The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 17 May 2010

The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function

Information Clearing House posted a link to a fascinating lecture by US physicist Albert Bartlett. Although it is slightly off the scope of this blog, I found it very helpful to understand the underlying arithmetic of many statistics we read about every day. The subject of the lecture are population growth and the consumption of fossil fuels.

Here are the main points:

1. An average population growth of 7% per year means that the population doubles in 35 years. In order to get the doubling time for any given growth rate you have to divide 70 by the growth rate. See the lecture for the mathematics.

2. Steady growth in a finite environment: you put a bacterium that grows by doubling every minute in a bottle. If you put the first bacterium in the bottle at 11.00 am, at 12.00 noon the bottle is full. Note: at 11.59 am the bottle is only half full.

3. "Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation. Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one individual matters." (quoted from Isaac Asimov)

What does that mean in the context of security and defence? Population growth is not sustainable, it has to stop at one point. That's an arithmetic certainty. Also economic growth is finite. It will stop as well since it cannot be sustained indefinitely.

I guess that we are moving towards dangerous times with less democracy and human rights but more conflict, internal and external.


  1. It would be interesting if someone conducted a study on how our policies on health promotion or food aid in Africa play into this, and to what extent those have contributed to the overpopulation you speak of. Of course, you can't deny the zero-sum value of saving a life - but have we considered this in the context of societies where having multiple children is a norm and based on the assumption that half will die? It's a bit fatalistic and cynical, I know - but it is 3am after all.

  2. Delivering food to a starving country has arguably positive results in the short term, but rather negative ones in the long term. Flooding the market with cheap weed will substantially undermine the local farmers.For instance, some argue that food aid exacerbated the poppy business in Afghanistan.

    But letting a starving population die is certainly the more unpopular solution. And this is the dilemma the Prof talks about in the lecture.

    I guess it boils down to the conflicting approaches of humanism versus rationality.