Jeffrey Fadness

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Are we as a species like a viral infection that will eventually destroy its host...?

Modern man can trace its origins back some 200,000 years, at least anatomically, and 50,000 years back in behavioral modernity. Yet in just 211 years, from 1800 to 2011, human population grew from 1 billion to 7 billion souls. In the year 2011 alone, it's estimate that 135 million human beings were born, 57 million died, resulting in a net population increase of 78 million people in just one year! That's an average increase of nearly 214 thousand people daily, or ~8,900 per hour.

Assuming the rate of population growth stays constant, at this pace global population will double to more than 14 billion people in just the next 10 years. And then what? Do we double once again to 30 billion+ by the year 2033?

And will population growth actually continue to accelerate, with less attrition from continued gains in life expectancy through better health care and medical science?

Clearly, all these folks are going to need food, shelter, and things to do. More cars, streets, shopping and entertainment centers, business centers, government centers, learning centers, clothing, homes and the list goes on and on!

We as a species have been incredibly successful; much of which has come at the expense and impact upon other species, and our environment.

The Earth is a finite space with finite resources. How does this all play out? Do we eventually deplete and destroy our Host -- Mother Earth? What are the implications and what are the solutions...?

  • Mar 5 2013: I wouldn't use a virus analogy because try as we might, I don't think we can actually kill our host (the earth).
    I would compare us to a population surge in something like mice.
    There was a documentary on TV once on a mouse population explosion in Australia. This occurs when there are particularly good rains and a bumper crop of grain.
    In our case, we have had several hundred years of good weather, we expanded our land under cultivation hugely, we have had the benefit of cheap energy to make fertilizers and technology advancement to mechanize our farms. To top it off, we have been able to create a fantastically complicated food distribution network in our transportation technology.
    As a result, our population has exploded.
    Now, such a large population makes us vulnerable to systemic changes.
    For example, if the bee population crashes, our crops don't get fertilized.
    If energy becomes to expensive to farmers then they can't buy fertilizer and can't run their mechanized farm equipment.
    Likewise our transportation network begins to become too expensive to run and food distribution starts to become a problem.
    Finally, we are susceptible to changes in water availability and the climate in general. If water is available but down 1200 feet with no easy way to get at it, you really don't have water. Changes in the climate can wreck havoc on crops as was seen last year in the US midwest.
    Now, we may not be smart but we are clever so we will find a way to "kick the can down the road" for a few years, but I am must assume that our population will fall back to "normal" levels one of these years and probably because of starvation.
  • Mar 5 2013: I think there is considerable reason to hope that humanity will develop the wisdom to avoid our own destruction.

    I think the word "sustainable" provides a great deal of hope. It makes it clear that if we continue practices that are not sustainable, those practices will not continue for long, one way or another, regardless of anyone's values or opinions, or vested interest. It encourages forward thinking and planning. It encourages the development of wisdom. That word may save us. Be sure to teach it to your children and grandchildren.
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    Mar 5 2013: Society has never truly changed when it has been slightly altered. We need forward thinking to break the mold... and not forward thinking as an end goal but as a ever evolving process. Teaching children to not see what is in front of them but rather what COULD be in front of them.
    The way that our world is operating craves attention.
    All of the problems we face as a planet are rooted in the need for resources and the control of said resources through the monetary system. This results in war, poverty, discrimination, possessive behavior, insatiable greed, etc.
    There is a project that incorporates technology, societal change, environmental awareness, and a global mindset.
    The Venus Project is the big picture view of the world's discrepancies placing emphasis on technological ways to alter the seemingly inevitable fate of our species.
    The open minded of our world have often been drawn to mindsets that promote the idea of interconnectedness within humanity as a whole and furthermore the connectivity between humanity and nature. This project affected my view of the future as a result of those aspects of thinking being upheld throughout the proposed society. Our world needs to begin working together to solve our problems instead of using bombs and threats to keep the top on top and the bottom on the bottom. The same concepts are used in our flawed economy.

    Eventually, the fighting OF resources (working against mother nature) and the fighting FOR resources (working against each other as humans) will fail or prevail. We will rise up against a previous way of thinking with new ideas and a broad/open mind to the technological possibilities for the future or we will be the reason behind our own extinction.

