Tag Archives: Ebola

A Brief History and Natural History of Coronavirus and its journey to Pandemic.

Is the Coronavirus emergency a dry run for how climate change will be dealt with in the not too distant future? If that is the case there is cause for concern.

 Coronaviruses are a group of viruses variously associated with crossing from mammals to humans, which cause novel and often serious diseases when they do so. In general appearance they look as if somebody has taken a potato and stuck golf tees into the surface… a potato too small to eat, and golf tees too tiny for a cart jockey to ‘go chasing whitey’.

On December 31st 2019 China reported several cases of an unusual from of pneumonia in Wuhan, a port city in Hubei province. Some of those infected worked in a local fish market, which was quickly shut down. The virus responsible was a member of the coronavirus family, a new variation on a very basic plan: imperceptible to the naked eye, this tiny organism crossed over from a wild creature to a human being – it wasn’t the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last. The original host is still in question, but thought to have been a bat, although the virus may have passed through an intermediary, perhaps a pangolin, which is odd because pangolins are a critically endangered species.

There are four species of Asian Pangolin all endangered; and poachers are now targeting African species to fulfil demand.

The Chinese have an insatiable desire for pangolin scales, with the creature’s meat a delicacy. Years ago a Chinese friend joked that if it moved, the Chinese will eat it, which sounded racist even back in 1985, but I couldn’t help myself and said, ‘Just like the French.”  We both laughed, but not as loudly as the Belgian standing next to us. We were beneath the shade of a big old tree in Central Africa, with there was nobody around to get offended on somebody else’s behalf. I was trying to buy the python my Chinese friend was fattening up in a sack under his house – he said it would make good soup, but I’m fond of snakes and was doing my best to keep the creature alive. The reptile had grown large and my friend had decided to present it to me just before I flew out on a light aircraft – with a pilot who was extremely concerned, but he needn’t have worried, the reptile escaped without my help. Had I taken the creature on board I might have claimed this the inspiration for ‘Snakes on a Plane’, but there was no chance of that now we’d escaped a potential disaster… It was quite the reverse from how things are today with the recently emerged coronavirus getting on a planes and proving itself infinitely more deadly than any reptile, travelling as it would in the respiratory systems of passengers, almost unnoticed – apart from a few raised temperatures and irritating coughs. This enterprising virus would get to almost any location that a human might decide to travel, and do so very quickly. Persistent and infectious this mutant coronavirus would make any snake related disaster imaginable seem like a minor inconvenience.

The new infection would soon to be taken seriously enough to be given its own name, Covid-19, officially known as ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2‘, or SARS-CoV-2 because it is related to the first SARS virus – an outbreak of which occurred in 2003. Initial reports suggested that it had originated from a cobra, but snakes are not closely related to our species making them an unlikely source for a human variant; far more likely that it came from a mammal.

In late February 2020 a research group demonstrated that a coronavirus found in frozen cell samples taken from illegally trafficked pangolins in China shared between 85.5% to 92.4% D.N.A. with the coronavirus that was infecting humans. Another research project came up with a slightly tighter match at around 90%; and yet another study discovered a coronavirus in a bat that shared 96%  of its DNA with the human Covid-19 form; but despite a basic awareness of the numerous animal species that carry closely related coronaviruses, nobody knows the precise route the variant took to enter a human host.

When a coronavirus crossed over to become Severe Acute  Respiratory Syndrome (SARS CoV) in 2002-2003, it produced a severe form of pneumonia which probably originated from a live animal market in Guangdong – the bat population from which the syndrome was thought to originate was however only about 1 kilometre from the nearest village and the virus also  remains viable for a time in bat droppings and with transmission to other mammals the route  it took to enter a human host is still open to question. Nevertheless it rapidly became a problem because humans do not have any developed resistance to new infections that arise from mutated forms that suddenly adopt us as a host.

The SARS virus was found to be present in Rhinolophus bats, the Asian palm civet and a variety of other small mammals – and because of its association with the virus the civet was soon to become persecuted. But wild animals carrying viruses that might cross over to us are not really to blame, especially when they are captured and brought into primitive markets where basic standards of hygiene are a low priority. Here a variety of creatures are brought together in high numbers in cages stacked one upon another bringing together animals, both wild and domestic, that would not usually meet, making it a high probability that Covid-19 originated under these circumstances. China hopes that other nations will not play the blame game, but if novel viral infections are proven to originate from such animal markets and these continue to operate, attitudes to how global trade and travel is conducted must significantly change.

