Ian Dewar
Ian Dewar

Why we always sow the same old reap

I think most readers will be familiar with that unbearable screech which sometimes blasts out of a concert’s or meeting’s sound system. Well, that screech is caused by the feedback into the sound system of some of the amplified sound already produced by the system. Because the sound wave of the feedback is in phase with the original sound wave, it self-amplifies the wave and its frequency in an ever faster series of louder feedback reiterations, until it becomes that unbearable screech we hear.

In systems science this self-amplifying occurrence is called a positive feedback loop, where the spiraling growth cycles of reiterative feedback cause a system to become more and more unstable. A negative feedback loop, on the other hand, is one where the feedback actually self-regulates the system, and thus maintains the system in a stable state.

The point is that a similar, unbearable screech is coming from our economy. If ever there was a system caught in a positive feedback loop this is it. And with a mind-boggling deafness, our political and economic leaders continuously strive to add more growth onto our economy, not realising that this constant application of growth just acts as the reiterative accelerant in the self-amplifying feedback loop behind spiraling economic instability. This practice is tantamount to trying to put out a raging fire by pouring petrol onto it simply because it’s the only wet stuff handy.

In their defence, however, it must be said that this is an act of pure desperation in attempting to meet the pressing economic needs of yet another positive feedback loop: population growth. This issue is discussed in the NPC’s 2030 vision plan, but only in its statistical sense and doesn’t tackle what really needs to be discussed – its causal sense. In other words, what causes our human population to keep on growing when there is an obviously finite limit to the resources available to sustain it?

The cause of this growth lies directly in the innovation of farming which began some 10 000 years ago. Prior to this evolutionary innovation, the growth of human population was regulated by the daily amount of food hunter-gathering could provide. The finite amount of natural food supply thus limited the number of people it could support, so, in effect, this natural mechanism of self-regulation produced a negative feedback loop of optimal population stability.

By being able to provide a far greater and more predictable food supply farmers broke through this evolutionary boundary and, as a result, the negative feedback mechanism of self-regulation became superseded by a positive feedback loop of self-amplifying growth. The more food farmers could provide by increasing their production the more the population could grow accordingly. And grow it did.

The estimate of the global hunter-gather population at the time farming began is around five million people, and it took + 150 000 years of human population growth to get it to that, probably maximum, number. After 7000 years of farming, in 1000 BC, the human population was about fifty million people; after another 2500 years of farming, in 1500 AD, it was about five hundred million people; and after only another 500 years of farming, in 2000 AD, it was over five billion people.

The real evidence of humanity being caught in a positive feedback trap screeches loudly in the ten-fold increase of population over each period and the radical shortening of the time span of each period. On a graph, the exponential ‘hockey-stick’ trajectory of its growth-line reveals an ever-accelerating ever-growing path to catastrophe – as does the hockey-stick graph of the increase of the global economy’s carbon emissions.

What it is important to acknowledge here is that the unregulated growth of human population, its (now capitalist) economy, as well as the footprint of impact of both on nature, are all the clear signatures of humanity being unknowingly trapped in a positive feedback loop. So how do we fix this evolutionary crisis?

The mechanism of self-regulation in a stable-state system is informed by what the other components in the system are doing at all times, and when a destabilising effect occurs this mechanism is immediately informed and adjusts the relevant causal procedure/s of the system accordingly. The recent feedback of information from the democracy of this country to the government is an example of such self-regulation in practice. Most of the population saw the e-toll programme as a further threat to their already weakened socio-economic stability, so they loudly fed back the information on their concern to government, which caused the threatening programme to be halted.

In the case of the economy, developing such a self-regulatory mechanism would be a complex, long-term process, but I have previously opined on this blog site that injecting knowledge, capacity, and resources into local economy development (and doing so by aiming for high eco-efficiency instead of more growth) would fill the vacuum of opportunities apparent in our economy, and also make the sum of the eco-efficiency in the decentralised parts much greater than in the original whole.

This leaves us with the penultimate causal problem of unregulated population growth. Self-regulation implies ownership of the systemic problem which needs regulation. So how then do we inspire local communities to self-regulate their own population numbers at a stable state that is within the finite limit of local economic and environmental opportunities available to them?

A story from Zimbabwe demonstrates how easily and successfully this could be achieved. In the early 1980s a news story broke in SA newspapers as well as on national TV news that a regional health authority in Zimbabwe had really panicked when they discovered that the very high birth rate in one of their districts had crashed. Fearing a prenatal epidemic of some sort they rushed to the scene to find its cause. And, to their newsworthy astonishment, what did they find?

