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.

42 comments on “Human Race Priorities?
  1. Chris Simms says:

    James, you’re awesome and inspirational. Thank you for sharing your wisdom here.

    In regard to population being the fuel to many of our fires – How would an accomplished distributed systems engineer such as yourself organize 7.9 billion diverse, occasionally irrational people to identify, prioritize, and work toward common goals like survival of their species? How might governance look? How would you insulate against corruption?

    I tend to look at microbiology for answers to scale problems. There’s a lot to learn by looking within ourselves. Curious to know your thoughts.

    • There is no magic answer that I know of but the best suggestion I have is education. Education helps people arrive at rational decisions, it helps encourage critical thinking and, generally, can help people arrive at less polarized positions and ask the same from their governments.

      • Chris Simms says:

        Thanks for your insight. I dwell on this subject often given the current challenges we face. There seems to be far more discussion around problems than solutions.

        • It’s true that there is more discussion of the problems that solutions but even a discussion of problems is a step forward. It’s those discussions that are leading to some big steps being taken by many companies. Still not even close to good enough but it’s better than a decade ago. Just not yet close to fast enough.

  2. Vamsi says:

    It’s old post, but happened to read it now and would love to get your thoughts on my mental model. I think total (-) impact on environment is factor of 1. Total population, 2. Avg energy consumption per person and 3. Cost of per unit energy on environment (renewable vs non renewable).

    It appears that most of suggested solutions here focus only on #1 and #3, but ignore #2. I’d argue that we need to focus on all 3. If we are questioning growth of population over time, which is fundamental in evolution, then why should we accept growth in energy consumption per person? If consumption continues to grow by order of magnitude (for example, we use 10x more devices), we may not be able to compensate the damage with less population or low cost energy.

    • I agree with you that consumption per person is a huge problem and that’s one of my primary concerns. We have another billion people becomming consumers over the next decade. It’s great news that more and more people will have the economic capability live with more reliable food and water suppliers and become consumers. But it also means that the overall planet energy burden will go up even if the more well off nations get more serious than they are now about energy consumption reduction.

      • Jerry H says:

        Hi James – thanks for your excellent perspective and for framing things in a logical and consumable manner. I agree that part of the path forward is greater tolerance and not aggressively pushing out-of-the-norm views on people (like all meat is evil and no one should eat meat ever), but it does seem as though meat production and consumption is an underlying theme across all of your top 5 priorities. As population growth increases, so does the demand for meat which is both inefficient from a ‘calorie consumed’ (by livestock animal) to a ‘calorie produced’ perspective as well as an energy / resource consumption perspective (i.e. think of how many steps exist in the supply / value chain and the energy intensity required for transport, packaging, refrigeration, etc. – this itself contributes to many of the factors that exacerbate climate change).

        Additionally, one of my views is that antibiotics are the foundation of modern medicine and that the large quantities of antibiotics given to livestock animals (in order to reduce disease and improve yield) can’t be good overall relative to bacterial evolution and anti-bacterial resistance development. Thus, it’s almost perverse that the more people demand meat, the more we have to give livestock animals antibiotics, and the more we are contributing to new antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria that thus erode at the foundations of modern medicine (particularly when it has been shown that disease can be spread from animal to human and vice versa).

        Thus, to me, right up alongside energy might be a complete re-thinking of the modern ‘protein-production’ supply chain. While I don’t think it’s viable to ask everyone to give up meat (for a variety of reasons ranging from cultural to practical), I do think it’s practical to make greater efforts to invest in ‘meat alternatives’ that solve the need for protein in modern society. I think this is where companies like Beyond, Impossible, Oatly, etc. are on a necessary (but nascent) path.

        • There is no question that the current meat production industry has significant negative impact on the environment. I don’t think correcting this would be sufficient to holt global warming but it would help. As you said, a large part of the human race would likely be quite reluctant to give up on meat diets — it would be a hard sell in some regions. Meat alternatives, if they get good enough, might allow people to continue to enjoy “meat” without having as large a negative impact on the environment.

  3. Dean Murray says:


    I’ve got several patents and patents pending that I think could really help increase how efficiently you use space in your AWS data centers.

