The hinge of history

The hinge of history

Photo by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash

There is no doubt that it is a troublesome time in history.

Close to 8 billion people are feeling it. There is the everyday chase to stay ahead, troubling politics, and a pandemic that requires some draconian measures just to keep it in check. Most of what we thought we knew about the word has changed.

This level of disruption to so many people all at once is not that common in history. Some have called it a ‘hingey’ moment, even that we may be living through the most influential period of time ever.

It is an easy argument that we live in an especially perilous time for ourselves and what we are doing to the planet.

“Our Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but this century is special: it’s the first when one species – ours – has the planet’s future in its hands.”

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

There are plenty of ways we could do this from pollution to nuclear armageddon and we are already well on the way with our conversion of the landscape for agriculture and emissions to the atmosphere. Then we might engineer killer pathogens or malevolent AI.

But it is fine, the UN Biological Weapons Convention, which is a global ban on developing bio-weapons like a super-coronavirus, has a smaller budget than an average McDonald’s restaurant. And collectively the world spends more on ice cream than we do on preventing technologies that could end everything about our way of life.

Pretty hingey if you ask me.

But none of these is the reason for the pivot point.

That’s much more about population. Only this graphic suggests otherwise with the brave prediction that are trillions of humans yet to come.

Unfortunately, this infographic is horribly wrong.

It is true that should humanity get through the next century there is a chance that we will persist to the average lifespan of a mammalian species or at least make it for another 50,000 years. So the timeframe is fine.

What is incorrect is the assumption that we would get there under our current population growth rate. That is not what will happen.

Populations eventually collapse when they overexploit their resource base. The immediate projection is that the 7.7 billion growing to perhaps 11 billion over the next 30 years will need food. The UN expects that current agricultural production will need to increase by 2% per annum for those 30 years. This is equivalent to a second agricultural revolution; no small ask.

If we meet this demand, and it will get very ugly if we don’t, then all the nutrients in that food must either be perfectly recycled or mined from the asteroid belt because otherwise there is simply not enough plant-available nutrients on the planet to support all those people as they trickle through.

There may be compelling arguments for thinking we live in an unusually hingey moment compared with other periods. But those thinking of the unborn generations would argue that if there are trillions yet to come, the potentially long, long future of civilisation that could lie ahead, the actual hinge of history is most likely yet to come.

No folks.

The hinge is now because we have to get through the demographic transition or more strictly we have to generate one. If the species is to survive then we have to eat for the remaining 700,000 years of expected mammal species existence.

We will do very well to make it from here.

Feel free to share with your friends, neighbours, and your grandma who no doubt would have something to say on the matter of our future…

When craziness is too much

When craziness is too much

Sometimes the craziness is too much, it blows your synapses away. You are left in a bucket of incredulity.

Cop this quote from the former Australian PM Tony Abbott reported by SBS online from a summit in Hungary trying to explain the real threat to the existence of his kind…

“It seems to me that it is not so much our failure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but our failure to produce children that is the extinction reality against which we really need to work against”

Tony Abbott, Former Australian Prime Minister

Let’s just pause a moment.

This blatant click-baiting is trying to trick us that even though Australia failed to reduce emissions, that’s not the biggest problem. That accolade goes to our inability to produce enough white people.

Seriously, enough white people. You are kidding, right?

At first, I thought that I should write the obvious rebuttal that we are already reproducing 8,000 people per hour. An hourly net increase into the grand diaspora of the world, and it should matter little what tribes they come from. There are more than enough people to go around and satisfy every neoliberals wet dream.

Only when we last looked, the distribution of people and resources is uneven across the world. This means that some places will be crowded and run out of resources. And when the population growth rate is high, crowded places will become difficult to live in and people will want to leave to find a better opportunity. Emigration is inevitable and these people have to go somewhere.

Do you want to live in these crowded places? No, neither does Tony.

But then I thought again.

This kind of craziness is too common compared to the proportion of people who might actually believe the nonsense.

Here is a fascinating graphic from Statista chart of the day

What it says is that less than 1 in 20 people actually deny the existence of climate change in most developed countries. A party representing this minority would never win an election and yet the rhetoric from the deniers remains powerful in the social mix.

This is what Abbot and his cronies bank on.

They know their opinions are not shared by most but that is not what matters. Influence is the game and, no matter there are kids on strike and a 16 year old girl calling out the UN, these noisy minorities are good at it.

It turns out I can’t push the incredulity aside. It is gut-wrenching because these people are incorrigible.

What I have to learn is that numbers are not enough.



I see the glass as half empty far more often than I would like.