    My comment is a combination of my thoughts on the world and the thoughts of Jacque Fresco. To hear his Ted Talk click:
  • Mar 5 2013: I don't think you're wrong about the comparison to a viral infection, however we won't be destroying our host. The host will destroy us, even if we do everything we can to avoid it. Volcanoes will erupt, asteroids will hit the planet, tsunamis, earthquakes...the only question is if we will destroy ourselves before the planet does.
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    Gail .

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    Mar 5 2013: I see only a few solutions. 1) governments will invent the appearance of a necessary war that will lower our numbers. 2) An illness (whether intentionally created or not) will decimate our numbers. 3) Global warming will make feeding the already excessive people impossible, as it is starting to do already.

    As to the implications, I think that they are so clear that it is unnecessary to list them.
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    Mar 14 2013: The Earth may be limited in resources, but we are not bound to the Earth. As we get better at space travel, we will be mining and harvesting everything from gold to water from asteriods and comets.
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      Mar 14 2013: Who is this 'we'? The particular piece of rock named earth is about 4.5 billion years old. The proteins came to exist 3.8 billion years ago, Humans came to exist 250 thousand years ago, we have a history of written records of human's exploits from around 3000 years ago. If Juan Enriquez is to be believed, humans are already speciating into Homo Evolutis. Before inter planetary travel in economic sense takes place, it will be which 'we' exactly?
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        Mar 14 2013: Wow. Just, wow.

        Slow your roll, there. We are not a different species than Homo-sapien-sapien. Our DNA has not changed enough to prevent interbreeding (definition of a species). Not only that, but we are not 100,000 years away from mining asteriods. Try 100 years.

        Your turn.
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          Mar 14 2013: Ok. Let's take it easy.
          Heard about artificial speciation? Animal Husbandry? Reproductive isolation as in Dodd's experiment? These are equally applicable on Humans. You are presupposing the natural selection to be only active force in biological evolution. What about machine implants? A human being living with a pacemaker is a cyborg partially.
          You missed the exponential contraction of evolutionary changes I mentioned. It does not necessarily have to be biological even.
          In 50 years we can have human clones with genetically modified immunity, hugely enhanced sensory capabilities, living 150 years or longer on replaced vital organs 3d printed at will.
          Your definition of species may be rewritten by then.
          Will they be 'us'?

          Your turn.

          P.S. I am not even referring 'non-scientific' complications like believing people with a particular skin color as sub-human till some 50 years ago, or Jews as 'impure' aberrations till some 70 years ago. I shall place too little trust on this present 'we'.
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        Mar 14 2013: I never said natural selection to be the only factor. There are several. Including mutation, founder's effect, and artificial selection. Not to mention we are consciously directing our evolution as well as the evolution of other species.

        Apparently you think that machine parts play a part in speciation. They do not. Unless you want to redefine the word "speciation".

        Technology could accelerate biological evolution using genetic engineering, but unless these engineered humans are incapable of interbreeding, they will not be a new species.
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          Mar 15 2013: Come on Christopher, we know that we are discussing the 'we' here. It may not be wise to represent the species. A huge number of that species live in conditions you and I possibly don't appreciate. It's a humanity question I raised. Which 'we' are going to be benefited by extraterrestrial resources when half the humanity have no access to terrestrial resources?

          I find it the space missions funny when we have not enough schools on earth.
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      Mar 16 2013: Fascinating points of view!
  • Mar 13 2013: It is not our species that are the virus it our dominant culture. It is when we started living in state societies and locking up the food so that you had to work to eat (namely civilization) did this culture begin. Now most of the earth is cultivated and there is no way of going back to our ancestoral natural state.

    Cultural changes will have to happen before humans ever become sustainable. Technology will never fix this problem.
  • Mar 9 2013: I think there is definitely a misguided feeling that man is a kind of Virus... But in biological terms, man is more like a invasive species.

    The problem is that public opinion and certain political spectrum's tends toward the idea that invasive species are always bad, and that man is Bad. In reality that's not always true at all.

    The question is often thus answered before it is even asked: Man has to go, or be culled.

    This is a foolish conclusion to jump to, and is leading our thinking down a very dark and destructive path of reasoning. To some progressives, the Chinese and their one child policy might sound very pragmatic and wise, but in reality it causes horrible living conditions and ruins a lot of lives. But even if we discount the loss of human life and happiness... there are other costs... Such as the cost of enforcement, of abortion, of medical care for abortions that go wrong etc etc.

    I believe that humans have forgotten that they are part of nature.

    We have to remember that industrialized nations have a much slower rate of reproduction and in some places has reached a point where the rate of birth has finally crossed the threshold where population will now decline.

