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Overpopulation: the life and death of a meme

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The real problem with overpopulation seems to have to do with the fact that the human information dissemination and processing system (the “Cybersphere”) is unable to deal with long-range planning. A single human brain is larger than a walnut, but that makes no difference. The system reacts to new information but doesn’t really process it. And we are no better suited than dinosaurs to survive the challenges ahead.

Those of us who remember the 1970s and the 1980s may still have in mind how, in those years, speaking of overpopulation and birth control was not considered politically incorrect. Julian Simon (the “doomslayer”) gives us a good description of the debate of those years (he was, needless to say, strongly against the idea that overpopulation was a problem).

Yet once again there is hysteria about there being too many people, and too many babies being born. Television presents notables ranging from Andrei Sakharov to Dan Rather repeating that more people on earth mean poorer lives now and worse prospects for the future. The newspapers chime in. A typical editorial in the June 3, 1989 Washington Post (p. A14) says that “in the developing world…fertility rates impede advances in economic growth, health, and educational opportunities”. Nobel- winner Leon Lederman says in his statement as candidate for the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “overpopulation’ is one of our “present crises” (2 June, 1989 Announcement, p. 2). The president of NOW warns that continued population growth would be a “catastrophe” (Nat Hentoff in The Washington Post, July 29, 1989, p. A17). The head of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology calls for more funding for contraceptive research becasue of “Overpopulation, together with continuing deterioration of the environment…” (The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 1989, p. A9). And this is just a tiny sample of one summer.

Simon’s analysis is in good agreement with the results of a Google Ngram search. The term “overpopulation” reached a popularity peak in the 1970s, then it started a decline that’s still ongoing.

You can see the same behavior with concepts such as “birth control” and also using “google trends.” So, what happened that made the very concept of overpopulation obsolete? Surely, population growth continue and it is still continuing (image from Gerald Marten):

And it is impressive to note how the decline in the interest on overpopulation started while the population growth curve continued its steep increase, in particular in the poor nations of the world.

So, why did people lose interest in overpopulation just while it kept becoming a bigger problem? Something similar took place with other concepts such as the limits to growth and peak oil: people are losing interest just now that these problems are becoming gigantic and probably unsolvable.

I can propose a tentative explanation based on the recent work we have been performing with my coworkers, Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi. We have been examining the behavior of memes on the web using a simple viral propagation model, the same commonly used in epidemiology. It is called the SIR (susceptible, infected, recovered) model. Here it is in a simple form (image on the right).

The model depends on two parameters that describe the kinetics of propagation of the meme in the cybersphere (humankind’s system of information diffusion and processing). These two parameters do NOT depend on what happens outside the cybersphere. The world’s population may continue growing but the meme will go through its path, oblivious to everything that’s not reported in the media. While it declines, the meme doesn’t disappear, but it remains dormant. It is not infective anymore.

The model can be modified to take into account re-infection, which causes the interest in the meme not to go to zero after the peak. Theoretically, this parameter could be affected by events occurring outside the cybersphere, but we found that, apparently, people rapidly become resistant to re-infection for most memes.

Eventually, we have a problem that has to do with the capability of the cybersphere to process information. The cybersphere is not a “brain”, it is just a complex system in homeostasis. When subjected external forcings in the form of memes, it reacts by readjusting some of its parameters, but no more than that. It can’t act on external problems by long-term planning; it doesn’t have the tools for that. We may call it a “governance” problem or, perhaps, a “command and control” problem. In any case, the system is nearly completely blind to external threats. We see this most clearly for the question of climate change. And that makes it likely that we’ll go the way the dinosaurs went.

 Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi



15 Comments on "Overpopulation: the life and death of a meme"

  1. Davy on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 6:25 am 

    “So, why did people lose interest in overpopulation just while it kept becoming a bigger problem? Something similar took place with other concepts such as the limits to growth and peak oil: people are losing interest just now that these problems are becoming gigantic and probably unsolvable…..When subjected external forcings in the form of memes, it reacts by readjusting some of its parameters, but no more than that. It can’t act on external problems by long-term planning; it doesn’t have the tools for that. We may call it a “governance” problem or, perhaps, a “command and control” problem. In any case, the system is nearly completely blind to external threats. We see this most clearly for the question of climate change. And that makes it likely that we’ll go the way the dinosaurs went.”

