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Posted: 01 November 2008 11:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 46 ]
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There’s a great deal of redundancy in our present civilization, both in equipment and in people.  I think much of the repairs could be done by cannibalizing from other equipment, and just because we’ve lost 90% of the plastics plants and ninety percent of the operators doesn’t mean we can’t use the remaining ones. 

While a very sophisticated thermistor based temperature measuring instrument fails, it doesn’t mean that people can’t kludge together other thermal control units to do the same thing.  My mother was a housewife, musician and artist, but she was also one of the most creative household “mechanics” I’ve ever seen.  It didn’t matter what broke or what task she wanted to perform without the equipment available —she managed to use plastic bottles trimmed to fit the need, hairpins, the aluminum sheet she cut from a soft drink can, string, Scotch tape, rubber bands, a brick as a hammer, a nut cracker as pliers, a dime as a screwdriver, and on and on, to solve the problem.  My father or I would go and buy the “proper” item and make a conventional repair, however, what my mother did always worked surprisingly well.  It’s people like that who will manage to keep the society running while the less creative ones rebuild the technology.

You mention transformers.  I know very little about electricity, but it seems to me that there are at least four or five ways to convert voltage other than by using a transformer.  Maybe not as sophisticated or as efficient, but workable.

Even if the catastrophe caused the technology available to revert to, say, seventeenth century levels, with all the guides available, I would guess that we could rebuild to present levels in one quarter of the four century time it took before.

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Posted: 01 November 2008 01:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 47 ]
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Yes, there’s plenty of room for improvisation, but improvised methods can’t last forever. They can buy you more time, but in the end, you need the same industrial base if you want the same level of technology.

I would guess that we could rebuild to present levels in one quarter of the four century time it took before.

Only if we could rebuild population that quickly.

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Posted: 01 November 2008 02:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 48 ]
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Chris Crawford - 01 November 2008 01:15 PM

I would guess that we could rebuild to present levels in one quarter of the four century time it took before.

Only if we could rebuild population that quickly.

Well, now that doesn’t follow. All you need are the right percentages of people in the right industries, and capitalism, broadly speaking, has proven very efficient at luring people into needed professions. (If they are really needed, people will pay for them).

Our present technological civilization does not require there to be six and a half billion people on earth.

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Posted: 01 November 2008 08:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 49 ]
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Chris Crawford - 01 November 2008 01:15 PM

Only if we could rebuild population that quickly.

Why would you want to rebuild the population? 

Though in fact, we could probably increase five-fold in one generation if we really put our minds (or genitals?) to it.

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When I was 15 years old, I could no longer reconcile religion with reality, and I knew one of them would have to go.  It still amazes me how many people make the other choice.

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Posted: 01 November 2008 11:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 50 ]
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All you need are the right percentages of people in the right industries, and capitalism, broadly speaking, has proven very efficient at luring people into needed professions….Our present technological civilization does not require there to be six and a half billion people on earth.

Doug, you need the right trained people, and there’s always a shortage of talented people. Sure, if you could turn the average know-nothing American dimwit into a nuclear engineer, you could keep the nuclear power plants running. But the fact is that only some of the people you breed will be intelligent enough and diligent enough to meet all those needs.

I agree that we could probably dispense with several billion people without hurting our civilization much—assuming that we carefully chose the least productive members of the human race. But if you took out even a “mere” 100 million of the top talent, the human race would be hopelessly lost.

Look at it this way: our civilization is pretty efficient at allocating resources and talent. Which means that the current level of technology represents a goodly fraction of what can be achieved with this population. If there were plenty of useless people just sitting around taking up space, then yes, I’d agree that we could maintain this level of technological well-being with a considerably smaller population. But I don’t see that kind of underutilized talent. The people who are unemployed are, for the most part, the bottom end of the talent pool. (Yes, there are still plenty of talented, hard-working people who have jobs, but at the macroscopic level, they still represent a drop in the bucket.)

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Posted: 02 November 2008 06:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 51 ]
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Chris Crawford - 01 November 2008 11:15 PM

Doug, you need the right trained people, and there’s always a shortage of talented people. Sure, if you could turn the average know-nothing American dimwit into a nuclear engineer, you could keep the nuclear power plants running. But the fact is that only some of the people you breed will be intelligent enough and diligent enough to meet all those needs.

