The end of the world is nigh

Scientist Geoffrey West on how new biological research points to mankind's imminent destruction.
By Kat Slowe
Mon 05 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

Will greed spell the end of the human race? Scientist and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential men Geoffrey West tells Katherine Slowe how new biological research points to mankind's imminent destruction.

"There is a simple formula by which, if you are sitting at the top of a cliff and looking out at the ocean, you can derive how far away the horizon is," claims Geoffrey West, president of the prestigious Santa Fe Institute, with simple joy.

"I used to stare at the horizon from the chalk cliffs near my home and I'd see these ships go down over it. I'd find it absolutely amazing that there was a formula with which you could predict exactly when this would happen."

Decades later, West believes humanity could be sailing obliviously towards a different edge, one from which there could be no coming back. He has recently been conducting scientific research to uncover the depth of similarity between certain biological phenomena and human social organisations, such as cities and corporations. The results have been both staggering and worrying.

Originally commencing with a study into some of the underlying principles that govern all forms of life, West saw his research as an extension of a field of biology that he felt had been largely neglected by other scientists - networks.

"I was trying to understand the dynamics of organisms, their structure, their organisation, how they grow, how they evolve, how they live and how they die," West says intensely. "I wanted to see in what way an elephant is just a blown up mouse or a blown up human being, or in what way we are just a blown up cell."

It was this idea of networks that led West to consider relating some of his findings on natural systems to social constructs, such as cities. Though the research is still in its early days, West claims they appear to share several behavioural characteristics, but that there are also intriguing discrepancies.

He discovered in the course of his biological investigations that nature is governed by remarkable economies of scale and that the larger the creature, the more efficient it is and the more protracted its life. He determined that the smaller the animal, the faster it would move relative to its size and the quicker its heart would beat, wearing itself out more quickly.

"The pace of life gets slower and slower the bigger you are - in a very systematic, predicable way," West explains. "So you have this image of a ponderous elephant and a frenetic mouse. You can do this from ecosystems down to cells. All of biology, pretty much across the whole spectrum, obeys this kind of behaviour."

However, West noticed that the way in which cities and corporations behave is partly at odds with this natural law. His team gathered a huge collection of statistics from cities, ranging from the average wage to the number of hospitals and the level of criminal activity. These showed that with cities and corporations - unlike the frenetic mouse and ponderous elephant - everything is occurring the wrong way round.

West found out the bigger the social organisations are, the faster they act, in a predictable way. This includes the rate of bank transactions, the spread of disease and even the speed of walking. In addition, the results showed that unlike nature, which is dominated by economies of scale, the larger a city or corporation, the greater the negative side effects, created in linear proportion.

On one side, the bigger a city or corporation is, the more innovative it is, and the greater the amount of wealth produced per capita. In addition, the bigger the city or corporation, the higher the average wage per capita, the more schools there are per capita and the more patents are produced per capita - in the same proportion across all society.

"But the bad that comes along with that," explains West, "is that in the same proportion your wages go up, or the number of patents that are produced goes up, the greater the number of AIDS cases there are, the greater the number of crimes there are, and the greater the amount of pollution that is produced.

"It's as if when you innovate and create more wealth, and thereby improve the standard of living, with that comes inevitably a bunch of crap: pollution, disease and crime, in the same proportion."

This is completely dissimilar to what West discovered happened in his biological research, where it appeared that if you look at an elephant, relative to a mouse, it had per capita [or gram of tissue] far fewer tumours. The larger the animal, the less disease it experienced and the less energy it consumed in relation to its size.

West attributes this difference, between humanity's artificial society and nature's design, to wealth creation: "The creation of wealth and its relationship to innovation - because I think they go hand-in-hand in many ways - has been the reason for this fundamental difference, but it has also been crucial to create the kind of society we are in. Because if we hadn't done that we would all effectively be hunters and gatherers."

Using oxygen as a point of comparison, West describes how wealth creation intrinsically contradicts the natural order. He claims that like oxygen, money is of no use on its own. It's a vehicle for transforming goods into something useful that can be the engine of society. But unlike oxygen, humans do not use the minimum amount of money to survive.

"The bigger you are, the less oxygen you use per gram of your weight," West says. "You're very efficient that way. But most people I know that are into money around the world, they want more."

Humanity's way of life, West elaborates, is ultimately unsustainable. As if to fuel the creation of excess wealth, he says, the pace of life is constantly quickening and the time between major innovations is necessarily getting shorter.

"It may have taken 50,000 years to go from stone to iron, and it may have taken 100 years to go from steam and coal to oil," West argues, "but how long did it take to go from being dominated by computers to being dominated by information technology, as being distinct from computers?"

"Products are coming out one after another. I have in front of me this marvellous Mac, but it is already becoming outdated. It's not only that we are on this treadmill that is getting faster and faster, but we are accelerating it.The question is, is that sustainable? Because it is also driven by this need to create wealth, and in order to create wealth we have to continually innovate."

