Inequality and Overpopulation

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 20, 2018

In the 21st-century countless problems threaten our survival. Long before climate change can drown us, inequality and overpopulation will dissolve our civilization. People tend to obsess on a single issue when all our problems are interrelated. Republicans have laser-focused on reducing their taxes while denying all other threats due to their expense. Our economy is a million times more complex than a nuclear power plant, yet Republicans feel they can control it with just one knob.

Nuclear power plant control room

We won’t solve problems we refuse to see. The past tells us we need a convinced percentage of the population before we act. History also shows progress is slow, and sometimes humans never change. We live in politically terrorizing times. The frog in boiling water analogy Al Gore used for climate change works for all the problems we need to solve today. In the middle of the last century, John Calhoun’s experiments with rat and mice overpopulation probably say more about our times than we want to believe. Watch the video if you don’t believe me or this longer one, Down the Rabbit Hole.

Today, most people ignore the issue of overpopulation even though most of our social problems are directly connected to 6 billion too many humans. Deniers claim food production has always grown faster than population, so we don’t have to worry about overpopulation. However, starvation was never the sole threat of too many people.

If you regularly watch TV news, the same stories cycle over the same periods of days, weeks, months, and years. And with each new iteration, these same problems intensify. I have been pessimistic about the future for decades. I don’t know if my pessimism is the natural one of old age or there’s real evidence for worry.

Honduran migrant caravan October 2018

The new Honduran migrant caravan is much larger than the last one and Donald Trump is panicking. Trump thinks he can control the border. The past tells us that won’t work. Whenever people suffer they move to where people don’t. Just look at Venezuelans pouring into Columbia in the photo below. Don’t the two groups look similar? Haven’t we seen them before? Won’t we see groups grow ever larger and more frequent for the rest of our lives? How are they different from those fleeing hurricanes Florence and Michael? Imagine yourself in such a group. It’s almost certain you’ll either be a refugee in your lifetime, or you’ll be building walls to keep them out. What will it take to avoid both fates?

Venezuelans migrating to Columbia.

This isn’t overpopulation, but inequality. Overpopulation and inequality are related. When populations conflict over war, there is inequality of peace. When there are extremes of rich and poor, there is economic inequality. Where society deems a physical trait of the body superior to another there’s racial inequality. When society treats men differently than women, there is gender inequality. When there are more people than jobs, there is work inequality. When one species takes all the natural resources, there is inequality of lifeforms.

If you watch the Mouse Utopia Experiment film, it’s easy to forget you’re seeing mice and see us instead. As the population grows on Lifeboat Earth, the passengers will fight over the remaining rations. We can’t solve overpopulation right now. We can solve the inequality to reduce the conflicts until we reduce our numbers. If we don’t, nature will do it for us.

Republicans believe the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. They are not the ethical Vulcans from Star Trek. The only way our species can survive all the problems we’ll face in this century is by providing equality to all. That will require turning all the knobs in the control room in subtle ways until we find the correct settings. A difficult but not impossible task. And it’s not just for our country. If anywhere in the world one group is singled out and not given equal rations and opportunity, this lifeboat will sink. We have grown so large, that even a 1% minority is 70 million people, a powerful force.

We fail because we lack empathy for people unlike ourselves. I recommend two essays to prove my point. I could list thousands, but please read these two to see if they don’t change your mind. They are “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The Longest War” by Rebecca Solnit.

No matter what kind of walls you build to keep out whatever kind of refugee your fear, that wall will never be big enough. The only way not to need walls is to create equality uniformly everywhere. As long as you believe you can wall yourself in you’re doomed.

World-War-Z-photo-zombies-1

JWH

The Mathematics of Persuasion

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 6, 2015

I’m fascinated by the idea of society changing. This week it was announced that women will have access to all combat roles in the U. S. military. It wasn’t many years ago that would have been unthinkable. It’s less than 100 years since women got the vote in the United States, and now we could be close to having a woman President. Or think about the cultural shift of same-sex marriages. I’m already seeing charming ads by wedding planners running photos that feature a man and a woman, woman and woman and man and man couples. There’s also a lot of movement to legalize marijuana in various states. Society seems to be changing fast. But in other ways, it doesn’t. Even though we have a black President race relations are still very troubled. Sometimes I think culture can change fast, but not necessarily individuals.

chessboard growth

This makes me wonder about how an idea gets converts, and how fast a society can transform with a new idea. If one person takes up a new belief and convinces one other person, and they convince one other person, how long before it changes society? Of course, that depends on the frequency of conversion. But if one person converts two, and the two convert four, it would only take 30 doublings to covert all Americans to a new idea, or 34 for the world. See the classic rice on chessboard legend. If each doubling took a year, it would take three decades, but if it took a week, it would take less than a year.

Think about ideas that are emerging now. One that I’m interested in is the plant-based diet. My cholesterol numbers have gotten much better since I started that diet. I’ve lost weight, feel much better, and have much less inflammation. This convinced two of my friends to try it. Most people love to eat meat, but what if eating a plant-based diet turns out to be proven path to health? How long before half the country goes vegan? Most people will scoff at that idea as being downright silly. But it was only 150 years ago that this country had slavery, women couldn’t vote, cars didn’t exist, we didn’t have the income tax, and most folks died of things we consider curable today.

Things change. How long did it take abolitionists in the 19th century to enlighten enough people to change the country? How long will it take environmentalists to convince the world that climate change is something we need to stop?

I wish I knew the mathematics to answer this question: What is the difference between one person making one convert a year, or two converts a year, or three, four, five, or more? Social movements are built around people changing their minds and becoming converts. However, it’s also about old believers dying off. The growth of atheism and agnosticism is mainly due to older believers dying. That suggest that some changes takes a life-time.

I’m reading a tremendous book right now, Countdown by Alan Weisman, that is about overpopulation. Weisman reports from over twenty countries how different cultures view population growth, and their various approaches to sustaining ever growing populations with dwindling resources, in a world where the environment is collapsing. There is no question that we’re on a doomed path. The question is whether or not the mathematics of persuasion even has time to work.

I am writing a series of essays about how I’m looking for signs of hope for the future. So far, the only solution I can find is for seven billion people to change the way they live. Humans do change, but can they change fast enough to solve all the problems we face before we’re forced to live in a post-apocalyptic world? It’s no longer about surviving climate change, that’s just one of many of our problems, and I’m no longer sure it’s even our most threatening problem. Exponential growth, which the world economy depends on, is about to hit the wall. Probably before 2050, or even 2030.

Remember that old domino theory about communism? Well, communism wasn’t the problem, collapsing civilization is what we need to watch. Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, are the early dominos. Americans pay very little attention to what’s going on in other countries, unless they host a war that concerns us. But look how a war in Syria is affecting Europe. Keep an eye on Pakistan. Start counting the countries that are collapsing, and why. What would happen if Mexico collapsed? Pay attention to all the countries that have extremely high unemployment.

We can solve our problems if we can master the mathematics of persuasion. Unfortunately, we have built economic growth on a different set of mathematics which doesn’t equate with the mathematics of a sustainable environment. It’s like the Standard Model and Gravitation, they don’t seem to be related, but should be. We need to build an economy based on using less, and sharing more. That can’t be communism, even the Chinese have learned that. But it can’t be capitalism either. Socialism only solves some of the problem capitalism fails to solve. We need a whole new model. Probably some kind of steady-state capitalism mixed with socialism and environmentalism. But to transform society will require changing how seven billion people live. Is that even possible? We have nothing yet, so convert number 1 is waiting. And even if we had an answer, how fast can we go from 1 to 7 billion?

JWH