    However, the 3rd world is exploding in new people every day. Their lack of success means they need more people cover the loss of so many, like fish having hundreds of offspring and only 1 or 2 living to adult hood.

    But instead of improving their conditions, we often do more to destroy them and keep them in the 3rd world.

    We must also remember that even though we might be destroying one habitat, we might be creating others... Cities for example are now their own stable ecosystems, no less valid than a deep forest.

    I subjectively feel that it is well within mankind's power to devise a way achieve balance with nature, without resorting to genocidal/eugenicist ideas of population culling and forced procreation limits that will only lead to suffering...

    There is a better way..
  • Mar 7 2013: What seems to be a common thought process here is that we are looking at this as a human problem rather than an industrial affluent human problem. There are plenty of people who do not live a consumptive lifestyle. There are plenty of people who know how to maintain their land base without depleting it. There are plenty of people who do not follow the growth economy model. There are plenty of people who completely understand the notion of food, water, shelter and a decent human and non human community. The problem is these people are not part of the dominant culture that is devouring the living world. Industrial humans have turned their needs into wants and its killing us all.
    • Mar 8 2013: So it boils down to, "plenty" might be enough?
      • Mar 9 2013: Enough for what?
        • Mar 10 2013: Enough to keep the human species from going extinct.
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    W. Ying

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    Mar 6 2013: .My answer is most probably

    (1) We have brain, but virus does not.
    (2) We can quit invalid happiness, but virus can't.

    (For details, see the 1st article, points 1-3, 10, 14, at
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    Mar 6 2013: Yes
    Solution: Kill the virus.
  • Mar 6 2013: Malthus suggested that humans were different than other animals - Moral Restraint. With our fertility cults - don't count on it. If we act like rodents, the population will decline dramatically, and life will get better. Of course, modern warfare could make this more dramatic. Also, the easy oil, water, rich farmland, etc. will be gone so there will be some real problems.
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    Mar 6 2013: No
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      Mar 6 2013: Why?
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        Mar 6 2013: The purpose of man above all else is to survive,or as stated in a dumb movie, life will find a way
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    Mar 5 2013: Your viral analogy I think is very appropriate, except that in our case it is the virus itself that has developed a highly efficient immune system and speed of adaptatation, rather than that of the host that feeds it, and is actually the one suffering.

    Personally, I think a humanitarian disaster will be the only thing that will jolt us out of this destructive, collective stupidity - and those that survive will hopefully realise that respect and reverence for the planet that gives us life is not just some nebulous hippy philosophy, but the only mainstream belief that is likely to prolong life on earth.
  • Mar 5 2013: How truly is that chimpanzees have a 94 % of human
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    Mar 5 2013: There is only one species more populous than humans on earth. Bacteria. Compare the resource dependence of humans and bacteria and it's a fair guess.
    Yes technology can feed 1 trillion. Question is what it feeds and to whom.
    Science creates a reasonable utopia.
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    Mar 5 2013: "Assuming the rate of population growth stays constant,"

    assuming we have magic powers, we can survive everything. assumptions does no good unless backed up by data. and data shows that population will level out at 9 bn.

    with technology advancing, the earth easily can feed 100 bn in a foreseeable future. or even a trillion. we don't really see any reasonable upper limit.
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      Gail .

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      Mar 6 2013: Nearly 1 billion people are malnourished, and a child dies of hunger every 11 seconds. These people are hungry NOW (and that is a fact). Most of the progress in reducing this was achieved before 2007/08. Since then, global progress in reducing hunger has slowed (according to recently published UN report)

      Global warming is real and it is intensifying (regardless of cause). More and more land is being turned into desert that can't produce food. That is happening NOW. Combine global warming with population growth NOW and the trend must shift back.

      The dwarf wheat that was developed to produce more yield to feed more people is addictive. Malnutrition is moving into developed countries. We must find another way NOW if all who are alive will survive.

      When I was born, the world's population was only 2.5 billion (and I'm not that old). Now its 3 times that. The changes that are necessary to accommodate the human infestation produce horrible consequences. Do you really want to live in an overcrowded nest? All studies looking at unrestricted population grown in a finite area (which earth is) show that overcrowded societies are horribly violent places.
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    Mar 14 2013: Exponential growth is unsustainable. First of all, despite of huge Earth population, there is plenty of room to grow. There are vast unpopulated areas like Siberia, for instance. Before we go into space, there is ocean. It will be quite some time before we really exhaust the resources of this planet as there are plenty of resources we have no idea about.

