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There Might Be No Way to Live Comfortably Without Also Ruining the Planet (sciencealert.com)
43 points by SirLJ on Feb 10, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 59 comments

I think that the analysis in the linked article is fundamentally flawed, because it assumes a simple one-dimensional axis of more or less resource use and a direct relationship between using more resources and creating better lives.

Most of their social performance indicators aren't inherently resource-intensive. Education, social support, democratic quality and equality have no direct ties to environmental resources. Life satisfaction and healthy life expectancy are only weakly tied to resource use - Cubans live about as long as Americans, the Bhutanese are more satisfied with their lives.

Good sanitation and nutrition can easily be achieved at a very low resource cost; in the case of nutrition, excess intake of high-calorie and high-carbon foods is now an equal or greater cause of mortality than malnutrition. Reducing meat consumption in the developed world would massively reduce resource use while also increasing life expectancy. Britons have never eaten a healthier diet than during wartime rationing.

That leaves us with income and access to energy. I can't really address the issue of income; I have no idea if it's possible to maintain current levels of economic growth while reducing resource use. The issue of access to energy is more straightforward. We know that we can produce close to our current levels of energy with entirely sustainable means. Energy consumption has diminishing marginal utility - getting an electric light in your house makes a huge difference to your quality of life, but trading up from a subcompact to an SUV doesn't. There are some big outliers on the plot of social progress vs energy use.

I think that this research has taken a really elaborate route to arguing "countries with high living standards tend to use lots of natural resources, ∴ high living standards require lots of natural resources". I don't dispute the correlation, but I think that the causal relationship is almost entirely illusory.

As mentioned in the article, the relationship between most of the social goods and resource use is complicated. Education requires a certain percentage of the workforce to be teachers, the management of a sufficiently large organization, a bunch of buildings and moving of students around, etc, each of which in turn requires a set of other things. It would be incredibly difficult- and the authors don't try- to trace all of these all the way back and get a final accounting of the natural resources being used. But if you don't do that, neither can you say that they don't require a certain amount of natural resources. Education might turn out to be as resource-intensive as the airline industry, somehow.

Tl;dr I guess, "no direct ties to environmental resources" != "no significant environmental resource requirements."

On the other hand, of course, the whole article is observational based on existing societies with present-day technology; change society or the available technology, and resource requirements would presumably also change (also in ways we don't know.)

When you say something must use X resource that's very hard to support.

EX: Education does not actually need separate buildings and transportation. It could operate completely online.

Further, most of we think of as nature exists in fairly narrow bands. We could for example have a city going 10 miles into the earth with a fairly normal ecosystem existing above it.

That’s just more speculation. Could education operate entirely online? Some quirk of human psychology might make widespread remote education absolutely disastrous. All sorts of things could make udeground cities unworkable. Complex systems full of humans are have been often found to be surprising, to say the least.

“X sounds roughly possible, so we can count on X”-type thinking doesn’t answer any questions or solve any problems, it just conceals how little humanity actually knows about this predicament we’re all in.

That's not my argument, if you say Education must take X resource then you need to demonstrate that's the only way it can possibly work. Everything from year round alternating days education (MWT,TH so 1/2 the teachers 1/2 the facilities), distance education, subliminal education, matrix style skill uploading, or simply allowing more people to test out are all counter points.

You can make arguments that solar power must be lower than X efficiency from Quantum mechanics, but something as nebulous as education is more a goal than a specific approach.

PS: As to your specific objection, Alaska already does a lot of distance education and it works fairly well though not necessarily cheaper.

It also assume current population size and civilization values, which are far, far from being optimum. There are many forms of progress that are not technical.

I'm guessing that "90% population reduction" doesn't go along with "live comfortably".

That's a strong assumption that is deeply rooted in our current model of the word. With this kind of mindset, no real change is possible.

These include moving beyond the pursuit of economic growth in wealthy nations, shifting rapidly from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and significantly reducing inequality.

The one thing not mentioned is that only actual solution: managing populations. The number of people on the planet has nearly doubled just in my lifetime! Also on HN today


But making more people is not a problem the human race has.

Population control isn't a solution to anything.

We're already at or very close to "peak child". There are about two billion children in the world, a figure we don't expect to ever significantly increase. We expect the population to grow to between 9 and 11 billion by the end of the century, but the cause of that growth is simply survival. Increasing life expectancy means that the population is turning over more slowly - there's no increase in the number of children being born, but people are surviving longer.

