Global Population Issues

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jennypenny
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Global Population Issues

Post by jennypenny »

NOTE: This topic has been split from the climate change thread.

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jacob wrote:PS: The third rail of mainstream environmentalism is [having] children.
That's because regular folk don't want to be told by hyper-consuming politicians and celebrities (private planes, bloated dinners, closets of haute couture) that they should stop having children because they (the little people) are destroying the environment. I'm not arguing with you. Just suggesting that maybe that message has to come from someplace else.


If all of those peak oil YouTube videos are correct and we're headed for a low-energy future, doesn't that imply the need for larger families to 'power' a return to an agrarian lifestyle?

(sincere question)
Last edited by jennypenny on Tue Aug 05, 2014 2:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Climate Change: Fact, Fiction, Something in Between?

Post by jacob »

@jp -

Just to point out the obvious in case it wasn't. The problem is not children per se. It's the fact that children become adults. An adult not having children equals one adult's worth of impact. An adult having one child equals two adults' worth of impact. It's simple math.

Obviously, it also matters greatly whether the child who becomes an adult is an American or a Bangladeshian. (This is why countries have been postponing and squabling over the exact distribution of the necessary emission cuts for the past 25 years.)

The main question here is: how many people are currently alive?

A human being can go for 3 weeks without food. Therefore the number of human beings alive today (actually more like the weight of the total number of humans) is about equal to the previous month's food supply. [Civilization has no material food reserves.]

This food supply can be more or less wasteful. For example 17 pounds of grain equals 1 pound of meat equals ? pounds of human.

Obviously we can keep more people alive on grain than on meat.

The next issue is that currently it requires 1-2 persons + large amounts of fossil fuel inputs (tractors, fertilizer, ...) to feed 100 people. This is done somewhat inefficiently using practically all available agrarian land which top soil is being depleted rapidly (maybe a century left at current run off rates ... this will obviously change either voluntarily or forced).

A fully agrarian society will require close to 100 people working the fields to feed 100 people. Those among you who garden know how hard it is to replace your own food supply. The yields are much less. As far as I understand (big rule of thumb), standard agrarian methods are perhaps 1/6 as efficient as green revolution methods.

Since land [that can be used to grow food] is currently maxed out, this means that 100 people working the fields can feed a little over 17 people. Well, that is, only 17 of those will actually have to work. The other 83 have to go.

So the answer in terms of needing more children to work the fields using agrarian methods is an empathetic no!

Unfortunately, simple math goes against practically ALL foundations of human culture, religion, civilization, history, ...

Humankind has historically been an r-selected species. That is, as much offspring as possible, as fast a possible (start young), with as little effort as possible (don't invest). The goal of r-selected species is to take advantage of an abundant resource as fast as possible once it appears. Once it's gone, the r-selectors population crash but because there are now so many of them, a few will survive. Typical r-selected strategies are pursued by weeds, rabbits, businesses, religions(*), ... well basically most human institutions.

However, with mass-industrialization, there's been a tendency towards k-selection. K-selection favors a stable society: little offspring, slow growth (start older), using a lot of effort to build quality replacements. For example, as people get richer and more educated, they delay having children, the have fewer children, and they invest heavily in their children's education.

(*) This might interest you. Consider that the major monotheistic religions all derive from sheep herding communities. They are, therefore, propagating the values of having a sheep herder in charge of creating as many sheep as possible. The preferred strategy here obviously has to be r-selected. So major religious tenets of an religion that originated in animal care will be r-selected. Compare to agricultural religions which prefer a K-selected strategy. These tend to associate practically every thing in their world with its own god. The water god, the thunder god, the harvest god, .. We have few of those religions with any impact in today's world. Note. I point this out to illustrate how deep the foundation of religious beliefs tend to go.

Similarly, the dominant religion of the developed world: materialistic consumerism is r-selected. Practically all economics is based on r-selected theories: how to create the fastest growth while consuming an apparently abundant resource.