  2. Cloggie on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 8:11 am 

    Dutch situation:

    1.72 children per white Dutch woman

    Currently 6% Muslims in the Netherlands with 2.5 children per woman, tendency: lowering all the time, because the females escape from the grip of the males.

    Result:

    Nederland 20% moslim: 2064
    Nederland 30% moslim: 2098
    Nederland 40% moslim: 2131
    Nederland 50% moslim: 2167

    http://sargasso.nl/gc-wanneer-is-nederland-20-procent-moslim/

    That is when there will NOT be a “right-wing revolution”.ROFL

    Turkish president Endorgan has publicly called us last week:

    https://twitter.com/abdbozkurt/status/842375543114850304/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

    Well then, let’s not disappoint our Turkish friend, who hopes to become the neo-Ottoman Caliph next April and us Dutch live up to his qualifications-expectations.

    An independent right-wing Europe with grandeur, complete with Czars and Emperors and Kings is more interesting and vibrant than a commie life in the US empire.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sg3jQiP_qSs
    (Note the brand of the cars.lol)

  3. Hello on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 8:35 am 

    There won’t be any right wing revolution, Clog.

    There’s none around to do the revolutioning, except some middle age and elderly dudes who wish to go back to the good old days.

    The kids in school are used to have raghead classmates. It’s normal. A few more generations and ragheads are part of the NL identity. Normal.

    Don’t you get it? As long as they stay just below the pain threshold with importing 3rd worlders the masses won’t complain, but adapt to the new normal.

    Merkel overdid it with the import of syrians, but as she ain’t stupid she learned her lessen and will slow it down, just to the level barely acceptable to the Otto Normalverbraucher. Keep this up for a few generations and the outcome should not surprise anybody.

  4. joe on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 8:52 am 

    Hello is right. But whats the big deal about Islam, why does it matter? Well its rather simple. Its not the lack of pork or alcohol. The word itself ‘islam’ is arabic for ‘submission’, any honest muslim would tell you its not a religion but a system of living and just like socialism or liberal capitalism. There is also the sticky problem of opposing freedom of speech. If you are deemed to have insulted the religion the punishment is death, just like a neo-Inquisition. All this is fine for a agrarian community of ignorant people, but you can see how even western muslims struggle to live in the modern world with their constant protests and feelings of alienation. Islam is a system that should be disguarded like communism was, but sadly it camoflages as religion as well and so is nearly impossible to uproot. Islam and scientology have allot in common in that the scientology idea of thetans is very similar to muslims belief that devils get into you and make you do bad and so it justifies the burnings and cuttings and covering of flesh to prevent physically contacting genies etc.

  5. Cloggie on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 10:27 am 

    There won’t be any right wing revolution, Clog.

    There’s none around to do the revolutioning, except some middle age and elderly dudes who wish to go back to the good old days.

    The kids in school are used to have raghead classmates. It’s normal. A few more generations and ragheads are part of the NL identity. Normal.

    Wrong. Plain wrong.

    These “ragheads” have a very strong sense of identity and despise the Krissie Dutch and make it felt to them:

    http://www.rtlnieuws.nl/nederland/pvv-populair-onder-jonge-kiezers-jongeren-zijn-angstiger-geworden

    The PVV is especially popular under young people, who have to endure the diversity stress and are scared.

    If your “getting used to” theory would be valid, there would not have been wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

    But ethnic-religious identity is something that grows throughout the centuries and cannot be undone in a century, let alone a few decades.

    The entire situation is developing towards a mega-conflict that can be perfectly used to finally ram that stinking Christianity loser religion out of our system once and for all and go “full Roman”.

  6. efarmer on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 12:21 pm 

    Overpopulation being a meme is an interesting title. I follow several such memes, Cancer meme, Climate Change meme, Nationalism meme, wealth concentration meme, nuclear proliferation meme, and often take time from my meme trivial pursuit to discuss movies and lunch menus, and wardrobe malfunctions, and follow the Kardashians, so that I can avoid the simple minded memes, and fill my brain with rich content of an earth shaking nature.

