May 20th, 2010

I have received some feedback on Foaud Khan’s Hypothesis related to Rate of Change of Entropy, Exponential Growth, and Biological Populations. I responded to the feedback as follows, and I include feedback from Fouad Khan as well.

A Conversation on Humanity’s Future

Exponential Growth, the Rate of Change of Entropy, and Biological Populations

James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Long Emergency responds:

Khan tells us that exponential growth whether in bacteria or humans has a major impact on the finite environment it finds it self in. This is just as true for a culture of bacteria living in finite growth tank in a laboratory at the University of Houston or the entire human species living on a finite planet called Earth.

Timothy– I appreciate you sending this.  I will print it out and read it. But as per the above, is this not a re-statement of Malthus? (I’m not anti-Malthus, by the way.)

Khan has discovered that exponential growth increases the rate of change of entropy,

This is not surprising, since entropy is a function of the dispersion of energy.

Now the only way for us to avoid extinction is to change our behavior. We must reduce our population. I’m sure this will happen whether we put our minds to it or not. And I don’t mean to be snooty about it.  I see our numbers falling off a cliff in the next 50 years. Oil depletion = food depletion.  Then figure in social disorder, geopolitical discord, etc.

James Howard Kunstler

My response to James Howard Kunstler


Thanks for your quick response. I look forward to your thoughts when you have had time to digest the full paper. I very much enjoyed The Long Emergency and World Made by Hand. I have reposted many of your articles on my websites. I most enjoy your posts on the positive things we could do. If we weren’t so determined to commit humanicide.

Malthus was correct in many ways, but he lived 1776 to 1834. Rudolf Clausius coined the term entropy in 1850. What is remarkable about Khan’s work is his connection of relatively unlimited resources to exponential growth resulting in a hyperentropic growth phase. What overwhelms a species is not change, but the rate of change.

Thus Khan gets us out of the world of opinion and into the world of scientific proof.

I have suggested that what Khan called hyperentropic growth phase could also be expressed as a hyper-entropic pollution phase. Malthus thought the limitation on population would be only because we ran out of food. Khan’s work demonstrates that we might actually have enough food, but poison ourselves with our waste.

I don’t know if Khan did this, but it would be interesting to see what happens if you kept feeding the bacteria in the growth tank benzene, thus no shortage of food, but the effects of hypertropic growth would still impact their finite living space.

By the way, I discovered Khan as one of the commentors on Clusterfuck Nation. Small world.

I also got a quick response from Jay Hanson. He said he would take a look and get back to me.



Response from Fouad Khan.

Dear Timothy,

Thanks for spreading the word on my book, and for your very apt clarifications to Jim’s comments.

I’ve been an avid reader of Mr. Kunstler as well for a while now. I even dug out an old copy of The Life of Byron Jaynes from somewhere and read it; very immersive and entertaining.

You are right about Malthus. What he’s talking about, to oversimplify to some extent, is the finiteness of any one resource in a system. I think, that is just one physical manifestation of what is essentially, a living species running out of breathing space on the spectrum of permissible rates of change of entropy (the band of rates to which the species can adapt). In humanity’s case for instance, we’d have been heading towards a serious disruption to our civilization right about now anyway -even if the earth did have a “creamy nougat centre of oil”- because of global climate change. That would not have been a Malthusian collapse, but it certainly would have been a case of a species rendering its own host system inadaptable for itself by accelerating the rate of change of entropy for that entire system.

A Malthusian collapse would have been the same thing as well, just expressed differently in physical terms.

Timothy, the writings of both, Mr. Kunstler and Mr. Hanson have informed and entertained me immensely over the years and I am looking forward to their feedback on this.


Fouad Khan.

James Howard Kunstler’s response to me.

I very much enjoyed The Long Emergency and World Made by Hand

Timothy– The Sequel to World Made By Hand is coming out in Sept.

Thus Khan gets us out of the world of opinion and into the world of scientific proof.