SARS is closely related to Covid-19, but it was contained and died out before a vaccine could be developed. Iin 2012 another Coronavirus showed up in humans – Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV) which once again was thought to be transmitted by bats. Scientists compared the virus surface spikes of MERS-CoV to a related bat coronavirus HKU4 which cannot mediate entry into a human, but only two mutations (on the MERS-CoV spike) were required to enable it to do so, thus enabling the virus to enter a human cell.

The coronavirus that recently crossed over to a human most likely came from a horseshoe bat; and it was an Asian fruit bat that transmitted the Nipah virus to humans in Malaysia in 1998. In Central Africa Ebola virus probably crossed over from a fruit bat before reaching epidemic proportions in 2014, and at least 300 strains of coronavirus are now known to be circulating in bats.

Why Bats?

The reason relates directly to the evolution of flight in the order of mammals (Chiroptera). A flying bat has a metabolic rate two and a half to three times the requirements of an active non-flying mammal of similar size. Essentially, flight should be detrimental to a bat’s health – the oxidative stress of a high metabolic rate inducing the release of free radicals which damage DNA. To overcome the toxicity, bats have evolved mechanisms to minimise the problem and also repair damaged DNA; in the process the gene variants involved provide protection by boosting the immune system, allowing bats to carry viruses without serious consequences, which makes them ideal hosts for coronaviruses to inhabit.

The next question is how does coronavirus get into a human in the first place – what is the physics and chemistry of the process: certainly the spiky surface of the organism is an important part of the story. The virus must firstly get into the respiratory tract of a human, once there it has to enter a cell and this is achieved when the oily layer coating a spike manages to combine with the membrane on a cells surface. If fusion occurs the virus may then enter the cell and mutations of the proteins contained on the spike’s surface are important factors in transmissibility – if everything falls into place the coronavirus will infect its new host. 

Knowing this to be a basic mechanism of transmission, the advice we have been given to inhibit the infection now running through the human populations makes sense: washing our hands properly with soap and water along with the use of alcohol wipes and sprays helps reduce covid-19’s progress by disrupting the oily protein layer on the spikes of the virus and greatly reduces the chances of the organism entering a human respiratory system cell, and in a best case scenario will dissolve the virus membrane rendering it inactive.

Viruses are too small to see with the naked eye – there are no optical pictures. The ones we do see are either drawn or computer generated images. If they are real they are scanning electron microscope pictures without colour, but to make them more interesting they may be represented in colour: this is not science, so maybe we should call it art.

Finally, there is the question of how frequently mutations occur: coronavirus has a proof reading enzyme which stops too many mistakes from being made during reproduction, reducing the number of mutations of the relevant protein on the surface of the spike. Because mutations are less frequent it has been difficult for scientists to follow the course of the infection, because it is changes in the virus’s make up that provides markers to indicate where the infection has come from. Not being able to ascertain the route has to some degree hindered attempts to contain the infection; but there is also an up side – unlike flu this viruses does not change regularly which at least makes it predictable and important in the development of a treatment. 

Covid-19 is thought to have started in a similar manner to SARS, but in this case originating in a wet market in Hubei province and once established in a human host the new viral disease would soon begin its rapid journey around the world. The first recorded case from China was on the 17th November 2019, and by the 11th March 2020, 122,000 cases had been recorded in 121 different countries. The clever thing about viral infections is that they don’t stay in one place for very long, and unless dealt with in the emergent stage, will sometimes become unstoppable. 

If when the disease emerged China had clamped down, the virus might have been contained, but the initial decisions were taken at a local level, and it wasn’t until decisions were made further up the chain of command that the disease was dealt with effectively. With a virus spreading exponentially a day missed can result in thousands of infections. Unfortunately, before the government clampdown in the region where the outbreak started, people were moving off to visit family and friends on their Chinese New Year holidays and initially there were no movement or quarantine restrictions – it was a bad start. For a month very little was done to curtail the disease, and by the time more stringent measures were in place, it was far too late, the disease had taken off and  moving elsewhere – the problem no longer containable.

