[p2p-research] Earth's carrying capacity and Catton
rlanham1963 at gmail.com
Sat Aug 15 19:20:49 CEST 2009
The sun is the overwhelming source of energy for the planet. No doubt about
it. But you've got to convert that energy to direct or alternating current
for it to be maximally useful, and that takes conversion either from heat
sinks or from light. The ocean is the obvious heat sink, hence my interest
in ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). OTEC at scale could answer many
questions...but that is 30 plus years off with no clear economic model and
no hydrogen or ammonia markets to feed yet.
Passive solar is also interesting, but it doesn't generate current. You
need current to do work--like producing fuels such as hydrogen or ammonia.
Creating warmth or cooling is only about 10-20% of global energy use. Even
if houses were hugely more efficient, it wouldn't matter that much. But it
is "low hanging" fruit.
Cutting transportation is highly problematic. I suspect wind power will be
in large use again within 20 years, but wind doesn't help on land. Rail
systems are part of the answer, as is hybrid, electric, natural gas and
hydrogen (and maybe ammonia), but those are years away too.
Wind is also generally interesting but it is counter-cyclical to use (most
wind blows at night) and it is variable everywhere. So it is a reducer or
helper fuel...turning it into hydrogen would be great, but the plants work
variably and would need to be robotic to make sense. Still, wind is a
contributor and part of the answer.
At present, ammonia accounts for 1.5% (one point five) of the total global
electricity production. We don't produce enough of it. It is
overwhelmingly the most important fertilizer. Just fertilizer production is
a major energy issue. Add 2 or 3 billion people to the planet (and we will)
and the problems because 50% harder. Any large model would need to factor in
Photovoltaic (current from light) is highly problematic so far. It produces
lots of waste plastics and requires many nasty chemicals. Plus the
electronics burn out...some over longer times than others, but they burn
The trouble with all carbon liquids is the carbon. Hence you will need to
convince yourself and everyone else that carbon isn't the issue. Personally
I think it is the overwhelming number 1 issue. Carbon is a physical issue,
and so is speculation unless you anticipate a planned economy which hasn't
Nuclear is problematic because of the waste. I am still an advocate for
so-called 3rd gen nuclear. Many reasonable and smart people think nuclear
is a major problem. I cannot prove them wrong.
Reduced consumption is the good strategy, but it is hard without major
controls. Such social controls have never been successfully applied on a
large scale. Even air pollution is still quite common...and virtually all
of the low-hanging fruit in that field has been taken, particularly in the
US, Europe and other developed nations.
You are wrong about useful land for productive purposes...it is getting
quite scarce. Bear in mind that we most also filter CO2 with trees, that we
must provide ecosystems, that we must sequester carbon located in plants and
grounds, etc. There is little free land left...and desertification is
proceeding at record rates. The Sahara not long ago had lakes in it. Now
the Sahel moves year by year south.
Can we produce protein for 7-10 billion people? That's the real carrying
capacity issue IMO you lump under "agriculture". Right now we do it but at
huge pollution costs--methane is a major greenhouse gas. Sea stocks of fish
are 1/10 what they were in 1950 (source Wolf Berger's recent classic text *
Ocean*). It will get worse before it gets better. You are right, much of
the warm Pacific is a desert. But the nutrients to fuel algae growth are
deep. You'd have to expend energy and resources to get them to the
surface. Even algae eats things other than nutrients from photosynthesis.
Protein and water are very scarce resources. Both require huge amounts of
energy, and both create huge amounts of carbon to create or purify.
So the simple math models are the right road (we seem to agree) but they
need to add up to stable climate, minimal coercion, minimal lost standard of
living, minimal loss of hope for improvements to the poor, and minimal
depletion of resources (i.e. sustainability). Very hard problem. Some
things will be part of a complex solution. There is not obvious answer.
And the prospect of failure is, any reasonable person would have to admit,
P2P has a helper role in all that. Some see it as a primary role. I hope
the latter is true. I am interested enough to hang around hoping one of our
collective lunatics comes up with something that matters at scale. Even if
they don't, mattering locally is, to my mind, noble and compelling as a way
to spend your heartbeats.
Personally I wish a programmer type would produce an open source modelling
tool of the simplicity and clarity associated with Stella which I started
using on the mac almost 20 years ago. We need a graphical modeling
environment that allows simple math models to be visualized as Stella does.
I've long looked for a free/open source substitute but have found none. I'd
be very interested if anyone has seen something of that sort.
I have long wished for an open P2P math model environment where complex math
models would be built, linked and vetted collaboratively as with a wiki. I
know of no such project.
On Sat, Aug 15, 2009 at 11:22 AM, Paul D. Fernhout <
pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com> wrote:
> 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
> > 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> do now on the same amount of land, given current agriculture is
> wasteful. And that is without bioengineering food or moving to
> 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
> 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
> "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
> 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
> (Wall-E's theme in part), but the fact is, even on Earth we are nowhere
> the limits of human population growth with modern technology, even living
> 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
> 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,
> 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
> 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
> 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
> Mr. Cantu, the 28-year-old executive chef at Moto in Chicago, often
> no fish. It is prepared on a Canon i560 inkjet printer rather than a
> 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
> 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
> better or to widely deploy them.
> Now, *socially*, there may be reason for despair. It may be true that
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> p2presearch mailing list
> p2presearch at listcultures.org
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