[p2p-research] Earth's carrying capacity and Catton

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sat Aug 15 18:22:10 CEST 2009

I'm forwarding something I wrote privately in response to someone who cites 
William Catton about human dieoffs (from a different conversation than p2p); 
this is partially in response to Michel's point on many people panicking 
about resource issues. I'll concede we may be doomed from panic or 
speculators. But, that has nothing to do with any underlying physical problems.


 > you ... really should read Catton's book _Overshoot_.

Looking at that one page:
   "Industrialization: Prelude to Collapse; Excerpt from Overshoot: The 
Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change"
the logic is suspect. Also, there are no real numbers. Just a lot of
handwaving. Does Catton have any idea how big the planet is?

You're talking to someone who was in a PhD program in ecology and evolution
(SUNY Stony Brook, but I met my wife there and only got a masters :-).

I've written simulators about die-offs. :-) I wrote the Mac version (no
longer sold) of RAMAS/age which does stochastic simulation of extinction
probabilities back around 1991. :-) Among other uses, it's used by places
like state fish and game departments to decide how many hunting permits to
give out.

Essentially the argument of Catton is, "We developed a technology dependent
on fossil fuels, they are limited even as our population grew, so now we are
all going to die."

The Earth receives about 10,000 times as much energy from the sun as we use
in our industrial society for energy. We know how to make solar panels. In
six years, they will be as cheap as grid power generally (and are already in
many circumstances). So, the industrial energy problem is a not issue.

Even if we need to cover 1% of the USA with solar panels, so what? We
already devote about 1% to roads and 1% to fossil fuel production when you
include right of ways.

And that is just for a pure electric solution.

As for biofuels from algae, if we wanted to go 100% for that, there is
already a large dead zone in the middle of the Pacific sadly. If we build a
facility there, and clean up the area while we are at it, the ocean will be
better off. :-)

Real solutions will be a mix. A related blog:

Agriculture is a trickier subject though. We *are* closer to a carrying
capacity in that regard.

Intensive gardening can support one person in an average climate on
something like 100 square meters of land, something like 10 to 20 people per
acre. Even many cities could produce most of their own food.

The "carrying capacity" for humans of the Earth (and solar system) depends
on how much resources human need per person (which relates to both
technology and learned demands) and how much pollution they produce to
poison the biological or aesthetic infrastructure they depend on. The human
body uses about 100 watts of power. That is a lower limit on power
requirements and could be met with less than a square meter of solar power
in continuous sunlight in space (or really, about six square meters with
clouds and day/night variation in most places on the Earth). There are about
120 trillion square meters on the Earth. So, the carrying capacity of the
Earth if humans were all electric like computers is about 10 trillion people.

Granted, people want to eat food, and do other things, so our energy budget
is a lot higher, and we also want to grow crops instead of plug-in. :-) So
clearly, our population is less than the theoretical maximum. It's true that
if you assume we only devote 10% of the surface to agriculture (so, most of
the rest is wilderness), and a 1% conversion rate of sunlight to plant
matter energy useful to people, then you would get about 10 billion people
as a limit, with most of the planet wild. So, in that sense, humans are
close to such a limit in terms of conventional agriculture (even if we might
argue up and down by 10X). But even then, we might be able to devote just a
small part of one ocean to food production (synthetic bio-engineered algae)
and leave all the surface of the planet to wilderness. That's not my own
preferred way to live for aesthetic reasons and security reasons (even as a
diet of processed algae might be pretty healthy, I don't like thinking all
my food comes from one big farm in the Pacific ocean); I'm just trying to
show how the Earth's "carrying capacity" reflects technological assumptions
as well as lifestyle issue.

Also, if we get Star Trek replicators that can go directly from solar
electricity to producing sugars and starches, then we may be at that point
where we don't have that 1% conversion limit in there, so we might have
closer to 50% conversion of sunlight to glucose, in which case the Earth's
carrying capacity would be more like 500 billion people.

We already have large farms, and if we farmed them more intensively (more
like gardens), including using robots for more precision and less chemicals
(ideally, all organic), we could probably produce three to ten times what we
do now on the same amount of land, given current agriculture is tremendously
wasteful. And that is without bioengineering food or moving to monocultures.
With robots, we could easily track thousands of existing cultivars of
various major and minor food crops in different plots, including seed
saving. And the oceans have a huge amount of surface area we could use for
food production. Rock dust, treated sewage, and recovery of eroded soil from
the ocean floor could all restore soil fertility and keep it fertile. China
has done this for forty centuries and had a huge population, using what are
by current technology very labor-intensive approaches.

