Showing posts with label exponential function. Show all posts
Showing posts with label exponential function. Show all posts

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Great Pause Week 39: Amish Mash

" John Miller’s family was not unusually large. It is just that he lived long enough to find out what simple multiplication does"

Recently, on the eve of his 95th birthday, John Eli Miller died in a rambling farmhouse near Middlefield, Ohio, 40 miles southeast of Cleveland, leaving to mourn his passing perhaps the largest number of living descendants any American has ever had. 

He was survived by five of his seven children, 61 grandchildren, 338 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren, a grand total of 410 descendants. 

Shortly before his death, which came unexpectedly from a stroke, I had the privilege of two long visits with John E. Miller, during which I learned the feeling of one man who had personally watched the population explosion of the 20th century. A national magazine had determined that the venerable Ohio farmer was head of what almost certainly was the largest family in the United States. 

A Swedish newspaper in 1958 ran a competition for the largest family in that country and when a family named Hellander turned up with 265 members, headed by a 92-year-old great- grandmother, it asserted a claim to the Swedish and to the world championship.
Soon reports of even larger families were streaming in to editors, with an elderly Mormon couple in Utah claiming 334 living descendants taking the lead. However, I was certain that among the Old Order Amish Mennonites, a sect in which families of more than 100 are commonplace, a family larger than this could be found. Through the medium of the Sugarcreek Ohio Budget, a unique weekly newspaper that is read by the Old Order Amish in all their communities throughout the nation, it was soon ascertained that John Eli Miller, with his clan of more than 400, had the largest family among them. So far as could be learned, this family was the largest in America and probably the world’s largest among monogamous peoples. 

When John Miller and his family refused to pose for photographs because of their religious opposition to “graven images,” the magazine gave up the idea of a story about this “largest family” but the interviews disclosed a number of facts about the impact of extremely rapid population growth on this family and the cultural group of which it is a part. These facts merit the serious attention of all students of population problems. 


John Miller actually had seen with his own eyes a population explosion in his own lifetime. His data were not statistics on a graph or chart, but the scores of children at every family gathering who ran up to kiss Grandpa, so many that it confused a poor old man. His confusion can be forgiven for there were among them no less than 15 John Millers, all named in his honor. And what young man, much less an old one, could remember the names of 61 grandchildren and 338 great-grandchildren and keep straight just who their parents were? 

The remarkable thing about this great clan of his was that it started with a family of just seven children. This was actually a little smaller than the typical family among the Amish, who have been found by one researcher to average 8.4 children per completed family. Two of his children died in early life: Samuel Miller, who left six children when he died at 40, and Lizzie (Mrs. Jacob Farnwald), who left four when she died at 28. 

During most of his long life, therefore, John Miller’s family was not unusually large. It is just that he lived long enough to find out what simple multiplication can do. 

One of his daughters, Mary (Mrs. Jacob Mast), had only five children. But all four of his sons had quite large families. His son, John, Jr., with whom he lived at the family homestead, had six children by his first wife, who died in an accident, and nine more by his present wife, a total of 15. Andrew Miller had 12, Eli Miller, 11, of whom ten are living, and Joseph Miller, ten, of whom nine are living. 

Of the 63 grandchildren born to John Miller’s family, 61 lived to survive him, all but six now grown and married. And of 341 great-grandchildren born to the families of his 55 married grandchildren, only three had died, two in infancy, and one in an accident. All six of his great-great-grandchildren were born during the last year of his life and were healthy infants. 


Thus, a major factor in the world-wide population crisis was vividly evident in John Miller’s family: the fact that nearly all children born in the 20th century, who enjoy the benefits of modern medicine, are growing up to become adults and to have families of their own. A century ago, the ravages of smallpox, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria and the many fatalities that occurred at childbirth would have left a far different picture in a large rural family. Even though the Amish live in rural areas, they avail themselves of the benefits of medical care. Now most Amish children are born in hospital delivery rooms. 

While the sharp reduction in infant mortality and childhood disease is a happy development of science, it inevitably means that population grows with extraordinary rapidity. The Miller family offers a cogent example. John Miller had seven children; his children averaged nine offspring; and his married grandchildren had averaged six each when he passed away. Six married great-grandchildren had one apiece. These were not unusually large families among the Amish nor among the rural families of other Americans in the past century. Yet this clan numbered 410 when John Miller died. 

Moreover, at the end of his life, the postman was bringing John Miller word of the birth of a new descendant on the average of once every ten days. This rate, we calculated, would have accelerated to one every other day as his more than 300 great-grand- children reached marriageable age. Only eight were married when he died and six had had children by their first wedding anniversaries. 

