Is Doomsday thinking on the rise, and is it warranted?

Answering the first question (is Doomsday thinking on the rise?) is difficult. Facebook posts from friends and acquaintances on all kinds of worrying trends (like the melting of glaciers (and of the North Pole itself), changing weather patterns (which resulted in more cyclones and devastating flash floods in recent months here in South Asia), over-fishing, the continuing deforestation of the Amazon forests etcetera) would surely suggest so. But then that is not very objective as a measure, is it? In any case, even if Doomsday thinking would not be on the rise (I note that all generations have indulged in it), perhaps it should be. Let us take a look at the crude facts.

When I was born back in 1969 (by the way, that’s a year which I associate with men landing on the moon, not with Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam war, as the currently retiring flower power generation does), the world’s population was only half of what it is now: 3.6 billion, as opposed to an estimated 7.2 billion today. Isn’t it amazing to realize that we, as compared to the previous generation  (I am part of generation X it seems, but I’ll readily admit I had to look that up), have to share the world with twice as many people?

More worryingly (for our children and grandchildren in particular I’d say), the world’s population continues to grow fast, even if the world’s population growth rate has come down from more than 2% per annum then (again, ‘then’ is when  I was born: sorry for my egoistic perspective) to an estimated 1.1% today. Still, it means that my children (I think they’re generation Y or Z – I am not sure actually), when they will have my age (around 2040 that is – so when my generation will be retired), will live in a world trying to take care of not less than 9 billion people.

In fact, that statistic may be optimistic, as it assumes the world’s population growth rate will continue to decline as it is currently doing: it should be around 0.5% per annum only then. Of course, statistics are tricky – especially when they rely on all kinds of assumptions, as is the case here. While it is clear that, at some point of time, the world’s population will have to max out, it is impossible to predict when that will happen, and how. UN figures suggest the world’s population may max out at around 10 billion around the end of this century (2100). As evidenced from the graph below, that assumes a medium-growth scenario only (the orange future line). Still, even such middle-of-the-road scenario (which assumes a classical demographic transition scenario really: advances in medical science bring down the death rate first, while the birth rate declines a few decades later only – with a big population surge in-between as a result) means continued expansion and, hence, many many more mouths to feed indeed.


Ten billion people in 2100? That’s an awful lot. But 2100 is also three generations from now. Hence, we may just shrug our shoulders and think it is not of any concern to us and our children and/or grandchildren really (what letter could we possibly use for the generation after Generation Z anyway?).

A more interesting question, perhaps, is the question of how many people could possibly be fed.

Back in the 18th century, Thomas Malthus (who, besides being a cleric, also was one of the world’s first true ‘political economists’) was of the opinion that “the power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” In other words, Malthus was of the opinion that man would indeed overpopulate Earth and just eat everything and then die in some kind of mass famine or some other kind of man-made catastrophe – like bacteria in a Petri dish running out of nutrients. Well… Sort of. While few would subscribe to such a view nowadays, scientists do suggest that 10 billion people may really be all the Earth can carry – in some kind of sustainable way that is.

Let’s look at the basics. First, real food prices (i.e. the price of food in comparison to the price of other goods) – and nominal food prices as well actually – have come down historically. That has not only helped to sustain the population growth we have been witnessing, but it actually made it possible, as many of those who had children over the past few decades were poor, very poor (I mean not able to pay for much else than food). Moreover, predictions are that food prices will continue to decline over the next decades as agricultural yields will probably continue to rise at a higher rate than the world’s population growth rate. [Recent price hikes are/were temporary only, and have nothing to do with population growth.] So we could say that ‘the world’ has managed to cater to a doubling of the population without any impact on food prices. Moreover, ‘the world’ is likely to continue to support even more people.

Second, while the world’s population has been growing rapidly, the number of hungry or undernourished people has remained stable (around 800 or 900 million). In fact, their number has gone down in all regions of the world – and very notably so in the Asia-Pacific region as well as in Latin-America – except for Africa. Now we all know that Africa is a continent suffering from a deep and complex crisis – much of it with roots in historical wrongs that cannot be corrected – which can surely not be explained by pointing to population growth statistics only. In short, one might actually say that the number of hungry and undernourished people has come down significantly – both in relative (percentage-wise) as well as in absolute numbers – without being factually wrong. Indeed, speaking in general (and we know the limitations of that), many more people have better lives now than twenty years ago (I apologize once again for looking at the world from my own perspective). That’s good news – if only because it also causes population growth to slow down, as parents finally see it makes sense to have less children. [I think the most significant invention of the 20th century was birth control, and Malthus would probably not have written what he wrote if he would have known about it. Indeed, advances in medical science (and in food production) are responsible for the explosive growth of the world’s  population, but so they also made family planning possible.]