So here's the situation:

1) Humans have historically been r-selected but demonstrate some capacity for K-selected behavior. There's another kind of behaviour which is called eusocial behaviour. Eusocial is hardcore. I'm not even sure humans have the capacity for this. You (by which I mean 99.9% of the population) gotta be some kind of saint for that to work out. Well, humans do have saints, but few achieve that status.
2) Due to history, practically all human institutions and beliefs are r-selected.
3) Due to a spurious geological accident, we have been able to temporarily extend our population numbers to 6x of what we can otherwise hope to achieve.

Here are the barriers towards a non-standard solution, by which I mean one which doesn't involve the usual 4 resolutions of an r-selected species hitting capacity: pestilence, war, famine, and death.

1) As mentioned, humanity would have to find a technological miracle. This is obviously the preferred method since it is the easiest. "They will think of something". This is why we have notions such as "green tech", "sustainable tech", ... It's the idea that we can solve our growth barrier by growing more but in a different direction. Note how this requires little introspection.

and/or

2) Civilization will have to change practically ALL its major institutions and beliefs. How likely is it that a majority of humans will do the simple high school level math AND bring their behaviour in terms of economic beliefs, lifestyle beliefs, religious beliefs, political beliefs, etc. in accordance with that. I say not very many.

Possibly the biggest obstacle is democracy coupled with post modernism and the achievement of completely detachment from the reality of things by most people allowing the common acceptance "I disagree with the facts because they're not compatible with my political/religious/etc. beliefs" as a perfectly shameless and in most circles acceptable argument.

PS: If anyone wants to disagree with the facts because of their political/religious/etc. beliefs, we should probably start another thread. Before doing that please bang your head against the wall 10 times. I will do the same :)

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Re: Climate Change: Fact, Fiction, Something in Between?

Post by jennypenny »

I do think this deserves its own thread because I don't think the answer is as simple as fewer people. Fewer people living the same high-consumption lifestyle isn't much of an improvement IMO. Telling/forcing people to have <2 children produces a population too old to care for itself after a time. The method used to reduce population seems as important as the amount of the reduction.

Note that I didn't say an agrarian culture required more people. I said it required larger families. I think there's a difference. I agree with you that cultural changes need to take place. I submit that larger family units, combined with fewer offspring, would be needed. The trend in the developed world for everyone to live in separate housing is counterproductive to any reduction in population. (Please note that I'm not promoting any particular version of a 'family'. )

FWIW...many religions, including Catholicism, no longer promote large families. The Catholic church still opposes [what they call] unnatural forms of BC, which I personally disagree with (I wish they would allow barrier methods), but NFP is more successful than critics will acknowledge. Even Bill Ryerson mentioned its success rate in a Peak Prosperity podcast. http://www.peakprosperity.com/podcast/8 ... ion-growth (IIRC, that podcast is a good primer on population issues if anyone is interested.)

Anyway, I'm traveling and stuck on my phone, but I'm happy to bang my head against the wall a few times and take this to another thread. :D

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Re: Climate Change: Fact, Fiction, Something in Between?

Post by Spartan_Warrior »

Would it be morally permissible to reproduce so long as I intend to raise a brood of sociopathic eco-terrorists bent on reducing world population by whatever means necessary?

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Re: Climate Change: Fact, Fiction, Something in Between?

Post by Ego »

The thing that surprised me about the movie was the relative severity of the consequences of eating up the food chain when compared to other causes, transportation in particular.

Is there a word or phrase (other than self-righteousness) for the idea that buying a Prius or giving to the Sierra Club makes me feel good (enough) about the environment that it allows me to ignore my true impact? Whatever that is, I felt it when watching the movie. I was surprised by how I was made to feel okay about my airline travel because it is more than offset by the fact that I do not consume meat.

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Re: Climate Change: Fact, Fiction, Something in Between?

Post by jacob »

@S_W - You mean soldiers who are willing to go war to procure the necessary resources to maintain our non-negotiable American way of life? Sure thing ...

Incidentally, that's an r-selected strategy cast in the proper propaganda terms.

Did I just get Poe'd?

I note that so far I've had two objections. Both r-selected. As I said, it runs deep. So deep that it's really hard to think of/in k-selected ways.

