Skip to content Skip to navigation Skip to collection information

OpenStax-CNX

You are here: Home » Content » Dynamics of Social Systems » On the Eschatology of the Human Condition

Navigation

Lenses

What is a lens?

Definition of a lens

Lenses

A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

What is in a lens?

Lens makers point to materials (modules and collections), creating a guide that includes their own comments and descriptive tags about the content.

Who can create a lens?

Any individual member, a community, or a respected organization.

What are tags? tag icon

Tags are descriptors added by lens makers to help label content, attaching a vocabulary that is meaningful in the context of the lens.

This content is ...

Affiliated with (What does "Affiliated with" mean?)

This content is either by members of the organizations listed or about topics related to the organizations listed. Click each link to see a list of all content affiliated with the organization.
  • Rice Digital Scholarship

    This collection is included in aLens by: Digital Scholarship at Rice University

    Click the "Rice Digital Scholarship" link to see all content affiliated with them.

  • NSF Partnership display tagshide tags

    This collection is included inLens: NSF Partnership in Signal Processing
    By: Sidney Burrus

    Click the "NSF Partnership" link to see all content affiliated with them.

    Click the tag icon tag icon to display tags associated with this content.

  • Featured Content display tagshide tags

    This collection is included inLens: Connexions Featured Content
    By: Connexions

    Click the "Featured Content" link to see all content affiliated with them.

    Click the tag icon tag icon to display tags associated with this content.

Also in these lenses

  • UniqU content

    This collection is included inLens: UniqU's lens
    By: UniqU, LLC

    Click the "UniqU content" link to see all content selected in this lens.

  • Lens for Engineering

    This module and collection are included inLens: Lens for Engineering
    By: Sidney Burrus

    Click the "Lens for Engineering" link to see all content selected in this lens.

Recently Viewed

This feature requires Javascript to be enabled.

Tags

(What is a tag?)

These tags come from the endorsement, affiliation, and other lenses that include this content.
 

On the Eschatology of the Human Condition

Module by: Howard Resnikoff. E-mail the author

Summary: Original essay was written by Howard Resnikoff in 1973 as introduction for the course: ENG/SOC 360 at Rice University, with contributions by Mary A. Burnside, C. Sidney Burrus, and M. Stuart Lynn

On the Eschatology of the Human Condition

We are now facing a crisis concerning the availability of an assured supply of energy and other resources to feed the ravenous productive capacity of our society. Complicating this critical situation is the problem of controlling the unwanted byproducts of production and consumption. Our present situation stands in striking contrast to the ubiquitous pattern of growth and expansion evidenced by nearly every aspect of what has come to be known as civilization during the past century. We can no longer avoid, nor dare we postpone, the obligation to investigate these issues in a serious and expeditious manner in order to ascertain whether the present reverses are but temporary diversions and fluctuations from a long range pattern of stable and sustainable growth, or whether they are harbingers of limits to expansion imposed by nature, limits which cannot be passed with impunity. Our investigation must, insofar as it is able, be scientific; stripping away the superficialities of mere experience in order to uncover the underlying motive forces which frame and mold the opportunities and constraints whose realizations we recognize in the continuing progression of daily events. As in so many fields whose mysteries have been revealed through diligent application of the methods of science, here too we may expect to find that superficial experience misleads and diverts the attention from the matter of essential significance.

Exponential Growth

In the issue at hand the lesson taught by the immediate experience of life in America and the other industrial nations is that continuing exponential growth, growth which cumulates according to the law of compound interest, growth without limit or constraint, is the natural human condition. The more reflective amongst us may examine the historical record to penetrate beyond the present and the immediate past, but they too find evidence to support the conclusion of immediate experience unless they search so far into the past that the very nature of society seems so different from our own as to invalidate any method or even hope of comparison. Yet the Malthusian critique, in forms more or less sophisticated, remains to haunt us in even the best of times with the suspicion that those early civilizations, so unlike our own, hold the key not only to the flowering of our recent past but also to a withered future.