West attributes much of humanity's success in maintaining its lifestyle until now to the discovery of fossil fuels. In real time, all life, in terms of energy and resources, comes from the sun. The only stored energy comes from temporary organisms such as plants. By discovering how to utilise the energy locked in coal and oil from thousands of years ago, West says humans have done something no other animal has achieved.

"We got released from the constraints of ordinary biology," West explains, "so it was crucial to discover these resources that have been stored on the planet biologically and that has been a major factor in creating the kind of societies we have."

Yet the finite supply of fossil fuels cannot sustain humanity indefinitely. For the renowned scientist they act merely as another example of humanity's lack of sustainability, a lack which at some point could bring about our demise.

West claims he likes to believe that there is hope, but in a slightly dismal tone concedes there is very little to hope for: "I'm always amazed at the extraordinary ingenuity of human beings to solve problems, so there is a piece of me - which I consider the irrational piece of me - that thinks it's all going to come out okay. But my rational side is fairly pessimistic."

"It could be that this is a very interesting development by natural selection so to speak, but a very interesting experiment that failed."

West identifies two distinct modes for social organisations, both of which are extremely important for their survival. On the one side are economies of scale, which deliver the most efficient kind of organisation and mimic biological structures the most closely.

On the other is open ended, innovative wealth creation, which is what is primarily driving the uncontrolled growth. It is a delicate balance between these that will lead to a highly successful, sustainable kind of organisation. However, West ponders, is it even possible for these modes to effectively co-exist?

"It may be the only way is a kind of boom and bust cycle," he states, "that is, you have to be prepared to suffer periods - which we may be going into now in some sense - where you have to concentrate more and more on efficiency and cutting things out.

"Things will start to decay and collapse, but there will be the assumption then that you will pick up later with wealth creation. I don't even know if that's doable. Maybe once you are on a slippery slope, you go down, which has happened to so many companies."

West has been considering the possibility that companies are on a fast track innovative wealth creation cycle until they get to a certain size or maturity, when inevitably they start to focus more and more upon infrastructure. To a degree, West considers this a positive step, as they become increasingly efficient.

Yet, by doing this, he fears they will often drive themselves into a corner where innovation starts to play a smaller and smaller role. This means, typically, that they become ‘ponderous like an elephant' and can't move fast enough. The pace of life that was very fast in the early years of the company, as it was increasing in size, starts to reverse itself.

"Ironically, the company then becomes more and more biological, and thus begins to suffer all the problems of biology," West details, morbidly. "We age and die because of the side effects associated with our metabolism, with our living. We only put a certain amount of our resources into repairing ourselves and eventually you can't keep up with the amount of damage."

West uses General Motors as an example of a company that is so large it has forgotten to innovate and now may go bankrupt. They went back to efficiency, but because of this, West claims, as the pace of life was increasing around them, they were unable to innovate and react fast enough.

‘We can't go back," West argues. "I think it is naïve to say: ‘All of that growth creation and greed, that's what killing us. Let us simply accept what we have now and go back to being efficient biological organisms.'

"I think what that means is that you are on a slippery slope, you collapse and the end result is we'll either return to being hunters or gatherers, or actually, more realistically, the world effectively turns into one large urban slum with tremendous social unrest. That may happen anyway."

West elaborates on how 50 to 100 years ago only two per cent of the world's population lived in cities. Today in the US, he asserts, 80 per cent live in cities. Last year was apparently a very important year for this planet, because it was the first time that more people were living in cities than not - it crossed the 50 per cent line.

By 2030, West says that number will go to 60 per cent and by 2050, to 80 per cent. All of the problems that we face, he claims, are driven by social organisations, which is why there were fewer problems 100 to 150 years ago when the world was significantly less urbanised.

With the global financial crisis possibly being the harbinger of a larger cataclysm, West believes it would take something on the scale of a Manhattan or Apollo project, with an investment of around a US$100 billion into the sciences over the next 25 years, to make a significant impact. Yet he is aware, he says, that this is incredibly unlikely, as the majority of politicians and businessmen remain unaware there is even a problem.

"Politicians have to recognise this and act in a certain way, and that's the difficulty. Because nearly all politics operate on a one to two year time scale and this is a 50 to 100 year kind of problem," he adds, sadly.

Society has a population of six billion people living on a planet that, according to West, could only biologically support around 100 million of us if we were just biological animals. With the global population predicted to reach 10 or 12 billion before too long, the prospects are frightening.

West's summation, however, is even more so: "If you have the image of the accelerating treadmill, eventually as it just keeps going, you collapse. You fall off and that's it. And incidentally, we are not only on the treadmill, we are the ones who are driving it.

The image is almost like... if the treadmill was mechanical, you have a wheel that you are turning with your arm, but you have to turn it faster and faster, and you're running on it at the same time.

"That's the kind of image that we're looking at... Then you fall and have a heart attack, and die.

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Last Updated: Thu 26 Jan 2017 01:27 PM GST

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