The Vine

Friday, August 27, 2004

If I Could I Would

If I really paid attention to the news and had time to write a fine political blog I would aspire to the quality of Jonathan's PastPeak. There is lots of daily updates on the election and he seems to be fairly strongly pro-Kerry (instead of merely anti-Bush like most of us Americans) but what I like is that he also tries to view politics in respect to the looming problems of the End of the Petroleum Age and Human Overpopulation.

Having studied population biology in college (I have a B.A. in Biology) I understand the concepts of exponential growth, (which is what humans and the economy are attempting to do) but Jonathan outdoes any college level textbook explanation with his Story of the Petri Dish:

"Suppose you put a small amount of bacteria in a Petri dish. Suppose further that the bacteria population grows exponentially (i.e., by doubling) at a pace that causes it to double each hour. Suppose finally that it takes 100 hours for the bacteria to completely fill the dish, thereby exhausting their supply of nutrients. (It's a large Petri dish.)

Question: When is the dish half full?

After 50 hours (half of 100)?

No. Because the population doubles each hour (including the final hour), the dish is half full just one hour before it’s full. For the first 99 hours the bacteria have got it made. Then wham!

To make this more vivid and memorable, imagine the following as an animated cartoon. For the first 99 hours the bacteria are just partying and congratulating themselves on how smart and successful they are. It’s party hats and noisemakers, Conga lines and champagne, the bacterial Dow Jones going through the roof. Woo hoo! No limits! After 99 hours, some of the bacteria start to worry, but the rest party on — after all, the dish is only half full. Plenty of room left, plenty of nutrients. The first half lasted 99 hours, and there's another whole half to go! Sure, somebody’s gonna have to figure something out eventually, but meanwhile life is good, and nonstop growth will only make it better! An hour later — the world ends.

When growth is exponential, limits are sudden."

The part about the party with champane and Conga lines and party hats reminds me of nothing so much as the 1980's here in Austin, where Ronald Reagan deregulations led to a fantastic growth boom, and the S&L lootings which us taxpayers are still paying for.


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