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Limitations to Society, Population, and Technological Growth

Limitations to Society, Population, and Technological Growth thumbnail

I believe that there are limits to everything in terms of our physical world. All of our resources will eventually run out, sources of energy will run dry (or limit our growth) and technology alone will not be able to sustain us forever should our population continue to climb exponentially. Therefore, I believe that at some point in the future we will enter a situation where increases in input (in terms of technological growth) will result in smaller and smaller amounts of output. Even if we find a way to utilize renewable resources to fuel our society, there is also a limit to that. For example, the amount of energy reaching the Earth from the sun is quantifiable and finite. Also, the sun is a star and will eventually die as well.

In addition, the earth can only support a certain size of population before there is no more land, water, clean air, etc to support its inhabitants. When will we reach Earth’s limit to support us and how many people is that? There are plenty of estimates online, but the earliest estimate is probably 2050 which was published in 2002 by The Guardian. (Source: The United Nations estimates that the world population will be over 9 Billion by this time. However, most other articles and books on the subject actually fail to put a date or size on when Earth will reach its capacity.

In truth, there are so many factors that determine Earth’s capacity that trying to figure it out would likely yield results no more accurate than guessing. Even so, I enjoy math so let’s assume for a moment that the physical limit for human habitation results when each person on the planet only has a nominal amount of physical space for them to occupy/use/rely upon. The actual amount of space required for each person to surface on Earth is subjective but implicitly would need to include the land area required for each person’s supply of food, water, and shelter. Given that the habitable land surface of Earth is 24,642,757mi2 (Source: “Land” by Eric R. Pianka) the table below gives the maximum population that can be sustained for a variety of nominal land sizes as well as a projected horizon year for this population level to be reached. The horizon year was computed by extrapolating the world’s current population growth rate outward into the future.

Nominal Land Area Per Person
Physical Population Limit
Horizon Year
Years from 2014
95,000 ft^2
World Population as of Oct. 2014
50,000 ft^2
Less than 1 acre per person
25,000 ft^2
10,000 ft^2
5,000 ft^2
2,500 ft^2
1,000 ft^2
500 ft^2

Of course this is a dramatic oversimplification. In addition, this data says nothing about the standard of living. Certainly an American lifestyle requires more land to sustain than those enjoying life in a 3rd world country. Also, one cannot possibly live in a world with only 10,000ft2 per person with no room for roads, buildings etc. What’s interesting to note on the chart is that the current world’s population only yields about 2.2 acres per person if divided equally. It’s fascinating to see it in this perspective – perhaps we are already reaching the physical limit of earth’s ability to sustain a human population.

Regardless of the above mathematics (which is basically arbitrary) my opinion is that we have at least 150-250 years to go before we truly enter a situation of diminishing returns. By this time in the future India’s population will have surpassed China and many of the 3rd world countries of today will be industrialized. This will lead to an increasing decline of our resources and our environment and an increasing demand for energy. In other words, the world population will not be able to reach the staggering numbers shown in the table above because there are other limitations to growth than just land availability.

Other Limitations

Population growth and capacity of the Earth aside, there are also other limitations that we face. Historically human prosperity and technological prowess has always been limited by one of the following factors: Design, Mechanisms, Energy, and/or Materials. Here is a brief description of each of those limitations:

  • Design – A design limitation is simply an inability for humanity to conceive of a new idea to solve the problem with the current levels of mechanisms, energy, and materials and scientific understanding.
  • Mechanisms – A mechanisms limitation is an inability to create new things due to a lack of machines necessary to transform the available materials and energy into new kinds of products, etc
  • Energy – An energy limitation is essentially an inability to grow because of a need for more efficient and larger amounts of energy.
  • Materials – A materials limitation is an inability to create something due to a lack of materials with the necessary properties to solve the problem at hand.

