Thursday, March 16, 2017

Overpopulation: the life and death of a meme

The real problem with overpopulation seems to have to do with the fact that the human information dissemination and processing system (the "Cybersphere") is unable to deal with long-range planning. A single human brain is larger than a walnut, but that makes no difference. The system reacts to new information but doesn't really process it. And we are no better suited than dinosaurs to survive the challenges ahead.

Those of us who remember the 1970s and the 1980s may still have in mind how, in those years, speaking of overpopulation and birth control was not considered politically incorrect. Julian Simon (the "doomslayer") gives us a good description of the debate of those years (he was, needless to say, strongly against the idea that overpopulation was a problem).
Yet once again there is hysteria about there being too many people, and too many babies being born. Television presents notables ranging from Andrei Sakharov to Dan Rather repeating that more people on earth mean poorer lives now and worse prospects for the future. The newspapers chime in. A typical editorial in the June 3, 1989 Washington Post (p. A14) says that "in the developing world...fertility rates impede advances in economic growth, health, and educational opportunities". Nobel- winner Leon Lederman says in his statement as candidate for the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that "overpopulation' is one of our "present crises" (2 June, 1989 Announcement, p. 2). The president of NOW warns that continued population growth would be a "catastrophe" (Nat Hentoff in The Washington Post, July 29, 1989, p. A17). The head of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology calls for more funding for contraceptive research becasue of "Overpopulation, together with continuing deterioration of the environment..." (The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 1989, p. A9). And this is just a tiny sample of one summer.
Simon's analysis is in good agreement with the results of a Google Ngram search. The term "overpopulation" reached a popularity peak in the 1970s, then it started a decline that's still ongoing.

You can see the same behavior with concepts such as "birth control" and also using "google trends." So, what happened that made the very concept of overpopulation obsolete? Surely, population growth continue and it is still continuing (image from Gerald Marten):

And it is impressive to note how the decline in the interest on overpopulation started while the population growth curve continued its steep increase, in particular in the poor nations of the world.

So, why did people lose interest in overpopulation just while it kept becoming a bigger problem? Something similar took place with other concepts such as the limits to growth and peak oil: people are losing interest just now that these problems are becoming gigantic and probably unsolvable.

I can propose a tentative explanation based on the recent work we have been performing with my coworkers, Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi. We have been examining the behavior of memes on the web using a simple viral propagation model, the same commonly used in epidemiology. It is called the SIR (susceptible, infected, recovered) model. Here it is in a simple form (image on the right).

The model depends on two parameters that describe the kinetics of propagation of the meme in the cybersphere (humankind's system of information diffusion and processing). These two parameters do NOT depend on what happens outside the cybersphere. The world's population may continue growing but the meme will go through its path, oblivious to everything that's not reported in the media. While it declines, the meme doesn't disappear, but it remains dormant. It is not infective anymore.

The model can be modified to take into account re-infection, which causes the interest in the meme not to go to zero after the peak. Theoretically, this parameter could be affected by events occurring outside the cybersphere, but we found that, apparently, people rapidly become resistant to re-infection for most memes.

Eventually, we have a problem that has to do with the capability of the cybersphere to process information. The cybersphere is not a "brain." When subjected external forcings in the form of memes, it reacts by readjusting some of its parameters, but no more than that. It can't act on external problems by long-term planning; it doesn't have the tools for that. We may call it a "governance" problem or, perhaps, a "command and control" problem. In any case, the system is nearly completely blind to external threats. We see this most clearly for the question of climate change. And that makes it likely that we'll go the way the dinosaurs went.


  1. In your last sentence, re the Larson cartoon, did you mean "plight" rather than "plea"?

    1. Sort of, yes. A problem in both cases

    2. ANyway, I changed the text a little for better clarity and that sentence disappeared.

    3. reblogged it in german hope it is okay for you

    4. Of course it is OK. Thanks!

  2. Ugo, you seem to be getting into the 'crybaby' thoughtform. ( not the 'optimism' and 'keep trying' etc..)
    'people are losing interest just now that these problems are becoming gigantic and probably unsolvable.' I want the unvarnished and totally up to date existential reality presented, struggling to achieve sufficient equanimity and conviction to accept responsibilty for any all potential outcomes.

  3. Oh, well, the point for me in studying these issues is the fascination for the behavior of complex systems. The more complex they are, the more fascinating. The idea, here, is to transform the simple cyberspace forcing-feedback system into something that works like a real brain. That is, forcing-modeling-validation-feedback-action. With the little problem that brains tend to go mad.

  4. Ah... crybaby, wait for my next post and you'll see something that you may like, I think!

  5. I have several posts on this at energyskeptic including
    Why did the environmental movement drop the issue of overpopulation?

    Why did everyone stop talking about Population & Immigration?

  6. Ugo:

    Re: Your statement "he cybersphere is not a "brain", it is just a complex system in homeostasis".