We have the robots already in many areas. For grape vines:
Even for cows:
And more on the way:
"Field Robot Event 2008"
"Farming Robot - with great news and information about the evolution of
farms to now include intelligent machines taking over much of the "grunt
work". Don't believe us? Just have a look at our first of alternating videos..."

"Overshoot" is just is not a valid argument given technological innovation
right now. It ignores the human capacity to respond to problems. The human
population on Earth seems to be stabilizing well within the limits mentioned
above (10 billion people with 90% Earthly wilderness). Should the human
population wish to grow again, there is plenty of space out in space. :-)

Also, before then, it is likely humans will mature as a species politically
and have a greater emphasis on egalitarianism and voluntary simplicity in
accord with many of the planets great philosophies (Gandhi). I'm all for
arguing we should clean up our act down on Earth before going out into space
(Wall-E's theme in part), but the fact is, even on Earth we are nowhere near
the limits of human population growth with modern technology, even living in
harmony with nature. The fact that we have not emphasized that is issues of
politics, aesthetics, and economics, not resources or ideas. Example:
"An ecocity is a human settlement that enables its residents to live a good
quality of life while using minimal natural resources."

The major reason we have a fossil fuel system still is because it is more
profitable to certain members of the elite, given the profits are
privatized, but the external costs are socialized (pollution, destruction of
democracy in supply regions, systemic risks of disruption, need for a big
military to extrinsically defend intrinsically vulnerable pipelines and
ships). So, what Catton is really saying is, our politics are messed up, and
because our politics are messed up, our physical infrastructure is messed
up, because artifacts have politics, and politics have artifacts. :-) Which
is what political scientist Langdon Winner says.

Likewise, the major reason we had a Depression in the 1930s and now is a
failure of the economic control system not a failure of the physical
infrastructure. As in the 1930s, what is needed now is something like very
high progressive taxes and some form of basic income to keep markets
functioning, so they hear the needs of the average person. It is a very
straightforward solution and almost passed under Nixon.

So, the entire notion of the Depression as a "preview" of anything other
than social malfunction is wrong. It did not relate to any technical or
resource limits. (Granted, economic issues contributed to bad farming
practices and the dust bowl, but that was a completely stupid thing, not a
necessary thing.)

Consider from Catton: "Hard as it might be for the people and leaders of
underdeveloped countries to face the fact, they are not alone in finding it
repugnant. The people and leaders of the affluent societies have also
resisted seeing it. Recognition that most of the world's poor would
necessarily stay poor would destroy the comforting conviction of the world's
privileged that their good fortune ought to inspire the world's poor to
emulate them, not resent them.'

If a person has a sophisticated 3D printer that can print solar panels and
more 3D printers and also recycle old printed stuff, then why can not every
villager in the world live with more material goods than a US American but
have a negligible ecological footprint? And eventually, such things might
even be able to print rice. With that kind of technology, we could support
tens of billions of people on the planet and the oceans, with far less
environmental impact than now. And such technology is what many people are
working towards, often in an open way.

One example, but better stuff is coming, so you'd be right to say this is
limited in appeal right now:
   " Sushi Prepared on a Printer"
"The New York Times talks about Homaro Cantu's maki, it looks a lot like the
sushi rolls served at other upscale restaurants: pristine, coin-size disks
stuffed with lumps of fresh crab and rice and wrapped in shiny nori. They
also taste like sushi, deliciously fishy and seaweedy. But the sushi made by
Mr. Cantu, the 28-year-old executive chef at Moto in Chicago, often contains
no fish. It is prepared on a Canon i560 inkjet printer rather than a cutting
board. He prints images of maki on pieces of edible paper made of soybeans
and cornstarch, using organic, food-based inks of his own concoction. Then,
Homaro flavors the back of the paper, which is ordinarily used to put images
onto birthday cakes, with powdered soy and seaweed seasonings."

Even Jay Leno is talking about 3D printers (and they will only get better):
   "Jay Leno’s 3D Printer Replaces Rusty Old Parts"
"Jay Leno has a lot of old cars with a lot of obsolete parts. When he needs
to replace these parts, he skips the error-prone machinist and goes to his
rapid prototyping 3D printer. Simply scan, print and repeat."

Here is Paul Hawken's book on millions of people creating alternatives:

It's just silly to say we are doomed because we use technology while at the
same time saying we can't change the technology we have to avoid doom when
there are many obvious solutions to these issues (except for helium limits)
-- even if it may still take a lot of hard work to make these solutions work
better or to widely deploy them.