Growth of human knowledge

There can be little doubt that immediate experience provides a firm foundation for the expectation of continued exponential growth. For example, we derive from human knowledge all our skills and abilities to turn the base matter of the world to our own interests. Knowledge grows with time; if we attempt to measure it---not by its essential quality, but by its quantity as manifested in reduction to printed form stored as books and journals in archival libraries---we find that knowledge, too, grows exponentially, apparently inexorably increasing by a fixed fraction year after year. Figure 1 exhibits the growth of the number of scientific journals with time --one typical measure of the growth of knowledge. The vertical axis scale is so arranged that exponential growth is represented by straight lines. The figure suggests that scientific knowledge has grown exponentially for more than 200 years, doubling its quantity every 15 years. If this pattern of growth persists for another two and one half decades, an addition of some 12% to the historic record represented by the figure, there will be in the year 2000 more than 1 million scientific journals publishing more than 25 million scientific articles each year. It has been calculated that each scientific article published today represents an investment of about $25,000; this cost will certainly not decrease in the future. Extrapolation of the historic trend of Figure 1 therefore entails the conclusion that annual investment in scientific effort in the year 2000 will reach nearly one trillion dollars, which is approximately the 1973 gross national product of the United States. If the trend continues until 2050, the investment in science will rise to 10 trillion dollars annually. We do not suggest that these estimates are predictions; rather, they have been introduced to provide the reader with a yardstick with which to measure the encouraging projections of the technological optimists who argue that the increased application of novel technology will relax current constraints which manifest themselves in the form of continual shortages rotating from food to productive capacity to energy and back again to food. Newton has already combed the beach, found the smoother pebbles and prettier shells; we must explore his great ocean of truth and the price of the vessel in which we can do this must be paid. If continuance of exponential growth is to depend on technology, and ultimately on science, then the growth of technology and science must themselves continue on their exponential path, and then the projections provided above will, no matter that they boggle common sense, foreshadow reality.

Figure 1
Figure 1 (figure1.png)

Growth of the energy system

The recent historic exponential growth of civilization is more apparent to us all in other ways. To consider a timely example: although the sources of energy used in the United States have changed dramatically since 1800, the growth of annual inputs to the energy system of this country has deviated but little from its exponential trend in the intervening 170 years. There was a slight relative excess from 1900 until the Great Depression in 1929 and a subsequent defect until the end of World War II, but the deviations from the exponential trend displayed in Figure 2 are small when compared with the enormous social dislocations with which they were associated, and they seem not to have any long term effect on the underlying growth pattern.

Figure 2
Figure 2 (figure2.png)

According to Figure 2, inputs to the energy system of the United States have been doubling every 26 years; they "should", if growth were to continue unchecked, double again between the present time (1974) and the year 2000. Thus, could we now provide sufficient energy merely to maintain present consumption levels, by the year 2000 we would find that we would be providing for but one-half our then "normal" requirements, based upon the hypothesis that the historic exponential growth trend in energy utilization reflects a natural and appropriate feature of civilization. Upon this hypothesis it follows that most Americans now alive will live to see the day when society will be able to assuage but half their "natural" craving for energy. On this scale, major oil discoveries such as the Alaskan North Slope field and the North Sea deposits diminish in stature: total North Slope recovery is anticipated to be equivalent to 3 years con­sumption for the United States at present usage rates. Our ability to provide energy in amounts that will continue to double every 26 years clearly demands major technological innovations and extensive capital investment. Assimilation of the byproducts of these efforts, social as well as substantial, may require still greater efforts and ingenuity.

Population Growth

It is sometimes thought that population growth is the essential driving force behind the general exponential growth of other components of society. That this is not so is readily seen by comparison of the rates of growth of United States population and of the inputs to the energy system of the United States. Recent population growth rates correspond to a doubling period of about 45 years compared with the 26 year doubling period for energy input growth; this simply means that per capita energy inputs have been growing. Nevertheless, population growth is an important component in the general scheme of expansion exhibited by our civilization, and one which affects the life style of individuals in a relatively direct way, for within an adult lifetime of 50 years an American can expect to see the population double (if trends continue). The effect would be a consequent major density increase in urban living areas, increased strains on commodity delivery and other communication systems, increased inequalities in the distri­bution of wealth, larger average community size, and an increasingly impersonal and depersonalized social life outside the spheres of friendship and work role. Contrast this situation with the life of the typical western European in the Middle Ages, say 700-1100: population growth was negligible during this period; personal mobility was low; and personal associations and interactions remained relatively stable throughout most people's lifespan.