In short, food is surely not the issue – not now and, most probably, not for the coming generations either. The real issue is how we can govern ourselves as a species in relation to our environment (could we please stop polluting it and establish some kind of equilibrium situation in regards to the management of our natural resources?) and – equally important if not more – in relation to the marginally different other members of our species (could we please stop murdering each other for religious or political purposes?). Personally, I am not all that optimistic in these regards – but then that’s probably because I live in a beautiful but very troubled country which does not inspire much confidence to me (but then I have to admit I am just a casual western observer of course): Nepal, if anything, has gone backwards on all of the aspects of development: political, economic, ecological, and societal. Indeed, no one really believes in the ‘malleability of society’ here (we just pray that this country will go through its next election in a more or less peaceful manner) – let alone in the capacity of man to steer the world’s destiny.

So what?

Well… Frankly, I don’t know. I am part of that European generation that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was twenty at the time and, as students usually are, very critical – but more of others than of myself I guess. A lot of my views on life in general are influenced by that event and, more importantly, by what happened immediately afterwards: I have the impression that Bush’s strange victory over Al Gore (remember the margin of 537 votes only?) in 2001, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Gulf War II quickly put an end to whatever dreams my generation had in terms of a just new world order. More recent events – like what is going on in Syria right now – have been equally discouraging, if not more (especially because we’re supposed to be the generation ‘in charge’ at the moment).

So, yes, I do think that global warming, over-fishing, environmental degradation etcetera are serious problems. And, yes, I do believe that biodiversity will continue to suffer from us humans expanding our footprint and, in a sense, overpopulating the world indeed. I also believe that mankind will be confronted with more regional crises and disasters, both natural (especially weather-related) as well as man-made (such as the current crisis in the Middle East) – or a combination of both (think of the increased frequency of hurricanes). I am also skeptical (very skeptical actually) as to mankind’s capacity to manage such crises. But so I do not believe in a soon-to-come dinosaur-like extinction of our species because of climate change, disease, a supervolcano eruption or an asteroid crashing into our planet (i.e. extinction through one of the four commonly advanced causes of the mass extinction of dinosaurs (and 70% of all other living species at the time) some 66 million years ago) or, as Malthus predicted it, from generalized hunger. Frankly, I think mankind will be able to produce the resources it needs. So what do I believe then?

I think we will end up having to share our planet with 10 billion others indeed. I also believe that this crowded world will have many good things (even more good things than today, although I cannot imagine the next generation will be able to improve the current mountain-bike designs :-)). However, it will also have its fair share of Big Issues, and I think our/my generation has not done much to make it easier for our children and grandchildren to manage these Big Issues – or even to prepare them for it.

That being said, I also realize that, unlike my parents, my generation has not had to live through a world war or so. I can only hope the world of my children and grandchildren will – at the very least – be as good as mine. Whether or not that will be so will depend on whether or not the generation of our children and grandchildren will turn out to be better managers than ‘my’ generation. That may or may not be the case. In any case, I think the world is much less malleable than we all implicitly assume it to be: a lot of it is probably just pure chaos in my view (and that may be a good thing actually). Hence, they will probably have as much trouble as we have (had?) to find levers for well-intended collective change.

As Gandhi (and others) famously said: if you want to improve the world, you need to start with yourself. So let’s ask ourselves how well we did in that regard and – when pushed on the question of what we did to make this world a better place (as we are obviously) – advice generation Y and Z to consider that question as well.

About my father, plate tectonics and non-linear thinking

My father passed away almost ten years ago. He was 76 years old at the time. Of course, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. That being said, I do remember he had difficulty accepting that gorges and valleys were the product of a river cutting down into its bed or, in the case of a valley, a glacier grinding down its floor and sides. In fact, he had actually difficulty accepting other ‘scientific truths’ as well.

Although he was not acquainted with the Himalayas, I must assume that he would probably also have reservations about the now generally accepted story of its formation: Tibet was once a fairly shallow sea, the Thetys Sea, separating the supercontinent of Laurasia in the north from Gondwana in the south, until about 50 million years ago, when India (a continental fragment of Gondwana) collided with the Eurasian plate (Laurasia). The Thetys Sea became the Tibetan plateau, and the collision zone is the Himalayan mountain range. The collision actually continues and so the Himalayas are still rising by about 5 to 10 mm per year and, as a result, the whole area is seismically extremely active still: here in Kathmandu, everyone is waiting for the next Big Earthquake which, according to geologists, is long overdue.