In fairness to China, after a poor start, the country has shown an unrelenting commitment to eradicate the virus, and with impressive results. Back in February it was a different story. On 12th. Hubei reported nearly 15,000 cases of infection, with 242 deaths in a single day – figures were being reassessed, officials were being sacked. On 13th there were 5,000 more cases and another 116 people had died. It was disturbing, and by 18th the total number of infections in Hubei totalled 61,682, with the death toll reaching 1,921.

At this stage it was difficult to image that things were going to get better, but a month later on 18th March 2020 it was announce that homeland infections in China had been reduced to zero, which is astonishing given the virulence of Covid-19. If the official figures given for the outbreak were considered on the low side, then this only serves to make the present situation all the more impressive. With restrictions becoming less strict in Hubei, the world now waits to see if the virus will make a comeback, and if it does, how it will be dealt with.

 As the cradle of the disease China presented an early example of how the disease might progress and South Korea which I mention later, wasn’t far behind and it was important for other countries to watch and learn from these early dealings with the disease.

But for some inexplicable reason, many Europe countries and the United States dithered. China and South Korea were far away – maybe it wouldn’t be such a big problem. In the U.S. in particular it was business as usual no matter the warning signs, few preparations were made for what was about to happen and valuable time was wasted. 

On 31st Jan 2020. two Chinese tourists tested positive for Covid-19 in Rome; a week later an Italian man returning from Wuhan in China was taken into hospital and became the third case in Italy. Then things took off. The Lombardy region was hit particularly hard and pretty soon growth in the disease would reach an exponential growth rate. Soon there were too many cases for hospitals to deal with; intensive care units were overwhelmed, and the only products being manufactured were coffins.

To list the figures for the next 19 days isn’t necessary. It is a distressing story, a novel disease would produce something more terrible than a work of fiction and by 19th March 2020 Italy surpassed China with 3,400 deaths from Covid-19, with 40,000 recorded cases, 5,322 of them on this one day. The outbreak in Italy put the frighteners on the rest of Europe, and pretty soon things began to look bad in France, German, Britain and especially in Spain.

For a time, the streets of Italy were deserted with people confined to their homes. To see such a thing is unusual because in spring and summer Italians are very social – often out of doors; but for obvious reasons I was never there and this picture is a bit of a cheat…

Almost a week before the Covid-19 was declared a ‘Global Heath Emergency’ a group of news correspondents in the U.K. complacently suggested that the situation was mostly under control, which begs the question: how much do these people really know, or more to the point – how much of what they think they know is wishful thinking? Wherever we are in the world we know these people – they are the same ones that told us Donald Trump was unelectable and Brexit would never happen. People who find it easy to run off at the mouth despite being incapable of critical analysis – they are prepared to offer their thoughts on just about anything without due consideration for their ignorance; in this case, an immunological problem about which they knew absolutely nothing.

Then there are the politicians who’s priorities it seems has been to keep world economies stable, making this a priority over the health of the people who elected them into office. Of course, it would be naive to suggest that economies are not enormously consequential to us all, but the truth about what we are all likely to experience should not be coming in a poor third to financial gain and political self interest. It is of course necessary to reduce the likelihood of panic, but underplaying the science, which so clearly indicates that Covid-19 will most likely become a pandemic requiring a rapid and appropriately reaction is unforgivable. (Obviously, things have moved along since I wrote this. So has there been an appropriate reaction. In many places around the World the answer has to be no).

I guess if politicians aren’t going to take the virus seriously, it’s O.K. for me to present one bagpipe style in my grandfather’s tartan.

 Clearly the smooth running of our economies is important, but like wars, less important to most individuals than staying alive. If politicians can’t grasp the magnitude of the situation and the disease’s potential because they are incapable of understanding the science and the basic maths that goes along with it, they should listen more closely to what their scientific advisors tell them, even when this is based on models of likely outcomes, as data based decision making is much better than simply guessing, or those other favourites – ‘being hopeful’ and ‘maybe we’ll get lucky’.

There was a point in the disease when many were thinking this just another bout of flu, so why bother with it? – this was nature clearing out her sock drawer, but it is a mistake to think like this. The disease is more infectious than flu, moves faster and increases exponentially over a very short time period – in some case doubling every three days – and without a vaccine it could, if unchecked, create total chaos as health services become overwhelmed with patients they will not be able to treat and many will die unnecessarily. In many countries there has been inadequate testing for the virus and nobody knows exactly how many people are carrying the disease because there are many who do not show symptoms. We know of course the number of people infected in hospitals and how many are dying because it’s hard not to notice such things; but increasingly it isn’t just the old and vulnerable who are in danger from this disease; more recently younger people have been dying from this infection, and nobody can say for certain that the virus won’t suddenly mutate and start taking out healthy young economists, the same way it has taken out health workers. 