Figure 3 shows that the population of the United States has changed in different ways at different times: in the earliest periods after European settlement, growth was exponential and extremely rapid; from 1650 to about 1880, population growth was again exponential with virtually no deviations during this 230 year interval. Since 1880 there has been a marked decline in the rate of growth with irregu­larities which obscure the general trend features. We may nevertheless conclude that any American born between 1650 and 1850 could confidently conclude from personal experience and the historical record that exponential population growth is a natural feature of life in America. The marked change evident in the manner of growth of population during the period centered about 1880 calls for an explanation) and one is readily forth­coming. Prior to that period, there remained a western frontier which was, bit by bit, continually pushed back thereby effectively increasing the land area of the settled nation, until the con­straint of fixed geographical and settled limits induced a change in the nature of population increase. Indeed, during the earlier periods, population increase in the United States did not necessarily lead to increased population density due to the effect of territorial expansion, so that, although more recent periods have seen smaller rates of growth, the local population density experienced by most Americans is probably increasing more rapidly now than before.

Figure 3
Figure 3 (figure3.png)

Alternative Possibilities

The analysis to this point appears to confirm the generality of exponential growth for various important segments of civilization over periods of time significantly longer than a single generation. The feature of change in the rate of growth of United States population also suggests that there are some mechanisms which can distort or perhaps even destroy the operation of exponential increase. Let us turn our attention to the determination of what these might be and whether they and their effects are intrinsic and unavoidable, or extrinsic and removable.

We would like, of course, to be able to experiment with numerous identical copies of our world with all its inhabitants and curiosities, subjecting each replica to a distinct set of circumstances and following each along its future path to its terminus, thus we could establish the more and the less desirable modes of development which are open to us, asses their benefits and costs, and learn how to direct ourselves and our posterity, if not to the best of all possible worlds, at least away from the worst. That this option is not open to us should not act as a deterrent to serious consideration of the multiple possi­bilities the future holds, for there are still two ways left to proceed. The more refined founds itself on a deep idea of Maxwell, who in his study of the statistical properties of gases, conceived an infinite ensemble of ideal replicas of the system of actual interest which populated, in his thoughts if not in reality, the various ideally possible physical states. Maxwell then sought to identify the most probable of these states with the state which, apart from certain relatively negligible fluctuations, actually obtained. His efforts created the important and successful discipline of statistical mechanics and set a potential pattern for the study of social systems which has not yet received the attention it deserves.

The second method is much more concrete and analogical, and consequently more narrow in its assertions and less certain in its implications. It consists of finding analogues, or models, of aspects of human civilization, primarily amongst the micro-organisms and insects which run through their life cycles at rates so great that the birth, development, and death of their “societies” and the eschatology of their condition can be followed and documented during an interval brief according to the standards of change of our civilizations. But a funda­mental problem always intrudes: to what extent is it permissible to generalize from the rise and fall of the fruit fly Drosophila to the rise and fall of Rome, or of humanity itself? We cannot answer this question, but we also cannot avoid the belief that one of the most pressing problems which confronts anyone concerned with the future of humanity is the determination of whether, and if so, how, human society differs from the societies of lower forms insofar as the great forces which govern growth and decay are concerned.

Logistic Growth

Consider, for instance, the life cycle of a population of wild type Drosophila grown in a pint bottle, as illustrated in Figure 4. It is clear from that figure that the population does not increase indefinitely and exponentially, but rather approaches, after some brief time, an absolute limiting value beyond which it cannot pass. It is probable that no Drosphila savant would assert that either the historical record or common sense suggest that exponential growth is the norm for Drosphila society, as it generally seems and has seemed to be for us. Yet there is a certain lawfulness in the pattern of population growth displayed in Figure 4, called logistic growth, whose exact form need not concern us here. Suffice it to say that by means of a formula, not more complex than that which describes exponential growth itself, the calculations shown in the rightmost column of the Table below were obtained, which show a striking agreement with the observed population.

