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Katrina Nights: fiction on the scourge of exponential growth

From Timothy Wilken:

Fellow Thinkers,

It is my privilege and pleasure to publish an important new work that provides us with a scientific understanding of our present human crisis. I had the good fortune to come across a small book called Katrina Nights written by a young Environmental Engineer named Fouad M. Khan that was just published in December 2009. This brief but complex work can be viewed as a coming of age story, a stranger in a strange land tale, a terrorist thriller, or simply a ribald sexual romp, and it is all of these. But woven into the fabric of the larger story is an important scientific hypothesis.
Why is the brightest species on the planet in crisis? Why do our present actions threaten our very future?
With the author's permission, I have selected excerpts from the volume that I believe best present that hypothesis. Those excerpts have been edited slightly to make them more understandable since they have been lifted out of the context of the novel itself. The result is the attached 28 page paper excerpted from the 176 page novel. Although the book is described as a work of total fiction, many of the details reported in the story ring amazingly true. I suspect the story is a mixture of both truth and fiction.
All of the following is true. Fouad Khan was born and bred in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. He was a graduate student at the University of Houston in 2005-2007. Fouad was in America on a Fulbright scholarship to pursue a PhD degree in Environmental Engineering. For his thesis and research, he did study the population dynamics of hydrocarbon-eating bacteria.
The story presented in the novel, describes the activities, thoughts, conversations, and research of a fictional graduate student who by coincidence also attends the University of Houston and is named Fouad Khan. In the process of this experience, Fouad discovers what he believes is an important truth about living populations. If he is correct, and I believe that he is, then he has discovered the scientific basis for our present human crisis.
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. From the attached paper, Khan writes:

“There’s a fundamental assumption here, and that assumption is growth; unfettered, unstoppable, unchanging, perennially beneficial growth. We always start off with the unarticulated premise that bacteria populations will keep on increasing exponentially, somehow effortlessly switching from one food source to another without taking a hit to their growth rate. And that that’s somehow good too, that that’s the ideal situation. Well, maybe it isn’t. …

“The change in population of a species depends on the ‘Adaptability’ of the species. ‘Adaptability’ can be defined as the ability of the species’ population to cope with the ‘Rate of Change of Entropy’ of its host system. Think of it this way, when I add one liter of hydrochloric acid to my tank of bacteria, … the population immediately dies off, the change in entropy of the system is too fast, the RATE OF CHANGE OF ENTROPY is too high, the populations can’t cope with it. But if I keep adding the same hydrochloric one drop at a time over a period of sixty days, the bacteria survive, they adapt, their adaptive capacity is capable of handling this rate of change of entropy.

“In other words, give the process of evolution, nothing is poisonous per se for bacteria or any other living population, it is the speed at which that pollutant is added to the host system that makes the pollutant poisonous. Ditto for change in the other environmental conditions.”

Khan has discovered that exponential growth increases the rate of change of entropy, and is a critical factor leading to crisis. Khan continues:

“Now, the curious case of the exponential growth curve. The exponential growth curve is stuck upon because the bacteria have suddenly discovered a higher system. In other words when I introduce benzene in my tank of bacteria population, I am introducing an additional resource to the system. When bacteria discover this concentration of benzene and discover how to consume it, they’ve essentially jumped from their lower system of no benzene to a higher system which contains benzene in it. 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 inhabiting living species population. The ‘adaptability’ of the species must now be measured against the new rate of change of entropy.

“But what happens when a species discovers a higher system and hits an exponential growth curve. I believe that there are fundamental behavioral alterations at the individual species level which reflect in the change of rate of population growth. Something in the species’ very genetic makeup, some evolutionary trigger is pushed which reduces the species to an all consuming, all reproducing machine. Some switch which previously moderated the species consumption of resources is turned off… for good. I found out that for bacteria, the consumption footprint of hydrocarbons increased between three to five folds as the population hit the exponential growth curve. The bacteria started eating and reproducing like maniacs. They ate so much and so fast, they ate themselves into oblivion.
“You see with the exponential growth curve, the entropic footprint of the species also increases very rapidly. Initially the bacteria or the species is just another part of the system, contributing its set share to the overall rate of change of entropy of the system. Adding to entropy but not enough to affect the rate of change; at this point the species population exists in harmony with the system. When a higher system is discovered such as through addition of benzene to the tank, there’s now room for bacteria to consume more and grow without affecting the already altered rate of change of entropy of the system positively, so the bacteria grow exponentially. But if the exponential growth continues soon a point arrives where the entropic footprint of the species is so high that it is higher than the entropic footprint of all the other components of the system put together. At this point the species starts to add to the rate of change of entropy of the system itself.

