Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

October 3, 2005

Ecolanguage and the Destiny of Humankind

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 22:41
Lee Arnold has invented an intriguing symbolic ‘language’ that can be employed in animations to show how complicated systems work. The elements in the language are shown above, and were inspired by a concept for symbolic representation of energy flows developed by Howard T. Odum. Lee has added some rigour to the symbol set and extended it to show economic and information flows as well as physical ones, and further extended it to make animations based on the set more intuitive. Click on the first link above and watch the animation of the Bush tax cuts to get an idea of just how powerful this language is.

One interesting quality of this language is that symbols in a pentagon instead of a hexagon indicate the portion of the population that must deal with systemic problems in their environment: So ‘people’ in a pentagon is ‘prisoners or slaves’ (it could also represent physically or mentally ill people), while ‘cities & nations’ in a pentagon represents ‘police or authorities’, including armies.

As much as I admire the elegance and intuitiveness of this language, I was skeptical that its ‘alphabet’ was complete enough to demonstrate more sophisticated systems. Specifically, I wondered how to represent technology. Going through Lee’s animations, I noted that he takes the liberty of expanding the symbol set whenever necessary, trying to make the additions as intuitive as possible, and explaining them during his narration when they are not. So, for example, a deep purple hexagon (the same colour as the nuclear source, a wry statement by Lee?) with a flag on it represents the government of that country. By analogy, we might consider technology (and information databases) as ‘storage’ of information, and use the silo symbol with contents coloured black to represent it.

The proof of the robustness of any language is found in its use, so I decided to try to map how I would represent the problem of modern human overpopulation using ecolanguage. I drew this problem using systems thinking symbols last year, and it looked like this:

Using ecolanguage, I would start with the ‘prehistoric’ population balance model, as follows:
The animation would start with just the brown animal hexagon and the green plant symbol. Then humanity would evolve from other animals (the purple hexagon might ‘emerge’ from the brown hexagon), and the initially vegetarian homo sapiens would be depicted (everything in the picture above except the brown hexagon on the right). Then the right brown hexagon would appear to represent humanity’s transition to omnivore, and the picture above would be complete. The human hexagon would be shown growing as it ate (absorbed energy from) prey, and shrinking as predators ate them in turn, keeping the system in equilibrium.

Next we would add the impact of disease and intertribal conflict, as follows:
As humanity developed new technologies, including weapons and agriculture, predators were gradually eliminated, and in their place disease and warfare rose. But while these new elements killed many humans, they were not quite enough to offset the increasing amount of food that was available not only from gathering and hunting, but now from farming as well. The human population is growing; the purple hexagon gets larger.

Soon, predators disappear from the picture entirely. And, as the population grows, so does the demand for food, which in turn drives demand for new agricultural technologies. In the picture below, these new variables grow the size of the available food supply, and that in turn causes the purple hexagon to swell even further (you may have noticed that I changed the brown hexagon to a pentagon, to represent the prison-like conditions many farmed animals live with):
Notice we now have what in systems thinking is called a vicious (or virtuous, depending on your point of view) circle. The more agricultural technology (in the broadest sense of the word — hoes, fences and traps at first, biotech more recently), the more food available. The more food available, the more human population grows. The more population grows, the more demand for even more productive agricultural technology. The system is no longer in equilibrium, and all three components grow without constraint.

As human population begins to grow out of control, despite the increase in the number and intensity of wars and epidemic diseases, new ways must be found to increase the efficiency and scale of human activity to feed all the new mouths. The industrial revolution ratchets up human production another order of magnitude, bringing with it the demand for, and expectation of, growth without limit. Unnoticed by most, the exponential growth of agricultural production, industrialization and land use for human habitats is beginning to tax the ecosystem that man had always assumed to be boundlessly resilient:
The ecosystem is shrinking and weakening as all of the other elements in the picture above swell without limit. All, that is, except disease, which, for a while at least, is controlled by new medical technology. That medical technology is also enabling people to live longer, which also contributes to the population explosion. But medical technology also introduces birth control, so the net effect of such technology on population is insignificant.

For the first time, information is beginning to have an impact on human population. Awareness of the unsustainability of exponential growth in human numbers is causing some people to engage in family planning. And as land becomes scarce and new frontiers hard to find, competition for land is driving up prices and causing most women to enter the work force and delay having children, and as a consequence have an average of 0.5-1.0 fewer children than would ideally like. And new endemic diseases like AIDS are beginning to push death rates back up in some countries.

On the other side of the scale, mainstream religions pressure parents not to use birth control or abortion services, and the sheer struggle for survival forces many children into the labour force, depriving them of an education that could teach them about family planning. So on balance, information has almost no net effect on population:
The ‘green revolution’ has produced a glut of human food, so much that population continues to increase for that simple reason alone. Populations of every creature on the planet since the first appearance of life have always varied in lockstep with the available food supply. (The opposite is also true: when famine suddenly reduces food supply, population falls accordingly). And swings in disease and (in extreme cases) conflict usually occur to bring stressed populations that increase too much back into balance. 

