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August 27, 2009

What follows is a response I just (angrily) posted to a thread on Reddit that ended up being a damn essay.


Maybe you need to go back to school.

Damn. Insulting my intelligence, even though you know practically nothing about me, sure is a good way to draw me into conversation. I always thought I’d be indifferent to such taunts, but clearly I’ve underestimated the power they have over me.

The whole reason I didn’t want to respond to your original message was because I feel our worldviews are significantly different—that is, at least different enough that we will disagree on whether certain fundamental things are possible in this world—and any further discussion would have been worthless, not worth while. Even though, obviously, I felt I was right and you were wrong, I don’t think that is the message I conveyed, and that is certainly not what I tried to get across. However, it seems that you want to turn this into a dick waving competition, and since I’m in an irritable mood and this has poked at me, I might as well jump into the ring and swing away.

First let’s back up.

My contention was this: “Population growth within a finite system—our planet being classified as such—can never be sustained (you know what this word means, don’t you?) indefinitely, no matter what the economic circumstances are.”

You countered with this: “Why are you putting artificial limits in your definition of sustainability? You use words like ‘our planet’ and ‘dry land’ – why use this to artificially limit where population can grow to?” and “Even the figure of one person per square meter is misleading. It isn’t hard to imagine a future of skyscrapers and many layered roads and platforms that would make ‘one person per square meter’ a moot point …”

I’ll take them in order.

First, can you show the artificiality of these limits? Or are you just saying it? When bacteria grow in a petri dish in a lab, are those bacteria not confined to the dish? Humans, a form of life just like bacteria is a form of life, as far as we know, are just as confined to our petri dish as bacteria are to theirs. Theoretically we can leave our dish and continue our existence that way, but it hasn’t yet been shown that, practicably, we can. A handful of men have been to the moon; however, none—I repeat, none—have been to another planet, even our closest neighboring planets.

This is not a testament to my lack of faith in technology (although, phrased as such, I do lack faith in technology—that is, an unwavering belief in the good-doings of technology even when evidence shows otherwise—just as I lack faith in the gods) but a statement that there are things that we know and things that we do not know. Faith in technology is as silly as faith in any other thing; without evidence to show the plausibility of something I will never believe that thing is plausible. Theoretically humans can create technofix after technofix forever (until they can’t anymore, that is), but there is no concrete evidence to show that people will be living on the ocean floors in 50 or 100 years, nor on Mars or the moon, nor anywhere else beyond our atmosphere. I feel for this reason that it is unrealistic to assume otherwise, to assume that humans will be doing any of those things, because until we know we don’t know. The realistic assumption for the foreseeable future is that humans will be confined to the dry land surface of Earth indefinitely, because we don’t know any other alternative is possible (beyond theory and in practice). In the early 20th century I’m sure it sounded like an absurdity that people would ever walk on the moon not because people doubted technology, but because they didn’t have any real reason to believe it was possible. But I’ve digressed.

Ah, terraforming. Since we don’t know of any other planets, or even any other terrestrial objects in the entire known universe, that would be fit for Earthly life, we have to turn to terraforming. Making another terrestrial body fit for Earthly life will require the importation of essentially everything, and even after there is enough oxygen and plant life, the temperature might not be livable and the atmosphere might not provide the same protection as that of Earth. It’s a big stretch to say that humans can populate Earth to the brink and then just make a quick skip to the moon or Mars or Europa or wherever else. And even if this terraforming does happen, who is going to go? Everybody? No. It’s going to be the super-rich and privileged, and you know this. The vast majority of humans will be left on Earth with the conditions that the super-rich created.

Moving on to skyscrapers…. I’m sure that in school you learned about the laws of gravity, yes? Did you ever take a class that, in it, you had to construct towers or bridges out of balsa wood to test your engineering skills? I did. They only support so much weight—that is, even the best engineered bridges and towers still broke. We could have called in the most brilliant engineers in the world, brought them to our class, had them build their models, and even though their bridges and towers would have probably been vastly superior to the crap we were building in class, they still would have broke. Nobody experienced this problem with balsa wood, but we did know that a tower can only stand so high before it breaks due to its own weight. I think you see what I’m getting at: A skyscraper can only stand so high. And there is a second principle also, that being that there is only so much material on this planet from which skyscrapers can be built. We could, of course, mine for it on other planets, but this is another one of those theoretical possibilities, the practicality of which, in the real world, is unknown.

So these two things together—skyscrapers can only be built so tall and there is only so much material with which to build them—suggests that either: (a) people can only build a certain number of skyscrapers at or around the maximum height; or (b) many more can be built, maybe even enough to cover the dry land surface of the planet, but they will have to be significantly lower than the maximum height allowed by gravity. I don’t know which situation would house more people.