It’s the cynic in me that does this, a nimble imp that jumps around incessantly to skilfully sneak up and strike when I’m not looking.

And I am not alone.

Many of us are pestered by negativity fed incessantly by the imp and his allies in the mainstream media with their constant peddling of bad news as something we just have to know. It is enough to depress the most ardent of us.

The psychology is simple enough. We are shown bleak accounts of impending and real doom to make us feel hopeless and in this stupefied state we don’t need to try to fix anything, we can just keep on consuming our way to distant happiness.

The imp just loves it.

He gets to play silly buggers with us and there it is, a glass half empty.

Diogo Verissimo, a conservation scientist and social marketer, believes that to make the environment a mainstream concern, conservation discussions should focus less on difficulties and much more on positives. He’d like us to see the full half of the glass.

In April 2017 the Smithsonian Institute organised the Earth Optimism Summit to shift the global conservation movement’s focus away from problems and toward solutions. Verissiomo’s own Lost and Found project tells the stories of 13 species once thought extinct but now rediscovered by intrepid and dedicated humans.

The hope is that the good news with the help of storytelling will generate a “more positive vision for the Earth’s future”.

It is hard to be optimistic though. The numbers of people and their needs are scary and our psychology held deep in our reptilian brainstem is not in our favour. Too many posts on this blog have explored this dilemma.

Population clocks

Post revisited – Washing machines

Post revisited – Can we have sustainability?

The biggest global challenges revisited

It seems unlikely that some good news stories will create much more than a temporary salve.

Now I believe we are on the path that Thomas Malthus warned of back in 1798 when he talked intelligently about per capita production and mankind using the abundance of resources for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living.

Sure we slow down population growth rates when affluence is high, counter to the Malthusian trap, but we are doing it after our absolute numbers have reached 7.5 billion. A full order of magnitude more than the 700 million alive when Malthus wrote his famous essay.

These billions are resource hungry and increasingly disconnected from the natural world.

In fact, if I hadn’t been lucky (and resource hungry) enough to visit over 20 countries in my lifetime I’m not even sure I would believe that 7.5 billion people was even possible. But it is here, a miracle that Malthus would have imputed to the almighty.

What the imp knows is that despite the occasional good news story, Malthus was actually right. He got the numbers a bit askew, an understandable error given the knowledge of his day, but the theory is sound.

Resources will become limiting and the consequences will not be pretty or good.

The glass half full may be the view we need but it is a hard one to see.

Post revisited – washing machines

Post revisited – washing machines

What does 2 billion look like?


A two followed by many zeros. It’s big.

This number of standard sized washing machines would fill over 8 million 40 ft shipping containers, roughly equivalent to the total capacity of the global fleet of container ships.

And before the next generation of youngsters get over their binge drinking obsession, there will be 2 billion dishwashers on earth saving teenagers from Cincinnati to Conakry the indignity of doing the washing up.

Quite the improvement considering that running water only entered the majority of homes after the industrial revolution.

Here is what Alloporus said about washing machines in June 2011…

Washing machines

The number of people with the economic ability to purchase a dishwasher will double to more than 2 billion in the next 30-40 years.

Far more will rise above what Swedish statistician Professor Hans Rosling calls the ‘washing line’; an income of US$40 per day, the threshold necessary to own and run a washing machine.

On the one hand this is a worry.

Energy is needed to manufacture and power all these devices as is a water supply to allow them to function. Policy efforts on climate change notwithstanding, the cheapest power still comes from fossil fuels. It is why China is building coal-fired power stations even as they diversify into alternative fuels because they will need the energy to run all the new white goods.

On the other hand, sales of consumer goods will drive economic growth.

This is good news for those who require GDP growth, the enshrined dogma of political success. Nothing will prevent families from buying a washing machine if they can afford it, nor indeed, airplane tickets, dishwashers and cars as their wealth allows.

Couple this inevitable growth in buying power with ever more people and the growth paradigm has never looked better.

Hans Rosling has a very clever way of explaining the population and economic growth combination using Ikea boxes

It is the economic transition that is integral to the population one.

Without economic growth it is harder to see population growth slowing and eventually contracting. Children must consistently outlive their parents for this to happen and that means needs must be met and standards of living must rise.

It seems that we have not fully embraced this reality.

No amount of environmental concern, moral imperative to preserve resources or even fear of environmental collapse is likely to trump the imperative to improve things for our families.

For this is an expression of self-preservation that is hard wired?

There is a reason that Rosling’s Ikea box video has appeared several times on this blog.

It is the best and most accessible explanation of what will happen to the human population of this planet under business as usual. It is also the most likely outcome baring collapse.

But that number, 2,000,000,000 remains hard to fathom.