Therein lies the rub.  Only stupid people are breeding.

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When I was 15 years old, I could no longer reconcile religion with reality, and I knew one of them would have to go.  It still amazes me how many people make the other choice.

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Posted: 02 November 2008 07:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 52 ]
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fausinator - 02 November 2008 06:56 AM
Chris Crawford - 01 November 2008 11:15 PM

Doug, you need the right trained people, and there’s always a shortage of talented people. Sure, if you could turn the average know-nothing American dimwit into a nuclear engineer, you could keep the nuclear power plants running. But the fact is that only some of the people you breed will be intelligent enough and diligent enough to meet all those needs.

Therein lies the rub.  Only stupid people are breeding.

I disagree.There are very few stupid people.There are many people who are undereducated.Most(at least 80%my arbitrary guess)people could be educated up to the standards of maintaining civil mechanics,scientific or engineered infrastructures.They aren’t being educated up to this point because of varied reasons.There isn’t enough demand.The decreasing amount of nationalism in regards to our industrial/scientific infrastrucure.The increasing amount of computerization/automation which renders obsolete both many proleteriate and technical peoples.Necessity is the mother of invention.The laws of supply and demand for educated people are always in effect.

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Posted: 02 November 2008 07:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 53 ]
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Chris Crawford - 01 November 2008 11:15 PM

Doug, you need the right trained people, and there’s always a shortage of talented people. Sure, if you could turn the average know-nothing American dimwit into a nuclear engineer, you could keep the nuclear power plants running. But the fact is that only some of the people you breed will be intelligent enough and diligent enough to meet all those needs.

I agree that we could probably dispense with several billion people without hurting our civilization much—assuming that we carefully chose the least productive members of the human race. But if you took out even a “mere” 100 million of the top talent, the human race would be hopelessly lost.

Look at it this way: our civilization is pretty efficient at allocating resources and talent. Which means that the current level of technology represents a goodly fraction of what can be achieved with this population. If there were plenty of useless people just sitting around taking up space, then yes, I’d agree that we could maintain this level of technological well-being with a considerably smaller population. But I don’t see that kind of underutilized talent. The people who are unemployed are, for the most part, the bottom end of the talent pool. (Yes, there are still plenty of talented, hard-working people who have jobs, but at the macroscopic level, they still represent a drop in the bucket.)

Sure, they have to be trained. But look at what happened during the Black Death to get some vague idea of what might happen. Society didn’t collapse; we didn’t start living in caves. There were still cobblers and smiths and scribes and farmers and weavers left. What did happen is that with fewer of them around, they began charging higher wages, and the royalty made it illegal for them to do so in certain instances. I do understand that your argument is based on the claim that our technological civilization involves much greater specialization than was around in the middle ages; but then we also have enormously greater populations, even if you assumed a reasonable worst-case for a pandemic of something around 50% population loss.

To a certain extent we’re arguing about percentages. Clearly there is some percentage after which it would simply be impossible to reconstruct present-day civilization, and we’d all go back to living in caves or some such thing. (More likely something more medieval, with local strongmen and bladed weapons once the ammunition petered out).

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Posted: 02 November 2008 08:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 54 ]
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VYAZMA - 02 November 2008 07:08 AM

I disagree.There are very few stupid people.There are many people who are undereducated.Most(at least 80%my arbitrary guess)people could be educated up to the standards of maintaining civil mechanics,scientific or engineered infrastructures.They aren’t being educated up to this point because of varied reasons.There isn’t enough demand.The decreasing amount of nationalism in regards to our industrial/scientific infrastrucure.The increasing amount of computerization/automation which renders obsolete both many proleteriate and technical peoples.Necessity is the mother of invention.The laws of supply and demand for educated people are always in effect.

Sorry for using the derogatory term ‘stupid’, but any way you look at it, statistics inevitably show that half the population has below-average intelligence.  And I will take the liberty to say that there are many people of intelligence who are nevertheless ‘stupid’, in that they make stupid choices quite frequently. 

If we can assume (I don’t have the statistics on hand) that people above the average line tend to pursue higher education than those below the line, demographics definitely show that educated people have fewer children.  This is a recent phenomenon in our evolutionary journey, as in the past it took a degree of intelligence to ensure your offspring survived to thrive.  Now everyone survives, and it is fundamentalists and people of superstition in the third world who are having large numbers of children.