“Now if we recall, we’d defined the adaptability of the system as nothing more than its populations’ ability to cope with the rate of change of entropy of the system. When a species starts to add to the very rate of change of entropy of its host system and enters what I have decided to call hyper-entropic growth phase, it has essentially started to make its host system uninhabitable and inadaptable for itself. It has essentially started to commit mass suicide.
“The system becoming uninhabitable for the species is from there, only a matter of time. Once the rate of change of entropy of the system has risen too high for the species’ population to adapt to, basically due to the species own insatiable appetite, the population enters the death phase, after a very pointed peak or stationary phase. The more obtuse the rise in population, the faster the exponential growth, the smaller the length of stationary phase. ...
“I think we humans discovered a higher system when we discovered fossil fuel as an industrial resource, a source of cheap energy. Hydrocarbons were our dope, curiously not unlike those of the bacteria I grow in lab. We hit exponential growth curve when we found oil. I believe human beings entered the hyper-entropic growth phase somewhere in the mid to early nineteen hundreds. We started affecting the entropy of our host system, Earth in a big way around that time making it essentially inhospitable for us. I believe global warming is one of the physical manifestations of the growing inadaptability of our host system for us.”
Fortunately, we humans are much more powerful than the bacteria in Khan's tanks. Plants and animals can only survive by adapting to their environment. If the rate of change of their entropy is slow enough they can adapt to anything. Humans have the animal body so we can also adapt to anything in our environment if the rate of change is slow enough.

However, we have an advantage not available to the plants and animals. We have the human mind which can understand and invent technology to adapt the environment to us. Human technology allows us to survive underwater without gills, it allows us to travel through the vacuum of space, and romp on the moon, a planet without air. We do this by adapting the environment to us.

So while the plants and animals have only one strategy, we humans have two. But this makes our situation no less precarious, it just gives us more options.

Khan has discovered that exponential growth always increases the rate of change of entropy, and this explains our present Human Crisis.

Now the only way for us to avoid extinction is to change our behavior. We must reduce our population. Ideally, going forward each of us would voluntarily have only one child. One child per couple. This would bring our population down rapidly without injury to anyone. We must simultaneously reduce our use of fossil fuels.

Just as the bacteria in a culture can adapt to hydrochloric acid if it is added a little at a time. The bacteria in the same culture could also adapt to the loss of Benzene if it was removed a little at a time.

Today humanity is consuming ~85 million barrels of petroleum every day. Reduce that to zero tomorrow and most of us would die. Reduce that by 5 million barrels every year, and in ten years our use would be reduced to ~35 million barrels a day, we could adapt to this change without too much difficulty. It would only require that we work together in a more intelligent and efficient way.

Our exponential growth does not have to be the end of our human species, but it certainly will be unless we change our ways. This could be our final human crisis if politics and business continue as usual.

Crisis is always the harbinger of an overwhelming problem. Fortunately, crisis has two components—Danger and Opportunity. When faced with crisis, there is almost always a window of opportunity, when intelligent action can avert most or at least some of the danger of the crisis. But, that opportunity is fleeting. The only rational response is Carpe diem—Seize the Day. We must recognize the opportunity in time and then act quickly and intelligently.
Please circulate Fouad Khan's paper as if your children's future depended on it. You are welcome to mirror it from your websites. You are invited to publish it anywhere and everywhere.

Timothy Wilken, MD

link to the paper online: http://futurepositive.synearth.net/preamble-to-a-hypothesis/

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