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« Sad Day | Main | Sociable Robots »

Max Population Predicted

The cover story inThe Economist this week predicts that population will peak this century:

Last year the United Nations said it thought the world's average fertility would fall below replacement by 2025. Demographers expect the global population to peak at around 10 billion (it is now 6.5 billion) by mid-century.

This peak is only temporary. Fertility plotted vs. money income is U-shaped. Poor can't afford family planning, but the rich want to have kids.

They further opine:

States should not be in the business of pushing people to have babies.

Yes they should. A baby will become a taxpayer and a useful citizen. Zero population growth did far more to hold back development of China and India than Reagan's (anti-) family planning policies.

We can grow food indoors, reuse our water and get the energy to do it from carbon free sources. The carrying capacity of the Earth is easily one trillion people. At the current rate of waste heat per person, we would be generating only 2% of what we get from the Sun. We could site 72 billion at the density of the Netherlands, 3.8 trillion at the density of Manhattan with the current land area.

A populous world is a rich world. There will be greater grand challenges that can be tackled. There will be more people to conceive more ideas. A world with one trillion people at the current standard of living would have GDP of $10,000 trillion or $10 quadrillion dollars a year. If 0.2% of that was spent on space exploration that would be $20 trillion/year. At $20,000/kg, that's enough to lift one billion kg. At $200/kg, that's enough to allow one billion people to emigrate to space every year.

A populous world can be the Garden of Eden to settle a harsh solar system and galaxy.

What policy should be used to achieve higher population? I shun family planning restrictions. Greater credit and liquidity would be a good start. Letting families borrow at subsidized rates to support kids would be sensible. It's a natural extension of our education policy to offer loans to create skilled labor. Since the government has better credit than the typical set of new parents, the program can be run at a profit before taking into account its effect on growth.

If national accounting were modified to capitalize future tax revenue based on population, then policies that encourage the birthrate (and immigration) would arrive at Congress as a way to "pay for" favored programs. In fact, increased birth and immigration rates will reduce the national debt per capita even faster than in total. Changing the budget rules so that the debt ceiling is per capita based on the anticipated population would be even more effective.

Some targeted policies would be the following:

  • Turn the dependent exemption for children into a credit and not phase it out for high earners and payers of the alternative minimum tax

  • Subsidize day care with a credit, instead of a deduction

  • Raise the estate tax on childless people

  • Subsidize treatment of infertility

  • Pay a bounty to parents whose kids graduate

  • Pay 10% of lifetime tax revenues of kids to each parent

Simply making the country more attractive through better policies will increase the birthrate.

The best The Economist can come up with is urban planning, higher retirement age and opening of the labor force to women.

No. If citizens of Japan (and the US) want their cultures to thrive, they must open their doors to immigration and use their genius industrial and tax policies to grow the most important resource they have: their population.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at July 29, 2007 12:47 PM
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Comments

Thought provoking. Farming would have to occur in hydroponic skyscrapers to feed such a large human population.

Posted by John Kavanagh at July 29, 2007 01:40 PM

"We could site 72 billion at the density of the Netherlands, 3.8 trillion at the density of Manhattan with the current land area."

So we could do this becauae we can, not necessairly because it is desirable.

I am all for a trillion people, just not crammed into my yard.

Posted by Mike Puckett at July 29, 2007 02:20 PM

No Sam. A populous world is not automatically a rich world. As I see it, a rich world is high GDP per capita subject to modest considerations of income disparity. My take is that higher population can result in lower GDP per capita. It depends on how efficiently those extra people are used. Your example is flawed because there is no increase in GDP per capita and hence, no increase in value to a human being.

For example, some historians have attempted to estimate (delete space before "berkeley" in link to make it work) world GDP in historical times. Obviously, it's a dubious process, but it does appear that there is a period of time from roughly 800 BC to 400 AD when population grew faster than the rate of economic growth, and again from 1000 AD to 1400 AD.

So my first point is that historically an increase in population hasn't automatically meant an increase in GDP per capita.

Second, you ignore the benefits of population control. Sure, China's "one child" policy had great costs, but it also helped prevent a massive die-off of the Chinese population and helped boost GDP per capita.

Third, I think it's extremely stupid to boost population far beyond what a low tech world can support. Even now, our technology infrastructure is vulnerable to various attacks and disasters. A world with a trillion people will be even more so. The security measures alone will probably prevent the promised increase in GDP.

This is just one example of a diminishing return on investment for extremely high populations. A lot of the innovation infrastructure doesn't scale to a trillion people. For example, patents don't scale. We're already seeing the results of the limits of the current patent system. It's unable to keep up with the number of patenters and the rate of technological advancement. This situation would be made far worse if the number of patenters were to increase by a factor of 100. Scientists already have extreme difficulties communicating with each other. I'd say that it takes more than a decade currently (depending on subject) to go from entering college to achieve full potential as a researcher. A lot of that time is spent understanding what is going on in the field. Having a hundred times as many researchers will push that time up.