This is all well and good, BUT, I’m not sure that political / cultural leaders will ever understand what the fuck we did to ourselves… plus I have grown skeptical lately of one particular facet of the empiricist mind-set, namely, that just because we can measure stuff means that we are able to control stuff.

In fact, I’m deeply sick of econometric explanations for all the various imbalances we currently suffer from.      Forgive me for being cranky this morning.  Just got this from a friend, vis-a-vis Deepwater Horizon oil spill: I talked with Matt Simmons on Friday for about an hour. He was morose – said this will be worst ecological disaster of our species. Said relief well has <5% chance and oil will flow until its done (1-2 years) also said oil will spike over $100 by june (which i seriously disagreed with)

James Howard Kunstler
“It’s All Good”

Response from Jay Hanson, who has been writing on Peak Oil for many years.

Hi Timothy,

I am afraid this doesn’t help.  We know the overpopulation exists. The problem is how to solve it.


Timothy Wilken responds to Jay Hanson.

Hello Jay,

Thanks for taking a look. I agree that Khan does not provide a solution, but the value of his paper is in improving our understanding of the present human crisis.Population as a problem was first proposed by Malthus who lived 1776 to 1834. I am sure the following population growth chart is very familiar to you. At the time of Malthus’ death world population was just reaching 1 billion. Malthus’ concern about overpopulation was unrelated to exponential growth. There had been no exponential growth of the human population prior to his death.

Today, we know no biological population can undergo exponential growth without a relatively unlimited resource. In Khan’s experiments, the exponential growth phase was supported by the relatively unlimited resource of benzene, however what Khan discovered is that the use of this resource by the exponentially growing population of bacteria always provokes a secondary hyper-entropic pollution effect. While the bacterial population swept up in exponential growth will collapse and die off if the resource is with drawn or depleted, that same population will also collapse and die off if the rate of change of entropy exceeds the adaptability of the hosting environment.

They literally change their environment so rapidly that it becomes uninhabitable. Exponential growth produces exponential entropy. As you have taught me and many others, we humans were swept up in an exponential growth phase when we gained access to the relatively unlimited resource called fossil fuels. And, the focus has been on what will happen when the fossil fuels are depleted i.e. Peak Oil.

What we have not been sensitive to is that even if we had unlimited access to fossil fuels, even if Thomas Gold’s abiogenic formation of fossil fuels filling the center of the Earth were true, we would still face die off when the rise of exponential pollution exceeded the adaptability of the hosting environment — in this case the adaptability of the EARTH.

As a small demonstration these two effects, I find this excerpt from a new article at Mother Jones to be instructive, the article is called Population:The Last Taboo, in it Paul Murtaugh, a Professor at Oregon State University with Doctorates in both Zoology and Statistics, is quoted:

“‘The results surprised me,’ he says. ‘Using United Nations projections of fertility, and projecting statistically through the lifespan of the mother’s line—some lineages being short-lived, others indefinitely long—an American child born today adds an average 10,407 tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of her mother. That’s almost six times more CO2 than the mother’s own lifetime emissions. Furthermore, the ecological costs of that child and her children far outweigh even the combined energy-saving choices from all a mother’s other good decisions, like buying a fuel-efficient car, recycling, using energy-saving appliances and light bulbs. The carbon legacy of one American child and her offspring is 20 times greater than all those other sustainable maternal choices combined.’

“Murtaugh’s research shows that even though India has a much larger population and a higher rate of population growth than the US, its overall carbon legacy is vastly reduced, due to its population’s drastically lower levels of consumption combined with shorter lifespans (63.8 years on average for India, versus 80.2 years for the US). At current rates, an American child has 55 times the carbon legacy of a child born to a family in India. While India is conservatively predicted to grow by 400 million people by 2050, the US is projected to grow by 86 million. But take those additional Americans and factor in their 55-times-higher carbon legacy (at current national consumption rates), and they will equal the legacy of 4.7 billion Indians.”

