May Open Thread

Anything goes. Moderation is light.

Suggested topic: how many people can the earth sustainably and comfortably support using existing deployed technology? Answer with a number if you dare. What is the limiting constraint? How does this number change with technologies likely within 50 years? Relevant reading material: How Many People Can the Earth Support? by Joel Cohen.


  1. getting enough renewables out to do some essential tasks of a community, such as water processing (in and out), powering cold storage systems and (why not)communal kitchens shouldn't be too hard to do. travelling would be reduced much (since fossils go out of production), many people started subsistence gardening, using biodegradable materials throughout the system. comfortable? that's another matter, diseases, weeds and pests could be a problem locally so some medicines and poisons would still have to be used. good idea might be separate dry toilets for sick and healthy people... in the case of failure of crops (finnish still has just one word for this 'kato') there should be some sort of transport system still present (priority on humanitarian purposes), when everything's in reasonable state this can be used for spreading essential industrial products like communication tech, spare parts for farming machinery, biodegradable materials, I'm not sure what an optimal size for such a utopian community would be, but there would have to be some electricians, repairmen for machinery, maintenance crews, communications experts, well your typical 1930s top craftsmen with a dose of tech experts from the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the factories would be almost totally automated (like they almost are now). ... oh, I seem to have wandered a bit... I'd say approximately current amounts but not without major changes in the structure of society. call it 'gardening the factory farms with plenty vegetarianism'-ideology or what not. (book of ages part 1)

  2. This review of the Cohen book has some great material for a quick read (email me at d dot olner at leeds dot ac dot uk if you're not inside the uni walled garden and want a copy, though of course I can't actually send you one...)

    The author is skeptical:

    "To put my view in a nutshell, human carrying capacity is devoid of social science content. It deserves to be consigned, along with optimum population size, to the intellectual deadletter box."

    The most compelling example given is Cohen's analysis of water: "Water is presented, in Chapter 14, as a case study of natural constraints. It should be an ideal one: global supply is fixed by the hydrologic cycle, trade is severely limited by technical constraints, and, for many uses, no substitute exists. Yet calculations based on 24 combinations of assumptions give estimates of human carrying capacity ranging from 1. 1 billion to 137.4 billion, a range so broad that it is practically meaningless".

    Water's pretty close to being a Liebig law of minimum type resource for humans, so that seems a good question to ask: if we can't effectively constrain population limit estimates using analysis of water, is there much promise for other methods?

    On the other hand, maybe 1.1 to 137.4 billion is a start and more work needs doing. It's an old-ish book now, what's been done since?

    A couple of other quotes jumped out:

    It is this dread of unknown and unknowable ecological consequences that suffuses the writings of environmental activists. When they turn their attention to population, such authors are not concerned primarily by the fact that rapid population growth may slow economic progress in the third world, or that it may be inimicable to the interests of women, or even that it may give rise to environmental costs that are external to households' decisionmaking or may impede virtuous institutional responses to scarcity. They are worried that population growth is placing today's children, and theirs, at horribly elevated risk of unfathomable catastrophe.

    As strongly as the concept of carrying capacity is despised by neoclassical economists, just as eagerly has it been embraced by "ecological economists" (Costanza 1991). But ecological economics is in fact ecology - or, more precisely, the energetics school of ecology associated with H. T. Odum - coated with only the thinnest veneer of conventional economics. The preanalytic vision of scarcity in neoclassical economics is relative; the preanalytic vision of scarcity in ecological economics is absolute. In the latter you need at least one good (i) for which there is no substitute, (ii) which is in fixed supply, and (iii) for which the constraint is near enough to be relevant. Whereas neoclassical economics assumes that thermodynamic limits are nowhere near, and hence that the normal substitution of abundant for scarce resources (including the environment as sink) can proceed for some time to come, ecological economics assumes that thermodynamic limits are right around the corner (Goodland 1992). In neoclassical economics, scale is irrelevant by assumption; in ecological economics, it is crucial by assumption

  3. My approach would be based on steady state energy. With sufficient energy and technological advance, sea water would become available and transporting it would be practical. Steady state energy must come from the sun, so I'd start with insolation and work from there, using the efficiency of photosynthesis, photovoltaics, wind turbines, etc. Then I'd think about the minimum primary energy requirement for a comfortable life (leaving aside a workable definition of what that is). Note that I said that I would, not that I have. No number in this comment.

    However, here are things that (for any practical purpose) can't be done just using sufficient energy (though prevention of self-poisoning wouldn't seem to be among them). But creation of needed materials currently extracted would certainly be one, unless we think that mining refuse sinks can be made practical or we can supply so much energy that transmutation becomes viable. I'd strongly recommend, for those who haven't seen it, this youtube video. It's 50 minutes long but well worth the time.

  4. Depends primarily on the definition of "comfort."

    I assume that you mean technology that is currently available but could be deployed at greater scale, given sufficient inputs?

    I would say order of magnitude twice today's. Nonetheless, the fewer people, the more comfort. Especially given the rate of loss we're experiencing as we get ready for the transition.