In the end, our future may be shaped by all of these limitations but I don’t think that a design or mechanisms limitation will be thing that prevents us from moving forward. I would argue that the human spirit would collectively be able to design several new technologies to keep us moving forward. In essence, one of humans’ best abilities is to adapt to change and find solutions to complex problems. In addition, we also have a great ability to create new technologies when new problems present themselves.

With that said, I don’t think that materials will be the final limiting factor in the future either. If you think about, almost all things that humanity has ever created or used is still on this earth in one form another. We also already have the capability to construct materials from ingredients at the atomic scale (e.g. nanotechnology) which will help us “mine” materials for our use. It’s also conceivable that humanity could develop new technology to recycle essentially any material (for example, converting ash and soot back into wood). However, this type of technology would likely require vast amounts of energy. And finally, humanity is already on the brink of developing technology that will enable to mine materials from asteroids in outer space.

So what will be our limitation to the future? In my opinion I believe that we will run out of materials necessary to sustain humanity before we ever run out of energy, methods, or ideas.

But what about Human Ingenuity?

For the most part I agree that our ingenuity will not degrade or devolve anytime soon. Humans have always found creative ways to solve problems and overcome limitations. I believe that creativity and ingenuity are ingrained in human nature. However, there are a few things that could hinder or stop ingenuity and that’s 1) Complete loss of effective communication among societal segments and/or 2) Complete absorption into materialism combined with a shift in governance to pure socialism.

A complete loss of effective communication can be caused by specialization (an increase in diversification of professions) and technology. For example, as humanity advances and we create more specialized segments of society (i.e. professions) we need to develop new words to describe the things we do. Professions tend to develop their own language which makes communication with other people who are outside your professional area more difficult. This is happening as we speak and it is slowly making it harder for the average person to keep up with what’s going on in the world let alone understand it. The inability to communicate across the multiple professions necessary to create ever more advanced technology could limit our technological growth and ingenuity. This could eventually lead to a world that falls apart because no one can collaborate on new ideas anymore.

My second point is rather controversial but it’s logical to think that someday in the future our system of governance could shift towards pure socialism. Imagine that technology someday solved most of our problems and there was no longer any jobs available for humans. In this scenario there wouldn’t be a need for capitalism as people could get everything they needed from the technology we created. A pure socialistic society would need to be created to ensure that all people have a chance of survival. If this shift were to occur, there would no longer be any need or motivation for creativity or innovation.

25 Comments on "Limitations to Society, Population, and Technological Growth"

  1. Dave Thompson on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 12:56 am 

    A whole lot of bla bla bla.

  2. Northwest Resident on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 1:15 am 

    But what about Human Ingenuity?

    (snicker, snicker)

  3. liu on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 6:37 am 

    Northwest…everyday, you are such a sad sack. Why don’t you just put a bag over your head already…there is no point in going on in your condition.

  4. Davy on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 6:51 am 

    @ – Regardless of the above mathematics (which is basically arbitrary) my opinion is that we have at least 150-250 years to go before we truly enter a situation of diminishing returns.

    This is the same academic think that we see constantly with population, food, and ecosystem destruction. The crisis is far off by our human level of urgency. We are here and it is now. The inflection point has been passed. Chaos will enter the complex system resulting in a cascade of bifurcations. Eventually confidence will be lost. Once confidence is lost it will be very difficult to regain complexity and economic activity. Cornucopianism is like the rich guy in the bar on the titanic he will be in denial until the end.

  5. Davy on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 7:03 am 

    LIu is in the initial phase called denial. The sooner you face your denial the sooner you can face the healthy progression to acceptance. You and others are the reason the crash will be ugly and painful.

  6. JuanP on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 9:48 am 

    Liu, If you are smart and well educated, you will be sad about what is going on in the world today, unless you are a sociopath.
    NR’s approach to life is smart, balanced, and healthy, IMO. He contributes good ideas here, and I, for one, am grateful we have him around.
    You, on the other hand, are welcome to bag and throw yourself in the river any time you feel like it.

