Wednesday, 23 November 2011

When death is eliminated, birth becomes a disease. *

Toward the end of October the UN declared to the world’s media and global community that the global human population now numbered 7 billion.
The exact identity of child numero 7,000,000,000 is impossible to ascertain, some experts even suggest we wont actually meet this milestone of human progress for several months; but let's not get bogged down in statistics. Whether we are 7 billion in number or soon to be, the event presented an opportunity to highlight to the world the many achievements, problems, and challenges that are caused by and accompany our ever burgeoning population.

As coverage was plastered all over the media, like here and here, and given that regular readers of my blog will know my thoughts on population (here), I felt no personal need to comment on such an occasion. That is, until today, when consumed in the basement archives of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado I came across an analogy and article (1) vaguely remembered from my undergraduate study.

The parable, originally published in 1978 (2), provides I think stark and fitting context as we fast ascend beyond 7 billion humans on our space rock Earth.

The Bugs in a Bottle:
Just suppose we have a hypothetical colony of bugs which live inside a bottle. The bugs double in population every minute. At 11:00am there are 2 bugs, at 11:01am 4, 11:02am 8... and onwards you get the picture. At 12:00 midday we observe that, dang, the bottle is full!

A hypothetical beetle entering a hypothetical bottle. Source   
© efendy/

'Oh another paper thin metaphor relating the huuuge complexities of humanity into a ridiculously simple system!' – I hear you cry (well persevere I implore you.)

OK so let’s consider 3 questions;

1- At what time is the bottle half full?

Easy peasy – 1 minute before midday

2- If you were a bug in the bottle at what point do you think you would realise that the bottle is running out of space?

Well this one’s going to depend on how bright a bug you are, but let’s consider 11:55am when the bottle is 3% full and 97% lovely open space. I imagine at this point if you raise any concerns some of the other bugs are going to tell you about how they think technology will save the day, as it has done throughout the last few minutes. Anyhow we can’t be certain of the future and just how many bugs can live in the bottle- so let’s not act. However it’s now 11:58am and some super clever bugs have just proven with certainty that there are only 2 minutes left. All of the bugs’ resources are diverted to finding a new bottle to live in, miraculously at 11:59am not one but three new empty bottles are found!

And so the third question...

3- How much longer does this amazing discovery give the bug colony?

You worked it out? – Only 2 more minutes!

I’m not going to spend too much time interpreting Bartlett’s analogy; I’m not even going to insist it is a parable per se. A more realistic story may start adding facts like that the North of the bottle only makes up 20% of the population but uses 80% of all the goods and food the bugs need, etc...

But let’s avoid complexity; the power of this metaphor is how its simplicity highlights the arithmetic of population growth. Time to move away from systems that favour growth over welfare?

To explore more go to this site. Take from it what you will.

Comments welcome,

* - The title of this blog is an anonymous quote I read in a magazine article sometime ago, a quick Google search has failed to find an attribution

1- Anthes, R.A., 1993: The Global Trajectory. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Volume 74 (6) 1121-1130

2- Bartlett, A. A., 1978: Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crises. Am. J. Phys. 46 (9), 876-888

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