When the number refers to washing machines an armada like no other is needed to move them to a point of sale. There is such a global fleet and it is ploughing the waves right now heavily laden.

The lily pad puzzle

The lily pad puzzle

Imagine a small pond that has clear blue water reflecting the summer sky.

In the centre of the pond are two lily pads, the emergent leaves of an aquatic plant, floating safely on the surface of the water, curled up edges keeping the surface of the leaf dry.

On one pad is a green frog.

The frog is hard to pick out on the green of the leaf but a yellow stripe on its back gives it away.

Chance happens that a week later you pass by the same pond and stop to admire the scene. Sure enough, the frog is still there only you notice that there are now four lily pads; the number of leaves has doubled. In a week the frog has gained surface real estate.

A week later you happen to pass by the pond again and even before you spot the frog you see that there are now eight lily pads. These aquatic plants are quite prolific.

You have to go away for a while and forget the frog and his growing number of Lilypads. A few months pass. Delighted to return home you saunter by the pond again. The first thing you see is that the pond is now mostly green as half of it is covered with lily pads and rather less of the blue sky is reflected in the water.

Sure enough the frog is still sitting proud in the middle.

The puzzle question is this.

How many more weeks until the pond is completely covered with lily pads and the frog can hop to shore without getting wet?

The lily pad puzzle answer is…

One week.

When the pond is half covered with lily pads and they are doubling every week, the pond will go from being half covered to totally covered in just one week. It is the reality of doubling.

Two to four seems like nothing much. Four to eight is mostly trivial too. But when the number is large and the doubling time short, then it is a different thing.

3,500,000,000 is a large number.

It happens to be the number of people on earth in 1967 just 44 years ago. Since then the human population has doubled to 7,000,000,000 (7 billion).

Unlike the pond, we cannot make the Earth any bigger than it already is. So we must hope that should the population double again, there is space enough.

The cute animal postscript

Hans Rosling explains why the human population is unlikely to double again. There are demographics at play that will see family size decline as kids survive better in poorer countries and most of the world passes through the demographic transition.

But 12 billion people is a distinct possibility.

A suggestion

There are 7 billion people in the world right now. If you make it to the end of this post it will take you a minute, time enough for another 130 more to be added.

The FAO and UN estimate that almost 800 million of these people are malnourished and hungry on a daily basis. Meanwhile over 2,100 million or so wealthy people are overweight or obese — many more in emerging economies are on their way to joining them.

It is an odd juxtaposition. A sixth of the world’s people are too thin and nearly a third are too fat. Go figure.

Recently Conservation International made a series of short films asking us all to make important choices. Do we care enough about nature to keep her sweet? If not we are in the proverbial poop.

So here is a suggestion.

What if the overweight people choose to give half their food to the thin people? Those eating to much would get massive health benefits from eating less, as would the famished who would soon be properly fed.

There are many benefits to this simple plan. The biggest is hastening the demographic transition that Hans Rosling explains is essential to avoid 7 billion becoming 12 billion. The irony of poverty is that birth rates are always high and only slow to replacement rates with wealth creation.

Admittedly death rates would fall too, increasing life expectancy. Keeping people alive means more resource use but it would at least be more evenly distributed.

So would you do it?

Would you volunteer to buy less food and have what you didn’t purchase shipped off to needy folk half way across the globe?


workerIn the modern world people need jobs. Employment gives us a source of income so that we can pay bills, make a home and bring up kids. We take this as both fact and inevitable, for most of us will be short a lottery win or, lamentably, independent means

It was not always like this.

For our recent ancestors [all of those humans who lived before the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago] it was enough to find food, water and shelter on the back of your own effort.

People hunted and gathered with their time as they sourced from nature what was needed. They lived in groups to share out the workload, spread the risk of bringing up the kids, and protect the best gathering patches, but in the end they ate what they found.

No doubt there were roles within these groups but no jobs.

We assume that the employer worker story — the perennial struggle between capital and labor — began much later and in the scheme of things very recently. Paid work probably began in earnest around the time agriculture which would mean that 190,000 years had past where anatomically modern humans had existed without a salary.

Today everyone in the western [and increasingly the eastern] world has the notion of a job and we assume that most covet one. People know the difference between employer and employee even if they may not fully understand the mobilization of capital. Except that half the people alive today find their ‘jobs’ in subsistence agriculture where all their time is taken up growing food for themselves and their family.

In many ways half the world’s people are closer to the joblessness of our ancestors, tending and gathering from their kitchen gardens, paddies and maize fields. The other half could not imagine life was possible without work. How else would the rent get paid?