  7. penury on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 12:22 pm 

    Why can people not accept that which is clearly evident with the loss of so many species of plants, insects, and other animals? Humans especially the believers in most religions cling to the belief that their”God” will never let bad things happen to them.Therefore all things necessary for life as we know it to continue will be available. Cognitive disconnect is real.

  8. efarmer on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 12:25 pm 

    In essence I think you are positing that the tracking of attention to a subject is proportional to the truth or importance of same. If a guy from Madison Avenue moves to Silcon Valley and works for Google can he still sell Pop Tarts to diabetics who are hopelessly wrapped up in a sugar meme?

  9. Sissyfuss on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 12:30 pm 

    Overshoot is not a meme, it is reality and the death of Ind Civ will take us back to the 19th century. The Islamisists want to take us back the 7th. That’s rather progressive, no?

  10. Cloud9 on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 12:51 pm 

    To steal from zero hedge,on a long enough time line we are all dead. Most people research until they understand the threat. They either accept it or take steps to mitigate it and they move on.

  11. Apneaman on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 1:25 pm 

    Sissyfuss, it’s starting in the 13th century and on that Islamist world reverted to full blown fundamentalism. The 7th century reference is another meme spread by people who have never read a fucking book.

  12. Sissyfuss on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 2:18 pm 

    I’ve read many books, Apnea but to your point, was there that much increase in living standards within civilizations between the 7th and 13th centuries? No big whoop.

  13. Cloggie on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 7:54 am 

    President Endorgan of Turkey urges Turks living in the EU to have 5 children, in order to gain more influence:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-4324118/Erdogan-urges-Turks-Europe-5-children.html

    Islamic warfare and imperialism via the Islamic womb. This is basically a declaration of war.

    Watched Dutch leftist talkshow Pauw & Jinek yesterday:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6gg_-S1feo

    Normally I never watch this leftist garbage, but now that the left has been destroyed in the last Wednesday election, I watch anyway, just to see them suffer.

    They had as a guest the new rising populist star Thierry Baudet, who is more sophisticated, more intelligent, more intellectual, more pro-Europe, more pro-Russia than Wilders.

    It was fascinating to see how all the leftist guests are sending sympathy signals to Baudet and that all of a sudden they profess that we should be mild on Wilders, because “he is human too”.

    Translation: we have a neck to lose too.

    Wilders may have failed to become the largest last Wednesday, but the real loser was the Dutch left.

    Multicult central Labour (PvdA)…

    https://i.imgur.com/efrLTd0.png
    (“It MUST be multicultural”)

    …went from 38 to 9 seats, or lost more than 3/4 of its vote. The multicult is over in the Netherlands.

    The next task is to get rid of asylum-tourism and the final task is to “stimulate” the Turks and Moroccans to pack there bags and return to their glorious Caliphate on the wrong side of the Bosporus, willy-nilly.

    Toodeledokie.

  14. Alice Friedemann on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 4:16 pm 

    I have several posts on this at energyskeptic including
    Why did the environmental movement drop the issue of overpopulation?
    http://energyskeptic.com/2016/why-did-env-movement-drop-population/

    Why did everyone stop talking about Population & Immigration?
    http://energyskeptic.com/2016/why-are-population-immigration-taboo-topics/

  15. JuanP on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 11:04 pm 

    Overpopulation is not a meme, it is a fact of life. For how long do you think we can keep adding 80 Million people to this planet every year? How does this benefit humanity or the biosphere? Why do we need more humans? Why would we want more?

    I am very proud that I had a Vasectomy and no children; it was the smartest thing I did in my life. I work every week with children teaching them how to grow food organically. It breaks my heart to think about their future. I can completely understand why people with children find it very hard to accept that the world is overpopulated. It is the hardest truth to accept, worse than peak everything, environmental destruction and Climate Change. Accepting overpopulation and human nature turns problems with potential solutions into unsolvable predicaments. Our situation is completely hopeless and accepting this goes against human nature.

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