One very determined district nurse had been traveling around the district on a bicycle with a pannier full of condoms, and sitting the men of each village under a tree in order to inform them about their role in the threat of over-population – hence (and with the subsequent use of the condoms) the crash of the district birth rate. Responsible local ownership of the necessary strategic knowledge, as well as the local capacity for strategic implementation, thus solved their own local portion of humanity’s global growth crisis.

If ever we have an African equivalent to the Nobel Prize, I think she should receive the first award.

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    • MLH

      I suspect we may note a gradual change in coming years, based partly on the tradition of paying lobola.

      Some middle-aged parents are finding they must reassess their retirement expectations because more and more kids are refusing to pay what is traditionally expected, mainly, no doubt, because the fathers of their children simply have no income or hope of income. They are producing children when younger and those grandchildren become the responsibility of the grandparents; likely to remain so.

      At the same time, parents are trying harder to ensure that their children stay in school to get a matric. Even if they fail, the kids go back to redo the grade/s. A friend’s son is redoing Grade 7, at 18. Some are also taking orphaned grandchildren into their homes.

      The point of family planning is beginning to hit home as these unplanned for expenses are creating a lost generation of parents who simply cannot look forward to peaceful retirements. From the interaction I have with some, it seems clear that they are beginning to repudiate once-revered traditions because they have simply become unaffordable. These are the people who will teach their children not to have too many children and hopefully, many of the children will respond to the advice because they don’t like going without themselves or seeing their own children going without the little luxuries their parents afforded for them.

    • MLH

      Perhaps we’re directing the promotions at the wrong level. Youngsters don’t listen; they learn from their own mistakes. Their elders, however, better understand the issues involved.

    • Perry Curling-Hope

      Such Neo Malthusian alarmism as expressed here is not born out by evidence.

      South Africa’s population growth rate has been in decline for the past ten straight years, and would be in negative territory were it not for immigration.

      South Africa’s population is expected to peak at some 53.8 million in 2030, after which a sustained decline is anticipated (South African Institute of Race Relations)

      This is due to factors contributing to the aforementioned ‘negative feedback’ which is the ultimate self limiting factor in any and all physical systems.

      Global population is expected to peak, by many estimates at 9 billion in 2050, after which a decline is anticipated.
      Average human life expectancy continues to increase and is at present higher than at any time in human history, at 70 years, while simultaneously Zimbabwe enjoys the dubious honor of the world’s lowest, 34years for females and 37 years for males.
      It is evident that a short, brutish life has causes which are political rather than Malthusian.

      The last thing we need is for misanthropic environmentalists to lobby government to step in with the statist jackboot and ‘control the population’

      There is no evidence to support the claim that a larger human population gives rise to negative consequences for human well being

    • Ian Dewar

      @MLH Thanks for your very interesting perception. I think it aligns rather well with the NPC analysis.

      “South Africa’s population growth rate is slowing, the birth rate is declining and life expectancy is improving, though off a low base because of HIV/AIDS. There is a large youth and working-age population and proportionally, but not numerically, fewer very old and very young”

      “South Africa has arrived at the “sweet spot’ of demographic transition. The population has a proportionately high number of working-age people and a proportionately low number of young and old. This means the dependency ratio – the percentage of those over 64 and under 15 relative to the working age population – is at a level there are enough people of working age to support the non-working population. The caveat in South Africa’s case is that unemployment and HIV/AIDS have produced many more dependents than would normally be the case. Although statistically South Africa is in a position to cash in on a demographic dividend, the challenges of HIV/AIDA and joblessness are a burden on those who are working.

      Nevertheless, a large working-age population presents South Africa with a major asset. If it is well managed there is real opportunity to build a stronger economy, eliminate poverty and reduce inequality. The challenge is putting this working-age population to work.”

      This is why I am pushing hard for the infrastructure and tools for local economy development by the local…

    • Ian Dewar

      @Perry Curling-Hope. Firstly, given that apparently you don’t see that there is a huge disparity between the actual number of people the structure of our current, albeit dismal, economy can viably support and the vastly greater number of people actually living in our country, suggests to me you are a radically out of touch with reality.

      Secondly, that fact that you see the independent, self-motivated actions of one local African nurse as ‘the statist jackboot’ of government population control, suggests to me that you are suffering from a severe case of paranoia.