This is obviously more than just a theory: it is supported by evidence, such as the presence of marine fossils and abundant salt reserves in Tibet  (Tibet’s main export a couple of centuries ago), and scientists can actually observe the ongoing tectonic shifts with modern GPS technology. Still, it is mind-boggling and so I do understand the reservations of my skeptical father. In addition, I also note that the theory of plate tectonics only got general accepted in the 1950s and 1960s, when associated phenomena such as seafloor spreading could finally be observed. My father was entering the second half of his life by then and, hence, probably somewhat less ready to accept such theories, or at least less ready than today’s average schoolboy. [By the way, isn’t it amazing how recent most of our scientific understanding actually is? Think, for instance, about the discovery of the Higgs particle, which completed our understanding of matter and energy (or of the universe in general), or think about the recent advances in biology and medical science, which revolutionized our understanding of life itself.]

I guess one of the main difficulties in my father’s understanding of it all (apart from his lack of a more formal education beyond secondary school) might have been his lack of understanding of geological age. What is 50 million years after all? That’s a lot of time of course, but is it enough really to create something as big and as vast as the Himalayas?

Maybe it helps to note that adding a zero, or a digit, to a number is not a matter of simply adding a quantity to another quantity: it is a matter of multiplying the previous quantity. In our common base 10 number system, it is a multiplication with factor 10. Moreover, adding another zero is another multiplication and, importantly, it is not a multiplication of the original number but of the previous result. As such, it reminds one of the famous fable of the king and the wise man, whom the king wanted to reward: when the king asked the wise man what he wanted, the wise man took a chessboard and said he would just like to have one grain of rice on the first square of the chess board, double that number of grains of rice on the second square, and so on: double the number of grains of rice on each of the next 62 squares on the chess board. The king agreed, thinking that the man had asked for a relatively small reward, but after some quick calculations his treasurer informed him that the reward would be far greater than all the rice that could conceivably be produced. To be precise, the total number of grains would be equal to 263. That’s a figure with 19 digits. To be even more precise, the number is equal to 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. Now, one kilogram of rice is about 50,000 grains of rice [yes: I know you think that’s not so much – but that fact in itself underscores once again our difficulty in imaging big numbers] so that number is equivalent to more than 184 billion (metric) tons of rice. The current world production of rice is about 700 million tons only. Hence, yes, the king’s treasurer was right: at current rice production rates (which are much higher now than at the time when this story was first told), it would take about 260 years to produce such amount of rice – provided the rice could be kept for such a long time.

Likewise, I think my father had difficulty accepting he could simply not imagine what a period of 50 or 60 million years actually means. Our active life as a human being spans a period of some 60 to 80 years. From 60 years to 600 years… Well… That brings us back to the Black Death epidemic, or the Hundred Years War. We can imagine that, can’t we? Sure. But can we imagine a period of 6,000 years, or a period of 60,000 years? I don’t think so, let alone a period of 600,000 years, or periods spanning millions of years. It’s like the king who could not imagine how much rice he had promised to give the wise man.

The following graph may help to illustrate the point. It displays an exponential function with base 10. The graph below actually only goes to 10 raised to the power of 5, i.e. up to 100,000 only. Now see how that graph soars, and then just note that we are not talking 100,000 years when we talk geology, but millions of years. Indeed, adding zeroes to a number is a process of repeated multiplication (with a factor 10 in our decimal system), and repeated multiplication amounts to exponentiation. I must assume my father always had linear functions in mind when thinking about time and distance, as opposed to exponential functions. Indeed, despite all of the talk about us human beings thinking non-linearly, can we actually do that – in a mathematical sense? I don’t think so. In daily life, we’re used to adding stuff, and perhaps even to adding stuff repeatedly (i.e. multiplication), but we’re surely not used to multiplying stuff repeatedly with itself, i.e. our mind is not very familiar with the mathematical process of exponentiation.


How and when does man appear on these vast geological timescale? Well… The first traces of man go back 200,000 years ago. Now, 60 million years… Hey ! That’s only 300 times 200,000 years, isn’t it? So we can imagine that, can’t we? 300 times 200,000 years. Perhaps my father was right: that surely cannot be long enough to create something as formidable as the Himalayas, or the Alps for that matter? Or can it?

Yes. Read the story above once again: don’t make the mistake which that naive king made – and my father most probably too. I don’t think we can imagine a period of 200,000 years, let alone a period of 60 million years. Our mind is just not made for it. We need fables and graphs such as the one above to remind us of that. When it comes to math, our mind works linearly.