Human Race Priorities?

I was recently in a super interesting discussion mostly focused on energy efficiency and, as part of the discussion, the claim was raised that Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley was right when he said that Energy was the number one challenge facing our planet. I’m a pretty big believer in energy efficiency and the importance of renewable energy so, without having read exactly what Smalley said, I agreed it was a very important area. With low cost energy, we can make water from sea water.  If the low cost energy source is a low cost and clean source, the global warming problem could be addressed. I definitely can see some of why he might rank it number 1 but I wasn’t sure I would.

I wanted to dig deeper into what Smalley said but before thinking through his list of the top problems for humanity, I thought it would be worth building my own list. I find that the best way to know what your current priorities really are is not to think too hard about it and just quickly write them down. Your list might need some re-ordering and you might find you need to add one or two upon deeper reflection but the “write it down fast” approach isn’t a bad way to understand your current priorities best.

If you feel like it, write down your list of 5 to 10 of the biggest problems you think face humanity. You may miss some in just diving in without doing any research but it does tell you your current and most immediate priorities. Here’s my list:

  • Population Growth​: this drives food shortages, energy shortages, global warming, heightens the risk of epidemiological risks, and resource shortages cause tensions that always lead to low scale conflicts and often lead to large scale wars.
  • Global Warming: Climate change and the negative impacts that follow from global warming.
  • Virus and Epidemiological Risks: Virus and widespread pandemic risks whether from natural sources or the human race not getting along as well as we should.
  • Polarization and Intolerance of “different”: Decreasing world-wide respect for people who worship different gods, look different, practice a different form of government, or chose to live their lives differently.  Leads to wars that shouldn’t happen. Leads to massive increase in terrorism in many different forms. Leads to entire countries turning inward and, within countries, causes polarization and increasingly extreme positions to become the norm.
  • Low cost renewable energy: I would love to see us all become more energy efficient and simply use less energy but more than a third of the world is living in poverty. All these people deserve a better lifestyle and there is just about no way to live a better lifestyle without consuming more energy. We all want to see the next third of the world to climb up over the poverty line so we have to accept that there will be more energy consumption even if the world’s richest nations actually get smart and squeeze out most of the wastage. I’m not particularly optimistic on this latter point which makes finding low cost renewable energy even more important to me. Energy efficiency alone won’t do it. We need to get to low cost renewables.  That might do it but current population growth rates both reduce the time we have to work and mean that low cost renewable energy alone won’t work unless the renewable power source is cheaper than coal. If it’s not, an emerging economy probably will not pay more to get less energy.

For me, energy isn’t number one even though it’s right near the top of what I work upon most. Population growth appears to be the most dominant problem and, in my view, a solution there would reduce the magnitude of many of the rest of my top 5 greatly and some would no longer be big issues. For example, a non-renewable energy economy isn’t ideal but, with a small population would work fine for a very long time.

For comparative purposes, I looked up Richard Smalley’s list of top 10 problems facing humanity in 2004:

  1. Energy
  2. Water
  3. Food
  4. Environment
  5. Poverty
  6. Terrorism & war
  7. Disease
  8. Education
  9. Democracy
  10. Population

Smalley has a good list and it’s worth thinking through where it matches and where it differs from yours. For comparison, here is a closely related top 10 from the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change in 2004:

  1. Poverty
  2. Infectious disease
  3. Environmental degradation
  4. Inter-state war
  5. Civil war
  6. Genocide
  7. Other atrocities (e.g., trade in women and children for sexual slavery, or kidnapping for body parts)
  8. Weapons of mass destruction (nuclear proliferation, chemical weapon proliferation, biological weapon proliferation)
  9. Terrorism
  10. Transnational organized crime

My number one, human population, didn’t even make the list for this group and wasn’t near the top of Smalley’s list. I personally have population at the top of my list because so many of our problems have the resource consumption of 7.7B (heading quickly towards 10B) at the core. Looking at many unrelated and difficult issues facing humanity, our population size in absolute numbers is an accelerant for many of them. By analogy, population is not always the cause of the fire but population does feed it.

24 comments on “Human Race Priorities?
  1. Great post!

    It’s interesting that you say:

    “My number one, human population, didn’t even make the list for this group and wasn’t near the top of Smalley’s list.”

    Because poverty is #1 on the UN list, and it’s actually closely related to population growth. You could even make the case that numbers 2-7 on the UN list are implicitly linked to population growth because they would increase poverty and child mortality.

    It seems that there isn’t clear agreement on the causal direction between poverty and population growth rates… so I don’t want to make overly bold claims. But it seems like they’re linked to me.

