Infinite growth on finite resources

At this past summer’s Lindau meeting of Nobel Laureates, Christian Rene de Duve, who is over 90 years old, gave a talk on population growth and its potential dire effects on the world.  Part of his talk was broadcast on the Science Show.  His talk prompted me to think more about growth.  The problem is not that the population is growing per se.  Even if the population were stable, we would still eventually run out of fossil fuels if we consume energy at the same rate.  The crucial thing is that we must progressively get more efficient.  For example, consider a steady population where we consume some finite resource at the rate of t^\alpha.  Then so long as \alpha < -1, we can make that resource last forever since \int_1^\infty t^\alpha is finite.  Now, if the population is growing exponentially then we would have to become exponentially more efficient with time to make the resource last.  However, making the world more efficient will take good ideas and skilled people to execute them and that will scale with the population.  So there might be some optimal growth rate where we ensure the idea generation rate is sufficient to increase efficiency so that we can sustain forever.

4 thoughts on “Infinite growth on finite resources

  1. I am glad you are thinking about the topic. The issue of overpopulation has troubled me for two decades. Each day my eyes observe something that reminds me of the problem even if I don’t want to be reminded. I think it is one of those problems that most people believe to be out of their control so they just put it neatly in the back of their minds and continue on business as usual. I hope I am wrong, but one of our future generations is going to go through hell.

    Any ideas how to reduce the population to this optimal level? I don’t care if it sounds crazy or unrealistic…just curious about your thoughts.


  2. Thanks for publishing your thoughts. I have long thought of the earth and humanity as a parallel to a petri dish with a colony of bacteria living in it. They can’t get out, but as long as the food supply holds up their population will grow at a high rate. If they were smart they might try to limit population growth to a rate that, if not sustainable, would at least afford as much time as possible in which to find a way our of the petri dish or otherwise establish a sustainable situation. Unfortunately they aren’t smart, so their population peaks and then dies off as food runs short and waste product pollution become toxic. I have long hoped that humanity can prove to be smarter than that but, of course, the jury is still out on that. I continue to try to put a positive outlook on our long term future at my blog Thanks for writing and please keep it up. We need a lot more people like you working on this most critical situation in human history.


  3. Check out Hans Rosling’s work at gapminder. Population growth is stabilizing but that is insufficient. We really have to reduce resource consumption. Some bacteria will halt growth and go into stasis until food is available. I’m not sure we’re smarter than bacteria.


  4. Real problem is the inability to make wise political decisions at the national and international scales.

    If we could do that, then population growth might not be so bad. But given this clear lack of good, effective socio-political decision-making, it would seem that all problems are made worse by population in at least a linear fashion.


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