Most of the developed world is already at or below a replacement fertility rate. The developing world is catching up very quickly. The birth rate in India has fallen from 5.91 per woman in 1960 to 2.4 today. Bangladesh has done even better, with their birth rate falling from 6.95 in 1970 to 2.14 today.

If you're proposing that we reduce the global population, you have two options. Option one is to reduce the global fertility rate to well below replacement and accept an increasingly ageing society. With current trends in life expectancy, this option would leave us completely unable to care for the elderly. At best, this means millions of elderly people being warehoused in robotic care facilities; at worst, it means leaving people to die, especially in middle-income countries. Option two is some kind of genocide.

Unless you're willing to volunteer yourself or your child as a sacrifice, I suggest we all figure out how to share our resources more equitably and use them more efficiency.

We're already at or very close to "peak child". There are about two billion children in the world, a figure we don't expect to ever significantly increase. We expect the population to grow to between 9 and 11 billion

Who's "we" in this context? Because every time someone makes one of these predictions the human race blows through it and keeps going. I wouldn't be surprised if we reach 20Bn. I expect it only to be curtailed by environmental catastrophe.

Unless you're willing to volunteer yourself or your child as a sacrifice

I'm child-free, so I can look at this objectively.

>Who's "we" in this context?

Homo sapiens. The global fertility rate has more than halved over the last 50 years. The developed world now has a birth rate substantially below replacement. Birth rate in the developing world is falling precipitously, matching the rate of decline that happened in the developed world 50 years ago.

This isn't a blip. It isn't speculation. It's an undeniable and epoch-defining change in how our species reproduces. The age of Malthus is over.


The rate may be dropping, but we're still adding 80m+ real people every year. N*rate is holding steady because N keeps increasing even though the rate is dropping.

You're just confusing the issue. Population growth is decelerating and is expected to plateau within the next 80 years. Overpopulation is not going to be a problem, depopulation may actually become a problem.

Overpopulation is not going to be a problem

Overpopulation is already a problem, everywhere you look: pollution, climate change, depleted marine stocks, loss of biodiversity, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, melting ice caps, resource wars, all have one single root cause: too many people fighting over too little planet.

> Overpopulation is already a problem, everywhere you look: pollution, climate change, depleted marine stocks, loss of biodiversity, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, melting ice caps, resource wars, all have one single root cause: too many people fighting over too little planet.

No, there is not one single problem. I can just as easily blame incorrect market structures which enable negative externalities. A carbon tax corrects one such market distortion, for instance.

The Earth can support many more humans than are currently living if our production methods didn't allow for negative externalities.

Let me make this very clear: real population growth is not decelerating; it is holding quite steady. The rate (i.e. percent) of population growth is what is decreasing (and very slowly, at that). But we are still adding an additional billion humans every 12 years.

With 7.6 billion humans already on the planet, the idea that "depopulation" could become a problem is utterly laughable. Four billion people could die tomorrow and the world population would only be set back 50 years. 90% of the human population could be wiped out, and there would still be 760m people in the world; hardly a crisis, unless you think that depopulation was a risk in 1760. Remember that Malthus first sounded the alarm on overpopulation in 1799, when there were "only" 1 billion people.

> Let me make this very clear: real population growth is not decelerating; it is holding quite steady. The rate (i.e. percent) of population growth is what is decreasing (and very slowly, at that).

I feel like you're misinterpreting my words just to be disagreeable. "Rate" is a velocity term, and the first derivative of the population count. "Deceleration" is the second derivative of the population, and the first derivative of the rate. Therefore, what you said is exactly what I said: population growth is decelerating.

> With 7.6 billion humans already on the planet, the idea that "depopulation" could become a problem is utterly laughable.

All of our social programs are based on the assumption that the subsequent generation will be larger than the previous one, and so can support them in their old age. This likely will no longer be the case within our lifetime. That's no laughing matter.

Your arguments that eliminating a large fraction of the population would still leave plenty of people around are a complete red herring. What exactly is the fact that 760 million people would still be alive after 90% of the population is eliminated supposed to prove exactly? Are you even remotely aware of the problems this would cause? How supply chains for critical goods would simply collapse? How our rate of progress would grind to a halt? There are all sorts of metrics, like the rate of scientific progress, that are directly tied to population growth. Depopulation is a huge problem for many reasons.

I mean population control is completely a solution to resource consumption problems. We would never have heard the words "climate change" if the world population was in the 500 million range. A society with a large elderly population will have some consequences, but so will expanding our population to 13/14/15 billion.

I watched a video last night that was full of optimism. Pointed out that as countries got richer less children died and people had less children. So eventually the population will level off. It seemed to overlook the fact that we are currently using up resources 1.5 times faster than they are being replenished (amongst many other related problems).