And finally, there's a good chance that humans will cease to be economically viable on Earth. All it takes is for the value of a person's labor and intellect to go below the amortized lifetime cost of keeping that person alive. It's a lot less likely to happen with ten billion people than with a trillion people since there is less supply.

No. If citizens of Japan (and the US) want their cultures to thrive, they must open their doors to immigration and use their genius industrial and tax policies to grow the most important resource they have: their population.

I think there's a lot of life left in the Japanese experiment. It'll be interesting to see if they can come up with a another solution in place of immigration. I don't think that immigration even uncontrolled immigration is a bad thing, but neither do I think that the mild xenophobia of Japan is a bad thing either. They occupy a different niche than a moderately high immigration country like the US or the de facto uncontrolled immigration of countries like Jordan or Syria.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 29, 2007 03:55 PM

Rand! I can't have ".-b-e" in my posts now. I had to break my link above to sneak past the filter because the link had ".-berkeley" in it.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 29, 2007 03:58 PM

I think it would also require massive social engineering or mandatory, specifically targeted psychotropic drugs to get people living in those conditions without insane levels of violence.

Posted by Eric J at July 29, 2007 07:36 PM

Karl: Rats, I guess I'll turn off my clone factory.

It's certainly been true in the past that there have been times of famine. But food has been getting cheaper with more people such that we now spend 0.7% of our income on it in the US (3% worldwide). So far, we are winning the race with robots to compete for resources we need to survive. That's the key stat to track because if people can earn food with a small percent of their time, they can spend the rest doing valuable things for other people. If the robots evolve past us, the robot controllers might prove to be good neighbors and leave us alone. It would be prudent to guard against such an outcome. To date, more people has not meant lower wages. Human attention has been growing more valuable.

Your facts on China are out of date. They have 80% of the world average per capita GDP and spend less than 4% of their income on food on average. My hypothesis is that had China not implemented the one-child policy it would have a slightly lower per-capita GDP, but a much higher overall GDP. More mouths come with more hands.

Of course there are diminishing returns on population investment of extremely high populations in an extremely short time. But I am talking about the difference between 2.3 kids per family vs. 1.3 kids per family. The world will take up the labor, the environmental challenges and the security challenges when it comes to them. It will expand to the Moon, orbit, Mars, Jupiter's Moons and the asteroids with time.

At 4% global population growth per 30-year generation, it will take about 125 generations or 3750 years to get to one trillion people.

The point is, that in the mean time, human capital equates to taxes, economy, and military and political power. For now, the cost of more people means another barge of food for a few percent of their income. The benefit is workers, educated children and money for a scientific-military-industrial complex.

In the future, food may become more dear, but no more dear than the cost of hydroponic food grown indoors plus the cost of lighting and the cost of water, drainage, industrial floor space and power. At the South Pole, they use about 350 watts per person for light to grow all their vegetables for the winter. Granted, they would need more for corn and such, but still we are talking the same order of magnitude as the 800 watts they use on average in New England. Water treatment is also priced in pennies per gallon.

The US fertility rate has just about climbed back over 2.1, the current replacement rate and is expected to continue to grow with our changing demographics. That is a lot better than Japan with total fertility rate of 1.3. Sayonara Japanese GDP. Japan needs to exceed our productivity growth by 1.6%. That is, if we have 3% productivity growth they need 4.6% to make up for their population falling by 1.6% per year at a steady state total fertility of 1.3. If they don't achieve this (and why should it be any faster than ours?) they will decline to irrelevance in the global economy.

I guess there will be some cheap real estate in Japan one of these generations.

Maybe one of the new kids that gets born next year will figure out the answer to your patent problem (like raising filing fees?).

Money measures of welfare such as GDP and holistic measures of welfare such as life expectancy have both consistently been going up with higher population. There may be diminishing returns on population, but we haven't found them yet.

We may never find them.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at July 29, 2007 09:17 PM

Your facts on China are out of date. They have 80% of the world average per capita GDP and spend less than 4% of their income on food on average. My hypothesis is that had China not implemented the one-child policy it would have a slightly lower per-capita GDP, but a much higher overall GDP. More mouths come with more hands.

And if they didn't have the one-child policy, they probably would be spending more of their income on food. More demand means higher prices. My take is that the harshness of the one-child policy means they probably were really close to famine and/or collapse of the country.

Money measures of welfare such as GDP and holistic measures of welfare such as life expectancy have both consistently been going up with higher population. There may be diminishing returns on population, but we haven't found them yet.