While the average American may consume twice the calories of the average Indian, the real problem is that we use 150 times more fossil fuel. We Americans can make no claim that just because we are not adding to the human population therefore the problems lie with India and China. Americans are the number one producers of exponential entropy– the number one producers of the hyper-entropic pollution effect.

If we have a better understanding of the present human crisis, we stand a better chance of solving it.As I see it, there is only one solution. We must design and create a higher system. A system that has a better capacity to absorb entropy, and that helps us live without producing so much entropy. These new system must be enormously more efficient that our present systems. Khan writes:

“The higher system is more expansive and has a better capacity to absorb entropy. So the sudden change in entropy caused by sudden microorganism population rise does not have an effect on the RATE OF CHANGE OF ENTROPY, though it does add a bit to the entropy of the system. We must understand that the inherent rate of change of entropy is a primary characteristic of a system and once that is changed, the system definition is fundamentally altered, leaving the system either adaptable or inadaptable for a habiting living species population. The ‘adaptability’ of the species must now be measured against the new rate of change of entropy.”

I see only two ways to make such a higher system, either we move to larger planet, or we make our system of relating with each other, much more efficient, cooperative, and intelligent in every way. Khan’s work seems to be scientifically supportive of your project to re-invent the American way of life with America 2.0.



Fouad Khan’s response to Jay Hanson.

Dear Mr. Hanson,

Thanks for reading through my work. You are right, there are no solutions in there, though there are hints at a solution in the complete novel. While it is true that the problem is well established to a large extent now and we should be moving towards identifying viable solutions, it’s also pretty clear, I think, that what we are suffering from is not a dearth of beneficial solutions but an incomprehension and acceptance of the gravity of the problem itself.

The addict that is our civilization to fossil fuels, we are not even past the FIRST step of recovery.

I don’t think population is the problem per se. It can be a manifestation of the grander problem, but if we clean up our act, I believe mother Gaya is capable of providing for a couple billion more manlings at least.

What the earth can’t handle are r-strategist consumers. Not even three or four billion of them probably.

So what do we do?

I have some ideas. But let me summarize my thesis first.

I believe human beings are creating entropy at such a fast rate that it has increased the rate of change of entropy of our host system earth to levels which are uninhabitable and inadaptable for us as a species.

There are two major manifestations of this inadaptability; a) we’re reaching the finite limits of the most easily and cheaply accessible form of energy at our disposal, b) we’re altering some physical parameters of our host system at an unbearably fast pace (global climate change). These two manifestations are really flipsides of the same coin.

Based on this thesis, we need to do three things, a) find another energy source, b) find a larger system which has greater capacity to absorb entropy c) reduce our entropic footprint so we are not burning through the entropic capacity of our host systems every half a century. I think your plan for America 2.0 falls within category c.

So what do we do?

I would propose the following.

1) Move to nuclear as fast as we can to buy ourselves some time. Nuclear is a higher system, but it can’t be a permanent solution because the less nuclear waste we produce the better. Move to nuclear, but plan to retire it in fifty years.

2) Reorganize life to decrease our entropic footprint. Make use of the technological revolution in computing. Commutes should become a thing of the past. Give up on ideals that are based on the promise of perpetual growth. Retire the trinity of freedom-democracy-capitalism. We need new deities. We need to recognize the ever shifting balance between man and machine as the information age comes to maturity. We need America 2.0.

3) Focus our resources on research and development in areas where viable higher systems could be found. That happens every time we learn a new language. The miracle of our species is communication. I think the language of genes is where it’s at in the future. We just spent a century writing masterpieces in steel and concrete and silica. I think we would be writing masterpieces in polypeptides soon. We need to make that bet on human ingenuity because the only other option is death and misery for billions of people.

Anyway, that’s just what I think.


Fouad Khan.

Jay Hanson responds to Fouad Khan.

Interesting ideas Fouad.  At the present time, I am in the middle of a seminar.

I suggest you present them to this group for feedback.


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