    Apologies for being off topic, but I’d really love to talk to you about how my innovations could make AWS even better!

    • OK, send me a description of your company, funding levels, etc, the state of development of these ideas, what separates the ideas from competitors, and what gains are possible with details on before and after costs. Please don’t send the patents to me. I’m at

  4. Ray Van De Walker says:

    Thanks for caring, and putting up a blog. I apologize for commenting on an old entry. A contribution: 1. Renewable energy and associated battery smoothing has been cheaper than coal for more than a year, and when combined with low interest rates, that makes a powerful argument for investment. The costs are multiply confirmed, but a good summary report is here:
    2. A major unmentioned issue is how people evaluate, which is -the- issue behind the differing lists. I’d like to remind your and your readers that people are biological, and therefore successful people are biologically successful. (I wrote a book.)
    3. I concur about nuclear; Important, useful and unpopular. My favorite new technologies would be liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) and Holos-style modular reactors, but just due to licensing issues, what we are likely to get are Nucor modular reactors. LFTRs solve the two main issues of nuclear: Environmental costs of Uranium mining (Thorium is a byproduct of rare-earth mines, and all the Thorium is used, not 0.7%, as in Uranium). Also, LFTR waste is almost entirely fission products, with very little long-life isotopes. After 300 years, it’s less radioactive than Uranium ore.
    4. I think that the most hopeful development is that some people and companies are starting to use the old 1960s NASA recycling schemes to replace farmed products with equivalent, healthy products from vat-grown microorganisms. If we can get the world away from farming, the most frightening bottlenecks in natural resources can be replaced by a nuclear-powered recycling economy.
    5. So… I enjoy your blog about the boat, and wonder what you think about personally applying the renewables plan? Maybe switch to sail? Best wishes.

    • I agree with your core point that we should move to renewables. I don’t agree with “Renewable energy and associated battery smoothing has been cheaper than coal for more than a year.” Renewables are definitely getting cheaper but without jurisdictional help in the form of increased taxes on non-renewable or tax breaks on renewables, they cost more. Clearly the best possible answer is renewables cheaper than coal and gas but, without government interventions, we’re not yet there and in some segments of consumption like air travel, we’re not yet even close.

      Even with renewables being more expensive, it’s clear we should spend more and use renewables. Much of the world is there already. Unfortunately, the earth has a very large population living in poverty. I believe, over time, this will improve and earth will have billions of more middle class consumers which is a lot more net consumption world wide which means a lot more carbon will be released. Fortunately, higher standards of living lead to lower birth rates which will help but there are still many more consumers that will be “coming on line” in the near future.

      We all agree that reducing our individual carbon footprints is super important. What I’m arguing is 7.8B people on the planet is a vast load and, even without further population growth, as the existing population get improved standards of living, we will end up with vastly higher consumption even without population growth.

      You asked why we don’t sell our power boat, buy a sail boat and live green. I agree that moving people around in motorized vehicles including boats is wasteful but eliminating this is not close to sufficient. In we got rid of our boat and bought a sailboat and had the discipline to not use internal combustion propulsion that most sailboats are equipped with, we would reduce our carbon footprint. But, we still would have hot water and shower daily. We would still have cellular and satellite communications. We would still buy all the consumer toys common in the well off parts of the world. We would still have many computers running all the time, entertainment systems, indoor heat, etc. Moving to sail would help but my point is that modern living for countries that have achieved a high standard of living is very power intensive even if we could convince people to travel around by sail.

      By some measures we are better than average in that we don’t own a car and haven’t for 12 years, don’t own a house, and don’t drive to work each day. But, by some measures, we’re worse than average in that we travel around the world propelled by a diesel engine. But, we go pretty slowly and stay in the same country for quite a long time and I suspect many commuters rack up more miles. The real problem is that anyone posting to this site including us, have very carbon intensive lifestyles. Indoor heat, big houses, cars, food production, large power consumption, use of vast highway and other logistics systems, large landfill production, high use of telecommunications linking the world, consumer goods, use of social networks, etc. are really big carbon footprints.