    Maybe I am looking at it all wrong, but I think that you just described our brains as well.

    1. Hmmm... I probably wanted to say something too complicated in a too short sentence. And the result has not been very good. Let me try to fix it.

    2. I cut off the unclear part of the sentence.

  7. Ugo: It is fine. You are absolutely correct in the phrasing of that sentence. I just wonder if the "cybersphere" is more like our brains that you seem to think.

    This article is very good just as it is. I think though, that issue is quite complex and perhaps the correspondence between the cybersphere and our brains may be more complete than you posit in your article.

    1. The point I wanted to make is that there exist "simple complex systems" - which looks like a contradiction, but "complex" is not the same as "complicated". In my definition, a complex system is any system in homeostasis, so there is a difference between simple viral propagation in cyberspace and the much more varied behavior of a brain. So,the cyberspace, in my opinion, is one of these "simple complex systems". Its possibilities of reaction are very limited. It can only get excited about something, but then it loses steam and forgets everything. But, of course, it is a complicated story.

  8. Your post offers more confusion than clarification. Google Ngrams reveal fads and manias far better than the more subtle memes and meme complexes that underpin societies. Similarly, the cybersphere is at best only a partial reflection of a society, especially when one considers the significant portion of any population (though diminishing) that pays little attention to things cyber. I rather like the SIR sequence, but again, it describes fads and manias, such as bell-bottom jeans and tattoos. The space program in the U.S. is a good example of a substantial yet relatively brief mania, sparked by international competition and paranoia and resulting in, for example, several moonshots, that ran its course surprisingly quickly before being fundamentally mothballed -- at least insofar as manned spaceflight goes.

    A better example might be the meme complex that informs the Enlightenment, significantly including the moral philosophy that has bequeathed us liberal democracy. Numerous political revolutions shortly before and after 1800, mostly replacing monarchical governments, embody the real-world power and effect of the underlying ideas, but the Ngram for “liberal democracy” only sparked around 1930 and really took off after 1980. Yet the direction many erstwhile liberal democracies are now headed, despite the term being bandied about relentlessly, is toward fascism and self-destruction leadership cults. The rise and fall of this particular memeplex has far greater significance that the typical fad or mania and is frankly not well correlated to its Ngram.

  9. "why did people lose interest in overpopulation just while it kept becoming a bigger problem?"

    A few possibilities occur to me.

    1. The idea was badly over-stated by e.g. Ehrlich, notably in his comment circa 1975 (I am paraphrasing): "The battle to feed humanity is over. We lost. In the 1980s, zillions will die of hunger"... etc. Obviously a total fail. Not good for maintaining interest. And, more generally, the total fail of ALL Malthusian predictions for 200 years.

    2. Growing awareness that population is NOT "becoming a bigger problem"; the "problem" began solving itself in ~1986, as fertility dropped so far that the rate of population increase finally began to fall -- and has fallen steadily ever since. Population is still growing, but slower than ever, set to level-off (ZPG) around mid-century.

    3. Growing awareness in recent years that larger populations, such as the ones now in view (~10 billion), can easily be supported. Food supply is no limit.[1] Energy is no limit. "Resource shortfalls" don't exist; though what DOES exist is problems of social and economic organization such that vast quantities of food, energy, and materials -- easily enough to supply everyone's real needs -- are wasted.[2] Combined with that, the stunning growth of cheap, high-EROI renewables, which promise to revolutionize the energy sector in a most desirable way (death of the fossil fuel obscenity; plenty of cheap energy, in perpetuity).

    4. Growing awareness of climate change as, very likely, by far the biggest existential risk. "Overpopulation", "limits to growth", and even "peak oil" are aging/aged memes that no longer reflect the real risks facing us (if they ever did). We are not overpopulated, we have too much oil and fossil fuel, and there are no serious limits to provisioning all of humanity with their true needs. (Note that I did NOT say that there are no limits to growth. There certainly are, if said "growth" includes insane overconsumption and waste, and capitalism in general.) However, climate change looms large as a potential catastrophe that could wreck everything.

    5. Growing awareness, perhaps, that the whole "overpopulation" idea is rooted in (and practically impossible to be separated from) ugly racist Malthusian right-wingery -- no longer cool or even tolerable by the vast majority. The overpopulationists invariably think of the excess population as existing in poor black/brown backwaters. In reality, the "overpopulation" problem, if it can be said to exist at all, doubtlessly exists exclusively in the developed world, in the pockets of the upper class and upper-middle class -- i.e. the people who really ARE responsible for the hyperconsumption that could be destroying the planet by way of CO2 release (depends on how seriously we take the climate change issue)[3]. Poor black people have nearly nothing to do with our environmental problems.

    That's all I can think of, for now.



    1. See this ditty; far from complete, but at least covers the main points:

    2. See: von Weizs├Ącker, et al, Factor Five, and other works of similar nature.

    3. See: Herve Kempf, How the Rich are Destroying the Earth.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)