GDP per capita is a relevant measure of welfare. GDP is not. Life expectancy went down in most of the undeveloped world in the late 19th and early 20th century. That was because population growth wasn't matched by corresponding improvements in infrastructure. We're already running into diminishing returns on population: pollution, terrorism, crime, long term reliance on high tech infrastructure, and just the friction of high density living.

The US fertility rate has just about climbed back over 2.1, the current replacement rate and is expected to continue to grow with our changing demographics. That is a lot better than Japan with total fertility rate of 1.3. Sayonara Japanese GDP. Japan needs to exceed our productivity growth by 1.6%. That is, if we have 3% productivity growth they need 4.6% to make up for their population falling by 1.6% per year at a steady state total fertility of 1.3. If they don't achieve this (and why should it be any faster than ours?) they will decline to irrelevance in the global economy.

It very well may be faster because they'll have higher reliance on technological solutions like robotics rather than cheap labor. If you can build unsupervised robotics, then the GDP becomes disengaged from the size of the human population and growth far faster than the population growth or decay rate can occur. Further, they can vastly reduce their population decline rate through large improvements in longevity.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 29, 2007 09:54 PM

I'm still stymied by the whole over population topic. I've been all over the world and the majority of the planet remains wide open space. I know that it would be hard to live in now rural Montana and find gainful employment, but as populations grow out from population centers, jobs opportunities tend to go out also.

I don't know of an over population problem that has driven people out into areas where they had no job or way to support themselves.

The current famines we have are solvable. But we have warlords, tribal chiefs and military dictators stealing the aid and using hunger as both weapon and population control.

Posted by Steve at July 30, 2007 06:12 AM

The entire planet living in the density of Manhattan. If that doesn't promote space colonization, nothing will.

Posted by MJ at July 30, 2007 07:30 AM

Karl: per capita gdp worldwide is up to $10,000/year according to the CIA World Factbook. What is your evidence that the one-child policy helped? Did it outweigh the liberty loss? As such a policy relates to the present with food cheap, power cheap and water cheap and robots expensive, more people equals more GDP. Now China and Japan should have 2.3 child policies.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at July 30, 2007 07:55 AM

BTW, while googling on the internet, I ran across this gem.

Karl: per capita gdp worldwide is up to $10,000/year according to the CIA World Factbook. What is your evidence that the one-child policy helped? Did it outweigh the liberty loss? As such a policy relates to the present with food cheap, power cheap and water cheap and robots expensive, more people equals more GDP. Now China and Japan should have 2.3 child policies.

China has a GDP per capita (not PPP) a little over 2.5 times as much as India. In 1950, they were near equal. In the same time frame, China has gone from being about one and a half times as large as India to one and a third.

Here's an interesting tidbit. China spends 28.3% of disposable income on food while India spends 39.4%. In comparison, the US spends 6.1%.

My point here is that if you compare the largest population countries, you see that the countries with the lowest reproduction rates do better than the ones without. Ie, GDP per capita is correlated with low fertility rates. My take is that it isn't just GDP causing low fertility rates, but that the latter also helps the former. The explanation is simple.

If tomorrow, a trillion people just magically appeared, the vast majority of them would be dead within the week. The infrastructure doesn't exist to support that many people even for a short time. The problem with a high population growth rate is that you need to keep building new infrastructure in order to keep up. Poor countries then have a double whammy. They have low GDP per capita and creation of new population that has to be supported. Reducing their population growth rate, has helped China build infrastructure faster than India.

As I indicate a second problem is the delicate society that a trillion people would have. Past a certain level of knowledge and competence, every innovator can potentially kill a trillion people just by destroying a sufficient amount of infrastructure. It's not that bad on a 10 billion people Earth. Even if all modern technology is rendered useless and we collapse to a early industrial age civilization of say a billion people, that's only a factor of ten collapse as compared to a factor of thousand. Things are just a lot more stable. So my take is that a 10 billion people Earth is likely to have more innovation than a trillion people Earth simply because it can afford to have innovators.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 30, 2007 08:56 AM

Sam, while I'm thinking about it, I got into a SPS fight on the NASA spaceflight.com forums and happened to cite your prior analysis on the issue. While the response from the main opponent was unproductive (BTW, you're a crazy person because you propose mass emigration from Earth), it did bring up a couple of possible flaws in your analysis (the article where you mention that SPS need to be no more than four times more expensive per unit area than ground-based solar). Namely, there's a lot of places that get less solar than southwest US. So efficiency in those regions is far worse than a factor of four off, especially if they use fixed orientation solar cell panels. I imagine that ground efficiency could get a lot worse, say another factor of two or three.