    BTW there are many serious ecological economists (myself among them) who believe that the thermodynamics problem is moot, and that climate change is the primary constraint on scale. Analyses of Energy Return on Investment are relevant for many problems, but not in the short to medium run the binding constraint.

    The binding constraint at the moment seems really to be our unwillingness to confront the need for redistribution if there is to be comfort for today's population and a sustainability transition.


  5. Reposting from April, since I think this is important. In searching for that, I found April 2013, and note that we have not moved on much, which is sad: especially so since we are a year closer to the kind of state shift mentioned here:

    Interesting discussion over at Neven's about various physical impacts on Arctic sea ice, starting with a reference to increased wave height (h/t Colorado Bob via Steve Bloom). What with storms and thinning, there are questions about overall structural integrity. This summation may be a mite extreme, but bears keeping in mind:

    Neven puts it clearly with his usual polite caveat:

    <I'm not really sure and/or qualified, but I've read here and there that it could be that the system is displaying the oscillations that precede a shift to another state.

  6. Water is not a constraint; there is plenty in the oceans. Fresh water can be, somewhat expensively, obtained from the oceans. The constraint is then one of having enough energy for desalination in large amounts. One as to pump it to desired locations as well.

  7. I think the review is unnecessarily harsh. Cohen freely admits that the eponymous question is not well answered in the book.

    But in his defense I would freely assert further that it is extraordinarily well asked. I think his book belongs on any serious futurist's or environmentalist's bookshelf and recommend it highly.

  8. Interesting to and fro at ATTP's in response to Tol's correction to the economic effects of climate change.

    There's a larger discussion here about the limits to measurability - which Tol does at least discuss at the end of the paper, noting that if you can't measure it, it's ultimately a political decision. Is he wrong in that?

    It also ties directly to issues of population as well. (What would be the current pace of CO2 accumulation if we had the population of 1900, 1.6 billion?)

  9. Tell me again why I should trust Richard Tol? (sorry to be rude and sound ignorant, but honestly, I would like an answer ... so far his success in promoting himself at the expense of sabotaging others ... you get the picture)

  10. Yeah. My ceterum censeo has been for some time: Forget Tol, like Lomborg.
    Pretty please: Let's not waste more time and neurons on these economists!

    Tol has no clue about climate disruption and doesn't care. (Will digout quote-proof later).
    Now with his correction of the paradigmatic and ridiculous (*) 2009 paper we also know he's working sloppy. (* Curve fitting with sparse data, a classic denialist accusation...)

    BTW: Meanwhile (2014) there should be some real tally of the cost of climate disruption? Not just economist models?

  11. Not that I have any superbly informed opinion on this, and I don't trust him very much either. I've only skimmed his 2009 paper. The main message that seemed to be (a) there's not a great deal of work done on attempting to quantify the economic impacts of climate change. (b) there's a whole bunch of known unknowns and unknown unknowns that make it really fecking hard or impossible. (c) here's a stab at trying a synthesis, just to get things started.

    Which, academically, I think is not only fine but essential - people should be allowed to publish initial attempts. In general - obviously, doing that in climate-world presents unique problems. But I've defended other climate scientists' right to publish speculative ideas that open up discussion, so the same applies here. That said, I also think there are conceptual reasons why the fitting thing he does in the paper just doesn't scan (particularly given how much weight has been put on the inflection point before it decreases - that curve has no actual meaning in itself, AFAIK) - even before getting on to the various statistical issues (and the effect of his own paper on the curve, second figure here). But it's set in a paper that asks some good questions, even if some of the sentences hint at concern trolling. (Maybe I'm sympathetic because I appear to have accidentally become a concern troll myself...)

    In theory. In practice, Tol's public behaviour tells quite a different story. Resigning then waiting until WGII is published before making a public fuss? Looks a lot like waiting until he'll get the most attention. Not going out of his way to correct people like Ridley who have used his ideas to argue for doing nothing? In the 2009 paper, Tol specifically says there should be immediate action. His public statements - that I've seen - don't seem to fit with that. If people use your name to promote inaction and you don't think they're right, why don't you correct them publicly? (Maybe he has and I missed it?)

    I'm doing what I did with McPherson though: probably responding too early to a small amount of knowledge.

  12. Going round in circles with the links a bit but Steve Bloom links to a Stern paper (PDF) via Eli at ATTP (phew). I'm just gonna nab Steve's quote wholesale:

    Title: the Structure of Economic Modeling of the Potential Impacts of Climate Change: Grafting Gross Underestimation of Risk onto Already Narrow Science Models

    Scientists describe the scale of the risks from unmanaged climate change as potentially immense. However, the scientific models, because they omit key factors that are hard to capture precisely, appear to substantially underestimate these risks. Many economic models add further gross underassessment of risk because the assumptions built into the economic modeling on growth, damages and risks, come close to assuming directly that the impacts and costs will be modest and close to excluding the possibility of catastrophic outcomes. A new generation of models is needed in all three of climate science, impact and economics with a still stronger focus on lives and livelihoods, including the risks of large-scale migration and conflicts.

