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Doomsday Clock past Midnight

The Doomsday Clock has passed Midnight.

Predicting Doomsday has long been claimed as the exclusive province of various sorts of people: maniacs, lunatics, nutcases, weirdos, shamans, diviners, astrologers, oracles, prophets, futurologists, statisticians, economists and politicians.

The future is notoriously hard to predict, but I like to say, when you come to a fork in the road pick it up, you never know when you will come across a custard pie.

Wikipedia has an interesting article called Doomsday argument, which links to a mathematical solution called the Carter Catastrophe. This predicts Doomsday by such things as a mathematical fitting of historical population data points, and to the prediction using this method by Heinz von Foerster that population goes asymptotic at November 13, 2026. That can’t physically happen, of course, and thus something must change before that time comes, and obviously that change is already happening. The world’s population growth rate is no longer geometric, and it is slowing a bit but its arithmetic growth in total numbers is still extremely high at 75 million additional people per year.

The growth is made possible by the increase in food supply, that is made possible by the availability of cheap oil for transportation, and for the manufacture of fertilizer. However, the price of oil is now increasing rapidly, and that will bring on an increase in the price of food which will bring on an increase in social stress which will bring on a decrease in population growth, and if the stress is sudden of population collapse. In the same article J. Richard Gott’s mathematical estimation for Doomsday gives a 50% chance of Doomsday within 50 years and 95% chance in 1000 years. His mathematical arguments are based on past growth factors, but don’t address the natural built in terminating factors, and in this case that is all important, and so his method doesn’t apply, and the conclusions are irrelevant.

The Scientific American June 2008 page 97-102 by the ethicist John Broome called Measuring Catastrophe in which he sets out moral propositions for us living people being responsible for future ones. The solution he sets forth, among others, becomes one of us rich, ethical people not consuming resources or having children, because this makes things better for future generations of yet unborn people. The problem, which Broome doesn’t address, is that if we as a foresighted, and moral people don’t have children that leaves resources available for some other living people to have children. Leaving the next generation to be one which is marginally less moral, and less farsighted, and even more likely to bring on an ultimate collapse. This whole problem has been exacerbated by Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 classic book Population Bomb, whose readers no doubt didn’t have as many children as they would have had if they had not read his book. His book was an absolute failure, because we now have three billion new people each of which he would consider a failure. Now, we are filling up those biologically open spaces with people who didn’t read his book. These people come from still active traditions of maximizing their number of children, and so we as a world will end up maximizing the population boom even sooner. I get nervous about high minded moralizing, and guilt tripping because quite often the proponents are defining their problems, and solutions too narrowly, and this brings on unexpected, and unwanted consequences that are worse than those problems which they were intending to avoid.

The problem of actually limiting population is the fundamental one because all of the other pollution, and exhaustion of resources problems are exacerbated by larger populations. Even with the disaster imminent, in the present world it is politically impossible to enforce birth control world wide, and anything less will prove futile because when there are pockets of free breeding people they will continue the population expansion. Even in the compellingly obvious face of CO2 pollution it is impossible to shut down coal burning utility plants, and tremendously wasteful and polluting tourist industry is sacred.

But, why waste time, and energy trying to solve these problems when no one in the world is willing to cut back to one one-hundredth of their current consumption, and why should they? We have already fallen over the edge of disaster, and are in free fall? We haven’t hit bottom just yet, and the free fall is quite painless, even pleasantly exhilarating, but there will be a splat at the end of the fall. In other words — at least on a geological time scale —

Doomsday is already upon us; we haven’t gotten to the nasty bits, just yet.