  7. JuanP on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 9:56 am 

    This article is garbage. I couldn’t finish this delusional denialist BS. Skip this one for your mind’s wellbeing!

  8. Kenz300 on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 10:20 am 

    Endless population growth is not sustainable.

    Around the world we can find a food crisis, a water crisis, a declining fish stocks crisis, a Climate Change crisis, an unemployment crisis and an OVER POPULATION crisis.

    Overpopulation facts – the problem no one will discuss: Alexandra Paul at TEDxTopanga – YouTube


    Wrap it up……. get it snipped……

    Birth Control Permanent Methods: Learn About Effectiveness

  9. Northwest Resident on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 10:40 am 

    liu — Thanks for your opinion, which I highly value.

    Sad sack? Are you kidding? I’m in great health, I have a great job, good friends and relatives. I have several projects that I’m totally involved in when I’m not at work. And I’m having the time of my life preparing for what looks like a fast approaching economic collapse to me. It is a challenge I am gung-ho to take on, and I believe that I can play a positive role in helping others to adapt to the hardships that lay ahead, a role I would take on in a moment’s notice. I’m optimistic about the future, but a realist at the same time.

    What is there to be a “sad sack” about?

    You’re just joking around, right? If you would post here more often, I’d have a better feel for if you are serious or sarcastic in your sad sack post.

  10. Davy on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 11:05 am 

    I heard an echo NR. IMA us doomers and preppers are heroically inclined to save our family, friends, and community. We are sad for you liu and your blind faith in the Cornucopian religion preached by MSM. I feel for you because heart break awaits you.

  11. Northwest Resident on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 11:16 am 

    Davy, Juan — Remember the words that Jesus spoke: Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.

    I’m not religious buff and whether some dude named Jesus ever said those words or not is a matter of faith.

    But those words to represent a universal truth, which is, not everybody “gets it”.

    I was at the supermarket (Safeway!) two days ago standing in the checkout line with my 15-yo son. We were discussing the drop in oil price and possibilities of collapse. To my amazement, the guy directly in front of me in the line turned around and said something to the effect of “this world is heading for major trouble”, then the couple in line before him turned around to agree and there we were, in line, having an impromptu discussion on the pending global economic collapse.

    A LOT of people get it. The number is growing, thanks to forums like this, and thanks I believe to “doomers” like us who are here and elsewhere, cutting through the lies, presenting our points of view, convincing people of the dangers and of the opportunities, and leading the way with our preparations.

    Thanks guys for being “in it” with me. I think liu might have been just joking around. But there are a lot of people who are NOT just joking around, who persist in denying reality and faulting us for dealing with it. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

  12. GregT on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 11:18 am 

    “So what will be our limitation to the future? In my opinion I believe that we will run out of materials necessary to sustain humanity before we ever run out of energy, methods, or ideas.”

    Yet more human exceptionalism. The Earth is not simply a resource base for human material consumption. It is a highly complex biosphere, which took millions of years to reach an equilibrium capable of supporting a myriad of intertwined biological lifeforms. We have already greatly upset this equilibrium, and if we do not change our attitudes, the biosphere will reach tipping points, and life as we know it will cease to exist.

  13. JuanP on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 12:00 pm 

    NR, Now I feel like SuperJuan!
    Liu got under my skin when he told you to put a bag over your head, and I allowed myself a transgression and responded in kind.
    No hard feelings, Liu, I was just giving you a dose of your own medicine. 😉
    Liu is welcome here. All perspectives are welcome here, as far as I am concerned. But there is no need to get personal.

  14. MSN Fanboy on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 12:30 pm 

    “But there is no need to get personal”

    Especially as Ebola will kill us all right guys? ROLF


  15. Northwest Resident on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 12:49 pm 

    JuanP — A few posters on this site really get under my skin sometimes too. It’s the blatant and willful stupidity and misrepresentation of facts that tends to rile me up. Sometimes I get dragged into the gutter with my responses to those posters, and I always feel “slimed” after the exchange. Trying to avoid direct confrontation on this site is a challenge sometimes, so I know just what you mean.