Now, *socially*, there may be reason for despair. It may be true that people
won't see this in time, especially elites who are obsessed with creating
artificial scarcities they control, and so people may still wheel out the
stealth fighters, nuclear bombs, the plagues, the killer robots, and so on,
to fight over perceived scarcity that chemistry, nucleonics, biotech,
automation and so on could have alleviated with abundance. So, there may be
reasons for despair. So they are *social* reasons for despair that are about
a worldview being out of touch with our technical possibilities, leading to
a maladaptive response to a social crisis. Catton is part of the problem in
that sense.

Gardening is important, and my wife and I gave the world six-person years of
our work in the 1990s to help people learn to grow their own food better:
But you can't garden well on the surface in a world beset with plagues,
killer robots, and extensive nuclear fallout that might result from a
maladaptive world view of scarcity in an age of abundant technology. As was
suggested in 1964:
   "The Triple Revolution memorandum"
The Weaponry Revolution: New forms of weaponry have been developed which
cannot win wars but which can obliterate civilization. We are recognizing
only now that the great weapons have eliminated war as a method for
resolving international conflicts. The ever-present threat of total
destruction is tempered by the knowledge of the final futility of war. The
need of a “warless world” is generally recognized, though achieving it will
be a long and frustrating process.

So, even though I think it is important for people to be able to produce
stuff locally for all sorts of reasons, the global aspects of the situation
are still very important.

So, if you want to despair, despair about the right things. :-)

"There are three things which are real:
God, human folly, and laughter.
The first two are beyond our comprehension.
So we must do what we can with the third." (John F. Kennedy)

So, we need to get you laughing about these crises. :-)

And, they indeed are terribly ironic. Like the classic set of two pictures
where hell is a bunch of people with forks too long to bring to their mouths
who are poking each other with them and starving seated at a banquet, and
heaven is the same thing but everyone is laughing and feeding each other. :-)

Maybe someday, when there are quadrillions of people in the solar system (in
space habitats built from lunar and asteroidal ore, powered by sunlight)
there will be limits to growth near the sun, but those days are at least
1000 years in the future. The total energy output of the Sun each second is
3.86×10e26 Joules, or about 10e20 kilowatt hours per second, or about 10e24
kilowatts, or about enough to power 10e25 electric people. :-) That's about
10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 people. I might have missed a decimal
point somewhere. And there is the biomass conversion issue. So, even
knocking it down by a factor of 1000 to be conservative, that is 10 billion
quadrillion people around the sun (plus whales, duck weed, rhinos, etc.).
So, clearly supporting a few quadrillions of people around the Sun is no
where near the theoretical limit.
And that is just our sun. One star among 100 billion in our galaxy. One
galaxy among 125 billion other galaxies that are just that we can see.

Related thing I wrote back around 1992:
   "A letter from Gaia to humanity on the joy of expectation"
"... Be happy for me. Over and over again I have tried to give birth to
more Gaias. Time and time again I have failed. With you I have
hope. I cannot tell you how happy I am. ..."

Again, I'm all for solving our problems on Earth. But, based on just what we
see, the carrying capacity for humans in the universe (or human derived
forms) is clearly about a million billion billion quadrillion people (plus
biosphere, no billions of quadrillions of Earths worth of plants, animals,
insects, fungi, an so on. :-) And that's just with technology that we have
*now* to use solar energy, not with theoretical stuff being able to tap
zero-point energy that might allow us to make artificial stars anywhere we
want in space:
(Which has military implications if not used in a spirit of abundance.)

When we have a few trillion people thinking about that, it's possible
someone will see a way forward even when the universe is full. :-)

Granted, there may be local crises and local limits to growth at the core,
since physical expansion can mainly happen at the edges and there are speed
of light limitations to people from the core traveling to the edges..

I mention this all because, essentially, you and many others are implicitly
saying a few billion people will (or should) be taking out guns and bombs
and killing each other to fight over scarce resources, when the most basic
calculations with real numbers show we are at best only near an aesthetic
carrying capacity on Earth (90% wilderness), and we are nowhere near a
carrying capacity of the solar system, and we are laughably far away from a
carrying capacity in the universe (assuming we don't meet other life forms
out there with prior incompatible claims). So, there is plenty of reason for
optimism about the carrying capacity for humanity and other life in the
universe. But we may never approach that capacity if we despair.

So, IMHO, Catton has adopted an erroneus technological despair. Again,
socially we may still blow ourselves up rather than learn to live together
and share. I hope we find a good way forward socially. But as far as
technology, we've got plenty to go around. That's not the problem, even as
we could do better than what we have now.

--Paul Fernhout

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