The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
. . . still studying and learning how to live

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Sunday, August 31, 2014
Current Affairs ... History ...

Lately I’ve been listening to Prof. David Christian explain his “Big History” concept (courtesy of a CD course from the Teaching Company), and I’ve almost reached the end (i.e., the present). I’ve hung in there from the Big Bang and matter formation thru the first stars and star clusters leading to galaxies and solar system formation, then the condensation of the planets around those stars (using heavy elements sprayed into the void from the heart of supernova explosions). And then came the various coincidences that eventually allowed warm watery environments to evolve with slimy life forms somehow forming, eventually leading to intelligence, consciousness and society — at least on one tiny planet in an otherwise insignificant corner of the Milky Way (a generally insignificant galaxy in its own right).

In one of his final lectures in the course, Prof. Christian discusses the “Malthusian Crisis” or cycle, i.e. a situation where the human population of a large portion of the world (or sometimes the whole world itself) grows beyond its long-run carrying capacity in terms of nutrition, energy, shelter, and protection from disease. Under such conditions, the population starts decreasing, until things get back in balance a few generations later. Professor Christian offered two examples of an historical Malthusian Crisis — the first is in the 14th century, when people start intermingling from around the world, spreading nasty diseases and plagues (such as the Black Death) that started killing people off in large numbers. There were other basic factors, such as populations that were growing too fast for the agricultural capacity to keep up, along with climate changes that just made it worse. Experts estimated that world population levels dropped by perhaps one quarter (from 450 million to 350-375 million) in the 14th century, after a few hundred years of slow growth.

Then in the 17th century, things got bad once again, termed a “General Decline” by some scholars. A global cooling took place (called the Little Ice Age, possibly related to solar radiation patterns), causing agricultural yields to diminish, and a lot of wars started occurring. World population had been rising for 200 years, but went into a stall for the next century, with actual declines in various places such as portions of Europe and China. Eventually, though, renewed expansions of technology, trade and wealth allowed crop yields to rise once again, and the industrial revolution triggered the huge jump in population leading to the world we live in today (i.e., a 20 fold increase in world population between 1800 and the 2050 estimate).

Can a Malthusian crisis happen again? Some say no, because our technology and trade systems are so well developed that they will stay ahead of whatever the reproductive capacities of humankind can throw at it. I myself have to wonder, however. First off, take a look at a long-term world population chart. Our planet hasn’t been supporting multi-billion population levels for all that long, relatively speaking. The big push past 1 billion, then 2, then 4, soon 8 and maybe eventually 10 billion (by 2100, according to the median UN forecast) happened mostly within the past 250 years. It makes you wonder if our technology is mostly just allowing us to burn resources at an unsustainable rate, as with fossil fuels. We really don’t know if what we presently take from the planet can be renewed in time to keep a 10 billion population going for millenniums on end.

Our technologies continue to evolve, of course, but some unanticipated red lights are now flashing, especially regarding the possible effects of the approaching global climate changes. It seems pretty clear that the political and economic systems that allowed us to avoid mass starvation and gave a lot of people a previously unheard of standard of living is quite complex and tightly woven around existing world resource conditions (water, fuels, food, minerals, usable land, etc.). We really don’t know how well these complex systems will hold up when these current resource states start shifting around. Upcoming changes to major global weather patterns are certainly going to put it all to the test; we will find out just how frail or robust our technologies and economic mechanisms turn out to be.

The next big question is, have humans learned to be more prone to cooperate and less prone to grab weapons in response to declining resources? It doesn’t look like our predecessors handled the 16th Century too well, and even modern history suggests that war is still the first choice of sub-populations facing major survival challenges.

Personally, I’m hoping for another 20 or 30 years of relative world calmness. That’s about all the longevity I can reasonably hope for at my age. But looking past that, as today’s young people must do . . . it gets a bit uncertain, to say the least. I wish all of you well, and I’m a bit sorry that me and my peers were generally short-sighted about how quickly and thoughtlessly we used up all the “low hanging fruit” that our planet offers without regard for future generations. I hope that technology and trade-generated wealth can continue to keep the lights on, but . . . well, given that every nation and every village is already tied into an instantaneous global commerce system, I don’t see how trade expansion can continue to power the growth of wealth, as it had over the past 5 or 6 centuries. Recall that for many centuries and millennium, human growth was powered by opening up new uninhabited lands; but after 1200 or so, that mostly came to an end — just before trade started taking off. [There were more “lands to be conquered” after 1200, but that was mostly a case of an existing civilization being pushed aside by a more powerful one, as with Euro colonialism in Africa, South America, Asia, Australia, and of course, the push to take the American West from the Native American tribes in the 18th-19th Centuries.]

If so, then it’s mostly up to technology to keep the party going . . . but technology has always had a self-limiting side to it, in terms of how much it helps to improve the overall lot of the human race. I.e., for every possibility that a new technology opens for improving life, it also offers a better means to take life away. In other words, military technology continues to grow apace with every other technology on the planet. Humankind shows no remorse in using its ever expanding knowledge to find better ways to wipe out as many of its own as it desires, in any place at any time. Nuclear weapons were a big military advance, but now so are computers and information highways and robots (such as aerial drones and soon robo soldiers). Who knows what the generals have planned for nanotechnology.