Figure 4
Figure 4 (figure4.png)
Figure 5
Figure 5 (figure5.png)
Table 1: Growth of Wild Type Drosophilia Population in a Pint Bottle
Date of census Observed population Calculated population from equation
December 2 22 14.3
December 11 39 61.0
December 14 105 96.7
December 17 152 150.2
December 20 225 226.0
December 23 390 326.0
December 27 499 488.4
December 29 547 574.1
December 31 618 656.8
January 4 791 798.4
January 7 877 877.1
January 10 938 932.9

The logistic growth pattern is as common amongst short lived rapidly reproducing lower life forms as the exponential pattern is amongst humans, and amongst people-related phenomena such as knowledge and energy inputs. Figure 5 displays the life cycle of a society of yeast cells; once again, the presence of an absolute limit beyond which population apparently cannot press is evident, and once again, the logistic mathe­matical description is appropriate.

In order to draw the connection between these societal microcosms which pass, from our vantage point, so quickly, through all their phases, let us reconsider the data for the yeast cell population of Figure 5 expressed with respect to the semi-logarithmic vertical scale such as used in Figure 1, and in terms of which exponential growth corresponds to straight lines. Figure 6, so drawn, shows that for the first 6 hours of growth, the yeast population does in fact increase exponentially, but thereafter a rapid decline in the rate of increase becomes apparent, leading after another 6 hours to a stagnant population whose numbers barely change until termination of the experiment. The reader can hardly help but notice the approximate correspondence between the early and middle periods of Figure 6 with the corresponding periods of exponential growth of United States population from 1650 to 1880, and the subsequent decline in the rate of increase after 1880 displayed in Figure 3. Are we certain that we are different from Drosophila, or from yeast cells, insofar as the cycle of population is concerned? If we are certain, on what do we base our certainty?

Figure 6
Figure 6 (figure6.png)

Figure 4, Figure 5, and Figure 6 do not convey the full picture of the life cycle of a microscosmic society as it is now known, for they do not follow developments far enough into the future.

If the life cycle of the microcosmic Drosophia and yeast populations are similar to the human cycle of population and societal growth, then the former confirms our explanation of the cause of the deviation from exponentiality of the population growth of the United States) shows that it is essentially in­evitable, and promises analogous declines in growth rate and asymptotic approach to stable maximum states for world population and possibly for energy consumption, productivity, growth of knowledge, etc., as well.

Equillibrium State

It is not difficult to envision this equilibrium state and its corresponding equilibrium society as a paradise) finally freed from the pressures and problems created by incessant population growth and its derivative phenomena, and granted the option to accommodate its desires to its means in a gradual evolutionary manner. But such a society would, necessarily, differ greatly from that to which we have become accustomed, in which savings bank deposits and corporate income offer fixed annual fractional returns by some fiducial duplication of the theological miracle of the creation of substance and value from null and void. The equilibrium society apparently promised by the Drosophila and yeast civilizations will necessarily be one of decreased personal and social mobility, decreased personal opportunity, and no doubt of decreased excitement. Each of us will have different views of the desirability of such stable circumstances.

Figure 4, Figure 5, and Figure 6 paint, in fact, too cheerful a picture of the population life cycle of microcosmic societies, and by implication, of our own potential future, for they do not follow developments far enough into the future. They mis­leadingly present the impression that an ultimate stable state of maximum population is attained by gradual increase from earlier states; they carry the implication that once society has adapted to the relatively rapid and critical conversion from exponential growth, displayed, for instance, from hours 7 through 12 in Figure 6, a uniform and hence rather crisis-free period of unlimited duration will follow --- a period perhaps bland, possibly undesirable in certain aspects, but one at least stable. Unfortunately this is not the case, for the same forces which worked to constrain and limit exponential growth, converting it into a type of growth which is subject to an absolute upper bound as displayed in Figure 4, Figure 5, and Figure 6, continue to work even as population closes upon the maximum value.