The rate we are using resources is also decelerating with increased efficiency through technological advancement.

Have you got any numbers on that? I am aware that things are becoming more efficient, but we are still adding a lot of people to the world. And more and more people are moving from relative poverty to more western lifestyles and corresponding increased levels of consumption.

There is some debate surrounding this, known as Jevon's paradox. There have also been some papers where the rebound effect has been studied and found to be low to moderate, so efficiency improvements do have a positive impact:


Indeed the population is still increasing, but population growth is decelerating. Population will likely plateau within the next 70-80 years, and then possibly decline.

Depends on the resources. I would say if we can get a handle on the energy. That goes a long way. For building materials we are not going to really run out of steel, clay for bricks, and concrete. Wood is renewable if managed properly.

I remember reading something that said the population will peak around 10 to 10.5 billion, and not really grow beyond that. So when it comes to housing for that many people there is plenty of land.

That mainly leaves food. I have heard some people say meat is quite inefficient, but how much land do we need to feed 10.5 billion people?

It would be interesting to see other resource like copper plotted as how much is needed per person vs world supply. I do know aluminum is 3rd most abundant element in earths crust and iron is the 4th most abundant.

Really, for energy we should just be using renewable, and nuclear. Also when reading about how much the fuel for nuclear is actual used only like a few percent we need better reactors.


Concrete is staggeringly carbon-intensive. You need to burn a lot of fuel to produce cement, which itself emits carbon during the calcination process. Every ton of cement produces about 900kg of CO2, making up about 5% of global carbon emissions.


> You need to burn a lot of fuel to produce cement, which itself emits carbon during the calcination process.

The CO2 emitted by the calcination process is reabsorbed when the Portland cement sets. You won't get back the CO2 expended in the heating process, but the calcination itself is more or less CO2-neutral.

It's roughly this:

Making cement: CaCO3 (limestone) + (some other stuff, varying with the type of cement) + lots of heat -> CaO + CO2.

Setting cement: CaO + H2O -> Ca(OH)2 ("portlandite").

Ca(OH)2 + CO2 (from atmosphere) -> CaCO3 + H20 (chemically much the same as the original limestone, but now set into a useful form).

I'm too lazy to balance all the equations, and there are a lot of other things mixed into modern cements, but that's the basic idea.

It seems unfair to charge cement with the CO2 driven off during manufacture, while ignoring the fact that an equal amount of CO2 is absorbed during setting.

If you do some quick and dirty calculations of a 3000 sqft concrete house with 5 people lasting 100 years then the CO2 burden comes out to around 43kg/yr/person. An average american produces about 1000kg/yr so that's around 5% of a person's total CO2.

Ha, and they're living in some shabby plywood houses, at that.

I did say if we get a handle on the energy that fixes a lot of things. If that furnace was powered by a CO2 free source the chemical reaction is neutral once the concrete is used.

> concrete

Actually we have been depleting the planets sand resources for a good while now, and could be facing a "sand crisis" in the not distant future, largely thanks to concrete:


Interesting article. However sand is just mostly ground up quartz (silicon dioxide). It is the second most abundant mineral in earths crust.

We could just grind rocks instead of causing erosion in water ways. However, we would need a good energy source to run a grinder/crusher. We are improving along those lines of energy production. Natural, sand is made by wind and hydro power. So if we keep it that way we should fine.

Also it seems to more of we are collecting sand and other aggregate in haphazard way. I am not sure I would call that running out? Unless sources with low environmental impact are running out?

It sounds like the main issue in that article is local shortages. It doesn’t say anything about global supply (e.g., how long would it take to deplete the Sahara, and would that be considered land reclamation?)

Well I don't claim to be an expert, but I've read elsewhere that there are a lot of different qualities of sand, and that desert sand is not (as) useful as building material due to its shape and structure.


Just asked a friend of mine who is a civil engineer. He said desert sand is a bad idea for standing concrete structures. However, mixing a bit with supported concrete structures like a concrete pad or roads makes them less prone to cracking.

For particular demanding applications all sand is sifted and structure/shape of the sand checked.

For evening more demanding application sand may be produced via crushing to get long flat sand grains.

Also the checking of the quality of sand is called sieve analysis.

I just don't buy it, there is so much waste and the gap between what the 0.001% have and everyone else is so big. I've played enough simcity to know it's tough and takes planning, but you can balance the needs of everyone and not go bust. Many people are coming to realize that the consumer wealth dream being sold to them does not actually contain comfort, satisfaction, or personal fulfillment.