  16. Jerry McManus on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 1:25 pm 

    “However, this type of technology would likely require vast amounts of energy”

    What a hoot! The author fully acknowledges the biophysical and thermodynamic limits barreling down on us like the proverbial brick wall, and yet still somehow manages a complete failure to grasp the consequences.

    Even manages to somehow extrapolate boundless human ingenuity into a dystopian future of “socialist” couch potatoes that reads like a scene straight out of the movie “Wall-E”.


  17. JuanP on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 1:51 pm 

    MSN, I see you got my point! 😉

  18. Richard Ralph Roehl on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 6:04 pm 

    One more time.

    Old Coyote Knose… the EXPONENTIAL growth of the human baboony population and the global consumer economy on Planet Over-birth Earth, a fragile HOST ORGANISM of FINITE space and FINITE resources, cannot be sustained much longer. EXPONENTIAL GROWTH in a closed looped system (Earth) is not progress. It is insanity. It is suicide.

    The United States of Perpetual War Profiteering will not exist by 2050-2060. And by the end of the 21st century, the rest of humanity will be perched at the edge of EXTINCTION.

    Where there is no insight, the people perish. And Amerikans in particular are the dumbest of the dumb.

  19. Davy on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 7:06 pm 

    Richie what dumbass country are you from?

  20. Makati1 on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 8:49 pm 

    Human ingenuity? Well, look around. What has been invented since 1964, in the last 50 years?

    Fraking for oil/gas? 1947
    Solar panels? 1958
    Programmable computers? Before 1936
    Wireless (cell) phones? 1918
    Microchips? 1959
    Plasma screens? 1964
    Jets? 1940
    Satellites? 1957

    And on and on, with most of what we now have as being only improvements or added gimmicks, not new discoveries.

    Then there is: Nuclear fusion? Research began in 1920 and still in the distant future.

    No, technology is not going to save the human race from extinction. It just may cause it. Or maybe it already has…

  21. Makati1 on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 9:00 pm 

    RRR, you are correct! Ignore the flag waving ‘patriots’ here who cannot think about their country being trash maker number one or being the biggest terrorist mafia in the world today. They only see the mote in another’s eye.

    I don’t see the USSA existing as one country until even 2050. Maybe 2030-35 at the latest. But few can see the great divides already forming, held together by the Fed printing press and gullible foreigners who still believe the USSA is a safe place to park their wealth. LMAO!

    China, Russia and India are all buying gold and other resources, with their Charmin dollars as fast as they can, to get rid of them. When enough USD have returned to the USSA, the fun will begin.

  22. Apneaman on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 12:04 am 

    What was the last great break through? Higgs boson a couple of years ago? What’s the price tag on that one? How many resources? How many brilliant people? Compare that to 110 years ago. Einstein at work in the patent office comes up with relativity (good thing he did not have the internet to distract him) Cost? 1 piece of paper and some pencil lead. Given enough resources and time we could figure out many of the universes secrets, but we are in short supply; simpler days are coming again. I love the smell of an old book.

  23. FriedrichKling on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 12:48 am 


    I and many others greatly admire your intelligent and thought-provoking posts. Please do not allow ONE loser to dissuade you!!!!!

    Keep-up the great work!!!!!!!

  24. Mark on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 11:12 am 

    Lets see, in 150-250 years I would be surprised if we have not mastered space travel and colonization. I know it has been disappointing for the last 40 years, but that is mostly a lack of political will. There are lots of methods that could work for space travel once the political will is there. Even so, population in many rich first world countries is actually declining. And renewable energy is going mainstream.

  25. Apneaman on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 12:03 pm 

    “political will”

    There is that trite, mean nothing phrase again. Always inserted as some vague fantasists solution to real and complicated problems. Much like Oprah’s favorite magical thinking book “The Secret”. That’s right kids you can simply, wish away any and all problems and conjure any new reality into existence by force of will alone.

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