Pollution

In the microscosmic societies these forces of constraint are imposed, on the one hand, by the geometrical restraints of the finiteness of the environment, pint bottle or Petrie dish; and on the other by the related twin factors of resource depletion and non-absorption of the byproducts of metabolism, which we generally will interpret for our more complex situation as “pollution”. Whereas the direct effect of the finite environment is the absolute limitation of population, the ultimate effect of resource depletion and increasing pollutant density is a gradual diminution of the maximum value of the population that the limited environment will support. When combined, these factors suggest that the life cycle figure should in its earliest stages display unconstrained exponential growth of population when the population density is small and the ability of the environment to supply necessary resources and diffuse undesirable societal byproducts is correspondingly great, Thereafter, a period should follow wherein the geometrical constraints of the finiteness of the environment enforce an absolute limit on the supportable population. These two stages are exhibited in Figure 4, Figure 5, and Figure 6, and the cycle of United States population growth displays the first and the early effects of the second (Figure 3). A subsequent third stage follows, wherein the maximum supportable population declines gradually and steadily, ulti­mately to zero, so that the entire life cycle might appear some­what as shown in Figure 7 below.

Figure 7
Figure 7 (figure7.png)

Time-lags

There is yet another factor which must be recognized in our description of the future population. We know that the modification of social attitudes or the realization of any great enterprise requires a certain lead time; between the decision and the effect there often intervene many years. Such time lags also occur in natural phenomena and have the utmost significance for the questions that concern us here. We may decide today to ban the use of pesticides, but the maximum value of pesticide contamination of, let us say, fish, will nevertheless not be realized for many years; we may decide, or be constrained, to stabilize population now, but population will nevertheless continue to increase for some time into the future due: to actions and decisions taken earlier but whose consequence have not yet unfolded. Even so apparently simple a matter as the national reduction of speed limits requires a not incon­siderable time interval between the impulse of necessity and reaction of implementation. So too it is amongst microcosmic societies. The natural "velocity" of population growth may carry population to magnitudes greater than those sustainable in equilibrium conditions (just as a ball thrown upward against the restraining force of gravity continues to rise for some time despite the downward tug), thereby setting the stage for subsequent decline which itself may carry population below sustainable levels. Thus we come to anticipate the possibility and indeed the probability of cyclical oscillations in the population life cycle curve, oscillations superimposed upon the general long term decline which itself follows the initial surge of exponential growth and logistic constraint. The early portions of such a curve are shown in Figure 8, which illustrates the life cycle of a population of Paramecia grown in a limited environment. During the first three days, the initially small Paramecia population increases exponentially; at the end of that time, the constraints of their limited environment become significant and the rate of increase of population declines to zero, while the population itself attains its maximum value at the end of 6 days. Thereafter, -it declines, at first rapidly, and then, as its density decreases, more slowly, until a local minimum value is attained at about 16 days, after which another period of increase is observed, which slows to another but this time lesser maximum, and is followed by a decline initiating a new cycle.

Figure 8
Figure 8 (figure8.png)

The period from 6 to 8 days constitutes an era of catastrophe for the Paramecia: population collapses to about 60 percent of its maximum value within a relatively brief interval. We can imagine governments crumbling, learning and art extinguished, a mean, brief and ugly life the reward for those who survive. By contrast, the long stable interval from 8 to 17 days which follows must appear most agreeable by contrast. One can hardly avoid drawing the parallel with the Fall of Rome and the subsequent stable medieval period.

Conclusion

Let us summarize the conclusions we wish to draw from the preceding remarks. First, the pattern of unconstrained exponential growth of human civilization so often found in the past is similar to the pattern of exponential growth exhibited by populations of micro-organisms and insects in their earliest phases when population densities are low. Second, the con­straints imposed on the growth of the microcosmic societies by the limitations of their environment entail an absolute upper bound on their population, and similar constraints appear to apply to the various components, including population, of human societies. Both of these phases can be accurately described by simple mathematical formulae, independent of whether human or microscosmic societies are considered. Third, the microcosmic societies display an additional phase of population oscillation and ultimate decline.

We must now inquire whether this third phase may also be descriptive of the future life cycle of human population, and also whether it too can be described by mathematical formulae which lay bare its causation. If the answer to this last question is affirmative, then we will have a powerful tool with which to study the former problem.