The chasm between r-selection and K-selection is vast. Truly vast. This is really what it comes down to. Also to answer JP's question whether to reduce population simply so the remainder can increase their affluence (or at least not decrease). Quantity vs Quality (and a bunch of other factors). That was another r-based preferrence.

Maybe I can summarize the positions (deep foundations of culture, etc.), keeping in mind that these positions from an implementation point of view are so different from each other that they'll all see each other as mutually evil.

r-selection focus:
quantity of individual life, high turnover (many young people, risk), competitive (wars, famine), simple, high discount of the future

k-selection focus:
quality of individual life, low turnover of life (many old people, focus on safety), collaborative (lots of rules and laws, lack of freedom), complex (long educations), low discount of the future

eusocial:
super-organism (the individual doesn't matter---specifically, individuals don't think of themselves as individuals), sacrificial (individuals die/work for the good of the whole), inherent (either genetic or deeply cultural), no discount of the future

An eusocial species sounds deeply alien to us, practically evil(*), whereas both k-selection and [mostly] k-selection have strategies we can somewhat identify with.

(*) If you were an ant, which ant would you be?

PS: I can't currently fork the thread. If any of the mods can do this [now], please do so.

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Re: Climate Change: Fact, Fiction, Something in Between?

Post by Spartan_Warrior »

So Poe'd. Sorry, my sarcastic moods don't play nice with my historic distaste for emoticons. But can I make another modest proposal while I'm at it? What if we started gathering all the poor kids for food...

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by jacob »

@Ego - http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Not_as_bad_as

@S_W - An eusocial species would find this perfectly acceptable. For example, carpenter ants eat their sick, dead, and also injured young ants (poor kids?) to survive famine and also as a matter of course---which is why ant traps work. Poisoned ants get eaten by other ants which are in turn poisoned themselves, etc.

Other species who eat their young for various reasons (overpopulation being one, simple competition being another) include lions, hamsters, and guppies.

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/top ... annibalism

I'm not sure how a caged up hamster feels about the strategy, but humans consider it a taboo.

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by jennypenny »

My r-based answer is primarily because I'm a doomer. I think most people/cultures are doomed. (for many reasons) My personal feelings and approach are based on how I believe those with a chance of survival will have to live.


@jacob--That description of an eusocial species makes me wear my 'r' proudly. I'd rather retain my humanity, for better or worse.

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by Spartan_Warrior »

R-selection : western civilization
K-selection : eastern civilization
Eusocial : Martian civilization

Does that about sum it up?

In all seriousness, is there any evidence of other species that have changed their reproduction strategy over time in response to changing environmental circumstances? Those strategies and preferences seem pretty hard-wired and evolutionary. Perhaps you would not argue with this, but given the non-standard solutions you outlined (either "technological miracle" or "somehow change everything about human civilization down to the unique reproductive strategies conditioned over thousands of years"), I'm gonna go ahead and assume the likely outcome will be one of the four standard ones (war, disease, etc). Incidentally, such an event(s) would probably reset conditions to where r-selection is most efficient. This seems to be the standard cycle for populations waxing and waning throughout natural history, from what I can tell (I'm no biologist).

Given that conclusion, is overpopulation even a solvable issue, or merely an inevitable condition that individuals should prepare for? If it is the latter, is it morally wrong for individuals to do what they can to strengthen their own position, even if it might worsen the overpopulation problem?

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by Spartan_Warrior »

I'd rather retain my humanity, for better or worse.
I think this cuts to what I was trying to get at more succinctly. Are there certain things about the way modern humans are wired/evolved that make other reproductive strategies less appealing or even impossible for us? Cannibalism is a pretty visceral example--same thing with incest, etc. It seems like if (most) human cultures consider these practices taboo, perhaps it is at least as rooted in biology as it is in culture. I think it's clearly impossible for (present day) human beings to adapt eusocial practices simply because of the way our brains work (if we were a telepathic hive mind, then maybe). I think that humans in aggregate are too individualistic for k-selection as well, which is why it has to be enforced at the point of a gun through government action.

