathematical expression is slightly more complex, and brought to you by professional doomsayer Paul Ehrlich (check out his quotes and predictions on Wiki):

I = P * A * T

Impact on the environment is Population times Affluence times Technology. This is awesome. Population, okay, that's the bugaboo. Affluence? OK, although as I've pointed out, it is only affluence that gives people the luxury to even care about environmental impact.

He tips his hand with technology, though. Technology can harm the environment, but it can also drastically reduce the impact on the environment. Case in point, Borlaug's work, which gives us so much super-productive agriculture that we use less and less soil. How about the Internet, reducing the need to kill trees for reading?

How about factory farming (a bad phrase these days, so you know I'm going to love it)? Terrible nutrition? Maybe. But the Native Americans used to just torch the forests to make more room for buffalo. Technology means we can raise buffalo on a ranch (and order it from commercials on "Red Eye") and not have to burn down forests so that buffalo can thrive.

No, the point is there are too many damn people, and the amount of evidence one can create to back up that point is virtually unlimited.

In any case, we will get to that much-lower-than-7-billion number the hard way (wars, famine, disease, and their accompanying losses of environmental quality, freedom, and social justice) OR the less hard way (immediately and drastically reducing our population voluntarily).

I like this because, well, we're already lower than seven billion. So, if I understand the new angle, the problem isn't that we're going to be overcrowded by over-population, but that we're going to hit a magic number that causes a sudden, drastic drop.

It's a "can't lose for winning" scenario. If the population continues to go up, the Malthusians are right. If it goes down they're still right. What's more, the prescription--immediate and drastic population and lifestyle reduction--brings about the conditions we're trying to avoid, though we're assured in a much less intense manner.

Sound familiar? A slow process--a slowing process, even, because population growth has been steadily slowing--is going to result in sudden, inevitable disaster.

You know what's also funny? Who took the Malthusians the most seriously? Communist China. (Communists really do hate people, though. That's why they kill so many.) And there is no greater threat to the world environment than China.

It’s too late for any “us” vs “them” arguments or any belief that national boundaries will do much to help anyone in the long run. This is a global issue with local and nation-state consequences. For example, immigration is a consequence of overpopulation, not a cause of it. Likewise, global climate change is not impressed by national boundaries.

Global climate change isn't much impressed by humans as near as I can tell. See, this is the beauty of overpopulation: Any environmental problem can be blamed on humans, and overpopulation allows us to reinforce the idea of human-caused (I'm tired of typing "anthropogenic") climate change, whether it's getting warmer or colder.

Again, win-win.

I disagree with the argument that there is some “right to reproduce” that must be accommodated in this scenario. If there is any "right to reproduce" it's in the concept that one has the freedom to nurture a child or children and form some sort of family. Biological reproduction is not necessary to do that and there are many in need of this sort of nurturing.

Well, I hadn't made that argument, but I will: One has a right to surive. One survives as more than an individual. Isn't it interesting, though, that bakakarasu actual states that biological reproduction is not necessary if you want children. As long as there is one child up for adoption somewhere in the world, you have no right to have your own, and it's not necessary. (Ehrlich uses a similar rhetorical device: As long as anyone is hungry in the world--not even starving, which was his original prediction--his predictions are vindicated. Even if those hunger problems are purely political.)

Of course, eventually that runs out. It should go without saying that survival does depend on biological reproduction. I can't help but wonder if the near complete elimination of a people (as they all go adopting 3rd world orphans) might not have some biological implications.

Being a parent is much different from the romantic and oxytocin enhanced notion of “having a baby” (a phrase I always found to be a bit horrifying for its "possessing-an-object" language frame).

The lecturing on what it means to be a parent (which goes on for another paragraph or two) is sort of depressing because it suggests you're not even reading this blog. I would have preferred you address your arguments to me rather than some imagined opponent.

I've heard the "having" argument before, phrased different. "My wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend" being offensive because, you know, you can't own anyone, man. Dopey. There are all kinds of definitions of "have", and children actually fall into the category of, "Well, I'm completely responsible for everything they do for eighteen years," so yeah, that's a close to ownership as you can get without actual slavery.

The supertanker analogy is also apt because it was the "one time gift" of oil that allowed us to get this far out on a limb, and peak oil has already happened.

This makes me think the whole post is an early Christmas present from a friend. Look! They even threw in "peak oil".

What kills me about all of this is that, despite failing to predict anything, the tone of urgency never diminishes. There's never any humility. There's never any attempt to, say, predict something small. It's always The End of the World. And always with complete confidence.

And never, ever, ever is it allowed anywhere for human ingenuity to play a role in man's future. Man holds no key to his own salvation. He must stop, stop, stop. Ehrlich and his ilk despise cheap energy. And you know what I say:

Civlization is energy.

This is not a coincidence. A lot of good people--people who would make excellent parents and who would have children that are a credit to the species--end up sucked in by overpopulation. Humanity loses by that. The poisoning of higher education with anti-American, anti-human and fundamentally anti-intellectual ideas means that a lot of our best will never make a permanent mark on the world. It's a formula for Idiocracy.

In his comment, Baka talks about the consensus (he doesn't use that word) of 2 billion being the optimal population of Earth. We've got over 1 billion living in first world countries now, on a tiny bit of land mass (relative to what's available in Asia, where most people live), and the best we can do is double that?

To all and sundry I say, "Prove it."

I guarantee you something else. Should we ever actually reach the 2 billion number, the Malthusians will not be silent. They'll start talking about 500 million being the optimum. (And, in fact, already have.)

Fun fact: 1/2B is about what the population of the Earth during the Middle Ages is estimated to have been. Europe felt crowded then, too. Hence the fleeing to the new world. And the twice as many people living in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia are living better now.

And were we to reach 500 million, 100 million wouldn't be far behind.

If you hate people, two is one too many.

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