Greed, corruption, and willful ignorance/incuriousness however are a cancer on the system that makes for a race condition that keeps us from actively investing in that balance. It's hard not to be apocalyptic, but it's even crazier to think that our collective consciousness can't figure out a way to arrest that cancer before we all end up eating jellyfish out of acidified plastic oceans supplemented with snowpiercer cockroach bricks.

The corruption rife ganges river sanitation project[1] is a great example of a massive opportunity to increase quality of life for a staggering amount of people sucked dry financially by said cancer. There are ways to NOT do that. We have the ability to figure out how. We also at this moment, still might have enough time.

[1] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/what-it-takes-...

Permaculture seems to be the answer. It’s not that there aren’t sufficient resources for a comfortable life, it’s that the way those resources are used is incredibly poor. Some Permaculturists estimate the globe actually has a carrying capacity of 50 billion people, were it managed better.

I like the study of permaculture in part because it treats human beings as part of the solution, not the problem. Get more people moving in the right direction for positive change. It is a way of love, not fear.

I have also suspected that it's not possible to live a comfortable lifestyle (e.g. all the modern conveniences most Americans enjoy) without indirectly relying on slave or poverty labor somewhere else

Oh, it would be perfectly possible - remember when "mod cons" were invented, most if not all of them were manufactured on-shore. If the human race comprised only a billion or two people, the whole world could easily live at that standard indefinitely.

The world is running out of slaves and poverty workers. We'll know pretty soon what happens when there's nowhere to go for the next cheap labor pool.

Julia Steinberger (Leeds) wrote: "Radical changes are needed if all people are to live well within the limits of the planet" but she got the timing wrong. Now, I fear, we are too late.

Consider: what is the likelihood that we can reach a global consensus on population control which will have any significant impact in the next 25 years? What social structure will suddenly appear which will change our value system? Who among us is going to be willing to give up our automobiles? And so forth. How can we have a future when we have a President who does not believe what scientists are telling him? How can we support leaders who have no understanding of the physical world? These are existential questions that need to be resolved quickly or all is lost. And they are being ignored.

It's nice to know we're all gonna die with generational suffering down the road. I'd like to know what Vietnam is doing and how might that model be improved. Data --> ML --> policy, etc With all this bickering on who's right or wrong, it is no wonder that nothing will change and humanity will go the way of the cynical comedian: https://youtu.be/7W33HRc1A6c?t=2m39s

The problem is the population size. There's no way the environment can recover from 7+ billion people using the resources we need. Additionally, the term comfortably is relative, the more we have the more we think we need to live comfortably. Ask a hunter-gather what he/she need to be comfortable vs an upper-middle-class individual in New York and you'll get an extremely different answer.

I see a future where we get our food directly from the sun and with most animals and plants destroyed- pets and house plants will likely be the survivors we pick.

Very sad!

The average American uses twice as much energy as the average Briton, five times more than the average Brazilian and eleven times more than the average Indian.

Is the problem that we've got too many people, or is it that the resources we have are being distributed completely unequally?


The "problem" (to the extent that it is a problem) is that Britain has 65 million people on an island smaller than the U.S. state of Oregon, most of which has an extremely moderate climate. The U.S. is orders of magnitude larger (i.e., more transportation costs) and has significant regions that require large-scale heating or air conditioning to make habitable. Some require both.

Also, Canada uses even more energy per capita than the United States, for pretty much the same reasons.

>significant regions that require large-scale heating or air conditioning to make habitable. Some require both.

People only moved to the really hot parts of America in significant numbers because of the invention of air conditioning. They abandoned vernacular architectural techniques that kept buildings comfortable using passive cooling.

The entire population of the US could comfortably fit into the climatically mild parts. Vast areas of the US never get particularly cold in winter or particularly warm in summer.

As with suburban sprawl, the human geography of the US is built around wasteful energy use. Those trends were established over time and they can be reversed over time.


"The entire population of the US could comfortably fit into the climatically mild parts."

Yeah, well, the entire population of the US could be put in giant warehouses, eating in cafeterias and hotbunking the beds in three shifts.

But that's no way to live.

"Vast areas of the US never get particularly cold in winter or particularly warm in summer."

Where are these "vast areas"? Outside of maybe the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, I can't think of any.

The problem is that everyone strives to get to the American level. Nothing wrong with public commute and having your own garden/mini-farm. Really easy, too.

Indeed, I think much of the problem stems from everyone needing a job, and not having enough time. If I were unemployed, yet housing were free and groceries were free at the local walking-distance market, I probably would not own a car and could entertain myself indefinitely with a laptop, earbuds, library card, barbell, and soldering iron. I could live happily on a tiny fraction of my current energy consumption. With further automation in farming and self driving 18-wheelers, this reality is not that far fetched.