    Some references:

    • Yes, lots of debate on the population point but my general take is that it’s super hard to have more than 7B people on the planet and have them all well fed at the same time as we avoid destroying the planet. That’s just a monstrous environmental load where the average human has an increasing power requirement and the agriculture required to support them alone is a big contributor to green house gasses and deforestation.

      Thanks for those references.

      • Franklin Wirtz says:

        Global population growth rate peaked in the 70s. Wealthy countries have negative population growth rates (ignoring immigration). A remarkable and only recently discovered attribute of humanity is that we have fewer kids when we aren’t subjected to suffering and deprivation.

        Unfettered population growth is a problem, but the solution is surprising and beautiful: lean into the already substantial progress made in the last 100 years in hunger and poverty reduction.

        Win-win solutions are rare, but when we find them we should invest heavily in them.

  2. Leon Xu says:

    Hi James, really enjoy following your blog, and it’s interesting to see that energy is consistently showing up in so many peoples’ lists. I’m curious on your views for what the future holds for power requirements in an increasingly cloud-centric world, especially since tech infrastructure can usually change a lot faster than energy infrastructure. There’s been some interesting debate on the carbon footprint of things like video streaming, which makes me wonder which variables matter most for the math as we head into the future. Does is it come down to general efficiency gains at the chip level, or do things like optimizing CDN networks for content mix actually have a larger impact on efficiency on the overall network? (Assuming there are significant differences in power usage for delivering different types of content, like pre-recorded media versus live stream videos being created and distributed real-time) A few years ago you had posted about data center costs (with power efficiency having diminishing returns to size while fault zones scale linearly) – were those end-state proportions that still roughly hold true today?

    Also great point on the economic realities for developing economies – it can be easy to forget that not all parts of the world have the same economic flexibility afforded us in highly developed nations. I would be fascinated in how you would envision the eventual construction of modern technological infrastructure in these developing regions, but perhaps that is a question for another day…

    • The move to the cloud is an reduction in power over spent on data centers vs on premise deployements driving by two factors: 1) the cloud runs much higher utilization due to maxing the consumption peaks and valleys of many different users and better fleet management), and 2) more efficiency across the board. People think of cloud capacity as net new but there is very little elasticity in demand driven by the lower cost of cloud computing. This just says that the amount of server side computing is changed little by the cloud computing model. It’s either done on premise or in the cloud. If in the cloud, it’s more efficient and run at higher utilization and customers get to move much more quickly. But, if you think about the elasticity of demand, in the vast majority of businesses, the cost of computing is not-dominenet. Most businesses buy the IT services they need to run their businesses. If the cloud went away, they would do the same work on premise. If they all switched everything to the cloud tomorrow, they would gain in many ways but the amount of computing they need to do to run there businesses would be unchanged. It would just be done at better value and at lower power cost.

      The better value of cloud computing doesn’t really have a big change on the amount of computing that gets done since, in most businesses, the server-side computing is going to get done whether at on-premise costs or at cloud costs.It’s just the computing work they need to do to run their respective businesses.

      When people talk about the massive power consumption of computing, they are only sort of right. These are big consumers but wildly smaller than transportation and consumer electronics. And the alternative of using server compute resources is usually to spend more energy running there busineses without as many central IT systems. If you look at the economic activity in the world and assume it is useful and necessary (not universally true), then IT expendature is reducing cost and power consumption. A 100 person accounting organization doing everything by hand consumes more energy and produces more carbon that doing that some operation server-side infrastructure. Crash testing BMWs is more energy and carbon intensive that running simulations on server-side infrastructure and only crash testing to validate the models. Server side IT saves energy for a given amount of economic activity.

      On your specific question of video streaming. Clearly not watching a video is less carbon and power intensive than watching a video. But, if you assume a video is going to be watched, then streaming is likely less power intensive than shipping around DVDs. In most cases, bringing activies online reduces carbon and power intensity but it’s certainly the case that ignorning Facebook is less power and carbon intensive than participating. It’s hard to change that but, if energy were charged at a rate that reflected it’s negative impact on the worlds environment (which I strongly advocate), then consumption would naturally tailor actual economic impact on the planet. My core belief is that coal and petroleum is far too cheap even in countries where it’s viewed as “expensive.”