    All exponential processes in nature are, eventually, curbed. Not necessarily will humans extinct. I would consider diseases and wars as "natural" factors to address the problem. They play huge role in biological and social evolution, and this role is not all negative.

    Intentional culling of our own species does not make sense. We must do all we can to survive, "be fruitful and multiply", and the natural and social environment will do its part. A crucial survival skill that we need to learn is to tolerate each other better. That's what we should be concerned with, I believe. We don't need all the crap we consume to survive as species. So, "love your neighbor" and "do not covet", and we will do fine for 100,000 years more.

    Another rule I try to live by is " do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."
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    Mar 12 2013: We are alive, so in that way we are not like a virus. All organisms must intake material to live. The more prolific a species, the more material they collectively require. I argue that the number of humans that will ever live cannot possibly deplete the resources of our galaxy. Our planet, obviously another story. By the time our planetary resources require "outsourcing" our natural resources, we will have the ability to harvest said materials from asteroids, comets, moons, etc.
  • Mar 10 2013: Probably not. Species go extinct. The tragedy in this case is a particular culture within our own species is not only pushing the entire human race towards extinction but a large number of other species with it. Plenty of people are not part of this destructive process. Unfortunately plenty more people are and that is the dilemma the species of planet earth faces. For me and my tribe this isn't about saving the planet or species, its about trying to play our role and leaving our myth of "purpose" behind.
  • Mar 8 2013: Enough for what?
  • Mar 8 2013: Although i dont currently have the evidence,

    We, and our ability to procreate will be culled by several methods during the next 10-30 years, resulting in a 'sustainable' population for the earth to support, this began some time ago, and it has many supporters.

    If we were to reproduce at will, then i think yes the resources of the planet required to sustain life would be depleted to an extent that, the populations with the means to, would destroy all others, thus ensuring their own survival, either way its being planned as we type, and either way its not such a pretty picture.

    I think soon we will hear and read the terms "Doesn't have the right to procreate/reproduce", and "Is being charged with unlawful procreation" .

    all this is good for the planet yeah?, but not so good for those who get culled., so whats more important?
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    Mar 7 2013: I read your article and agree that the primary initiative of our programming is to guard and protect our DNA and propagate our species through procreation. As a complex living organism, the human race is thus far unrivaled in its success at this task.

    The basic premise of my question for debate, is are we as a species able to look at the bigger picture? Do we understand our interdependence on the earth, its natural resources, and other species with which we share the planet? And will we act accordingly and appropriately to ensure that our desire and success in propagating our species doesn't destroy the biosphere that supports us...?
    • Mar 11 2013: Our awareness of how much we rely on the resources given to us from the world is there. We understand this interdependence, but sometimes, it doesn't affect our actions. The culture we've grown in is demanding. We demand results now, products now, and those desires trump the importance of protecting our planet. I fear that no matter how much we search for a solution to gain sustainability, human self-interest will overshadow it until we are about to crash.
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    Mar 6 2013: There is a divide in expert opinion as to the global rate of growth in human population going forward. But what is clear is that planet Earth has finite numbers of resources. And there is further divide among experts as to just how many people the Earth's resources could sustain. Is it 9-10 billion or a trillion?

    There seems to be some consensus that the real number is around 9 or 10 billion people (; and that reaching the max limit would come at considerable expense to competing species on our planet. Perhaps as many as 75% would parish in the next 2,000 to as little as 300 years - a blink of the eye in geologic terms. An event that would qualify as a sudden mass extinction. Is this simply the price of human success?

    Although no one's called me yet on the math in my opening statements, at the current global population growth rate of 1.1% (, our numbers would double in about 90 years (as opposed to 10 years as originally suggested). But still that represents a sharply rising increase in human numbers. Especially considering it took around 150 thousand years to reach 1 billion, and from there about 200 years to reach 7 billion, and then from here less than 100 years at present rates to reach 14 billion.

    There is no doubt we face natural catastrophes such as an asteroid strike that could have dire consequences for human life on earth, as has been the fate of other species in the past. But I wonder if the depletion of our natural resources by the voracious consumption of an ever growing human population represents a far more salient and near term threat to the health and well being of our planet.

    And if we are on a collision course with disaster, is the human race intelligent enough to do anything about it? Perhaps. If the object of life is survival, maybe we as a species will act with self-determination to achieve the objective.