      It’s hard to imagine 7.8B people living on earth not having a large negative impact on the environment and as more of our population that achieves middle class, and I full expect that number to grow rapidly, the more energy intensive the human race will become. Moving fast to renewables will help greatly but but middle class living consumes a lot of energy and produces a lot of waste and we still have billions of more consumers coming.

  5. Robert PALMER says:

    1 Democracy
    I believe in Democracy and its ability to keep people content with their lot and solve all problems. Probably the greatest failure of our time is no advance in direct democracy with technology.
    2 Contaiment of Globalism.
    Adam Smith the English philosopher brough into question the dilution of the demos. I hypothisize a new from of dilution, when means of production and resource allocation are taken away from the demos. (This is a lay opinion, without authorative understanding).
    3 Mass movement and boarder controls.
    The primary function of Democracy is to keep the people content, running the country is the secondary function. People can endure hardship and limited resources if they are in a defined group. This can reduce demand.
    4 The Prevention of War
    Much of this century has been devoted to Globalism as a means to end war. This has created equality of demand, that in turn increased energy and resource demands. The system of supernational organisations around these ideologies needs examination. The UN itself has never had democratic accountability. These bodies subsequently focus on the lists in this blog, perhaps they are the wrong lists?
    5 Money
    Money is the current system of resource allocation. Current social trends and tech may change this. Exclusion from resources even for those with purchasing power, would rise discontentment.
    6 New cults, religion & Abandoning old systems of believe.
    It took most of the 20th century for Darwin’s theory of evolution to be excepted. Many scientific theories are currently being pushed as facts. People are being asked to believe what they can’t believe.
    It matters not what drives revolutionary or extreme acts. Belief or disbelief, the cascade effects can be deverstating.
    7 Startrek vs People Power Scenario’s
    This was the bases of a Royal Dutch Shell economic lecture. It Hypothesised a utopian highly regulated society or a people lead dynamic society. I favor a people lead society and I am willing to have less resources to achieve it. I do not see happiness and access to resources being directly linked.
    8 Containment of polarizering ideologies.
    In writing this I have some apprehension, it shows my core belief is different from yours. I do not see the physical treats to humanity, rebuilding a major inferstructure like New York is not a treat to humanity. Major lose of life (war, famine, disease, pestilence) is not a treats to humanity, such events often trigger humanity to progress.
    9 Containment of resource inequalities.
    We are looking at an time were one man may own a planet; another may control the means of resources allocation. Containment of such inequality peacefully will be a challenge.
    10 Humanity.
    Man remains the greatest threat to humanity, other than a external threats for the universe. The human race priority should be, democracy.

    P.s. you did title this ramblings.

  6. Gaby says:

    Hey James, interesting article. I was wondering if you have any thoughts on lifestyle and material footprint differences within different groups of the population. High-income vs low-income countries for example.

    • Seems like kinda a leading question. Of course high income environmental impact is higher per capita. We have a problem today at current income distributions and, as low income countries improve their standard of living which they clearly deserve to do and will do, we develop an ever bigger problem. An average middle to high income consumer uses a lot of energy.

      We move to cleaner power sources more slowly than we should but, even moving fast, the world population of 7.8B is going to have a very large impact on the worlds ecosystem.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. AnneJ says:

    For population trends, this is very encouraging. Educating women has life enhancing effects.

    • 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

      • Solar is also an option. I have a business friend who owns a solar company. I was really surprised at the efficiency today. I asked him- based on this- could all of Canada run on solar? His answer was, confidently, yes. But the cost of solar panels and battery/storage systems would be *massively* expensive. Tho maintenance is very low. Granted, Canada has a large landmass. Another interesting tidbit from him- cold climates are better for solar since current solar tech is affected by heat. So it does seem “green power” comes down to economics. He also mentioned a lot of downsides to solar- the battery cost in particular among other things. He didn’t seem to be drinking the solar Kool Aid. But if the country absolutely *had* to go 100% renewable, it seems like there are pathways.

        • Yes, solar is certainly an excellent choice in many locations and, as solar tech continues to improve, costs are falling fast. On your thought experiment to power all of Canada using Solar, you would need to have VERY large energy storage systems as part of the solution since solar (and wind) are intermittent.

    • 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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