      What will developing world data centers look like? Just the same as what we have in Virginia, Oregon, Dublin, etc. The developing world will get the same faciliites since these are the best value and most power efficient designs we have, that’s what we’ll use. Just about everyone in developing nations will have cell phones. Over time, they will have many of the same consumer electronics and depend upon the same server side infratructure. The way devices and services are priced, sold, and the business models used in developing nations will likely be different but the server-side IT infrastructure will be the same.

      • Hey says:

        James, do you also think big organizations dominating the provision of servers to smaller businesses can be more useful and appropriate for testing and managing the renewable energy resources? Such big shots often enable the ability to target a focused geographical location by a focused group rather than every joe having to invest his/her part for contributing to energy consumption. I feel governments and big corporates hosting cloud can take in hand the usage of renewable resources at a much lesser cost than smaller businesses. A farmer in a rural area is much often reluctant to spend on installing solar panels as source of energy to run electric motors compared to her/his desire for spending on cheap gasoline, although solar panels are one time investment, it is still huge in many areas. This is where a big corporation/ government can invest on testing newer energy sources or using proven energy sources in a targeted but most energy consuming sectors like cloud server providers, other big industries etc. It’s a win-win for the earth and the company.

        • Certainly its easier for companies at scale to do more since they have a large population to amortize the work. But small companies have done big things as well and often do. Generally, governments aren’t the typical source of innovation but there are some exceptions like the early days of manned space flight and many innovations in defense where at least government funded.

          One big ways governments can help encourage work from all companies big and small, is to tax carbon base fuels in a way that represents their negative impact on the world.

          Since the cloud computing companies are all deeply invested in clean energy, using a cloud computing provider is a step in the right direction for a company of any size.

  3. Pravin Varma says:

    Please checkout Jesse Ausubel who shows that there’s been a decoupling from population growth and resource consumption due to technology.

    Population is not just stomachs to feed, but hands to work and brains to think.
    A lower population means a much poorer world

    • The argument there is that, in aggregate, there is more wealth in the world (more output) with more people. There is no question that is true but, at least for me, that is an anti-goal. What we want is the combination of: more output per person and less aggregate resource consumption. If optimizing for total output across the planet, more people is better. If optimizing for most output per person and, at the same time, reducing resource consumption, it’s a more complex optimization problem but I’m arguing the best solution is way less than 7B people.

      • Pravin Varma says:

        As author Matt Ridley says, The population of the world is not growing because we breed like rabbits, but because the poor have stopped dropping dead like flies thanks to cheap antibiotics and vaccines. This is surely, good news. Further good news is that the emissions of co2 etc start dropping even as productivity keeps rising.
        Nice chart here

        The increase in output need not come up destroying forests and watersources etc. Human beings , far from pillaging earth, have barely scratched it’s surface. Prosperity can reduce the ill effects of consumption. I remain an rational optimist.

        • The observation that “increase input need not destroying water sources” is probably true but world forest continue to be reduced especially in the Amazon. There are 7.8B on the planet — I’m optimistic and think the overall quality of life for many humans will improve. That’s ~2B more consumers that need to eat better than they do today and will want a better standard of living. Our current population without any growth has us signed up for massive increases in energy consumption.

  4. Andrew Brian Cencini says:

    I am reading “No Immediate Danger” by William T. Vollmann right now. An older book that I read and enjoyed was “Ecotopia” by Ernest Callenbach. Of course, “The Infinite Resource” by our friend Ramez Naam is also on topic. One thing I have read and observed in other similar discussions is that it is almost “taboo” these days to suggest that population growth is a problem – I think some of it comes as blowback from some draconian population control policies in days gone by – but I agree with you. So my list would include (framed as problems to solve):

    0.) Population growth – determine what an appropriate carrying capacity is and work humanely to keep within those bounds.

    1.) Climate change – we know what to do here, we’re just not doing it.

    2.) Extreme income inequality – history has shown us that when this gets bad, things get ugly. Spreading opportunity more broadly will help us advance as a species.

    3.) Extinction of critical species of flora and fauna – this is tied to climate change – we must work to preserve our ecosystem to prevent a collapse that will then endanger our ability to survive.

    4.) Global and regional conflict – self-explanatory.

    5.) Disinvestment in education, science, and healthcare (see also viruses and pandemics) – given the current power structure of the world, the US is one of the dominant players, but has been systematically disinvesting in non-industrial scientific research, all levels of education, and broadly-available, affordable healthcare. The current situation is a perfect storm where all of these things have failed at once.

    6.) Clean water – we’re more screwed than we think on this one.

    7.) Freedom/incarceration – this is hidden from plain sight but a large percentage of our population is locked in cages, in many cases due to the color of their skin or the zip code they were born in. The trend remains dismal and excessive.

