Thinking through the Progress Problem  is our breakfast special this morning.  The other day in a post, I made a remark that bothered one of our readers.  We’ll just call him Dave but he’s a great guy and asks a very intelligent on-point question:

“George where do you come to the conclusion that the Earth can only Support 200 – 500 million people?”

Honestly, it goes back to one of those bothersome “chicken and egg” questions of economics.  Which arose first:  Human development into a hyper-industrialized resource gobbler OR money?  I scurried to the data to look.  Things do change and at my age memory ain’t what it…uh…where were we?  Oh yeah…

(Continues below)


One of the first things I did was looked at the historical data.  Here’s a dandy place to find it:  Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina (2017) – ‘World Population Growth’. Published online at Retrieved from:

What you’ll find is this little gem – which is ideal for this discussion:

It may be a bit hard to see on a phone, but the blue areas are the human pop and the red line is the rolling Annual Growth Rate.

Sure, you can look at the sharp rise in the kneed of the curve there (around 1900) and figure well, global pop was probably sustainable at those levels.  But was it – really?

Remember, this was before electric lights (generally), before radio, before indoor plumbing most places, before public health, clean water, antibiotics, and not much in the way of cars, no gas stations to speak of, lots of horse poop, and…well sustainable but at what effort?

If that’s how you like it, then sure, Dave, I would have to agree that 1900’s estimate of the GlobalPop (1.559 billion) might be sustainable.  But we have to be more precise in what we mean by sustainable.

It would be seductive to think “Gee, if we all had iPhones and did wall gardening and hydroponics and solar…yeah…that would be sustainable.”


This is not the case and I’ll show you why:  Think of “lighting off humans” as a process  much like burning a candle.  You can have a perpetual flame on the candle only as long as you don’t burn supporting infrastructure (think of it as the wax).

Still, you can do some amazing stuff with small populations.  The Pyramids, for example went up in the 2630-2611 period – that’s B.C.  Global population?  A mere 27-million people back then, and that was world-wide per the reliable efforts of the U.S. Census Bureau over here.

What made it sustainable was likely the “lost technologies” – much of which has been collected by people like Robert Nelson over at who I mentioned Tuesday.

There are footnotes and asterisks all over the place, sure:  Races of extraterrestrial giants – the Genesis 6 Giants – Steve Quayle has been writing about ’em for years.  But there’s more than bigger people back then (men of renown, sure).  There’s the lost levitation using sound as was done by Tibetan masters.  Probably Egyptians, too. But you should know of these things by now.

The environmental types might argue that

A more elevated level of life would be possible – perhaps something 1980’s-like.  “If we just all work together right now, we can all survive.”  Sounds good, don’t get me wrong.  But the people saying this have mostly never worked the dirt a day in their lives  They talk a great game, but they have no “hands on” appreciation for the facts.

Oh, and the other fact:  Global sociology has us screwed.  Brazil and Yemen are out-screwing the West so the future pop will be largely under-education and highly religonized and radicalized.  Fun times?  Not quite.

The problem with “progress” is that it involves two costs to be considered.  (Warning: MBA think here):  There’s a development and deployment cost and then there’s a different cost for ongoing operations.

If you’re keeping the mongrel hordes at bay?  Higher costs.

When we talk about “sustainability” what do we speak of?  Are we looking for further advancement and a higher standard of living?  This comes down to “less time working” for most folks.

The other day, OM2‘s son and I were putting up a pipe and rebar rack alongside the tractor lean-to off the storage building.  “What’s this?  Keep or toss?

He threw over a 2-foot high roll of plastic chicken wire.  It had been out in the Texas sun for five-years and it was falling apart.


When you discuss “sustainable” just what the hell do you really mean?

Sure, we can leave all the skyscrapers alone as they are, but within 200 years, they will be falling down.  With no electricity (we went “low tech, sustainable” right?) no one will service the roof.  It will leak.  Plastic gasketing on windows will fail, glass will fall.  Rain will come in.  The3n rust, then fall-down and go boom.

Might take 500 years…but it will happen.  Absent cheap electricity to run the elevators, is anything over three stories really “sustainable?”  When you get to my age, only one story looks sustainable.

You may not remember the pill box hat-wearing elevator operator Robert, who ran the elevator inside the Smith Tower when the ACLU was there in the 1970’s, but it was a fine old building even then:

“During a trip to Seattle in 1909, (Lyman Cornelius) Smith planned to build a 14-story building in Seattle. His son, Burns Lyman Smith, convinced him to build instead a much taller skyscraper to steal the crown from rival city Tacoma‘s National Realty Building as the tallest west of the Mississippi River. Construction began in 1911. Although Smith did not live to see it, the building was completed in 1914 to a height of 143 m (469 ft) from curbside to the top of the pyramid,[8] with a pinnacle height of 159 m (522 ft).[5] Smith Tower opened to the public on July 4, 1914. Over 4,000 Seattleites rode to the 35th floor on opening day. The Chinese Room, whose name was retired following the 2016 renovation, derived from the carved teak ceiling and blackwood furniture that adorned the room on opening. The room was furnished by the last Empress of China, Cixi.[11] Furnishings include the famous Wishing Chair. The chair incorporates a carved dragon and a phoenix, which, when combined, portends marriage. According to folklore, any wishful unmarried person who sits in it would be married within a year. The legend came true for Smith’s daughter, who married in the Chinese Room itself.”

