About The Author
D. R. Prescott has written a novel, a collection of short stories, a nonfiction book, a collection of essays, planetarium show/display scripts, two family histories, technical articles and business plans as well as written for and edited several newsletters.
Awards and published work include Writers' Journal, Long Story Short, Taj Mahal Review literary journal, The Orange County Register, Writer's Digest, and Writing.com and four books among other challenges.
As a former aerospace executive and planetarium program director, Prescott currently writes and explores life in Orange, California.
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Since 2008, Prescott has been a regular contributor of
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O R D E R   T O D A Y !
Too Many People
by D. R. Prescott

We have a problem bigger than current economic woes, American dependence on foreign oil, justifiable/ill-conceived wars or climate change. The problem is simply that human population will likely exceed the highest expert estimates of Earth’s carrying capacity in less than 100 years.

It is coming at us like an invisible missile, off our radar, out of control and potentially deadly. It is not centuries away; it is decades or, at most, a few generations before it hits us, perhaps dramatically unless we do something very different, very soon. It is not an American problem; it is a global problem; it is humanity’s problem.

William E. Rees of the University of Columbia has defined carrying capacity this way: “Carrying capacity is usually defined as the maximum population of a given species that can be supported indefinitely in a defined habitat without permanently impairing the productivity of that habitat.” The future carrying capacity predicament boils down to three factors: people, space and energy, more specifically too many people, not enough space and an increasing energy demand.

Tragically, we are wasting time and resources on things (like fighting and killing each other) rather than doing what we need to do to sustain human life on Earth. When we run out of space and resources, we will really have something to fight about and it could get ugly.

Where is humanity’s survival plan? We have bits and pieces but we lack the over-arching perspective recognizing the limitation of Earth’s carrying capacity. We do not have a strategic plan for humanity. It does not exist unless it is an ultra-top secret that only a select group are privileged to see.

There are many people wringing their hands over pressing problems that will have a nominal effect on the larger carrying capacity issue. Of course, the near-term troubles (a decade or so away) need attention or we may be overwhelmed by immediate necessity before we can address the larger carrying capacity concern.

A number of scientists have estimated that Earth’s carrying capacity ranges from 0.5 billion to 14 billion people. This span between low and high estimates depends on how pessimistic or optimistic the assumptions used in making the calculations were.

Based on projections by the U.S. Census Bureau, human population will grow to over 9 billion human beings by 2049, only decades away. If you do a very conservative projection for another 50 years beyond that, it is not difficult to imagine over 11 billion people on Earth by 2100, near the high estimate of Earth’s carrying capacity. If the 0.5 billion carrying capacity value is correct, we are already in trouble and have been for over 250 years without recognizing it. If 14 billion is closer to the truth, big trouble is ahead within a century while we grapple daily with symptoms rather than solutions. Climate change is a good example. It is really a science and technology problem of producing enough clean energy for a growing population and it is only one symptom, be it an important part of the carrying capacity issue.

Energy is critical. Our thirst for energy is ravenous. With enough energy, anything might be possible. Beyond worrying about how much you will have to pay at the gas pump to get your voracious SUV satisfied, how much energy is necessary to keep our species thriving and answering big questions? Energy is vital for sustaining our civilization, maybe even for our species’ survival.

Production of all forms of energy relates to the number of humans alive at any given moment. We need energy to produce our food, ensure potable water supplies and drive every other human activity. Our civilization is energy-based and therefore energy-dependent. We have to produce enough useable energy to support humanity or our civilized veneer will surely peel away as society collapses.

Between 1994 and 2004, it took 60-70 million Btu’s (British Thermal Units) every year to support each person on the planet at the current global standard of living. A few used a lot and many used much less. In a recent estimate of average energy consumption, using the recent average consumption per person, assuming that conservation practices and technological efficiencies temper individual consumption, we will need 50% more than we produced in 2000 and by 2100, we will need nearly double what we use today. Some experts would consider this estimate too low. Even if the human population grows at 50% of the assumed rate used in the estimate, the number people and the energy required is still daunting. From where is all that energy coming?

Today, World Primary Energy Production is an intense activity. Europe, Asia Oceania (includes Australia, New Zealand, etc.) and the Americas consume more than they produce depending on the Middle East, Eurasia and Africa to supply the deficit.

The proponents of alternative energy sources (solar, wind, geo-thermal, nuclear, bio-fuels, tidal and the like) argue that increasing alternatives will reduce American dependence on foreign oil. How quickly can alternatives come on line to contribute to solving the global problem-more and more people using greater amounts of energy and severely straining or exceeding Earth’s carrying capacity?

Today, nearly 90% of total world energy production is carbon-based. Percentages can be deceiving. If the percentage of carbon-based energy production goes down because of more alternative energy sources but the actual total carbon-based energy required to support humanity stays the same or higher because of greater demand, we do nothing to mitigate greenhouse gas effluence. Therefore, we need to produce enough clean, alternative energy to keep up with increasing demand while significantly replacing carbon-based energy production.

