Peak Power Video

I’m on a video kick lately, finding that it’s a good way to capture key points and reach people who never would have stumbled onto Do the Math. Here is a video to accompany the latest post on peak power.

I also added a playlist to my YouTube channel that has other appearances I’ve done (podcasts and the like). While I was at it (as I learn this space), I added chapters to my channel videos to make it easier to find key content. Enjoy! I think I’m also supposed to say: please like and subscribe—but I don’t know if I’m doing this right, yet.

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Brace for Peak Impact

Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

Guilty as charged: my recent postings have been all about human population and when it might peak. I don’t mean to be a bore, but it’s an important topic connected to planetary limits, human impacts, ecological health, and the appealing prospect that a near-term peak may offer an earlier off-ramp for modernity. In the past, I have stressed the point (in a blog post from 2013 and later in a textbook chapter) that population per se isn’t the phenomenon of greatest concern, but its multiplication by resource usage. It’s the combination that launches us over the ecological cliff edge, commonly expressed by the I=PAT formula for impact on the planet.

In this post, I belatedly take my own advice and re-frame the population investigation in resource terms. Now that I have a demographic tool, I can ask questions relating to when we might hit peak power as a civilization. I use power (rate of energy use) as a proxy for all manner of resource dependencies, as energy usage correlates strongly with materials use and ecological impact. Plus, it is a readily-available measure.

So, given various assumptions about how fertility rates evolve regionally, and factoring in different models for regional survival rates and migration, when might we expect global resource use to peak and begin a decline? In tandem with this event, we might correspondingly expect peak industrial output, and peak rate of (accumulating) damage to ecological health—which includes our own health. In the U.N.’s standard demographic model, population does not peak until 2086 at 10.4 billion—largely bolstered by population growth in Africa, which the U.N. parameters indicate will climb to 4 billion by 2130 (we’ll see…). But, since Africa is by far the region with the lowest per-capita consumption, declines elsewhere could more than offset Africa’s population increases in terms of resource burden.

Enough speculation: let’s unleash the model and see what happens.

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Peak Population Video

I put together a short (13.5 minute) video to synthesize the main points from my exploration into demographic models and what it could mean in terms of an early peak. If you’ve read the first three posts in the population series (bomb, projections, whiff), then this offers nothing new. In any case, perhaps it is an efficient way to introduce or revisit the content.

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Population "What If" Games

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Readers may have noticed that I’m on a bit of a demography kick of late, and this post is no different.  Several reasons contribute to this focus.  First, human population is an extremely important factor in the future health of this planet.  Second, I am fascinated by the prospect that population growth may not turn out to be as crushing as I had previously believed.  Third, having developed a tool for demographic projection, I want to get my money’s worth before scooting off to something else.

The first post in this series examined the unexpected realization (on my part) that current trends could put us on track for a global population peak in the next few decades—maybe deflating the population balloon before something pops. In the process of investigating how this squared with most projections that show a late-century peak, I came to understand the theoretical biases—especially in fertility—employed by United Nations demographers. This first post also explored possible implications of an early peak: how modernity would cope with such a major, unprecedented, and rather prolonged period of declining population. The second post sketched out a reasonably sophisticated demographic propagation tool I constructed tracking six regions of the world so that I might reproduce the U.N. projections and explore what I considered to be plausible variants in terms of both fertility evolution and survival/medical trends.  I also wedged in a bonus post exposing the repeated systematic failure of demographic projections to capture recent rapid trends in declining birth rates.  The models apparently don’t incorporate whatever drives this major phenomenon.

In this post, I examine a few implausible scenarios for the purpose of isolating and better understanding factors at play. I think of it as answering “What If” questions (calling to mind Randall Munroe’s excellent What If series of outlandish yet illuminating questions). What if fertility around the globe suddenly locked at the replacement value? What if things stayed exactly as they are today? How much earlier would population peak if Africa’s fertility fell as rapidly as other recent precedents? What if we suffered a pandemic or global resource war?

The first few of these explorations are not intended to be realistic as much as they are illustrative of the relative importance of various factors. I learned from the exercises, at least, and hope you will, too.

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Whiff After Whiff

Image by Anne and Saturnino Miranda from Pixabay

The word “whiff” is used in baseball to describe when the batter swings and makes no contact with the pitched ball. The term presumably derives from the sound of hitting nothing but air.

This off-sequence post acts as a brief update that I wanted to present, without making a full-fledged blog post out of it (in hindsight, I may have failed). In the last two posts (here and here), I noted that recent rapid drops in child birth around the world could conceivably put us on track for an earlier population peak than previously anticipated—possibly as early as 2040 vs. the 2080–2090 timeframe.

