Numbers — 2

A few years ago, my college at UC Berkeley was searching for a dean. Prof. Joel Cohen was invited to check out the College of Natural Resources. I asked him about his book How Many People Can the Earth Support? over lunch.

A few years ago, he said, a journalist had called him up saying that he was doing a piece on world population and wanted to know from Joel how many people could the earth support. Joel told the caller that he could not answer that question off the top of his head. It could take him a few days and why didn’t he call back in four or five days.

It took Joel three years to definitively answer that question and a fine job he did, in my opinion. The book was published in 1995. I quote from the introduction:

Though the future is hazy, much that is very clear can be known about the present. First, the size and speed of growth of the human population today have no precedent in all the Earth’s history before the last half of the twentieth century. Human numbers currently exceed 5.7 billion and increase by roughly an additional 90 million people per year. Second, the resources of every kind (physical, chemical and biological; technological, institutional and cultural; economic, political and behavioral) available to people are finite today both in their present capacity and in their possible speed of expansion. Today’s rapid relative and absolute increase in population stretches the productive, absorptive and recuperative capacities of the Earth as humans are now able to manage those capacities. It also stretches human capacities for technological and social invention, adaptation, and compassion.

Like in all other things, humans have a limited capacity for compassion too. When resources are severely limited, the thin veneer of civilization is easily scraped off to reveal the underlying unyielding will to survive at the expense of others.

The Convent and Cloyne Court

As a graduate student, I decided to spend my first term at UC Berkeley at the University Students’ Cooperative Association (USCA). The USCA is the largest student housing cooperative in North America modeled after the Rochdale Principles. The USCA is student run and student owned. In all we had about 20 houses and 4 apartment complexes housing about 2,000 students.

The house that I lived in is called Cloyne Court. It used to be a hotel and is even listed as a national historical monument. Cloyne Court housed about 150 students in about 80 single-, double-, and triple-occupancy rooms.

All household tasks such as cooking, cleaning, washing, and maintenance were done by the residents. In addition to our rent, we had to do five hours of ‘workshift’ every week. Like all other houses of the USCA, Cloyne Court had one common kitchen and one dinning hall for the 150 residents. Food was stocked in a huge pantry and in a walk-in freezer the size of a small apartment.

Under the best of circumstances, cooking is not an easy job. But for college students who can barely cook for themselves, the task of cooking for 150 people is well-near impossible. So dinner time was a real challenge. Around 6 pm, the dining hall would be crowded with students waiting for the food to show up from the kitchen.

The word may go around that there wasn’t much food that got cooked on some day. Perhaps the cooks weren’t very good and burnt half the stuff. Suddenly, there would be rush for the food as it was being brought out. All pretense of waiting for your turn would be dropped and pushing and shoving to get at the food would be so violent that half the food would end up on the floor.

If you were not quick, you were dead. If not dead, at least you’d have to order pizza to avoid starving.

During my one year at Cloyne Court, I learnt more economics than I could have imagined. I saw the tragedy of the commons revealed in all its stark reality. I understood why the Soviet Union collapsed. I learnt the common property problem and the problem of free-ridership.

I moved to a smaller house the next year. It was called the Convent because it used to be one before the USCA bought it. The Convent had 20 people and was restricted to graduate students. It was pretty well organized. Those who volunteered to cook were really into cooking. For 20 people, it was easy to cook enough that there was little chance of food running out. We all sat very calmly at the table while the food was passed around very politely. We had intelligent stimulating conversation at dinner. We had self-imposed rules: not taking any more than what we could eat, and cleaning up after ourselves.

The contrast between Cloyne Court and the Convent was stark and revealing.

HMS Titanic — 2

The HMS Titanic was a giant of a ship. It was doing 21 knots that fateful night.

Now it was 9.40pm, and still the ice warnings came. At no time had Captain Smith or the senior officers ordered a cautionary reduction in speed, or had gone to the trouble of having extra lookouts posted, something which Captain Lord of the Californian had already performed before he called it a day and brought his own vessel to a halt in the ice. When you put-together the ice warnings Titanic had received that day, it revealed that there was an ice-field 80 miles long directly in her path, and only two hours away if the current speed were maintained. Surely somebody in the next couple of hours must realise that Titanic is steaming at full-speed into an ice-field which has already made other vessels to heave-to for the night?

The warning messages kept coming in. Ice ahead. John Phillips was the radio operator in the Marconi room busy at the controls of the transmitters, sending messages to Cape Race in North America.

… under the immense pressure of sending commercial traffic, and at the same time having to cope with incoming warnings and messages, he snapped, as the nearby Californian sent an ice warning to Titanic. “Shut up, shut up. I am busy. I am working Cape Race.” Phillips’ now infamous snub highlighted how the commercial traffic had priority over the warnings. Perhaps if the Marconi men had not been so busy sending messages, the Titanic would never had foundered. But all of the previous warnings didn’t stop that happening either, so a last minute aversion was unlikely.


Exponential growth can be a terrifying thing. We all know the story of the king who was foolish enough to grant a boon to one who was familiar with the concept of exponential growth. To recount, the king said, “Ask and I will grant it to you.”

The man said, “All I want is a few pennies. I want one penny on the first square of a chess board, two pennies on the second square, four pennies on the third, eight pennies on the fourth, and so on till we reach the 64th square of the chess board.”

The king, like our present day innumerate kings, was immensely relieved. Here was this idiot asking for pennies when he could have asked for a ton of gold. “Done,” said the king and asked his minister to make the arrangements.
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