“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.”
— Albert Einstein
Compound interest epitomizes the exponential function. According to Physicist Albert Bartlett the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the simple mathematics inherent in this powerful notion. Why? Because the exponential function is essential to understanding the threats that are inherent to a society built on growth instead of stability.
Professor Bartlett has lectured widely on the perils of population and energy growth saying that anything exhibiting steady growth will assume an exponential pattern (see diagram below). Unfortunately, his arguments ring true for the steady increases in greenhouse gases that precipitate climate change.
I was introduced to compound interest years ago when speaking with a financial advisor. He said that consistent inputs into a retirement account, with even a moderate compound interest rate, would eventually create great wealth because at a certain point a snowball affect takes place and a molehill of money becomes a mountain. Here is a compound growth curve for population.
This is a classic exponential growth curve. Notice the long lead-up period of near stability. Then see how the growth curve changes direction all of a sudden. Estimates show that 6.5 percent of all humans ever born are alive now. Exponential math shows us that cataclysmic population numbers are not far off.
You can probably see where this is going, so please take care to not allow this information to overwhelm you. Stopping right here is an excellent option. Consider whether you can assimilate this now, or if it would be better for you to wait.
Climatologists estimate that our environment can withstand an increase in average global temperature of 2 degrees centigrade (2C). Unfortunately, our temperature curve will be very close to the graph above indicating population growth—once global temperatures start to rise we will be very close to a dramatic shift.
Once we register a “2C” hike in global temperature 4C will not be far off. This is the number associated with global extinction. Some estimates project that our planet will see an 8 to 12C rise in temperature after we are gone due to atmospheric inputs already in play.
Time is running out
The warming process is well underway, we are already past a 1C rise in average global temperature. Even with immediate and drastic change it will be difficult to stem the tide of rising global temperatures. But the news gets worse.
According to Ecology Professor Guy McPherson, as our climate deteriorates we’ll start to experience up to 50 multiplier effects that will work to raise temperatures more rapidly than we have been experiencing to date; some of these multiplier effects are extreme, others are not.
Professor Bartlett talks about population growth like it’s a ticking time bomb. How long before we have so many people that food chains will collapse and big die-offs will occur?
Our climate situation is an imminent threat to every living thing on this planet. The mathematics of climate change mirror population growth but reveal a far more dire consequence. We don’t know how much time we have to make changes. Actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio says that the Paris Climate Conference is a good first step toward saving our environment
But it is only a first step.
If we want our children to survive on this earth we need radical change as soon as possible. We need to completely rethink how we feed and fuel our society, and it is essential we stop insisting we are above or outside of nature and come home to the fact that we are part of the biological systems of this world and work within them.
Climate change mathematics predict we’ll soon wake up to a climate situation we can’t handle. As Professor Bartlett says “simply look at the math.”