Idea for healthy thinking

Do you think it is possible in mature economies to return to such joblessness or roles without jobs?

I wonder?

It is hard to imagine that we could give up our competitive natures. Money and our desire to compete for ever more of it satisfies that need without resorting to its obvious alternative of beating each other up.

After all those hunter-gatherers did more than hunt wildlife with their spears and arrows.


Venice, ItalyI woke early this morning. It was still dark and the neighbourhood was quiet. At first I thought that blocked sinuses had snagged me awake at an unearthly hour until a kookaburra shattered the silence with a raucous laugh.

It always seems to be the loudest bird that begins the chorus. In Africa its fish eagles that squawk you awake if you camp anywhere near water. In my sleepy Sydney suburb it is kookaburras.

Being an early bird myself, I knew sleep was done, so I propped myself up a little to ease the sinuses and contemplated.

There is nothing wrong with contemplation. As the mind rambles, brushes on the existential, or just chatters along, all that goes on in the brain is made well by even a moment of observation by our true self — the quiet observer all things.

It is a shame that this silent observer is so often drowned out by all our noise that we forget it is there.

In my own early morning quiet I began to imagine the lives of everyone — the almost countless numbers of people that during the day ahead would go about their business.

Those in my street and suburb were easy enough. Almost all of them would be sleeping and coming to the end of another night’s rest in home comfort. My mind’s eye wandered toward the city of Sydney, stretched out on the plain below us as dots of light at this hour. I tried to imagine over 4 million souls, most of them sleeping too. Suburb after suburb of houses, each with one, two or a few folk resting with the doors locked.

Randomly my mind jumped to Haiti, a country on the other side of the world that I have never visited. Why Haiti I did not know for the contemplating mind has a will of its own. There were more people of course, and it would be towards the end of their day, many would be eating and evening meal. I could only guess at the menu other than to let my conditioned imagination suggests there were few banquets.

As you do when contemplating, I asked myself if these people really existed. I have never seen them and can only assume that they were there eating supper. Haiti is labeled on any map of the world and the country will be on Wikipedia lists, so logic says it exists, and by extension, so do the people. And, sure enough, Wikipedia says that today there are 10.1 million people in Haiti, double the number that lived there in 1974.

In the quiet that followed the kookaburra alarm call as my thoughts settled on my imagined Haitian village, I felt the magnitude of us all  — the ever so very many people on earth.

And it was a surprisingly neutral feeling. I was neither scared nor fearful. I did not feel worried, nor was I sad or frightened. Equally I was not jumping with joy at our numerical success. After all, it is what it is.

Many people, living many lives that make more people.

By now the rest of the dawn chorus had joined in as the growing light confirmed the reliability of the kookaburra’s internal clock. The moment passed and it was okay to be worried again, to let my mind chase every petrified thought of lack, and to settle onto a persistent fear for the future.

Population clocks

In an idle moment just before Christmas I gave in to my obsession with population growth and checked a few of the world population clocks.

These are neat web enabled algorithms that calculate and display an estimate of the number of people in the world. They tick or scroll along in real time as they make a virtual count of the births and deaths of people around the planet.

At 10.30am Sydney time on the 21 December 2011 a sample of them read

  • 6,880,986,220 on Poodwaddle
  • 6,933,668,504 on Metapath
  • 6,940,632,100 on Tranquileye
  • 6,982,567,212 on US Census Bureau
  • 7,010,439,251 on Worldometers

Clearly the algorithms and the underlying data sources produce some variability in the numbers.

Chances are that the true number is somewhere between 6,906,205,940 and 6,993,111,375 which is the 95% confidence interval for this sample of five estimates.

This confidence interval is 87 million roughly the population of Italy and Poland combined suggesting to the cynic that these clocks are not that precise.

Moving forward 101 days to 1 April 2012 and at 9.30 in the morning Sydney time the population clocks said

  • 6,854,561,707 on Poodwaddle up  26,424,513
  • 6,953,660,825 on Metapath up 19,992,321
  • 6,962,506,474 on Tranquileye up 21,874,374
  • 7,004,421,653 on US Census Bureau up 21,854,441
  • 7,031,948,549 on Worldometers up 21,509,298

This is an average increase of 22,330,989 new people in the world in just 101 days.

That is 221,098 per day or, if you prefer, 9,212 per hour.

I use to say it was 8,000 an hour, maybe I should now say 9,000 although what is another 1,000 between friends?

And yes, there is some uncertainty. It may be only 7,000 per hour. Or it may be the upper end of 11,000. Either way it is a sizable village every hour and a small city each and every day.  Scary.

Read more in my Hubpage article, What do population clocks tell us?