So great is the rate of progression of population growth that had John Miller lived one more decade he would have seen more descendants born to him than in all his 95 years of life and would in ten more years have counted at least 1,000 living descendants!
The rate at which population increases is almost unbelievable- even when a man is watching it happen within his own family. John Miller found it difficult to comprehend what was happening. When I told him that all available evidence indicated that he had the largest family in the United States, the kindly old man passed a gnarled hand before his failing eyes and shook his head in amazement. . . . 

What did John Miller think about his family? Did it worry him to see it growing so large? Indeed it did. Significantly, his concerns were the very ones that the demographers, the economists, the sociologists, and other serious students of world population problems have been voicing. He was not an educated man, for the Amish still believe eight grades of education in a one-room country school is sufficient, but John Miller summarized it in one simple question he constantly repeated, “Where will they all find good farms?” . . . 

Some day, at some point, John Miller’s plaintive question, “Where will they all find farms?” will have to be answered in the bleak negative. They can continue now only by buying farms others will sell them. Some day no more farms anywhere will be for sale. A finite world is of limited size. So, ultimately, at some point, is the population it can hold.


The foregoing essay originally appeared in 1961 in Population Bulletin, a monthly publication of the Population Reference Bureau of Washington DC. The author was the late Glenn D. Everett and the essay was later reprinted in Garrett Hardin’s annotated collection, Population, Evolution, Birth Control (1964).

Last week I described the Green Revolution, for which Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. While the technological industrialization of agriculture has to many seemed a major advance for our species, we ignore the disturbance it has wrought upon nature at our peril. It has become a familiar canard that the greening of agriculture as we march into the future, with organic, biodynamic, regenerative, permaculturally designed, vertical, and “sustainable” alternatives making greater market inroads every year, cannot possibly keep pace with population growth and so industrial agriculture must remain much as it is, gradually becoming more efficient and productive, into the uncertain and perilous future.

What seems to be neglected in that pronouncement is that industrial agriculture can no more feed 8 billion people than can organic farming. That was Malthus’s point.

If the subsistence for man that the earth affords was to be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what the whole world at present produces, this would allow the power of production in the earth to be absolutely unlimited, and its ratio of increase much greater than we can conceive that any possible exertions of mankind could make; yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate….

 — Malthus, T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population

Humanity, despite many noble but half-hearted attempts over the past century, has been unwilling to hold its increase in line with the power of production in the earth. That unwillingness appears to be hard wired. So too are the boundaries of what Earth can supply or insults that it can absorb. A reckoning beckons. Push-back from the microbial world is only one of many auguries.


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Great Pause Week 32: Deficit Spending

"Many people reject the notion that we could already be beyond carrying capacity, but try to picture it like a marathon runner becoming dehydrated."

 “In the last 3 weeks we’ve seen as many new cases as in the previous 8 months.”

 — Wisconsin Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, October 15, 2020
“During the 1950’s, people used twice as much oil as during the 1940’s. During the 1960’s, we used twice as much as during the 1950’s. And in each of those decades, more oil was consumed than in all of man’s previous history combined.”
 — US President Jimmy Carter, November 8, 1977
In the fall of the first year of the 21st century coronavirus pandemic, the President of México delivered to his Beatitude, Pope Francis, a request for apology from the Catholic Church on behalf of the indigenous peoples of México, for the genocide they had endured by the edicts of his predecessors.

On the one hand, the request, and whatever response His Holiness may give, can be viewed as merely symbolic. They have no significance to the cultures that were exterminated; to the many languages lost; to cultivated ecologies that continuously regenerated food, fuel, climate and a wide community of diverse lifeforms; to the wisdom gathered over millennia and then scratched out as if it had never existed to begin with. A Pope’s apology will not unburn Mayan codices. It will not restore the carved and polished exterior stones to the pyramids of Tenochtitlan. It will not recover the chinampas of Xochlmilco or refill Lake Texcoco.

Today the number of independent nations in the world fluctuates at around 200. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, it may have been more than 3000. According to carved stone monuments erected in Sri Lanka and on the Malabar coast of India, and to contemporaneous journals (1403–1430), “3,000 countries large and small” (Duyvendak’s first translation) were contacted on the diplomatic voyages of Admiral Zheng He (郑和) on behalf of Ming Emperors Zhu Di (成祖 朱棣), Zhu Gaochi (朱高熾), and Zhu Zhanji (宣宗 朱瞻基) in 1405–1433. 

By the start of the second millennia, Ireland contained a dozen separate kingdoms. The Armenian region of the Eastern Mediterranean and the India/Tibet region each contained a similar number. There were scores of Swahili and Bantu kingdoms and city-states in Southeastern Africa. Alliances or conquests of many nations separately comprised the Holy Roman Empires of Italy and Germany, the Caliphates of Northern Africa and Arabia, the Ghaznavid Empire, and the Volga-Bulgar, Kara-Khanid, and Khazar Khanates.

There were likely more than 100 separate Pre-columbian sovereign nations just within the borders of present México, as nearly as different from one another as Borneo and Switzerland. Even today there are more than 20 distinct Mayan linguistic groups.