Population growth and energy supply threaten our grandchildren’s future. Some plausible, but debatable options include:

         1. Limit population growth.
         2. Lower the average global standard of living.
         3. Develop new, cleaner energy sources faster.
         4. Make limiting human population growth unnecessary.
         5. Find a virtually inexhaustible energy source.

Limiting population growth, especially in third world and developing nations is an improbable option since world political divisions make controlling global activities difficult at best and often painfully slow. While there is evidence that birthrate tends to slow as standard of living rises, population growth is still growing in developed countries. It would take a strong dictatorial hand to slow human population to zero growth or lower, which conflicts with human nature as well as threatening species’ survival and being politically indigestible.

Lowering the global standard of living is as unlikely as trying to reduce population growth. Once people have it, they will fight to hold onto it. Developing nations are growing fast and improving their standard of living. Who is going to tell them that they must give up what they have gained? Worse, can you imagine the backlash if you tried to lower living standards in developed countries? It just will not sell on Main Street. Even worse than that, improving living standards also places more pressure on resources and climate change, exacerbating the carrying capacity problem.

Developing new, clean energy supplies is not an option; it is an absolute necessity; our civilization depends on it. Which alternative energies should we focus on? The answer is probably: all of them at first, even nuclear since it is a proven and readily available technology. To produce enough energy for a growing human population, an appropriate mix of clean alternatives is critical to effectively deal with climate change and reduce carbon-based production.

The fourth option is finding enough space to house an ever-growing population. Why should humans limit themselves to 14 billion people? A more disturbing question surfaces: if half of a billion is closer to Earth’s carrying capacity. What do we do then? Planetary surfaces like Mars are possibilities but there are two inherent problems with that approach, our 1g-adapted physiologies and enough space.
We lack the ability to live in appreciably higher or lower gravity for very long without our bodies changing. Once we deal with the inability of Earth to hold more of us, some form of space colonization become more attractive. The only planet in our solar system that has gravity like the Earth is Venus, which adds another layer of complication of making it habitable through terra forming; worse, we have no proven technology to do it, only theories. The Moon or Mars are popular options but how will our bodies react over time to one-sixth or one-third gravity?

How much space do humans need? Even if we had the technology to transform the Venus’ fiery atmosphere into a habitable place, that would only double human population, assuming a land to water ratio equal to Earth. Mars would only add a fraction of Earth’s capacity. If population keeps expanding, we will run out of usable space in the Solar System unless we do something different.

About forty years ago, a Princeton physicist, Gerard K. O’Neill and a number of his graduate students floated an idea about artificial habitats that might make a lot of sense. An answer to our space and gravity problems may be found by dusting off and improving on that idea. There are those who think that O’Neill’s concept is impractical and technologically unsound, often prompted by “planetary chauvinism”, a term coined by Isaac Asimov, one of the more prolific writers of the 20th century, to describe thinking that humans should only live on planets. That is sort of like saying we ought to live in caves rather than houses.

Dealing with the last option of finding and producing enough energy to drive our civilization interminably is a huge challenge. On Earth, fossil and alternative fuels will have to work hand-in-hand to keep abreast of demand. We can produce enough energy here on Earth to support whatever the actual Earth’s carrying capacity is. The only remaining question: Can we produce enough, fast enough?

The real limitation is providing basic human necessities for a growing population that is stretching, if not already broken, Earth’s carrying capacity. Ordinary things like potable water, food, raw materials and a sustainable living environment are critical. Without them, humans will become extinct.

It will take all the science and technology we can muster, and then some, to solve the sustainability problems. We live in an energy-dependent civilization lulled into a comfort zone by over 400 years of science and technological renaissance. If we lose our scientific and technological capability, civilization as we know it will surely flounder and our “card house” will tumble. Whatever the magic number is for a sustainable human population on Earth, exceeding it is surely an invitation for disaster.

The Sun’s energy is available in space 24/7. It will be there for several billion years. The Solar System contains enough energy and space to provide for our growing population for thousands, if not millions, of years. If we exhaust the resources in the Sun’s system, there are 400-500 billion stars to harvest just within our Milky Way Galaxy. All we have to do is to have the foresight to go get it.

There is no question that we need to preserve the Earth and attend to all those annoying, immediate problems of maintaining and improving our lives (the economy, climate change, etc.) but ignoring how many people that Earth can support is foolhardy and dangerous. If human civilization is to continue to grow, thrive and avoid extinction, there is only one direction.

That direction is up.

© Copyright 2009 D. R. Prescott (donprescott at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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' Copyright 2008 D. R. Prescott (UN: donprescott at Writing.Com). All rights reserved. D. R. Prescott has granted Writing.Com, its affiliates and syndicates non-exclusive rights to display this work. Questions or Comments? E-mail to prescottdc@sbcglobal.net
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