Once again, good luck to you millennial people of today. I hope that the Malthus deniers continue to be right, but . . . every lucky gambler knows that their streak will come to an end, somewhere and sometime.

[PS, that’s why an “eternal student” like myself is grateful to be living in these times, and regrets what might be coming. If our lucky streak comes to an end, we could see a revival of the “Dark Ages“, when humankind was so busy trying to survive that it had little time for accumulating and disseminating scientific knowledge and cultural achievements. Today, most any interested layperson in the developed world has the opportunity and ability to learn about superstring theory, quantum gravity, chaotic inflation cosmology, the “phi” theory of consciousness, the history of the Crusades, the tenants of Taoism, Egyptian pottery development during the reign of the Pharaohs . . . in 200 or 300 years from now, will this still be the case?]

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:37 pm      

  1. Jim, As I read your first paragraph, I had a strange experience. I must explain something first: I am not one to generally say the evolution of the universe did not happen. I am perfectly willing to believe it all – the Big Bang down to the tiny planet on which we currently live. But I found myself thinking of something I read in Elizabeth Johnson’s book Truly Our Sister. At one point she goes into an explanation of what is necessary to understand the virgin birth as understood in theology.

    I found myself thinking, while I read the first paragraph of your post, that basically, in both instances one has to accept the basic premises on which each of these very diverse ideas rests; then all that follows in each area of thought makes sense.

    Thus, I find myself wondering if “belief” in science and its theories does not have something in common with religion. That basic thing would be that one must first accept the basic ideas upon which all else rests, then everything else from there follows very nicely.

    I don’t know if this is just my twisted mind thinking in its own strange way or if I might be right. But I can’t help but wonder if underneath it all these two very diverse areas of thought might be based on a similar basic concept – believe the initial statement and all the rest will follow.

    Then there’s Malthus’ idea of the idea of humanity getting to the point where it expands so much that the earth at the time may not be able to support itself and thus cause some crisis that ends up diminishing the population to a point where the earth can much more easily and carefully sustain itself. It certainly seems to have a validity of sorts. It seems it has happened before and will happen again. I read a book long ago on the Black Plague and how the few people left after it had spent itself benefited greatly in many ways from the population being massively reduced.

    Thus, it seems this kind of thing has happened before and will happen again. Who knows: Perhaps we are in the throes of one such cycle now and can’t see it because we are too close to it. But in the end, I would doubt it makes too much difference as it seems to me the entire point of living a life on this earth is to experience and learn something that can only be experienced and learned here on earth. Living on another planet somewhere in the universe, most surely the experience and what is learned is vastly different. Thus, should either you or I (or any other individual) expire during some major population-reducing crisis perhaps the important thing is not that we go on living but that our experience and learning was effective and useful for us individually and as members of the whole community of earth.

    Back in the 1960s I read a book called A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (I’ve since reread it a few times over the years; it struck me so.) The basic idea is just what you describe as Malthus’ theory: Humanity reaches a point where it destroys itself by use of its technology — different each time. Gradually over time, humanity “rebuilds” itself, finds “fossils” (evidence) of the technology that once was used by a past humanity, gradually rebuilds its technology, only to reach a point where it again destroys itself, only to start the whole process over again.

    Thus, perhaps the point is not the *what* of all we had developed and/or the level of development we achieve, perhaps the whole thing is for each individual to experience and learn something special that can be learned in no other way by that person and that can be experien0ced and learned in no other place in the universe. Whether we come back around again on this earth or whether we get one shot at the time here may irrelevant. What may be the important part is the very fact of having lived and experienced the earth as it is when we inhabit it.

    Thus your concept of being an “eternal student” may be right on the mark of what living on this earth is all about. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 1, 2014 @ 6:42 pm

  2. Jim, Just read an article in the paper this a.m. about an isolated group of people, the Dorsets, I think they were, who lived in the Greenland-North Pole area for 4000 years, which I’d say is a good chunk of time. Seems they were isolated from all other peoples that existed at lower levels on the earth. Then they disappeared for some unknown reason.

    Perhaps all this “appearing” and “disappearing” of portions of the human race has gone on for millenia, eons, (who knows how long?) and we are just finding out about it. Does the *entire* human race have to disappear to fulfill Malthus general idea? Why couldn’t it be portions or groups of people here or there on the planet who appear and disappear, the last never to be heard from again, except when their few remaining bones and artifacts are found. Seems we’ve been acquainted with this happening to a lot of different groups of people who once inhabited the earth.

    As I think about it, it’s about the same thing as various types of animals going extinct. (Just got another plea today to save some birds. Have gotten at least 2 or 3 such pleas this week alone.) Maybe the same thing has been happening with humans of various groups and types, and we never tho’t of it in those terms. Malthus on a small scale. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 3, 2014 @ 9:54 am

  3. I agree. I am not going to pretend to be an expert at these things, but it seems obvious to me that the world population cannot keep growing at the algebraic rate it has been growing. I have no idea how long the world can keep growing at this rate, but at some point in time, the limits on our finite resources will (at a minimum) prevent the earth’s population from growing further. When this happens, the earth won’t be a pleasant place. Right now, nations do not want to even consider the hard choices they should be considering. All countries – especially the poorest ones – should already be considering meausres that discourage unsustainable growth rates.

    On a related thought, pro-lifers should be considering that the long-term alternative to abortion might evenutally be far less humane.

    Comment by Zreebs — September 3, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

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