But in the case of our species, it is unlikely that wars, even nuclear ones, or diseases, which are once again on the upswing, will be enough to bring human population down far enough or fast enough to prevent the extinction-level devastation to our ecosystem that is already in progress, or even to significantly reduce human numbers. There is, of course, always the possibility that some group will choose to precipitate Armageddon — the information and resources to do so are readily available to anyone with reasonable intelligence and perseverance, and access to the Internet and to some corruptible public servants. The growing popularity of suicide bombs, perhaps the ultimate expression of stress-related conflict, is certainly cause for concern. But we can’t put that genie back in the bottle — the information is out there, the means, motive and opportunity, and if that’s the way the world ends, there’s no stopping it now. If either of the two icons in the lower left explodes, the model tells us that humanity could come close to disappearing (not with a bang, but with a whimper).

Ironically, a shortage of food is actually a more likely brake on unsustainable growth. Today there is more food than humankind can eat — such a surplus that we can afford to feed most of it to farmed animals. Worldwatch tells us that more people today die from obesity-related diseases than from malnutrition. There are six problems, however:

  1. The distribution systems of our ‘market’ economy are incapable of delivering that food to those who desperately need it, 
  2. There are so few distinct species of plants and animals being farmed that the entire system is terribly fragile (much as it was when the Irish potato famine hit — most of Ireland was planted with the same few potato variants, so there was almost no resistance to the disease that devastated the plant), 
  3. We are running out of fresh water for agriculture (just as an example, the water table in Northern China, the country’s breadbasket, is dropping at a rate of eight feet per year),
  4. Almost all the changes to land arability predicted by climate change scientists will reduce growing areas and yields,
  5. Much of the food produced today is of low nutritional value (pandering to consumer addiction to salt, sugar and carbohydrates and a consumer preference for prepackaged, overprocessed, chemical-laden foods), and, here’s the killer,
  6. Much of the land farmed today depends on oil-based chemicals to replace the nutrient-depleted soil that can no longer grow anything in their absence, and on low oil prices to move it to market.

Terrorists might find it easier to tamper with our vulnerable food supply than to attack us directly. Or a small set of natural plant diseases might quickly eradicate much of the world’s food supply.

But it’s more likely that the end of (cheap) oil will bring about the end of population growth, or even reverse it. Here’s the scenario: Oil quadruples in cost as demand (rising by double digits every year in much of Asia) outstrips available supply. That more than quadruples the cost of food, since oil is needed both to grow it and to move it. Inflation and interest rates soar to double digits, the housing market collapses, followed by the stock market, the US forfeits on its debt repayments, consumers stop buying anything other than food and a depression deeper than that in the 1930s ensues. Meat becomes unaffordable for almost everyone, so cattle, pig and poultry farming virtually cease, and land is replanted with crops, especially high-protein crops. Agriculture shifts back to community-based farming because long-distance transportation is unaffordable.

Let’s suppose this depression occurs in the 2010s and only impacts birth-rates as much as the depression in the 1930s did (35%). A global drop of birth rates of this amount from current levels, combined with, say, a ten year long spike in death rates in third world countries with exhausted soils or dependent on imported foods, would essentially bring us to global ZPG immediately. And if a combination of depression-style conservation, population movement (from cool temperate and tropical to warm temperate and from suburbs in to where transportation costs are less, or out closer to food markets), and shift to virtual work (so that, say, half the population works from home) were to occur, combined with a switch to a vegetarian and more nutritious diet, the aggregate global footprint could suddenly fall by, say, 50% (mostly in the ‘developed’ world, where footprint/person today is seven times what it is in the ‘developing’ world). That would take our global ecological impact back to 1980s levels. This still isn’t sustainable, but it would be sufficient to buy us some breathing room.

But that would only work if it occurred soon enough — if it took until the 2030s, the extra 2 billion people (9 billion instead of 7) and the extra 25 billion acres of global footprint (75 billion instead of 50) would probably put us past the point of no return ecologically, not to mention greatly increasing the likelihood that the nuclear/epidemic/terrorist scenario mentioned earlier would come into play, and that extreme and disruptive weather changes would exacerbate the crisis.

The problem is that if this depression occurs in the next decade, we may construe it as having been caused simply by incompetent and irresponsible fiscal and monetary policy, rather than as a warning of the consequences of unsustainable growth, consumption and overpopulation. If we squander that opportunity to reduce our footprint to a sustainable 15 billion acres from today’s 40 billion, and keep it there, it may well be an unsurmountable challenge to reduce it from the 100 billion plus acre level it will be at in the latter half of this century.
Well, that’s it for my first experiment with Lee Arnold’s ecolanguage. What do you think — can you see using this tool to explain how physical, financial and information systems work? I’m not tech-savvy enough to be able to make an animation to show this properly, but I wonder: Could you do the animation using successive Powerpoint slides?

(Thanks to Arnold Lee for answering my questions to him by e-mail so promptly, and for encouraging me to play with his invention. My next app will be a toughie: showing how organizations convert capital from physical to financial to intellectual and vice versa — information doesn’t follow the laws of thermodynamics.)

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