The term “24/7” is normally associated with the limit to the amount of work someone can do in a week: Twenty-four hours a day for seven days. By a slightly different definition, this term may also refer to the maximum number of people that can occupy our planet on a sustainable basis.
There are several reasons to expect that the average smallest group size is around 24 individuals. Each small group (what I will call “Level 1”) may be one of a similar number of members of a larger group that enables individuals to identify with the larger group (what I’ll call “Level 2”). The Level 2 group can be one of around 24 members of a Level 3 group; the Level 3 group can be one of about 24 members of a Level 4 group; and so on. These levels are roughly equivalent to the more familiar community types (in order of increasing size): family, neighborhood (or tribe), city, county, state, nation, and world.
Empirically, the minimum per capita global ecological footprint is about 0.1 hectare. It is reasonable to assume that pre-historical values were at least half of this. Applying the first law of consumption to the consumption of ecological resources, the entire land area of the Earth would be exceeded with a population around Level 7 (4.6 billion people, or 24 multiplied by itself 7 times). Such a conclusion could be reached even with extreme errors in approximation of usable area (by my calculation, as much as 90%).
It is tempting to speculate about the cultural significance of this insight. For example, when a seven day week was established in early Judaic practice, might the commandment to rest on the seventh day (the Sabbath) have been a recognition that humanity would need to stop working – translating into no growth of per capita consumption and with it, population – at the seventh level in order to avoid exceeding the renewable resource base and causing a population crash?
In this light, Judaic injunctions against trying to become god-like may have been another part of a larger strategy to inhibit potentially disastrous growth. The spiritual (what I would call psychological) component of religion could then be interpreted as a means of providing a way for people to experience the happiness of increased consumption without its physical manifestation; similarly, the promise of “eternal life” may have been a way of faking people into believing that their life would be extended in a non-physical way.
Barring a major technological breakthrough in the time we have left before population collapse, something resembling a religious world-view may be useful in pulling us back from the brink. Whatever the solution we choose, it should be informed by the knowledge that we cannot support more than 24^7 people while we are dependent on biology for survival.
BELOW: Consumption of mass (in pounds) and ecological resources (footprint, in global ecological hectares) are estimated as a function of population level. The ratio of footprint to the total surface area of the Earth is calculated as C/Cmax.
© Copyright 2008 Bradley Jarvis. All rights reserved.