The Perfect Storm in the book and movie by that name refers to three large storms converging at a single place where a few humans are trying to survive. What I am calling a perfect catastrophe is where several cyclic positive feedback processes converge and cause a life threatening situation for all humanity. This is a little different because the possible processes included can be under human influence in the beginning although ultimately they develop into feedback events that are beyond human control.
Positive feedback cycles are those in which the outcome of some event makes it more likely that similar events will be fostered and grow in intensity in a self stimulating cycle. Negative feedback cycles are the opposite—any given event causes similar events to diminish in intensity and come to stability.
Humanity is presently involved in several positive feedback cycles which will eventually lead to a catastrophic breakdown unless they all are somehow reversed into negative feedback cycles so they can be muted.
A few obvious positive feedback loops
- Human overpopulation is already apparent but it’s growing larger every day which creates a larger base for ever more children.
- Human food demands on the environment are already well beyond unaided historical carrying capacity and humanity’s food supply is being supported by artificial fertilizers created by mining one time usage materials such as oil, coal and phosphates.
- Oil is being consumed by an ever accelerating growth of the number of cars, trucks, airplanes, and fertilizer needing crops.
- With better communications like TV, internet and cell phones, more people are realizing ways to achieving a better life style which is more resource demanding and accelerating.
- Military armaments are constantly improving and becoming more powerful which gives people opportunity for continually making them even more powerful.
Paul Ehrlich author of The Population Bomb lost his famous wager with Julian Simon when in 1980 he bet that resource scarcity would lead to higher commodity prices of chromium, copper, nickel, tin, tungsten in ten years. The prices actually fell because of technological improvements of refining them. Ehrlich had his time line set entirely too short, at ten years and far too specific. Prophets that give a specific date for some catastrophe have always been wrong and it is far better to use Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan approach of likelihood rather than timing of an event. A more specific but reasonable approach is to take a very long view of 10,000 years and measure whether a thing is likely to occur or not. That is how long civilization has been thriving and might continue to thrive if it were to live as it did up until 200 years ago. When one takes that long view and asks if humanity could sustain itself at the present population growth and consumptive mode the answer is obvious. The metals listed above will probably be in short supply in 100 years which means that humans would have to find some other way to live for 99% of a reasonable future civilized time.
Returning to the specific list of positive feedback loops, it is difficult to define what any of the words mean exactly but overpopulation is obvious when a crisis occurs. For example, when the earthquake hit Haiti last year there was reported to already have been something near 80% unemployment and to my way of thinking that meant there was something like 80% overpopulation. That method of estimating overpopulation lets the market decide which appears a better definition than some academic gobbledygook statement which I might conjure up. Each of the items are similarly hazy when discussed in words and equally obvious when observing the physical facts.
Each of the listed items have a positive feedback component which is partly independent from the others but which worsens the impact of the others. More people means more food consumed, which means more need for food and more fertilizer to make the food. That means more consumption of oil, gas and phosphates which means more demand for those things which means more cars, trucks and other transportation to bring these things to the fields for growth and take them away for distribution to people. The improvement in creating each of these things makes them more available which supports more people which see others around them having more goodies so they work out ways of getting more themselves. This means more weapons to defend what they have acquired which cycles back upon itself.
Each of these things grows more the more it grows until something happens to reverse the positive feedback cycle. At present no one wants to even consider slowing down the growth of consumption of any of these near luxuries; thus it is obvious that some breaking point will be reached, sooner or later. Because all of these positive feedback loops are operative and feed back upon one another it would seem our catastrophe will come sooner rather than later.
Converging of multiple feedback loops will cause a perfect catastrophe.