      And lastly, if you think that there is ‘no evidence to support the claim that a larger human population gives rise to a negative consequence for human well being’ then you have evidently never experienced the reality of South African poverty, marginalization, inequality, environmental degradation, and the extremes of income disparity evident in our economy.

      All of the above beg the question, what peculiar planet DO you live on? It can’t be Earth.

    • RubinB

      The only thing the Government has come up with to influence population growth that I know of is the granting of a child grant. I know several recipients who think they actually benefit from having one or more children, even though unemployed.
      As a principal of one school, catering almost exclusively to “previously disadvantaged children put it to me: “Our people have lost all motivation. Girls of 14 or 15, freshly our of primary school, cannot wait to get pregnant so that they can receive a grant. ”
      Imagine living on such a grant (R280 per month?) and supporting the baby as well!
      Now that beats all common sense.
      What I find strange is: Parents can now claim a child grant for a girl until she is 18, by which time she can already have three babies for whom she can all claim grants!
      No wonder 5 million taxpayers have to fork out welfare payments for 15 million!

    • NATE_IV

      Great article, Ian Dewar, more so speaking as a sound engineer enthusiast myself.

      Also, thanks for responding to Curling-Hope. I’m one of those black youths who admire intelligence with awe but from miles away. But, I’m always gobsmacked by lack of wisdom and insight displayed (and accompanied with sophistry) by the very people we wish to emulate in terms of coming across well read.

      Finally, am surprised at the number of readers for this article – DAWspeak, even rhetorically, must have made you sound like a techleader.

    • http://www.sane.org.za Yaj

      Quite correct. Exponential growth on a finite planet with finite resources is unsustainable and ultimately impossible.
      The population explosion is closely linked to the discovery and use of crude oil with the widespread use of chemical fertilizers , pesticides and large -scale commercial farming leadding to the ‘green revolution ” in food production as well as medical and scientific advances.
      Now that we are at the peak of conventional crude oil production and we have run out of cheap crude oil, there will be a severe negative impact on economic growth and ultimately a negative impact on population growth under dire conditions and circumstances for human well-being. Population growth is in overshoot relative to the earth’s resource /energy base.
      To avert this loomig disaster we will need to transition to a steady-state economy. However, this cannot be achieved without a paradigm shift and radical monetary reform, putting an end to compound interest and fractional reserve banking which are the driving forces behind perpetual exponential growth.

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/iandewar Ian Dewar

      @RubinB. I don’t believe the child support grant was an attempt to influence population growth, just very risky way of proving vital support to mothers and children in great financial stress – with the disastrous outcome you pointed out. This was such an obvious risk I cannot think why it was not planned and managed better. Talk about short term thinking!

      @Nate_IV. Thanks for your support and kind words. And, yes, I rather blew the introduction. I’m new at blogging and forgot about the all important ‘hook’ in the first paragraph.

      @Yaj. I agree. The stable-state economy is the ultimate, long-term outcome to aim for in transformation. I do believe that the framework for the paradigm shift you speak of already lies in our new legislation, if you look for it. But in its implementation, we are severely hampered by the gargantuan ‘business-as-usual’ momentum and unaccountability of the global market economy. So I suggest you look to small, integrated local economies to introduce the ethical, alternative strategies required to energize the shift.

      Are you familiar with the Community Exchange System, based in Cape Town, and now hosting 407 exchanges in 47 different countries? The CES is a great way to start, but more is needed. Simple logistics says that only local economy development provides the right space and size in which to innovate the super-efficient new practices which will eventually supersede the global monster we have now. Ethical local banking included.

    • Perry Curling-Hope

      In 1971, a man called Paul Ehrlich visited India.

      He found his visit to New Delhi distressing, and his experiences there were subsequently included in a book he wrote called ‘The Population Bomb’, from which I quote.

      “The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, would we ever get to our hotel…?’

      He wrote that due to ‘overpopulation’, “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” and India could never feed its population, and would face collapse by 1980.

      Ehrlich, along with countless population scaremongers before him, from Tertullian in 200AD who regarded 180 million “burdensome” upon the planet until today, have been proven spectacularly wrong.
      In 1971 there were 550 million in India, today there are over 1.1 billion and while there remains gross ‘inequality’ and poverty, these are specifically political problems, not ’population problems’, huge strides have been made in both life expectancy and improved living standards.
      India is fast becoming an emergent economic superpower….who can claim evidentially that India would have been better off today by following misanthropic ‘policies’ of population containment?