If we really have a problem with too many resources being used, then we "simply" need to decide what is acceptable and tax energy accordingly.

Making assumptions about what people are entitled to, or what standard of living is possible would be a big mistake because it could lead to far worse outcomes than simply forcing the market to provide the solution.

Faith in the markets is working well for global warming so far /s

The market is astonishingly good at solving problems if you make the status quo more expensive than the solution. If we abandoned cap-and-trade in favour of a carbon tax, we would undoubtedly see huge reductions in carbon emissions. The problem with our current system isn't that the market is failing to respond to incentives, but that we haven't set the right price.


I'm a fan of the market system but there are limits. It works well for solving one variable with it but our environmental issues are many and no one has found a business model that works to save it. Also, when the market solves for one issue it goes to extremes and often causes other unintended consequences. The market alone is not the answer but a combination of the market system plus our political system. But in reality it's just a matter of everyone understanding the problem and trying to help. Every resource we take from the environment has an impact no matter the size since it's multiplied by billions.

Markets only work when the government regulating them isn't subject to regulatory capture.

I have reasonable faith that markets could get global warming under control without most people noticing any decrease in their standard of living, quite possibly seeing a big increase.

Getting impatient for people to actually try markets rather than continue the petro-gangster status quo though.

Definitely, its way more important to protect a thousand little fiefdoms at all costs, then to solve a true problem. Imagine how the CEOs would feel if there companys where shut down just because they where considered taxwise energy waste.

Why doesn't anybody ever think about the needs of CEOs ?

Seriously - market aside- its obviously a lot of humans need companys and hierarchical structured society to upkeep there ego- so what solution is there to keep those afloat, while ending the ecological suicide that is capitalism?

There just have to be much less people on the planet and it will be ok. Simple as that.

Sure, but first define "comfortably".

"A good life for all within planetary boundaries" (2018) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0021-4

> Abstract: Humanity faces the challenge of how to achieve a high quality of life for over 7 billion people without destabilizing critical planetary processes. Using indicators designed to measure a ‘safe and just’ development space, we quantify the resource use associated with meeting basic human needs, and compare this to downscaled planetary boundaries for over 150 nations. We find that no country meets basic needs for its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use. Physical needs such as nutrition, sanitation, access to electricity and the elimination of extreme poverty could likely be met for all people without transgressing planetary boundaries. However, the universal achievement of more qualitative goals (for example, high life satisfaction) would require a level of resource use that is 2–6 times the sustainable level, based on current relationships. Strategies to improve physical and social provisioning systems, with a focus on sufficiency and equity, have the potential to move nations towards sustainability, but the challenge remains substantial.

> "Radical changes are needed if all people are to live well within the limits of the planet," [...]

> "These include moving beyond the pursuit of economic growth in wealthy nations, shifting rapidly from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and significantly reducing inequality.

> "Our physical infrastructure and the way we distribute resources are both part of what we call provisioning systems. If all people are to lead a good life within the planet's limits then these provisioning systems need to be fundamentally restructured to allow for basic needs to be met at a much lower level of resource use."

Perhaps ironically, our developments in service of sustainability (resource efficiency) needs for a civilization on Mars are directly relevant to solving these problems on Earth.

Recycle everything.

Survive without soil, steel, hydrocarbons, animals, oxygen.

Convert CO2, sunlight, H20, and geothermal energy to forms necessary for life.


Algae, carbon capture, carbon sequestration, lab grown plants, water purification, solar power, [...]

Mars requires a geomagnetic field in order to sustain an atmosphere in order to [...].

"The Limits to Growth" (1972, 2004) [1] very clearly forecasts these same unsustainable patterns of resource consumption: 'needs' which exceed and transgress our planetary biophysical boundaries.

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (#GlobalGoals) [2] outline our worthwhile international objectives (Goals, Targets, and Indicators). The Paris Agreement [3] sets targets and asks for commitments from nation states (and businesses) to help achieve these goals most efficiently and most sustainably.

In the US, the Clean Power Plan [4] was intended to redirect our national resources toward renewable energy with far less external costs. Direct and indirect subsidies for nonrenewables are irrational. Are subsidies helpful or necessary to reach production volumes of renewable energy products and services?

There are certainly financial incentives for anyone who chooses to invest in solving for the Global Goals; and everyone can!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Limits_to_Growth

[2] http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-develop...

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Agreement

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clean_Power_Plan

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