I do take a sympathetic, humanistic view toward these people (especially the third-worlders- fundamentalists kind of annoy me) and I don’t want to sound like a eugenicist, but facts are facts, and the comprehensive gene pool is not necessarily rising in intelligence.

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Posted: 02 November 2008 08:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 55 ]
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Good point about the Black Death, Doug. Let’s consider that example more closely. Mortality averaged around one-third for most of Europe, in some places higher, in some lower. I’ve seen conflicting arguments about which social classes got hit the hardest. Most historians agree that the urban poor were really clobbered, but the rural poor generate some controversy because, on the one hand, they were more isolated, and on the other they were exposed to lots of fleas from rats. I’ve also seen some disagreement about the skilled workers. They lived in the cities (very bad) but they lived in upstairs apartments above their workshops, which distanced them somewhat from rats and fleas. Also, they didn’t live in as crowded conditions as the urban poor. The one thing most historians agree on is that the wealthy weren’t hit as badly because many of them fled to their country estates and enforced isolation.

It’s certainly true that the primary effect of the Black Death was to dramatically reverse the relative values of land and labor, which had profound social effects. However, one often-overlooked factor is that Europe was already overpopulated before the Black Death hit. That is, agricultural methods were not sufficient to feed everybody. The demand for food was so great that farmers were pushing out into marginal lands and reducing fallow times. Thus, Europe was overpopulated for its technological level and so the Black Death was really more of a terribly intense way of bringing the population back into balance with the technology. It took about a hundred years for Europe’s population to recover from the Black Death—by which time a number of improvements (extension of Western agricultural techniques to Poland and the Hungarian Plain, improvements in ship design, and—believe it or not—a really serious effort to stamp out rodents by encouraging the proliferation of cats) had come into play, permitting a population expansion more commensurate to the technological level.

But I haven’t yet addressed the central issue: how did European society cope with the sudden loss of skilled labor? The answer lies in the population structure. Remember, the urban population was a tiny percentage of the total; the vast majority of people lived and worked on the farms. The sudden contraction in population meant that Europe could shift population away from working marginal, low-productivity lands, to higher-productivity lands. This meant that the average peasant could support more people after the Black Death. That in turn freed up labor to move back into the cities. To put it another way, Europe transferred peasants from low-productivity agriculture to the cities to become skilled labor. It already had plenty of surplus labor and so was able to respond quickly to the loss of skilled labor.

We could argue that modern civilization also has a large pool of low-productivity labor ready to move into high-productivity employment: the Third World. And yes, we are overpopulated in the sense that we have a couple of billion such people. In a sense, they constitute the safety margin we have against a large loss of population. But there’s a big difference between 2008 and 1349: the amount of time it takes to retrain a worker from low-productivity to high productivity. A farm worker could be transformed into an ironworker or stonemason could be trained in a few years (although getting to master craftsman status took much longer). But if you grabbed a Bangladeshi farmer and tried to turn him into a civil engineer, it would take another fifteen years of additional training to get him up to speed.

The good news is that we are finally starting to close the economic and educational gap between the rich and the poor. Maybe in 30 years that Bangladeshi farmer will be able to drive a tractor and even do minor service work on it. Perhaps that will give us a level of protection that I did not factor into my earlier thinking.

But there’s one other factor that will be much more important: the shock effect. When the Black Death hit, most Europeans were farmers, growing their own food with a surplus ratio of a few percentage points. In other words, one farm worker grew enough food to feed 1.02 people (I’m making up this number). Moreover, because of poor transportation, the farmer was not dependent upon external inputs—he had everything he needed right there on the farm. Thus, when the economic structure collapsed, the farmer was still quite capable of feeding himself.  But nowadays, farmers have huge surplus ratios—something around 100? Which means that an economic collapse would kill a lot more people. Moreover, farmers today are reliant upon external inputs. If those inputs don’t arrive, the farmer’s productivity goes to zero. A modern farmer couldn’t even feed himself if the economy collapsed.

Of course, Third World farmers could still feed themselves. Which suggests that an economic collapse would wipe out all the economically advanced people and leave the Third World people less affected.