Map of the nations before Columbus created by Victor G. Temprano 

As in other parts of the world, great empires waxed and waned in Central America. Hernán Cortéz conquered the vastly superior army of the Aztec Triple Empire by allying with smallpox. Pizarro happened upon an Incan Empire devastated by plague and civil war. Many nations and alliances were never militarily conquered, merely converted to Catholicism and culturally absorbed into something called New Spain. “Catholic” literally translates from Latin as “homogenizing”; “including a wide variety of things”; or “all-embracing” and that was its strategic genius. In addition to demanding that conquered peoples bend the knee (and bend backs as perpetually impoverished slaves), the priests bent their own narratives to bring in a Black Madonna, a Mestizo Madonna, and a Corn Goddess. Ritual offerings where mendicants kneel together to drink the blood of Christ (if you were ever Christian you can relate) were different in place more than in kind to ritual bloodlettings by an ash-covered shaman standing atop a pyramid temple. 

Aaron Carapella’s map of Mexico before Columbus

The unspeakably cruel genocide of native peoples unleashed in the second half of the second millennium of Christ was not the worst sin of the Catholic Church in México, however. Worse was the sin of overpopulation. 

From that Biblical command flowed all the serpents of our present impending doom: climate chaos; the Sixth Great Extinction; illegal migration; deforestation and desertification. The Vatican edict on birth control demanded Mexicans of every descent, in whose blood flowed genetic histories of hundreds of different nations, go forth and be good Catholics by having many children, and even more grandchildren, and many times that number of great-grandchildren. It was their Christian duty as servants of The Lamb.

The colonization of México is not unique, of course. Nor is peer-pressed fecundity confined to the worshipers of Jesus of Nazareth, who was celibate as far as we are told. In many parts of the Muslim world, polygamy — in the limited “poly” sense of one rooster and many hens — is still sanctioned and confers social status. Fundamentalist (Christian) Mormons call it “celestial marriage.” These marriages produce far more offspring than dyadic arrangements even in the serial mode rather than parallel, and when coupled with child marriage, more generations within a single lifetime. A grim reaper of planetary proportions emerges from fecund families in Senegal, Indonesia and Utah and scythes through land fertility, threatened species, forests, and whatever remnants of hospitable climate may remain. Heirloom orchards fall to make room for cement subdivisions, single use plastics flow from rivers into bays, and more caves and canopies spill their viral inventories into the bloodstreams of invaders and domestic livestock.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum relates a story of how when it came time to vote for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Saudi Arabia abstained because the document supported everyone’s right to “change their religion or belief.” In several branches of Islam, even today, choosing to leave the faith is a capital crime. So it is with the Catholic prohibition on birth control— by all means cut your foreskin if it marks you Judeo-Christian, but sever testicular tubing at peril of excommunication. In many countries, having greater numbers of children or grandchildren benefits political candidates (US presidents have 4.1 on average), as if fecundity signaled foresight instead of its opposite.

In the exponential sequence, numbers double to a given cadence — hourly, daily, weekly or whatever. 128 becomes 256 at the same interval as 2 became 4. Then 256 becomes 512, becomes 1024, and so on. As we get up into the higher numbers, the doublings are less easy to ignore. 8 billion becomes 16 billion becomes 32 billion. They come at us with speed AND power. 

When I was born in 1947, the world held 2.5 billion humans. That seemed a large amount, but it took less than 40 years, or until 1988, to double to 5 billion. We may have already gone beyond Earth’s carrying capacity for such a troublemaking species by our 30th doubling to 1 billion. My father was born in 1908, just after that doubling. I may live to see the 33rd, to 8 billion. The exponential function, by the way, is also why SARS-CoV-2 is still so dangerous.

Many people reject the notion that we could already be beyond carrying capacity, but try to picture it like a marathon runner becoming dehydrated. If they pick up some water along the route and drink it, their body will refresh. If not, they’ll draw down reserves and go into deficit energy spending. Performance drops, then they get dizzy and start to stagger. Vision blurs. They may collapse. Up to some point the body can recover and regain its former strength. Carried beyond that, permanent damage can be done. We, as a species, have been doing permanent damage. 

We are deficit spending when we do mountaintop removal. We are deficit spending when we take a fish population below the point of reproductive recovery. We are deficit spending when we release the Fukushima wastewater to the Pacific or Hanford tank farm plutonium to the Columbia River. These are not debts our children and grandchildren can repay. They are permanent damage. 

Climate chaos, the Sixth Great Extinction, deforestation, and desertification, migrant border camps and zoonotic spillovers are all symptoms of the disease that Pope Francis should really be apologizing for spreading.

The Catholic Church has been the Donald Trump of the population pandemic.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, Plagued, is out now. A children’s version of Dark Side of the Ocean called Making Waves, may be out by Christmas. Please help if you can.





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