We also need to consider microwave relays as another competition edge against SPS. Namely, power is generated somewhere on Earth, and then transfered via satellite to another location on Earth. Assuming generously, that you can achieve 85% efficiency on each leg (to and from), that's 72% efficiency, which is terrible for moving power less than a few hundred miles, but excellent if you're moving it from say the Northwest US to New York City.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 30, 2007 10:01 AM

"My point here is that if you compare the largest population countries, you see that the countries with the lowest reproduction rates do better than the ones without."

That doesn't prove causation. There are a lot of reasons that China's economy is doing better than India's, not the least of them the fact that (in practice) India has a far more communist economy than China. China's policies favoring economic development are the primary reason for this difference in wealth.

Neither China nor India will face a labor shortage any time soon. Their underemployed, rural populations still number in the hundreds of millions. Neither economy is labor constrained; ergo, the population controls that China has implemented have had no opportunity to have any effect at all on per capita GDP.

The whole argument is stupid anyway, because "per capita" means "per person." It's not a fixed sum pie. Add a person and you get to add the per capita wealth to the nation's GDP. They create the wealth with their labor. Some people create more wealth than others, but average, if you had a extra 100 million Chinese today you'd have an extra $1 trillion in GDP per year.

A downside would be increase real estate costs (real estate is the only fixed sum good today, really), but those costs would be compensated with higher buildings.

**********************

Sam -

Modeling the world's max population by multiplying the Netherlands' population time total land mass probably isn't a good idea. The Netherlands is a lot more hospitable than say, the Sahara or the top of any given mountain range. Most prime real estate is already lived in, so it would probably be better to model "current human habitats at Netherlands / Japanese densities."

That is, until we are capable of constructing large artificial islands capable of supporting mega-cities on the world's oceans. Then you could have a string of Dubai-like cities stretching from Los Angeles to Sydney to Mumbai. That would be quite a population jump.

Posted by Brock at July 30, 2007 12:41 PM

Karl: Re: SPS, the case requires launch costs in the hundreds of dollars per kilo to GEO range. Arguing which hundred is moot while we are in the thousands or tens of thousands. Thanks for isolating me into a class of one on space colonization as a release for waste heat. In a few hundred years, it will make me look like a hero.

Re: China. Yes, the money spent on retail food is a lot higher than the money made by agriculture (ten to twenty times). It certainly does not make sense for a country to add people whose gross product is less than the cost of feeding them.

Part of the gap between the wholesale and retail cost of food which is much lower in the West is the diffusion of Walmart, supermarkets and road infrastructure. Part of that is industrialization. Clearly a subsistence farmer adds very little to GDP. A skilled worker who earns $40,000/year is worth his or her weight in gold. It sounds like we can bound where you are happy with more people (definitely north of India's GDP per capita, and probably north of China's) and where I agree with you (south of India's GDP per capita).

The cover story was about Japan that has GDP of close to US GDP per capita. For Japan, your arguments do not apply.

For the countries with the highest GDP per capita, the relationship is reversed. More GDP per capita is correlated with higher fertility. This is the US compared to Japan, Italy and Germany. As people get rich enough, they want more kids. That's the U-shaped total fertility curve versus income.

India, China, Pakistan, Indonesia and Mexico are rapidly industrializing so that the world income levels will become much higher and cease to be primarily agricultural. Africa will follow with China's help. If those countries can be industrialized to the level of Spain, France or Poland, then world GDP will be more than double what it is today. In that context, there will be substantial capacity to feed, clothe, entertain, medicate, transport and power far more people than will be around.

One way to bridge the gap between what I'm saying and what you're saying is that I am focused on middle class and wealthier. In a country with no tax forms, it's a little silly to talk about micro incentives of tax policies.

You see threat and danger from change. I see a greater ability to respond to threat, a more resilient species that has taken root on Mars, the Moon and the Moons of Jupiter and Saturn. You see critical dependence and strained infrastructure. I see a planet of 20 billion rich people in 300 years all making $6 million a year on average in current dollars who think our problems were about as exciting as animal dung pollution in the streets, the high price of whale oil, and the treatment of measles. We will hit the world's heat limit due to economic growth thousands of years before we hit some carrying capacity limitation caused by population at our current rate of consumption.

If we are growing our food indoors with nuclear power plants providing the energy, how does that make our infrastructure more vulnerable than it is today? How would the terrorism problems of Manhattan today differ from the terrorism problems of a world built up to 1/4 Manhattan's density? It doesn't follow.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at July 30, 2007 12:50 PM

I think Sam is right, and Karl is wrong. I think Karl mistakes unrestrainedly rapid population growth with population growth per se. Without doubt, rapid population growth can be a problem. Heck, rapid change of any kind can be a problem (cf. industrialization, late 19th century, problems caused by, or immigration, US, early 21st century, problems caused by).