These are musings, not arguments…

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Posted: 02 November 2008 09:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 56 ]
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Chris: Can you provide sources for the statements you are making here e.g.: “....Europe was already overpopulated before the Black Death hit.”

I have to say that I disagree with your statement that “A modern farmer couldn’t even feed himself if the economy collapsed.” As one who lives in “farm country” I am confident that the farmers I know could easily look after their own families and more.

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Posted: 02 November 2008 09:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 57 ]
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Chris: Can you provide sources for the statements you are making here e.g.: “....Europe was already overpopulated before the Black Death hit.”

Pounds: An Historical Geography of Europe, 1973, page 325:

“The population of Europe, which had been increasing since at least the tenth century, had ceased to grow by the early fourteenth century, and the later Middle Ages were marked by an undoubted decline in total population. It has been generally assumed that this decline was the direct consequence of the Black Death of 1348. This was probably not the case…”

I disagree with your statement that “A modern farmer couldn’t even feed himself if the economy collapsed.” As one who lives in “farm country” I am confident that the farmers I know could easily look after their own families and more.

Where will they get gasoline and diesel fuel for their tractors? Where will they get fertilizer? Where will they get seeds? Where will they get irrigation water?

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Posted: 02 November 2008 09:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 58 ]
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fausinator - 02 November 2008 08:02 AM
VYAZMA - 02 November 2008 07:08 AM

I disagree.There are very few stupid people.There are many people who are undereducated.Most(at least 80%my arbitrary guess)people could be educated up to the standards of maintaining civil mechanics,scientific or engineered infrastructures.They aren’t being educated up to this point because of varied reasons.There isn’t enough demand.The decreasing amount of nationalism in regards to our industrial/scientific infrastrucure.The increasing amount of computerization/automation which renders obsolete both many proleteriate and technical peoples.Necessity is the mother of invention.The laws of supply and demand for educated people are always in effect.

Sorry for using the derogatory term ‘stupid’, but any way you look at it, statistics inevitably show that half the population has below-average intelligence.  And I will take the liberty to say that there are many people of intelligence who are nevertheless ‘stupid’, in that they make stupid choices quite frequently. 

If we can assume (I don’t have the statistics on hand) that people above the average line tend to pursue higher education than those below the line, demographics definitely show that educated people have fewer children.  This is a recent phenomenon in our evolutionary journey, as in the past it took a degree of intelligence to ensure your offspring survived to thrive.  Now everyone survives, and it is fundamentalists and people of superstition in the third world who are having large numbers of children.

I do take a sympathetic, humanistic view toward these people (especially the third-worlders- fundamentalists kind of annoy me) and I don’t want to sound like a eugenicist, but facts are facts, and the comprehensive gene pool is not necessarily rising in intelligence.

Well you have come full circle back to your original point.You didn’t address my opinion that 85% of people have the potential to be made “smart” through education.Gene pools have nothing to do with the demand for intelligence.

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Posted: 02 November 2008 09:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 59 ]
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The ratio of proletarians/toilers versus inventors,scientists(uneducated vs.educated) is always self balancing.If you had a population of 25 people,and all of them were inventors and innovators and specialists,then who would build their factories,work their factories.Who would dig the ditches and lay the sewers?
One factor that effects this balance,sometimes with harmful effect,is the bureucratic effect.The bureaucrat doesn’t fit neatly in either category,and can include most politicians.(exclude only politicians with the “leader effect”)

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Posted: 02 November 2008 09:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 60 ]
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Yes, I think one concern in a pandemic-type situation would be how the farmers could continue their work and how the transportation system would be disrupted. Farming now uses something on the order of 2% of the US population, and we feed more than just the US, so yes, each farmer probably feeds something on the order of 100 people. To do that they need fuel and maintenance for their tractors, seed, irrigation, fertilizer and various herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. (It’s no use claiming that they can or should all go organic. That would necessitate a population crash on the order that we are already discussing).

They also need a complex transportation system—roads, rail, water—to get the food from where it is produced to where people actually process it into food, and then further transport into cities and towns.

I would expect in this sort of scenario there would be immediate governmental bans on export of foodstuffs, so the third world would be hit very hard by famine. As to whether these networks of transport and processing could be held together with band-aids and string, and then rebuilt once the pandemic passed, it’s a question mark. During the Black Death they were able to do so, although as you note they had very different demographics back then.

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