That would be big news, and makes me continually ask myself: where is the disconnect? Is it possible that demography models are that wrong? I have discussed already (and will revisit in the next post) some of the potential blind spots for how this century develops. But here I look backwards to see if the recent drop in child births was itself a surprise to the demographers. If so, then it speaks to dynamics at play not captured in demography models, and that’s important.

I used the 2022 United Nations World Population Prospects (WPP) data (public) to build a list of countries that had the largest fractional declines in total fertility rate (TFR) from 2010 to 2019 (pre-COVID), and that also had projections in previous U.N. WPP products back to 2010. I show how (not) well the U.N. expectations match the actual story for these cases. I also throw in a few other countries of interest, including the three most populous ones.

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Peak Population Projections

Last week, I reported the surprising realization that official population projections from the United Nations adhere to a notion of future fertility that appears to be immediately at odds with present real trends. The recent rapid decline in population growth—even pre-COVID—suggests that a population peak prior to 2050 is not outlandish, provided that current drivers continue to apply.  Recent declines in fertility rates, together with a flattening age distribution of young folks, combine to set the stage for population peak and decline.

In the previous post, I performed two embarrassingly crude projections of recent trends (simple curve fits) to demonstrate that a population peak as soon as 2042 or even 2033 should not be ruled out, and in fact seems to be where we’re heading if present trends continue.

I mentioned that I was working on tooling up a more sophisticated model to do some exploration of my own. The goal was to track the nuances of actual age distributions across the world, together with alternative ideations of fertility evolution (greater weight on what is actually happening lately), and allowance for non-monotonic evolution of medical care and life expectancy going forward. It was a daunting task, but I was consumed with curiosity and powered through the exercise over a few intense days.

In this post, I will give an overview of what goes into my demographic projection model, why I believe it works well enough to be useful, and what top-level questions we can explore using it.

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Watching Population Bomb

As a nod to human supremacy, any time we hear the word “population,” it generally goes without saying that we mean human population, of course. Other such words include health, lifetime, prosperity, intelligence, wisdom, murder, pro-life, culture. To many in modernity, it makes no sense to discuss the murder of an animal, the wisdom in mushrooms, or a culture among crows. Such self-centered arrogance!

But where was I? Oh my—I got derailed before even starting. This post is about population of the human sort. In the 1960s, the rate of growth of human population appeared to be on a runaway ascent, enabled by the fossil-fueled Green Revolution. This alarming phenomenon prompted Paul Ehrlich to write The Population Bomb in 1968, warning of the inherent downsides in such an uncontrolled explosion of humans. But interestingly, the word “bomb” can also describe a dramatic failure, or falling flat—as in bombing a test.

In the past, my attention to population has been limited to the following points.

  1. The growth rate is grossly unsustainable, has accelerated historically, and is a reflection of temporary fossil fuels (Section 3.1 of my textbook).
  2. Despite lower birth rates, population growth in prosperous countries constitutes the largest population-growth-related resource burden on the planet (not poor countries).
  3. The demographic transition that worked in a past age for today’s “developed” countries is not really an option for the rest in a thoroughly-exploited world. Also, the inevitable population surge and resource demand accompanying the transition is an ecological double-whammy that Earth is not obligated to (and cannot) support.

These views are still valid for me, with an asterisk on the first point that will be the focus of this post. Last week’s post included a plot of human population growth over time. I was struck by the recent phenomenon of rapidly declining growth rates, which I had noticed in tables (pre-COVID) but had never seen in visual form. Here is the relevant graph in a larger format, straight from the United Nations’ 2022 population report and associated data.

Data (dots) and projection (green-dotted line) from the United Nations. We’ll get to the solid curves later.

The annual fractional increase, in percent, is shown as blue or red dots, depending on whether tracking the July 1 to July 1 annual increase (blue, centered on the year boundary) or January 1 to January 1 (red, centered mid-year). The green dotted line is the U.N. 2022 projection for how growth rate evolves (look how it changed its mind on the slope!). When it hits zero, in 2086, the population peaks at 10.43 billion. Or their model tells us so. I’ll get to the magenta and yellow curves in due course.

The rapid decline in population rates in recent decades is impressive. The first plummet transpired from about 1988 to 2005, dropping from 1.8% per year to 1.25%. After a decade’s pause, the downward trend resumed, lately averaging 0.85% per year.

Since human population plays a huge role in the global meta-crisis, what do we make of these trends, and how might they shape our future?

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Confessions of a Disillusioned Scientist

AI-generated stranger; I’m not so young/attractive

After a rocket ride through science, I am hanging up the gloves, feeling a little ashamed and embarrassed to have devoted so much of my life to what I now see as a misguided cause that has done more harm than good in this world.