However, historically speaking, Sam appears to be on very firm ground. I can't think of any country or region with a robust (but not explosive) population growth that hasn't done better over a timespan of centuries than its less fertile neighbors. The obvious comparisons are late Roman Empire vs. the Germanic tribes, Christian Europe vs. the Ottomans, post-Reformation Germany vs. France and Spain, or the US after 1865 vs. Europe in general, or even Europe in general vs. the Middle East, Africa and the Americas -- let us recall where algebra and astronomy were invented, and then where calculus and Newtonian celestial mechanics was.

The only real counter-example we have is Africa, where for decades we have attributed the decline in economic and social well-being to unrestrained population growth. But I suggest that's mere Marxist apologia and an unwillingness to face the fact that African culture and traditions of government are disastrous (cf. Zimbabwe, which before Mugabe exported food and now is on the verge of starvation).

I personally expect both the Japanese and Chinese economy to tank. They will both have been briefly successful, the Japanese in the 1970s and 80s, the Chinese in the 90s and 00s, perhaps the 10s, because for a brief demographic moment the number working was much higher than the number dependent. But neither has a successful long-term strategy. We expected the Japanese to replace the US as world economic leader in the 80s. Didn't happen. I don't expect China to take over, either. (Not least of all because of their wild sex ratio imbalance, a social time-bomb waiting to go off when all those young men without even the theoretical possibility of marriage reach their 20s and 30s.)

In short, while Karl is right in various short terms, I think Sam has the better argument in the long term.

Posted by Carl Pham at July 30, 2007 12:52 PM

Brock,

I agree, you need a variety of terrain. Using the population density of western Europe, or perhaps even the EU would be better as it would include a variety of environment, so of which are not as suitable for habitation as others. All would give a good estimate at the current level of technology.

However the biggest barrier to population is dependence on agriculture. What is needed is a way to move beyond conventional agriculture to artificial product of food. This is critical for both the Earth and for sustainable space colonies.

Bio tech is the big promise here and it will be the next big revolution. I understand some of the technology being developed to produce tissue in the lab may be adapted to produce meat. Mot veggie meat, but real beef, chemical identical to that found on cows, but without the cow or the inefficient way cows produce meat.

Ironically, the biggest barrier to getting investors is the lack of a regulatory regime for the industry as this article notes.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/30/washington/30animal.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1185824095-tvbdfLHnvnIgabtUNYx0Ag

Without U.S. Rules, Biotech Food Lacks Investors

By ANDREW POLLACK
Published: July 30, 2007

As hard as it may be for alt.spacers to believe, regulation is not the enemy of progress, its is also an enablers if done right since it creates a stable political/legal environment. Investors like stability.


Posted by Thomas Matula at July 30, 2007 01:12 PM

Brock, I use "per capita" because it is a far better measure of wealth for the average citizen than total GDP. For example, if we increase the population by a factor of 100 and the GDP increases by a factor of 10, then we have a tenth the GDP to go around and the world is poorer not richer.

That doesn't prove causation. There are a lot of reasons that China's economy is doing better than India's, not the least of them the fact that (in practice) India has a far more communist economy than China. China's policies favoring economic development are the primary reason for this difference in wealth.

You don't "prove" causation. You merely observe correlations in time. Most of the Chinese GDP gain follows the initiation of the One Child policy. Doesn't mean one thing caused the other. But it would support the hypothesis. My take is that the two are synergistic and boost each other. Since you mention it, it is interesting that the country with superior economic policies also has more stringent population control. My take is that this is in part because population control is another policy that favors economic development.

Neither China nor India will face a labor shortage any time soon. Their underemployed, rural populations still number in the hundreds of millions. Neither economy is labor constrained; ergo, the population controls that China has implemented have had no opportunity to have any effect at all on per capita GDP.

Actually from what I hear, China's labor costs are getting high enough that the low end manufacturers are moving on to places like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. So yes, it is labor constrained. Even India is seeing jumps in labor wages.

Moving on, I dredge up more negativity. I mentioned earlier on the "friction" of high density living. Let me explain this more. The measures I've thrown around so far don't touch on the additional cost of having less personal space, a higher noise environment, nor the stress from interacting with masses of people.

Depending how things develope, we would end up with a broad range of conditions from brains in a can (used as living batteries of course to exploit that really efficient sun to food to human to waste heat energy chain) to huge underground complexes with more real living space than humanity currently enjoys to really cool VR.

So the future of a trillion people could be really neat. However, I can't help but notice that in today's world, high density living has a correlation with lousy residential areas and poor living conditions (high noise, pollution, crime, etc). These human factor costs are routinely ignored in GDP and other calculations. I'm not sure that living in my fabulously valuable cubical and a huge salary is a great improvement over modern life with lower cost but far more expansive real estate.