Missed the chance to sit in the Wishing Chair, did you?

Impressive as the Smith Tower was – it was the major feature of the Seattle skyline when my dad and I went fishing on Elliott Bay – the destruction of sustainability was already well underway.  It was just becoming more evident on the waterfront.

When the city was young, the timbers used were cedar – but when those ran out, there was a materials change to Douglas Fir…but that required creosote.  So up popped the Nettleton Mill.

Go count power poles sometime.  Then explain the dance between deforestation and rural power.

The story of water quality of the Duwamish River in Seattle is instructive because, as was reported in 1945, there was already a major water pollution problem evolving:

“South of the Spokane St. Bridge and immediately behind the U. S.
Coast Guard Base is the Pacific Coast Forge Company, manufacturer of
nuts and bolts. This plant formerly discharged some oil from cutting
machines into the waterway. The U. S. Coast Guard notified them to
discontinue this practice. The oil is now directed into a large sand
pit on the property which, at the present time, serves as an adequate
filter. However, in a few years this sand will probably become saturated
with the oil and the waste will again seep into the waterway. A considerable volume of acid waste also originates in this plant. In the
galvanizing plant the contents of an acid tank of about 875 cubic feet
capacity is dumped every two weeks; the waste liquid goes into the
above mentioned sand pit. Another acid containing tank holding about
58 cubic feet of solution is used for dipping wire. This tank is dumped
every four to six weeks and the waste acid goes into an underground
settling box, then drains to the waterway. The local sewage from some
150 persons also enters the River.”

 The whole survey may be found here – and it’s a short read, all of 34 pages – but it underscores my contention that at least insofar as one local series of estuaries – Puget Sound in Washington State – had passed “sustainable prior to the close of 1945.

The salmon were still great – they went up north.  Before Fukushima.  But the sole?  Maybe you didn’t want to eat the one with the golf-ball sized tumor.

Remember, from my perspective, if we’re going to talk “sustainable” then what we’re talking is no resource depletion/degradation while at the same time building more than enough for current operations and maintenance.

There are better-studied discussions than this, of course.  But do consider  that once industrialization arrives, deforestation arrives shortly thereafter, land the race to desertification is only a matter of time.  Centuries?

If we’re lucky.  But remember that of the Middle East was once forest lands, the Egyptians had a solid agricultural deal going for a long while, and in the end, England was forced to develop coal-fired steam generation because the land had been largely deforested.

It’s why my ancestors in Scotland had taken to burning peat.  So dear was wood.

The long, but honest answer for Dave is this:  I looked at the data, concluded as good a point as any to make the sustainable population was from the deforestation of England to “feed the mills” and went from there.

“The massive use of charcoal on an industrial scale in Early Modern Europe was a new type of consumption of western forests; even in Stuart England, the relatively primitive production of charcoal has already reached an impressive level. Stuart England was so widely deforested that it depended on the Baltic trade for ship timbers, and looked to the untapped forests of New England to supply the need. Each of Nelson’s Royal Navy war ships at Trafalgar (1805) required 6,000 mature oaks for its construction. In France, Colbert planted oak forests to supply the French navy in the future. When the oak plantations matured in the mid-19th century, the masts were no longer required because shipping had changed.”

If you want to pick a starting date?  How about the first lick of British  industrial heroin, coal, then?

“In the 13th century there are records of coal digging in Durham[10] and Northumberland,[11] Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire, the Forest of Dean and North[12] and South Wales. At this time coal was referred to as sea cole, a reference to coal washed ashore on the north east coast of England from either the cliffs or undersea outcrops. As the supply of coal on the surface became used up, settlers followed the seam inland by digging up the shore. Generally the seam continued underground, encouraging the settlers to dig to find coal, the precursor to modern operations.[

And from coal came coke and from coke comes steel, and from that battleships and the profits of war followed.

The key, to my way of thinking, is population density and that, in a nutshell is why I am attracted to the 200- 500-million number.  600 AD to perhaps 1700 AD.

You get much past there and you’re into deforestation, addiction to fossil fuels, and sustainable?  Only if you have a plan to replant tree-for-tree and come up with an effective way to plant coal.

Great question, Dave.

Write when you get rich,