Which leads me back to the inevitability of overpopulation. What moral obligations do individuals have to attempt to slow or hinder the inevitable, especially if such attempts come at a personal cost (real or imagined)?

Just devil's advocating here, FYI. Not sure what I even believe on this particular issue, but it's interesting seeing the thought processes.

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by Spartan_Warrior »

Actually--now that I think about it, is "morality" even a concept that exists outside the influence of mankind's historic preference for r-selection? Wouldn't right action mean something totally different for an r-selected species (e.g. individuals are valuable) versus a eusocial species (individuals are not valuable)?

I'm glad I chose this thread for my daily one liner. :lol:

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by jacob »

@S_W - I think that sums it up rather well. It also suggests that the older a civilization gets with the eastern civs being a few thousand years older than the western civs, the greater the tendency for its culture, religion, etc. to derive from K-selection.

For example, reincarnation plays well into the idea of preserving a climax (stable complex) environment since being reborn right back into it at a caste-level proportionate to your behavior suggests taking care of it. That is, this religious idea promotes a K-selected world. Whereas going to heaven or hell, in essence, leaving the environment, is more compatible with a slash and burn mentality in which you move on to other areas/resources after employing your strategy.

Yes, hamsters successfully change their reproductive strategy due to changing environments. For example, if you put them in a cage, they might eat their young to reduce competition. If you don't, they don't. That's a prime example of resource constraints.

Humans are another example with individuals changing from r-selection to K-selection as their material quality of life improves having fewer children, waiting longer to have them, increasing the educational effort, ...

It seems to me that humans are uniquely qualified to use any of the three strategies. What resists change is the inertia of human institutions and beliefs which are predominantly r-selected. As noted eusocial behavior seems positively evil to most of us because we're either in favor of r or K.

Right now, therefore, it seems to be a cultural battle between pursuing an r strategy with its inevitable population crash where the focus is to ensure that your tribe is counted among the few survivors and a K strategy which requires changing beliefs and institutions so that population tapers off in accordance with carrying capacity.

There's a little bit of an engineering triangle constraint going on:

Ultimately you can have any two of either quantity of life, quality of life, and/or freedom of life, but you can't have all three. The issue is how to decide. Currently we're pursuing all three. This won't fly. Therefore one of them has to go. Which one?

Edit: I didn't see your other two responses before this one. So to answer that. I think morality (and culture, religion, etc.) exists completely within one's selection strategy. I also believe humans are capable of holding/living by either of the three strategies. I do, however, believe that once one's mind and values are crystallized, say, by a fairly young age, say 7-14, they are very unlikely to change. For example, I favour quality of life and freedom of life. You will have a really hard to time convincing me to give up one of those for quantity of life. Such changes in values tend to take generations, especially if they don't already exist in some form that can be copied.

PS: The astute reader will notice that ERE primarily consists of K-strategies. There's a reason for that ...

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by Ego »

Life extension advocates are projecting some pretty crazy things. Even if we assume they are overly optimistic, we are bound to see the median age (excluding infant mortality) move up at least as fast as we've seen in the last hundred years. If that happens we must either stay ahead of the curve with technology or adopt a more realistic approach to the elderly.

I just witnessed medicare spend a half-million to implant various life-extending devices into a person who by any rational measurement is worth far less than zero. Interestingly, even he acknowledges this fact. The only entity who sees the sacredness of this particular person is the system. Spending time in an ER is a rather enlightening experience.

What would the ant colony do? What would happen in a more k-selection civilization?

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by jacob »

@Ego -

K-strategies tend to favor/admire age (old people). Being old is considered an achievement. I think this is because in a mature/stable/complex society, age correlates to wisdom which is useful.

r-strategies to admire/favor youth. Being young in a growing/unstable/simple society means having more energy to work and fight. Wisdom is not required since it rapidly becomes useless due to change.

Yet, I don't see how using massive resources to prolong life by a small amount fits into this simple population metophor/model. If anything burning half the person's medical budget at the last few months is anti-eusocial. I'm not aware of any other species that makes a large resource grab towards the end of their life. Some societies display eusocial behavior in people who are about to die soon. They voluntarily (more or less) prepare for an easier transition instead of going for heroic measures.