Having said that, I wouldn't mind working in such an environment for a few years, if it meant I picked up several decades worth of income in the process and could return to the relatively unpopulated world of today.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 30, 2007 01:17 PM

Here's another piece on the topic this one about Europe facing 1.37 kids per Continental couple. Via instapundit.

when it comes to the suggestion that in Western Europe, and especially Britain, we should be cutting back on babies, especially among the indigenous population, well, the family planners have got to be nuts. Do they all have private pension provision, own homes and health insurance, or what? The rest of us including those, like me, who are eco-puritans have a vested interest in ensuring that the Continent does not shrink out of existence.

Karl: Brains in a can is pretty funny. We're not very good batteries. The way a society like the Matrix would form would be by choice--people dropping out of regular society because the virtual version is better.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at July 30, 2007 01:31 PM

I don't buy your U-shaped hypothesis. The birth rates in all western countries other than the united states are below replacement. Since the breakup of the soviet union, eastern europe has been plummeting, now hovering around 1.8.

Posted by at July 30, 2007 07:51 PM

It is a good point about population growth. Sam wasn't advocating a high rate of growth (4% per 30 year period). That should be manageable for a high tech civilization.

Still I think it's a really bad idea to push human habitation far above the low tech limits (let's say it's a billion people for purposes of this argument). EMP bombs, rampaging computer viruses or AI, plastic-eating bacteria, etc might be sufficient to bring such a civilization crashing down. And in that case, it's a lot less painful if say only 9 of 10 people die rather than 999 of 1000. And let's say that only 1 in a billion people have the ambition and chops to pull off this sort of thing. That's 10 people in the low pop world compared to 1,000 in the high pop world.

My take is that inoovation would ultimately be a threat to a world so far above low tech limits. Who knows if an inventor will develope something that will give billions of people the power to destroy the world? That stuff needs to be tightly controlled and it will be in order to protect the existing order.

Obviously, if the population is just a billion people, then there's no need to get worked up at all. You can feed them even if the lights go out. Nor do you need to rigidly control your innovators. They simply cannot do as much harm to your civilization.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 30, 2007 09:21 PM

Karl: If you give people access to compact power sources and the technology to make them themselves such as a computer with a set of plans and a 3-D printer, some seeds and plans and means to create a hydroponic garden, people can live in the frozen wastes, an underground cavern, or under the sea. The Asmovian notion that Trantor can best survive catastrophe by returning to nature and starting over is false. Better to give everyone the means to survive everywhere--including off planet.

I would not have picked you for a Luddite. I was worried when Bill Joy argued against the publication of the human genome and risked my livelihood to join him in his warning. But I've come around. I applaud Esther Dyson for putting her genome on the web. Capitalism has more money and incentive to fight and stay one step ahead of terrorists or unwise inventors to protect itself.

I worry most about memes like 'Let's leave the universe pure and stay put.' and 'Let's all kill ourselves.' and 'Let's have negative population growth.' that have the potential to allow the species to choose to make itself extinct. The accidental discovery of an inventor is a good risk to undertake in the search for the greatest good for the greatest number.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at July 31, 2007 07:46 AM

"For example, if we increase the population by a factor of 100 and the GDP increases by a factor of 10"

Your "for example" doesn't happen in developed, well regulated economies. It's a fairyland. That's called "negative real GDP per capita", and the only countries currently experiencing it are in Africa and the Soviet bloc. As long as we leave Marxist politics on the dust bin of history, it's a non-issue. Moving on.

"You don't "prove" causation."

This is a blog comment thread, not a economic journal.

"Most of the Chinese GDP gain follows the initiation of the One Child policy. Doesn't mean one thing caused the other. But it would support the hypothesis."

There is no research I am aware of that supports this hypothesis. China is the only country I know of to implement this policy. It is far from the only country to see rapid economic growth in the last few decades. Many counter-examples exist, which disprove you hypothesis (Chile, Singapore, Hong Kong, Ireland, Mexico, Vietnam, India, ...). It's a bad hypothesis. Let it go.

"Actually from what I hear, China's labor costs are getting high enough that the low end manufacturers are moving on to places like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia."

China's labor costs are unevenly distributed. Labor in the port cities on the coast is rising in cost, but the labor in the interior remains cheap and underemployed. Your observation is not wrong, but it is a factor of transportation cost (not labor cost) which is driving it. It's cheaper to send a boat to a coastal city in Malaysia than to send a boat to Shanghai and transfer to truck to Chongquing. As China further develops its interior transportation infrastructure, and China's consumer economy becomes more widespread, the pendulum will swing back to investments in China.