The situation in the USA was sketchy from very early on. On February 26th President Trump was at first dismissive – ‘there were a low number of cases, the people who were ill were getting better and in a couple of days the numbers would be down to zero’. Then on the 28th he said – about those working on the virus – that ‘they’d done an incredible job, and like a miracle it would disappear’. On March 6th he clarified that, ‘anybody who needed a test would get a test and the tests were beautiful’… and they may well have been, but they certainly weren’t available to everybody who needed one.

Rather oddly, on the 20th February when things started to look problematic the President put Vice-President Mike Pence in charge – an individual who thinks Darwin was wrong – a clear indication that this is a man not well versed in science. The President could have appointed an expert medical advisor such as Dr Anthony Fauci The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; a man already on the task force, but he had spoken out on the lack of preparedness of the administration to deal with the outbreak. A comment made when President Trump closed US airports indicated that the president ‘had shut the chicken coop door after the horse had bolted’ – an interesting mixed metaphor, implying that the President had missed his opportunity to react appropriately. Soon after the President gave himself a perfect 10 out of 10 for his dealings with the coronavirus emergency. A U.S. medical expert quickly responded that 10 out of 100 was nearer the mark.

On a more personal note the air travel announcement came a couple of hours after I’d seen my wife off from Vancouver airport to attend her mother’s funeral in the U.K. she had booked to travel via the USA before the virus went global, and her return flight was cancelled; she then had trouble booking a flight back to Canada. Everything was suddenly moving too quickly for most of us to keep up with. U.S. airports had already been closed to travellers from Europe (understandably so because on that very same day Italy had 250 deaths in 24 hours). Now US air travel was being closed to Britain where the death rate still remained low, but nevertheless doubled on the 14th March. There were then 1,100 confirmed cases of infection in the U.K. but the real figure was estimated to be nearer 10 times that figure. Without testing the general population, it was impossible to say and by 26th March no testing outside of hospitals  was still the official policy – probably because there simply aren’t enough kits to facilitate doing so.

 

South Korea is one of a few exceptions to the general trend, and were able to provide reliable figures fairly early on because they were testing thousands of people. By 11th March the USA had tested 11,000 people,  while South Korea was testing 10,000 a day for free, with some reports suggesting this figure was nearer 20,000 a day. Five days later it was reported that South Korea had tested some 250,000 people while the USA had managed only 20,000 in total; which is ironic because on the same day The World Health Organisation (WHO) said, ‘You can’t fight a fire blindfolded. Test, test, test’. The clear implication, being that it is impossible to judge the scope of the problem until you know how many people are infected, and when you have done as many tests as possible, it makes sense to identify all contacts from two days prior to the infected persons first signs of illness and test those people as well. However, the increasing number of infections in many countries was by this time, likely to have passed the point where this could be done successfully; certainly this was the case for the U.S.A. because so few had been tested under a public health service that was poorly funded making the number of infected people difficult to ascertain. 

The USA had opted to produce its own testing kits, but there simply weren’t enough of them, and many didn’t work very well. It was as if the U.S. wasn’t serious about dealing with the problem. President Trump seemed preoccupied with protecting the economy and appeared to be saying almost anything to divert attention from the problems that a potential pandemic might have on the money markets, and so the country didn’t react when it should have done. Stock exchange values began to tumble and realising the U.S. was not going to escape fiscal pain the President surprised everybody with a U-turn and on 13th March declared a national emergency.

In Britain as of 25th of March people were not being tested unless they were in hospital, and neither were the medical staff treating them (although by the 27th there were promises to do so, as health workers were quite reasonably, showing concern). But those who though they had the virus were still being told to go home and self isolate and unable to get tested by a doctor. To say Britain has been ill prepared for this emergency is an understatement. On 26th March Mayor Giorgio Gori of Bergamo in the Lombardy region of Italy said that Britain had got it wrong – with infection rate two weeks behind Italy, it had been too slow to react and this might cost many lives.

