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.


  • Ian is an ardent optimist about constitutional change underway in South Africa. At heart he is a ‘hands-on’ engineer with experience across the research, construction, yacht-building and film industries. Ian currently works in rural obscurity on designing the bricks-and-mortar infrastructure projects required to implement Local Economy Development; the cloud-based IT systems required to connect communities with their local governments and the global knowledge economy; and the eco-efficient technology required to establish 'the green economy'.


Ian Dewar

Ian is an ardent optimist about constitutional change underway in South Africa. At heart he is a ‘hands-on’ engineer with experience across the research, construction, yacht-building and film industries....

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