You didn’t like the image of there being one person per square meter because it implied an “artificial” limit, no? Well, we’ve done things your way; we’ve covered the planet in skyscrapers and found out that—oh shit!—there is still a limit to how many damn people you can fit on this rock. I would go into living on the bottom of the ocean, but much of what I said still applies; there is still only so much room and so much material to build structures out of, so population growth, continuing indefinitely, will eventually reach its limit.

That was where our most basic disagreement came from. Now that those issues have been covered, I’ll move on to biomass. When I said that “Technology simply cannot create more biomass for humans to use,” what I meant, essentially, is that if human population does grow to a point that people cover ever square meter of the planet, then there would be no room for any plants and obviously no room for other animals, because humans would need every square meter for themselves. But of course I meant this in the way you took it too.

Organic molecules are indeed made of the elements you’ve listed. With your suggestion I almost get the feeling that you’re suggesting something akin to the idea of “protein pills,” as I’ve seen them called—basically just the nutrients we need to keep us alive in concentrated form, eliminating the need for actual food. If this is the case, a world in which we subsist on protein pills is not a world in which I want to live. Maybe this is not what you were suggesting. Either way, I’m afraid you might have overlooked something rather obvious: the word biomass means living matter. The combination of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon does not simply create life. As far as I know life has never simply been created in a lab from the combination of elements. As far as I know technology simply cannot create biomass for human consumption. It just doesn’t happen; we don’t even know the exact conditions under which life came to be originally.

So this is where I close. If you cannot, or will not, admit that population growth is unsustainable, then you are being unreasonable, or at least less reasonable than anyone I want to have a conversation with. If this is the case you are a person of irrational faith, which is something I find very irritating. I’ve tried to illustrate the most extreme of the extremes, and if you still can’t find a limit in there somewhere, then you never will.

I will not be engaging in this week-old thread any further. The last word is, therefore, yours for the taking.


Edit, September 3: I would like to point out that after another week my antagonist has responded.  I don’t want to make myself look like a fool (because nothing could be worse than that!) by going back on my word and responding, but there are two specific things that I think he missed entirely or had trouble understanding.

(I don’t actually care about going back on my word, but the whole reason I said I wouldn’t engage in the conversation was to stop it there.  I could see from his earlier responses, immediately, that we would not reach common ground on which we could have a meaningful conversation, and this belief has only been strengthened.  I’m not looking to “win” any argument, and I’m not interested in waving my dick around, so I won’t.)

seeya seemed to have either jumped over some of my points or misinterpreted a number of them; instead of dissecting his whole response, I basically want to focus on two things: the belief in infinite resource availability and the misunderstanding of natural laws (gravity and carrying capacity, mainly).

Nobody experienced this problem with balsa wood, but we did know that a tower can only stand so high before it breaks due to its own weight

You do realize other materials are possible aren’t you? Is your primitive brain still stuck in the worldview that the building materials we’re currently using will be the only ones we’ll ever be able to use?

I don’t think he actually believes I was suggesting we build skyscrapers out of balsa wood. I think he means that humans could find or create and use new materials and build skyscrapers out of that. However, he doesn’t seem to get the point: Gravity won’t allow skyscrapers of infinite height. After this he seems to go on to say that every cubic millimeter of the planet’s core can be probed for material. Obviously I don’t believe this as I’m not, to coin a phrase, a techno-dogmatist, but even if it were true, there would still be a limited amount of material.

the word biomass means living matter. The combination of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon does not simply create life.

This is exactly why I suggested you go back to school. Yes, indeed biomass is living matter. Yes, indeed the elements of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon are not living matter by themselves. However, the act of growing a plant is converting non-living matter into living matter. If you can’t get that into your thick skull then either you’re dumber than I thought or can’t admit you’re wrong because that would hurt your pride too much.

I’m mildy hurt by the insults, but they don’t change the fact that he completely glossed over one of my original points, that being that plants and people can’t occupy the same physical space. Instead of seriously considering this fact he linked me to a Star Trek movie.

If the human population is to continue growing forever, which is exactly what he is suggesting, then it’s important to remember that people will need more and more space forever.  There will be a point in his imagined future where plants and people will coexist on Skyscraper Earth, but as soon as more people come along, more space will be required.  Plants aren’t people, and so the space set aside for plants will be filled by people, because people are obviously the most important species that has ever existed.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Nesman permalink
    September 6, 2009 9:05 pm

    Speaking of Reddit, if you aren’t subscribed to this forum already you probably want to:

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