    8.) Quality of information – almost universally, humans have more access to information than ever before. But who is controlling it? We need to keep an eye on this.

    I’ll stop there but thanks for the prompt to think about this and I enjoyed reading yours and others’ perspectives on this.

    • Hey Andrew. Good hearing from you. Thanks for taking the time to write up your list. I like them all. On clean water, I agree it is a massive world problem but, it didn’t make my list on the belief that other factors could solve it. With affordable, renewable energy we can run sea water through reverse osmosis systems to desalinate. We can have near infinite supplies of water but at a very high energy cost. And, our course, with a smaller population we would need less land cleared for farming and we wouldn’t have as much water intensive farming and there would be less pollution making existing water not safely drinkable.

      The water shortage is largely the combination of an economic problem and a product of supporting a very high population density. We are easily able to make water in very large quantities but it’s power intensive not available to those that can’t afford it. The Middle East has many very large desalination plants but, of course, these massively expensive plants aren’t as common in the less developed world. And, even in the more developed world, the cost of R/O water is so high that it’s unaffordable for large scale agricultural use. Much of the farm land currently in production doesn’t make economic sense to farm in a water poor world and, with less population pressure, that land wouldn’t need to be in production.

      On population control, many years ago I saw Bill Gates give a talk where he went through some very compelling statistics showing that some very economic improvements in world health care and especially a reduction in infant mortality, has a near instant impact on population growth. Improved world health care and the reduction in infant mortality that follows from that lowers population growth. Other studies show that education substantially reduces population growth. Population growth appears to be one of those nice situations where important progress that needs to happen elsewhere, rapidly reduces population growth. And, less people, makes other problems easier to address. It’s a virtuous cycle that once started can quickly reduce the magnitude of many problems.

      Your point on “quality of information” is a good one. I would argue that there is good quality information available today. The problem is that you need to practice critical thinking and be thoughtful and selective in thinking through what you hear and what you believe. Highly biased news sources exist partly because there is a market for it and partly because it’s accepted. If it people were uninterested in biased sources, they wouldn’t continue to grow in influence. If people didn’t accept little sound bites as facts and were willing to take the time to dig deeper, many extreme positions wouldn’t look as attractive. A great many people have very strong views on topics where they really haven’t taken the time to learn anything about. Education can improve critical thinking and seems to lead to more nuanced views accepting more shades of gray and less extreme views. I think there will always be large quantities of low quality information. What’s needed is more education so that people are better equipped to think past the sound bite.

    • Yes, I agree. It’s super interesting. I first came across this data point when attending a Bill Gates talk on his philanthropy work where he discussed where he focuses the Gates Foundation Resources and why. Female education is an amazingly powerful lever.

  5. Ed says:

    Thanks for the helpful response, James!

    I expect developing nations to continue to ignore global environmental externalities. Assuming so, then meaningful renewable adoption by developing nations won’t occur without price-competitiveness or transfer payments from developed nations. Do you think this is right?

    Price parity appears far off, and transfer payments seem to have been largely unsuccessful, for various reasons.

    So the situation seems quite grim. We believe that (1) developing countries will increase their emission production, thus driving an increase in global emissions; and (2) that an increase in global emissions will cause dramatically negative outcomes. So what exactly is our plan here?

    I’ve seen headlines about possible “silver bullets” in the form of environmental engineering projects, primarily carbon sequestration. I’m not able to evaluate the claims here myself. Should we be optimistic that technology will allow us to have our cake and eat it too (continue emitting greenhouse gases without harmful environmental consequences)?

    • From my perspective, all these problems are addressable with money using current technology. What’s missing is the will to address the problem. Most of the worlds developed nations are only loosely committed to solving the problem and some nations, like the US, aren’t yet even weakly committed to solution. The world as a whole doesn’t yet have a credible plan that will be executed upon for the developed world much less committing the resources to helping less developed nations. But, we could. The developed world could choose to build clean power plants for the emerging economies.

      It’s all addressable with money and commitment. Renewable energy and energy storage technology is all improving fast so the price of taking action will continue to fall but, at least in my estimation, I don’t see renewable energy costing less than coal in the near term. Overall, not hopeless but currently only fully addressable at significant expense.

      • Ed says:

        Again, thank you for the helpful response!

        I don’t follow the science/technology here, but I do follow U.S. politics. If reducing worldwide emissions is predicated on a farsighted, multi-trillion-dollar, European-coordinated transfer from the U.S. to emerging competitive manufacturing economies in the next few years, then I am pessimistic.

