[FoRK] [tt] Does economics violate the laws of physics?

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Thu Oct 29 11:07:44 PDT 2009

Ken asks:

> Jeff, I've frequently heard arguments like yours that "... increased  
> productivity and technology leads to increased carrying capacity".  
> I've never been able to suss it myself and I've not seen an  
> explanation that made sense to me in the larger context of planetary  
> carrying capacity.

Consider the increase in mean food output per farmed acre over the  
last few centuries as a function of agricultural technology including  
fertilizer, smarter cultivation processes, industrial-grade  
productivity in harvesting and planting that compress cycles.  All of  
this squeeze more and bigger harvests out of a single unit of time /  
space.  Consider the increase in the amount of practically-farmable  
land due to technological progress in cost-effective water transport  
and storage, irrigation efficiency, etc.  Etc.  Examples abound;   
surely this is clear?  Low-tech = low-efficiency use of a unit  
resource.  Better-tech = more-efficient use of a unit resource = said  
unit resource supports more people.

(This is a bit simplistic.  Basically, everything that's happened on  
this planet since the advent of life has been just a constant  
reconfiguration of more or less the same set of atoms, with ample  
energy input.  There's a time dimension to it, etc.  But in terms of  
human population growth, the only curve it even closely approximates  
is the "planetary computational capacity" curve --- and that's running  
ahead of it even as we run out of the energy necessary to kick the can  
a little further down the road.  Critical moment approaching...)

> I would be interested in a lucid, plain language explanation from  
> someone who believes otherwise: that technology can somehow overcome  
> what I believe is the absolute limit of planetary carrying capacity  
> rather than simply helping us reach that limit ever faster. Is there  
> some simple principle involved here that I'm overlooking?

Now there's a fundamentally different, and interesting, question.

Physics, of course, ultimately provides some significant constraints  
on what is (or is not) achievable in terms of "carrying capacity" of  
this planet (or any assemblage of time, space, matter, energy.)   
There's always going to be some kind of race between number of  
individuals, resource needs of each individual, and resources  
available.  At the end of the line, it's all physical laws.

Ultimately, "carrying capacity" could be considered as equivalent to  
"computational capacity."  (Or, really, a function that maps some  
configuration of time, space, matter and energy to some measure of  
computational capacity.  Now optimize. ;-)

But the speculative technologies of upload, computronium, and getting  
off-planet give us a lot more runway --- if we get there before an  
energy-crunch induced civilization fail.  And if Tipler's right (which  
appears unlikely right now vis-a-vis cosmological constant) you might,  
*might* even be able to eventually engineer subjective infinite time  
for all possible conscious entities at the end of the universe.  But  
there are solutions that don't get all the way there that are  
nonetheless VASTLY better than the present risk profile.

Cf. Feynman, Seth Lloyd, and many others re: physical limits of  


More information about the FoRK mailing list