The efforts of numerous scientific investigators have shown how this problem, at least in its gross characteristics, can be approached. One of the earliest and most distinguished of them, a truly original mind, was Vito Volterra, Professor of Mathematical Physics and Celestial Mechanics at the University of Rome, deliverer of an inaugural lecture at the founding of the Rice Institute in 1915. His theory of the "struggle for existence" prepared the foundation for all future efforts to construct a mathematical description of the interactions which determine the increase and decline of species and societies which compete with each other and amongst themselves for the limited sources of sustenance in their environment. His work, a far reaching extension of the Malthusian ideas, can be recognized in the most recent and vital computerized dynamic simulations of the world system associated with Jay Forrester, Dennis and Donella Meadows, and other contemporary scholars. The mathematical constituents of models of the Volterra and Forrester type are the formulae which describe unconstrained exponential and limited logistic growth. They are combined to reflect the structures of the various fundamental component sectors of civilization (including Population, Natural Resources, Capital Investment, and Pollution) and their intricate inter­actions. The resulting "life cycles" display the typical three stages exhibited by the life cycle of Paramecia (Figure 8 above), including the third oscillatory stage. Figure 9 shows the situation for the well known World Dynamics models of Forrester[1] and Meadows et. al.[2], based on the assumption that the interactive processes which are currently operative in our civilization will continue to follow their basic patterns subject only to the constraints which are naturally imposed by their mutual interaction. Population, Capital Investment, and Capital Investment in Agriculture Fraction (the amount of capital invested in agriculture) all exhibit: (the pattern of early exponential growth, logistic approach to a maximum, and the initiation of the subsequent oscillatory period.

Figure 9: Basic Behavior of the World Model Showing the Mode in which Industrialization and Population are Surpressed by Falling Natural Resources.
Figure 9 (figure9.png)
Figure 10
Figure 10 (figure10.png)

The potentially catastrophic effect of the third, oscillatory, stage of development is strikingly illustrated in Figure 10 which displays the possible consequences of the more efficient utilization of natural resources without corresponding adjustments in the other basic sectors of civilization. Without diverting our attention to argue the merits or reliability of this particular projection, let us note the beginning of the second oscillation in each of the curves describing the life cycle of Population, Pollution, Capital Investment, and Capital Investment Fraction in Agriculture (labeled CIAF in the Figure). Were the figure drawn to another scale, the similarity to the life cycle of Paramecia in Figure 8 would be greatly enhanced.

We believe that the similarities between human and microcosmic societies which have been suggested above are more than superficial analogies. They justify, in our opinion, the most diligent and comprehensive investigation of the extent to which we can scientifically describe the condition of civilization and its variation with time. We must study the range of alter­natives, one of which may be our future; and discover the options that are open to us for directing our destiny, insofar as it is possible, to the fulfillment of the aspirations and ultimate attainments of civilization.

References

  1. Jay W. Forrester. (1971). World Dynamics. Wright-Allen Press.
  2. Donella H. Meadows, et al. (1972). Limits to Growth. Universe.

Collection Navigation

Content actions

Download:

Collection as:

PDF | EPUB (?)

What is an EPUB file?

EPUB is an electronic book format that can be read on a variety of mobile devices.

Downloading to a reading device

For detailed instructions on how to download this content's EPUB to your specific device, click the "(?)" link.

| More downloads ...

Module as:

PDF | More downloads ...

Add:

Collection to:

My Favorites (?)

'My Favorites' is a special kind of lens which you can use to bookmark modules and collections. 'My Favorites' can only be seen by you, and collections saved in 'My Favorites' can remember the last module you were on. You need an account to use 'My Favorites'.

| A lens I own (?)

Definition of a lens

Lenses

A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

What is in a lens?

Lens makers point to materials (modules and collections), creating a guide that includes their own comments and descriptive tags about the content.

Who can create a lens?

Any individual member, a community, or a respected organization.

What are tags? tag icon

Tags are descriptors added by lens makers to help label content, attaching a vocabulary that is meaningful in the context of the lens.

| External bookmarks

Module to:

My Favorites (?)

'My Favorites' is a special kind of lens which you can use to bookmark modules and collections. 'My Favorites' can only be seen by you, and collections saved in 'My Favorites' can remember the last module you were on. You need an account to use 'My Favorites'.

| A lens I own (?)

Definition of a lens

Lenses

A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

What is in a lens?

Lens makers point to materials (modules and collections), creating a guide that includes their own comments and descriptive tags about the content.

Who can create a lens?

Any individual member, a community, or a respected organization.

What are tags? tag icon

Tags are descriptors added by lens makers to help label content, attaching a vocabulary that is meaningful in the context of the lens.

| External bookmarks