"(used as living batteries of course to exploit that really efficient sun to food to human to waste heat energy chain)"

I'm hoping this is satire and will disregard.

"I can't help but notice that in today's world, high density living has a correlation with lousy residential areas and poor living conditions (high noise, pollution, crime, etc)."

Wrong. Just wrong. Many of the most densely populated areas in the world are the most pleasant to live in. Real estate per m^2 is expensive, yes, but housing can still be plentiful if vertical development is unrestricted. Likewise high crime is a sign of weak police institutions and pollution of insufficiently advanced technology. They are not caused by density per se.

"Still I think it's a really bad idea to push human habitation far above the low tech limits (let's say it's a billion people for purposes of this argument). EMP bombs, rampaging computer viruses or AI, plastic-eating bacteria, etc might be sufficient to bring such a civilization crashing down."

So, to avoid a potentially (very) unlikely disaster scenario wherein billion die, you'd prefer that we guarantee that billions are never born? That's a poor trade off. That's forsaking all future progress out of fear that some of that progress will be taken back.

Your argument, taken to its conclusion, also forestalls any attempt to colonize space or other worlds, since all of those colonies will be dependent on technology to survive. I will not accept that for many reasons.

You argument also does not address the chance of naturally occurring civilization-killers, such as a naturally evolved super-ebola, or a meteor strike, or a super-volcano whose ash blocks out the sun for a decade, or a smarter predator species that out-competes us for resources. These types of threats a 20 billion, super-wealthy civilization would be much, much more capable of defeating.

Sam Dinkin said: "I worry most about memes like 'Let's leave the universe pure and stay put.' and 'Let's all kill ourselves.' and 'Let's have negative population growth.' that have the potential to allow the species to choose to make itself extinct."

Not the whole species, just Karl.

I'm really not arguing with Karl to "beat" him however, but to convert him and have him join us. You see, Karl's strategies have minimal Darwinian fitness. They ensure that his line will die out, while ours will spread to the stars. Out in the real world (not here on this blog post), we are already "winning", and will "win" in the long term when our descendants (and us personally, hopefully) look back on this point and place from centuries in the future and many worlds away. If Karl succeed in keeping his line on this planet Earth, while we and ours spread to throughout the galaxy, the only sure thing is that one day Karl's will die out from some freak accident, and ours will not. Establishing outposts and colonies on other worlds will be easier with everyone's help, but we really don't need their help or permission to succeed.

The Type III Civilization is immune to all known external threats.

Posted by Brock at July 31, 2007 12:04 PM

Brock, it's not enough to have a better fitness strategy when poorly fit majorities can pass laws against spaceflight to make us safe from weapons of mass destruction, pass laws against emigration to keep the rest of the universe free from our corrupting influence, or simply pass very stringent regulations that stifle growth so that the minority that want to go to space can never muster the means to do so. So we are in a race to convert Karl and his fellow travelers not just for their own good and their own descendants', but ours as well.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at July 31, 2007 01:12 PM

I sure hope that's sarcasm guys. Throwing around accusations of Ludditism because I don't buy into a high pop world being a technologically superior world? That is absurd. The problem is that it is a non sequitur. One does not follow from the other. There are problems (like terrorism) that scale more than linearly with population size. You keep making the unwarranted assumption that more people automatically means better.

Let me start by saying that a trillion people world would have natural disasters licked. It would have to in order to exist. I see no real reason that large asteroids or supervolcanoes can't be tamed permanently. It just requires a lot of resources, which I agree, these guys will have. By that point, they literally wouldn't have a natural "super-ebola". Natural lethal disease would be gone. I see no point to consider these as legitimate threats to such a world.

Then we get to Brock's revealing statement:

The Type III Civilization is immune to all known external threats.

But golly how about internal threats? Let's go back to the type I civilization that we're originally talking about. Suppose someone decides to make their own nuclear bombs or a super-Ebola or grey goo? How do we defend against these possibly very unlikely dangers? I imagine it'd keep some "Men in Black" organization very busy. Or maybe we'd just see a trillion people die every now and then. Die-offs aren't such a big deal after all since the population can grow right back in a few thousand years.

And that brings me to the point I've been making repeatedly. I don't see the dynamics of a high population density world as being compatible with a high innovation world. The people making the innovations are a big risk to keeping everyone alive. Any faltering in the society could result in a collapse (and not in a possibly very unlikely way).

It's not enough to give everyone a way to generate their own food, power, and computing needs. First, that might not survive certain possibly very unlikely man-made disasters. Second, you are giving the people who might cause the disaster the tools to cause that disaster. And third, there are needs that can't be met locally. For example, you need to have a way to remove excess heat. It's easy to do so from a house. It's not easy to do from a few kilometers inside a building. If cooling gets shut down for a long time globally, then a trillion people (well most of them anyway) get cooked - even if their other needs can be sustained locally.