The previous post details my views about the limits of science. In this post, I will focus more on my own reaction as a human participant in the enterprise.

As is so often the case, my trajectory, in hindsight, looks straightforward and linear. Halley’s comet introduced me to the sky in 1985–1986 at age 15–16, quickly leading to my building a 10-inch Newtonian telescope on a German equatorial mount (using plumbing parts from my plumber neighbor). Through this telescope, I saw all nine planets in one night (when there were nine), an individual star (supernova) 36 million light years away, and a quasar 2 billion light years away. I was a physics major at Georgia Tech and spent every-other-quarter at the Naval Research Lab working on optical communications for space. I had my pick of graduate schools, and chose Caltech for its idyllic setting, its relaxed, collaborative atmosphere, and access to “big glass.” Within a few months of starting, I had gone on observing runs to the venerable Palomar 200-inch telescope and the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on Mauna Kea. What a dream I was living! Meanwhile, I enjoyed many outdoor adventures with fellow grad students, some of whom have become life-long friends.

I did not expect to stay in academia (the statistics were not encouraging to a middling student), and interviewed at a few “industry” jobs while also dipping a toe into “prize” postdoc fellowships and create-your-own postdoc adventures. I picked one from the “adventure” bucket, to start a lunar laser ranging project as a test of general relativity at the University of Washington. Abandoning my graduate expertise in infrared astronomical instrumentation was risky, but I saw this postdoc as a last hurrah in academia, deciding that I might as well have fun. I loved the people I worked with, and savored my time in Seattle. Unintentionally, this gutsy move looked very attractive to faculty search committees, two of which tracked me down based on the reputation of my graduate work and then put me on their short lists after learning of my new direction. One of these led to a tenure-track job at UCSD starting in 2003, where I kept the pedal to the metal on the lunar ranging project. During a 20 year career there, I was never turned down for funding my project, hit all the usual promotion steps at the expected times (tenure then full professor), and felt that I had “made it” by all traditional measures. Having written and reviewed a large number of peer-reviewed papers and served as panel reviewer for NASA and the NSF for far more proposals than I ever wrote, I knew the “game” quite well. I had a versatile set of powerful tools that I could bring to bear on what seemed like almost any problem. Science was, in some ways, the essence of my being, and I found plenty of reward in it—both intrinsically and societally.

So, what happened?

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And Why is That Desirable?

Kid wants to know: why? why? why?

This is ultimately a post about values. More specifically, it presents a technique by which to get at people’s (or your own) values. Values are important, because they drive much of what we do: they form a sort of bedrock foundation for our actions, even if hidden from sight. When it comes to long-term consequences, some values produce better results than others. Modernity tends to have a fairly destructive set of values, in the end. I hesitate to call them bad. It is easy enough to see their innocent origin, but by consistently serving the more-than-human-world so poorly, they no longer serve humans well, either.

The technique explored here is childishly simple: just keep asking the same question over and over. The recipient of this treatment finds it annoying, partly because it forces them to think more deeply than perhaps they are accustomed to doing. How many repetitions of “why?” from a child do we tolerate before we throw up our hands and have no more answers? Embarrassingly few, typically.

In this case, the repeated question is: “And why is that desirable?” Primarily, I use this as a way to examine the values we ascribe to scientific knowledge. Years ago, I regarded science as an absolute “good.” What could be better? What higher achievement could humans point to than a scientific understanding of our world? In fact, the possible loss of this edifice is what disturbed me the most about the prospect of civilization’s collapse.

Some of that admiration will surely stay with me forever, but when I peel back layers of the onion by following the “why is that desirable” line of questioning, I find that scientific pursuit is often based on a core of human supremacy, or anthropocentrism, more politely. To see this, play the game yourself, or follow the examples below.

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The Simple Story of Civilization

[Note: This post inspired a podcast interview that traces a similar path.]

Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

The stories we fashion about ourselves are heavily influenced by our short life spans during an age of unprecedented complexity. We humans, it would seem, are unfathomably complicated creatures who defy simple “just-so” characterizations. Animals, or humans tens of thousands of years ago are fair game for simple stories, but not so for transcendent modern humans.

Two major problems I have with this attitude are that 1) we are animals, and 2) we have exactly the same hardware (albeit with slightly smaller brains) as we had 100,000 years ago.

So allow me to pull back from our present age of baffling complexity to outline a simple story covering the broad sweep of the human saga. The result may be a little startling, and, for a number of readers, sure to be rejected by cultural antibodies as “not applicable” (see also my views of our civilization as a cult).

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