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/iandewar Ian Dewar

      @Perry Curling-Hope. It’s a great pity that humans always choose to shoot the messenger. Visible local impacts of an invisible exponential growth problem have long been apparent and vary wildly, but the global sum remains the same. Doubling times have got shorter and shorter with vastly increasing impacts each time. But it would appear that the global increase is going to stabilize in about 100 years or so.

      The thing is if you take our impact on the global ecosystem and the narrow exclusivity of the current global economy, and consider the whole bang shoot within the absolute boundary of global natural resources available, then it is not a pretty picture at all. Those voices of concern in the past were all talking to our arrival at where we are now. Seriously in the dwang.

      The World Bank Development Report, the Living Planet Index, The UN Human Development Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, The Stern Review, and, and, and, all now realize this indisputable fact.

      So call me misanthropic if it rocks your boat, but unless we really DO something about the crisis now, well, to cut a long story short, the future doesn’t look very good for the next generations to come. Do you have any children? What will you tell them?
      Oh that – don’t worry, everything will be OK.

      And by the way, I never mentioned one word about any kind of ‘policy’. Please read what I did write about – the responsible community.

    • Perry Curling-Hope

      Thanks for the reply, Ian

      The indictment of misanthropy is directed toward the ideological underpinnings of the ‘anti-growth’ movement, not toward any individual, and such inference should not be drawn. :-)

      Similar underpinnings are shared by the proponents of ‘limits to growth’, and radical environmentalism, and are rooted primarily in fear.

      The fear is that (too many) other people constitute a threat to personal welfare, and translate into public rationalisations in concern for ‘The Environment’, and policy which needs to prevail to ‘protect’ it.
      History has proven these multi millennial fears groundless.

      There are many ready and willing to exploit such fears, initiating public lobbying in order to secure mandates from which they may profit.
      An example would be the vested interests of the ‘renewable’ energy industry.

      Your indeed did not mention ‘policy’, but activism and campaigning (by blogging?) can and do impact upon public policy which affects all, even those who reject the premises upon which it is founded.

      An indefinite moratorium upon exploitation of shale gas in the Karoo has been secured largely through campaigning by the Treasure the Karoo Action Group.
      This group is affluent and well-funded, and while their ‘victory’ may ally their eco guilt, the result is that we (SA) have missed a huge direct foreign investment opportunity, while the negative economic impact will ultimately be borne by the small economically depressed communities in the…

    • Perry Curling-Hope

      On a personal note,

      No, I do not have children.

      That was a free and individual choice, as I was not willing to undertake the responsibilities of raising children, and bear the costs and limitations upon my freedom which children would entail.

      My choices were branded by many as selfish, and I should somehow feel guilty, as I would presumably leave no living legacy to benefit my community.

      Should one ‘overproduce’ by having more than two children, or more than one in the case of the more radical ‘limits to growthers’ one must brook the supercilious disapprobation of the Green police and their eco-guilt for the disregard of Gaia.

      It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

      ‘The Environment’ has become a catch all justification and instrument in the hands of those who seek ever more social control and intervention, (maybe in pursuit of establishing responsible communities?)

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/iandewar Ian Dewar

      @Perry. Thanks for your very frank feedback.

      My fear of doing nothing is all that enables me to overcome my fear of doing something, so I really do understand your position here. And I am absolutely terrified of aligning my activities with any sort of fundamentalism, so I creep along carefully trying not to get caught in any of those webs. Blogging is about the only way I am able to freely express anything, but like you I question its worth. Oh, well….

      I did not mean to specifically place environmentalism above social and economic needs, only to bring it properly into the whole-system approach to solution finding. Ergo my proposal for eco-synthesis.

      But I agree with you that enviro-fundamentalism is problematic in its own way. I spent quite a few years working with the environmental lobby and found it distinctly lacking in any form of worthwhile strategy for my liking. So I moved on.

      Equally though, I find the idea of implementing technological processes which can only be assessed once they have already done irreparable damage a very unsavoury notion to contemplate. As you say, ‘damned if we do and damned if we don’t’. Hmmmm.

      Have you read ‘Natural Capitalism’ by Hawken, Lovins & Lovins? I found great solace in their methodologies for, and case studies of, ‘intelligent design’. This book helped me a lot to keep moving forward.

      My question about family was meant to be rhetorical. Please accept my apologies for the intrusion into your personal space.