Is the human race destined to expand to point where it becomes impossible to sustain ourselves? The fear of unsustainable growth is often voiced by environmentalists like Naomi Klein and David Attenborough, but it isn’t new. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote that “the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence”. He went on to predict that growth would inevitably end in famine because “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. (Malthus was derided for his pessimism and was eventually immortalised as the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge.) At the time Malthus was writing, the population of the whole world was less than a billion. In the 200 years since Malthus published his infamous essay, the population of the world has grown to 7 billion. So why haven’t we witnessed a Malthusian crisis?

Geoffrey West, a physicist, thinks he knows why. West has written a bookcalled “Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies”, presenting a universal theory of scale, which seems to have consequences for almost everything in the universe. In the new episode of Babbage, West was interviewed by his biggest fan, Kenneth Cukier. The interview starts at the 7:20 mark:

The human race, West says, has been saved by innovation and innovation thrives in cities. Unlike countries, companies and humans, cities seem to be immortal. In the last century cities have been de-industrialised, starved and some have even been attacked with nuclear bombs. And yet they always seem to survive. Ten years ago humanity passed the point by which those who lived in cities outnumbered those who didn’t. Every day a million more people move into cities, and this shouldn’t worry us.

West reckons that when the population of a city doubles, wages, patents and businesses increase by more than 50% because when humans work together they can produce more than the sum of their parts. When we get together, we tend to share information faster to figure out new ways to make our economy more efficient, which in turn allows us to accommodate more growth. If so, does that mean that the prosperity of cities can rise indefinitely?

According to West, if the innovation slows down the cities will be quickly be overwhelmed by their growing environmental and demographic burdens. Some would argue that western cities have already outsourced many of the unsustainable elements of their existence to industrialised developing economies while contributing to climate change, which disproportionately affects many of the world’s poorest people. Meanwhile, the popularity of Brexit and Donald Trump could be hinting that geographic concentrations of innovation often monopolise talent and opportunity leading to deprivation in the towns and regions that are left behind. Perhaps this is why West told us that the next cycle of innovation will have to be social, as well as technological.

So is perpetual urban growth really sustainable? If you’re reading this, you’re probably already living and working in a city. If you are, what are you doing there? Does your city seem as if it could get better forever? And what kind of social innovation will we need if we continue to grow at pace?

Please post your comments below so we can share your thoughts and questions in an upcoming episode of Babbage. Or, if you don’t have a Medium account, you can e-mail them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Nicholas Barrett is a social media writer at The Economist.

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Scientists from several U.S. and Chinese universities say new findings about microbes and their interaction with other species show that Darwin’s theory of evolution needs an update.

Their contention is based on discoveries that all plants and animals, including humans, evolved in interaction with a huge number of microscopic species — bacteria, viruses and fungi — not only in harmful but also in beneficial ways.

In a paper published by the scientific journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, scientists from the University of Colorado, Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, and several other universities say Darwin’s tree of life fails to recognize that many forms of life are linked physically and evolved together in so-called symbiomes.

The authors propose creating a working group that would use advanced computational methods to create a multidimensional evolutionary tree describing our complex interaction with microbes.

For centuries, mythologies around the world used the so-called tree of life as a metaphor for diversity stemming from a single source.

In 1859, Charles Darwin used the same concept to explain his theory of evolution, depicting it as a two-dimensional tree with individual species evolving independently of other branches.

Scientists say an updated view on symbiomes could have a profound effect not only on biology but also on many areas of science, including technology and even on society.

Credit : Voice of America (VOA)

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“China’s vow that its carbon emissions will peak by 2030 is totally different from building hundreds of additional coal plants,” said Zhang Guobao, former vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, at a June 9 round table on energy and climate in Beijing.

U.S. President Donald Trump referenced China in the statement he gave upon withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, claiming that China is allowed to do whatever it wants for 13 years. Zhang responded that this statement illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Paris agreement.

Zhang, also the former director of China’s National Energy Administration, noted that China would never build hundreds of new coal plants, a point that has already been clearly explained and publicized. In fact, according to the National Energy Administration, the construction of 105 approved coal-fired power plants has already been halted. Zhang suggested that David Sandalow, the host of the round table and also the former acting undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, correct President Trump's misunderstanding.

The average lifespan of coal plants in the U.S. is 33 years, said Zhang, which means that many American plants are indeed outdated. Zhang cited his experience visiting a coal plant in Indiana, built in 1952 with seven units and a capacity of 400 MW, pointing out that such a plant would be considered very outmoded in China.

“The coal consumption per kilowatt-hour in the U.S. is 400 grams, while the figure is 100 grams lower in China,” Zhang remarked, recommending that the U.S. shut down high-consumption plants and update its technology.

Trump stressed in his statement that the Paris climate accord disadvantaged the U.S. and would have taken away from the country’s wealth, “leaving American workers -- who I love -- and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories and vastly diminished economic production.”

However, both Zhang and Sandalow emphasized at the round table that the new-energy industry has become an important field for job creation in the U.S., and it should not be neglected by the president. According to Sandalow, a total of 250,000 people in the country are now working in the photovoltaic generation industry.

A report by the U.S. Department of Energy showed that 1.1 million people in the U.S. were engaged in traditional energy industries in 2016, while 0.8 million were in the low-carbon energy sector. Workers in solar energy and wind power respectively increased by 25 and 32 percent over the past year. In addition, wind turbine generation is now the fastest-growing industry in the U.S. 

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SHANGHAI, June 12 (Xinhua) -- China aims to build the world's third ocean drilling research vessel and become a key leader in international deep-sea drilling scientific efforts by 2028, a senior government consultant said Monday.

Wang Pinxian, a marine geologist from Tongji University and also with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, made the remarks at a press event to announce the successful conclusion of a China-led international drilling mission to find out how the South China Sea was formed some tens of millions of years ago.

The four-month mission was conducted on board the American vessel JOIDES Resolution as part of the 367th and 368th expeditions of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), an international collaboration on deep-sea geological scientific research that began in 1968.

China joined the IODP in 1998 and participated in three drilling missions focused in the South China Sea in 1999, 2014 and 2017. The latest mission was proposed, designed and led by Chinese scientists. Over 60 researchers from more than ten countries were involved.

Wang, who serves as a consultant for China's IODP involvement, said the mission marked the first step in a three-part strategy for China to engage in international ocean drilling activities.

He said China aims to drill seabeds in other oceans and set up the world's fourth seabed rock database and a lab before attempting to build an ocean drilling vessel.

The two ships used by the IODP are JOIDES Resolution and Japan's Chikyu.

JOIDES Resolution docked in Shanghai Sunday, the first-ever visit of an international ocean drilling vessel to a Chinese port.

Tongji University marine geologist Jian Zhimin, a co-lead of the IODP mission, said at Monday's press briefing that during the expedition they dug 17 holes at seven sites in the South China Sea. The combined drilling depth exceeded 7,669 meters, and samples including sedimentary and volcanic rocks were collected.

The study of the rocks indicates the South China Sea was formed differently than the Atlantic, scientists have found.

Jian said the newly discovered formation of the South China Sea was so unique that they might need to rewrite the textbooks on continental shelf break-up and ocean formation.

Further research is required.

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