  6. Ed says:

    I’m not familiar with the industry/technology, so my questions are pretty basic. A quick search suggests that about 20% of U.S. energy is sourced from renewable/nuclear. Is this the “free-market” equilibrium, or is government (or consumer preference) putting a finger on the scale (e.g., government by taxing/subsidizing consumption based on source, or by over-regulating safety of nuclear sources.)

    20% is more than symbolic, but it’s still low. Assuming non-renewable market prices stay broadly stable, should we be optimistic that near-term advances in technology (say 20 years) can meaningfully shift the free-market equilibrium? I focus on the free-market equilibrium because that’s where I expect developing nations to settle.

    • I separate out Nuclear from the renewable plants. I was really excited about nuclear 30 years ago and I’m still optimistic that we’ll come up with fail safe reactor designs and deploy enough plants to get some economies of scale again. There have been a couple of licenses issue in the US recently so there is some activity. Russia is still building nuclear plants as well. But, the downside risk of nuclear is just so massive. Tepco and Chernobyl really stick with public and nuclear is very unpopular right now. I suspect we’ll see nuclear coming back with the disasters fading from memory, far better solutions for waste storage, and newer fail-safe designs. But, I don’t see that happening at scale over the next 5 years.

      On the renewable plants, there is a thumb on the scale” as you said. Renewable energy is more expensive than coal and if economics were all that is looked at, renewable plants wouldn’t be deployed for at scale power production. But, fortunately, these decisions are more complex. Consumers in some cases really do care about the environment. Corporate consumers and their customers sometimes care about the environment. So there is appetite to build renewable plants but it’s factors outside of the pure cost of energy.

      My dream is renewable cheaper than coal but that’s a high bar and we haven’t yet hit that mark. But, prices are falling fast and, in many cases, people or companies are willing to spend more. Where I work, we have brought vast amounts of renewable energy online even though it costs somewhat more. The good news is that even when more expensive, some will get deployed. Tax advantages can help. What would help even more than tax benefits for renewable is taxing non-renewable plants for their actual costs. Emission regulations are another very good approach. Setting tough emission requirements or, even better, billing for emissions, can help make coal look less favorable to other cleaner solutions.

      The good news is that renewable plants are getting built even though it’s not the cheapest way to make power today. Sometimes its tax advantages causing them to be deployed and sometimes other social issues but the good news is they are getting deployed. We need to move faster but it’s happening.

      Another bit of good news is that natural gas is now so cheap, that it’s nuts to build a new coal plant in areas with good natural gas access. Natural gas competes well with coal but the natural gas distribution system world-wide is not as well developed as it should be and it’s still wasted all over the world. Basically no pipe or ship between the source and the load. Lots of natural gas gets flared off which is bad for the environment and produces now energy. But, where the distribution system is in place, it’s a great option. Not as good as renewable — it’s still bad for the environment — but it’s so much less damaging than coal that it’s good to see a less damaging option so cost effective and it’s good to see the gas distribution system improving world-wide.

      The short answer to your question is coal is still cheaper than wind or solar so we need other motivations like tax benefits for renewables, additional taxes on emissions from non-renewable plants, or just people and companies wanting renewable.

    • The podcast speakers point is that the 24B mass growth prediction for the end of the century was way wrong. What I’m saying is that 7.7B is WAY too many rather than a prediction that on the rate of growth I. Focus first on the 2B that are living below the poverty line. Their current annual energy budget is close to zero. I hope and expect that their standard of living will improve greatly. In a way, that prediction might be partly influenced by my optimism but, it’s also historically what has happened in the past. If you buy that prediction, it says our planets carbon emissions budget is going to get hit by 3B more consumers even if earths populations doesn’t go up at all (and the growth rate is still positive). We currently have a problem where much of the developed world is unwilling to sign up for a fast enough reduction in carbon emissions and yet, at the same time, we are trying to reducing or at least some are arguing that we should, so we also have another couple of billion consumers coming.

      Almost every serious environmental problem that we face on earth today at 7.7B people world-wide wouldn’t be serious or nearly as challenging at 1B people. World defoliation is driven by population and the need to create more revenue producing land. Water shortages, are driven by large people concentrations. Many disease problems are driven by the combination of people density, poverty, and poor sanitation. More generally, many resource shortages are driving by the large number of consumers on the planet.

      All these problems look addressable with the will to solve them but that will usually only gets strong after great pain. There are a many problems that we are not solving at 7.7B that wouldn’t even be a big problem at a much smaller population.

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