Some other points: Brock you're talking about a world 50 times less populous than Sam is. A 20 billion people world would have a lot less pressure on it than a trillion people world.

Brock seems to think some of the high density places are the "most pleasant" to live in. I really don't know what that means. I just have my personal observations. Namely, I've never been in a city that I would like to live in. Never. The closest has been San Diego. Pleasant climate and people. I just don't want to be near so many of them. However, I can see that there are people who crave the excitement that a big city provides. And they thrive in high population areas. I doubt even they would call a city "pleasant" though.

And as far as reproduction goes, I don't have a strategy, darwinian or otherwise. Yes, I'm an evolutionary loser and there are heavy odds against me that my line will go extinct with me. It sucks somewhat, but that's the kind of thing that goes on. Those who can't thrive get weeded out.

Moving on, I favor space travel and would love to be able to emigrate from Earth (among other things to improve my evolutionary viability). In many ways, I think it'll become a dead end down here. Growing to a trillion people doesn't seem to fix the problem to me.

Finally, Sam's last post:

Brock, it's not enough to have a better fitness strategy when poorly fit majorities can pass laws against spaceflight to make us safe from weapons of mass destruction, pass laws against emigration to keep the rest of the universe free from our corrupting influence, or simply pass very stringent regulations that stifle growth so that the minority that want to go to space can never muster the means to do so. So we are in a race to convert Karl and his fellow travelers not just for their own good and their own descendants', but ours as well.

High population hastens the process Sam. There is a trade off in such circumstances between stability and innovation. Before I would endorse a high population solution, I want to see some indication that it would work and not result in either a stagnant society or a massive die-off.

As I see it, we have plenty of evidence to the contrary. The worst anti-space and anti-intelligence memes are urban. The worst control freaks are urban. It strikes me that you are handing the future to the very people that would destroy it.

OTOH, a big, needy Earth, unable to innovate, is going to be a bonanza for a space culture.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 31, 2007 08:19 PM

A type III civilisation is so dispersed over multiple galaxies that it is also immune from internal threats. Seriously, how would one wage intergalactic war against Canis Major using 0.1c~0.2c generation ships?

As far as type I is concerned, we would be spread out over multiple planets and asteroids. A large portion of the population will reside on self sustainable habitats in the main belt or very far out on Titan, Enceladus, Rhea, Dione and Ganymede, bodies much more hospitable and accessable than Mars and Luna.

But we'll probably destroy ourselves in nuclear or biological war or some sort of grey goo accident before we reach that level of development.

Posted by Adrasteia at July 31, 2007 09:03 PM

I don't know how we slide into waging wars on Type III civilizations. But here's how to destroy one. Build a few von Neumann machines. Spread them around the area you want to destroy. Then have them build lots of black holes and drop them in every star. Your typical type III civilization (I love dropping phrases like that) will be unable to survive the energy release much less the huge increase in entropy in the region. I figure you could easily do this in a billion years or less.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at August 1, 2007 08:11 AM

Present human culture can't be used to predict the future. Culture makes us unique, because it's our extended phenotype, but they do vary wildly across time and between groups. So the present state of affairs is not a good indication of the future size of a population.

China, a ticking population timebomb? I think the Chinese regime wants to stay in power, at all cost. They can't use popular unrest from farmers, they can't use a upheaval due to a shortage in women either. My guess is they'll make more women, by any means necessary.

Posted by Rik at August 1, 2007 03:02 PM

In hindsight, I don't really think there is an issue here. The population ramp up will take several thousand years and if there's a real problem with too many people, the weaknesses can be spotted well ahead of time. Plenty of time to move off, if it's going to be a bother. Second, this debate detracts from some of Sam's more interesting points on encouraging parents.

I particular like the one about giving parents 10% of life time revenue from each kid. Given growing lifespans, it may be worth considering halting payments after a certain number of decades just so we don't have indefinite commitments (for an extreme example, how much can a parent be responsible for a century down the road?). 40 years sounds good to me and it gets paid whether the parent is alive or not (to prevent unintended consequences).

Posted by Karl Hallowell at August 2, 2007 07:39 PM

Hmmm, in the August 2007 issue of Seed magazine, there is a story titled "The Living City" (see blog on the story). While I'm not prepared to discuss the story (since I only had opportunity to scan it briefly), they do conclude that current cities are more efficient as they become more dense. There is an upper limit to this, but IIRC, they seem to think the limit is technology-based rather than limited due to some social dynamic. If their interpretation is accurate, this would support Sam's argument.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at August 6, 2007 12:17 PM


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