In trying to understand heroic healthcare, I wonder whether it's simply due to a "we must attempt everything we possibly can"-medical doctor's ethic or whether it's similar to academia in that resources are burned on mainly administration and mostly useless research whereas it really serves to educate the hoi-polloi and occasionally emit some research insight. Perhaps heroic medicine serves the same purpose in keeping alive a vast institution that mostly puts band-aids on people's cuts and hand out statins. Any medics care to comment/speculate?

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by jennypenny »

Heroic medicine happens when it's no longer theoretical. You end up in that dreaded 'meeting' with the doctors discussing options and organ donations, meanwhile the patient (father? sibling?) has decided that maybe they don't want to go gently into that good night after all.


The other part of this reminds me of a question I use in my class...
A house is completely engulfed in flames with a child trapped inside. The father rushes in to try and save the child, and ends up dying in the fire with the child. If you're the wife, how do you feel? Are you angry that your husband wasted his life trying to save a child that was most likely already dead? Or is the question irrelevant because you'd never marry anyone who wouldn't rush into a burning building to save your child?

My point is that different people would describe "quality" differently wrt life and the treatment of other humans. You're assuming the definition of quality is objective.

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by jennypenny »

I should clarify that I don't agree that personal definitions of quality break down neatly into r's and k's.

More precisely, I think it's easier to think like a 'k' wrt to others. Stephen King's Storm of the Century comes to mind.

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by jacob »

@JP - Would it make it make a difference if the father had an incurable disease with an expected 6 month lifespan, that is, he's essentially already dead? Would it make a difference if it's the neighbor's child? (There is a strong connection between self-sacrifice and the sharing of genetic material. For example, people are more likely to save their children which have 50% of their own DNA than their siblings which have 25% or their DNA). If the child was adopted?

I'm not assuming that the quality is objective as much as I'm assigning it to the cultural values which are given by r, K or eusocial selections. I would expect a K-selector to be more self-sacrificial than an r-selector (being more invested in their offspring) and I'd expect the eusocial to be the most willing to throw themselves on a grenade to save the group. The military is a good example of an organization fostering eusocial values.

I think to a large degree, heroic measures are taken because we can afford them. The question is what happens if a choice must be made. I mean, technically, we're already making a choice between a CT-scan and feeding 5000 malnourished people for a day, but that's abstract because they're far away. What if it came down to a CT-scan vs feeding one's hungry family?

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by jacob »

jennypenny wrote:I should clarify that I don't agree that personal definitions of quality break down neatly into r's and k's.

More precisely, I think it's easier to think like a 'k' wrt to others. Stephen King's Storm of the Century comes to mind.
It's certainly a range. In fact, r/K-selection theory is not the end-all answer because most species can't be neatly categorized. However, it's useful as a descriptor. BTW, r is lower case and K is upper case simply because that's the way it appears in the equation for idiosyncratic technical reasons.

K is the more "civilized" version. It's what we're supposed to strive for if we're civilized and advanced and all. r is closer to what we actually do. Very few people will, with a straight face, advocate having as many children as possible in order to hand them some guns in order to grab as many resources for the tribe (read: nation) as they can. At least not these days. However, it is in essence what many nations actually do and advocate although they're very circumspect about it.

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Re: Global Population Issues

Post by Ego »

jennypenny wrote: My point is that different people would describe "quality" differently wrt life and the treatment of other humans. You're assuming the definition of quality is objective.
Granted, the definition of quality of life is not objective. Advancing technology continues to develop methods that are turning death into a long, drawn-out return to infancy. In the future this will likely be drawn out indefinitely.

But resources are limited. Today the system acts as if they are unlimited. That must change before we've got an earth covered in warehouses full of brains in vats. That may sound ridiculous. Someone can do the math using the exponential function. I suspect it would not be too far into the future.

This thought occurred to me in the back of an ambulance shuttling people from one brain-vat-warehouse to another. They exist today and there are more of them than I would have ever imagined.

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