  13. Dan, "substantially underestimate is about right," thanks, and I'm a big fan of "nabbing" quotes from knowledgeable parties.
    Anyone interested, now, going OT:

    If any of you are in the Boston area, you may find me at Fort Point Open Studios (information in local media). Please introduce yourself; we have a lot of good climate people in the area, and a lot of good work is being done. I have a lot of new artwork which is approaching the quality of the cover used earlier for my screed on "not knowing".

  14. "This is what a holy shit moment for global warming looks like. Also at New York Times (though what to make of `scientists said the ice sheet was not melting because of warmer air temperatures, but rather because of the relatively warm water, which is naturally occurring, from the ocean depths'...?)

    If this ends up being confirmed, it's a biggie. Even if it's a millenia for the full consequence, am I right in thinking it'd be the first confirmation of an unstoppable climate-triggered melt process? (Greenland is some way from that yet...) Societally, that seems a big deal to me: to know for a fact what we're committing generations to. I mean, I know we know what, broadly, we're doing to future generations - but having something like this confirmed...

  15. Dan,

    Broken link to "New York Times":

    Not that hard for motivated readers to figure out, but maybe admin should correct?

  16. Elizabeth Kolbert gets it about right

    Of the many inane arguments that are made against taking action on climate change, perhaps the most fatuous is that the projections climate models offer about the future are too uncertain to justify taking steps that might inconvenience us in the present. The implicit assumption here is that the problem will turn out to be less serious than the models predict; thus, any carbon we have chosen to leave in the ground out of fear for the consequences of global warming will have gone uncombusted for nothing.

    But the unfortunate fact about uncertainty is that the error bars always go in both directions. While it is possible that the problem could turn out to be less serious than the consensus forecast, it is equally likely to turn out to be more serious. In fact, it increasingly appears that, if there is any systemic bias in the climate models, it’s that they understate the gravity of the situation. In an interesting paper that appeared in the journal Global Environmental Change, a group of scholars, including Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard, and Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist at Princeton, note that so-called climate skeptics frequently accuse climate scientists of “alarmism” and “overreacting to evidence of human impacts on the climate system.” But, when you actually measure the predictions that climate scientists have made against observations of how the climate has already changed, you find the exact opposite: a pattern “of under- rather than over-prediction” emerges. The scholars attribute this bias to the norms of scientific discourse: “The scientific values of rationality, dispassion, and self-restraint tend to lead scientists to demand greater levels of evidence in support of surprising, dramatic, or alarming conclusions.” They call this tendency “erring on the side of least drama,” or E.S.L.D. for short.

    Unfortunately, we live in dramatic times. Yesterday’s news about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is just the latest reminder of this; there will, almost certainly, be much more “surprising” and “alarming” news to follow. Which is why counting on uncertainty is such a dangerous idea.

  17. gone uncombusted for nothing.

    Excellent. You can't put it better: Industrial greed in its total will to devour everything. Something for Horatio to put in verse.

    Forests not clearcut for nothing.
    Waters not wasted and polluted for nothing.
    Ecosystems not bulldozed for nothing.
    Oceans not acidified for nothing.

  18. New York Times appears to have done some fine digging in the past about the Koch brothers, complete with copies of antique documents:

    Quixotic ’80 Campaign Gave Birth to Kochs’ Powerful Network

    I don't extract the article here, but the inserts are notable and this little piece might tease you into reading it:

    "The campaign prepared this list of questions that Mr. Clark might be asked on the campaign trail about his relationship with the Kochs.:

    "Most of your campaign is financed by the oil-billionaire Koch family" [1980!]

    "Wouldn't a Clark administration simply be "rule by big oil"?"

    "Are you an anarchist?"

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  19. Journals not only may but must reject crap; that is their job. "Not helpful" was generous understatement.

    That's pretty much all there is to it. It's hardly worthy of discussion, but if you think otherwise, a better venue would be at Eli's.

    Quoth Eli:

    The Editors of Environmental Review Letters are as mad as hell and ain't gonna take it anymore from Lennart Bengtsson, the GWPF and the Times of London. The Times, of course, interviewed Lennart Bengtsson right after he resigned from the GWPF advisory board. In support of his persecution complex, Lennart dropped a small bomb about how a paper of his had been rejected by ERL because, according to the Times, "Research which heaped doubt on the rate of global warming was deliberately suppressed by scientists because it was “less than helpful” to their cause, it was claimed last night."

    The IOP and the ERL editors have gone nuclear, releasing the entire referee's report, quite a long one, with the agreement of the referee.

    And here's the bottom line from the reviewer:

    I have rated the potential impact in the field as high, but I have to emphasise that this would be a strongly negative impact, as it does not clarify anything but puts up the (false) claim of some big inconsistency, where no consistency was to be expected in the first place.

    And I can't see an honest attempt of constructive explanation in the manuscript.

  20. "Unfulfilled Nature"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon (with help from Elizabewth Kolbert and Martin Gisser)

    Uncombusted for nothing
    Unclearcut for naught
    Unpolluted with frothing
    Untouched pale blue dot

    Unbelievable projections
    Unbereavable Nature
    Unneeding of protections
    Unworthy of its stature

    Unoilspilled, the firth
    Unremoved, the mounts
    Unfulfilled, the Earth
    Unchanged where it counts

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