In the USA critics considered the administrations reaction to Covid-19 to be all over the place and the markets continued to be volatile. It was Jo Biden (the most likely candidate to stand against President Trump in the Presidential election of November 2020) who on 12th March steadied the ship, with a speech that probably should have been made by the president; and you have to wonder if the electorate will remember the disorganised  nature of the current administration’s handling of this national emergency when it comes to November… if the election still happens. On 26th March President Trump was still hopeful of getting people back to work – a couple of days previously he had suggested that could be by Easter, but set against the news on 26th March, that the USA had 83,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, overtaking all other countries to become the epicentre of the pandemic, getting back to work seemed the least of its problems. By the 28th New York was pleading with the government to get started on making respirators as they needed them urgently. The president thought that such provisions were better coming from private industry, but N.Y. needed them urgently…and I wonder how many political turning points you can have as this will to come back to haunt the president if there are people dying through lack of respirators.

The country had plenty of time to consider the seriousness of the developing situation, but still appeared woefully ill prepared. Looking beyond Covid-19, we might ask whether many of  our leaders will persist with exactly the same approach to global climate change, and continue with the usual resistance to scientific evidence, inhibiting our ability to react appropriately, and we find ourselves in yet another dire situation of a different making.

The only positive thing to come from the pandemic is a slowing of industrial productivity, leading to a rapid reduction in carbon and other emissions with the consequence that many of us are experiencing much cleaner air. Aerial views of major cities worldwide demonstrate that pollutants have largely disappeared from areas that a few months ago were experiencing serious air quality problems – with some of this the result of a recent reduction in air travel. However, the global pandemic is co-incidental to our climate problems, and probably isn’t the most appropriate way to reduce Carbon emissions.

Covid-19 has demonstrated clearly, that we might be incapable of reacting quickly any big problems that occur on a global scale; as by the time we do, they are out of our control. Just as with climate change,  we are too often simply hoping for the best, while our leaders react too slowly to scientific evidence available, in deference to short term economic gain; and if that continues, such actions will not save our economies, but inevitably lead us to a far more precarious future.

I am aware the Covid-19 pandemic has caused suffering in a great many countries and I regret that I have not been able to follow all of them; certainly I should have given more attention to Spain where the virus has taken hold. As I finish writing on 27th March, although the infection rate in Spain has slowed, the number of deaths today totalled 769. Unfortunately the country did not lock down quickly enough and testing for the virus was not adequate.

Around the world the Covid-19 story is changing by the hour, with India now coming into the story: this country has the second highest population in the world – and with  people living in close proximity to one another, self distancing is difficult to achieve. Dealing with the virus under such circumstances is a monumental task; nevertheless on 24th March Prime Minister Narendra Modi put the country on lockdown for 21 days in an effort to get to grips with the virus at a relatively early stage when infection rates might still be manageable. It remains to be seen whether India can succeed where other countries have failed. Whatever the case, the World must now act together in solidarity because for the first time in living memory, we are all in this together. On the evening of 28th March Prime Minister Boris Johnson who the previous evening had tested positive for the virus (as was the case for his Health Secretary and Chief Medical Officer), announced a lockdown in Britain; and critics of policies that had previously seemed too vague for many Britains to follow were saying, ‘better late than never’.

 

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UP, UP AND AWAY. From Ebola to Exponential and Beyond.

Perhaps the most reliable way to ‘save the planet’ is to take a picture that has been constructed by using mathematics and arithmetic; these exist in a variety of forms, but most commonly they are represented as charts or graphs that can provide at a glance, information on any subject for which there is reliable data, and graphs in particular are good at showing numerical change against a baseline of time.

I’m one of those unfortunates who have trouble adding up a column of figures – seldom do I get the same total twice – even with a calculator! That’s discouraging, but it’s not a valid excuse to give up.  And mathematics doesn’t come any easier, but let’s face it, we owe it to the planet to try, because mathematics is the key to measuring everything important that is going on around us.

A politician or national spokesman who says, ‘I’m just hopeless with maths’ or ‘math’ (depending on where they are standing) and then laughs it off, should be looking elsewhere for work. There is understandable concern when the people who represent us do not usually have backgrounds in mathematics or science – political science doesn’t count, because that’s an oxymoron. Anyway, the ‘I don’t get mathematics’ excuse is unacceptable from any elected official and we should urge them to ‘try harder’.

When I heard a health spokesman say recently that the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa was growing exponentially month by month there was obvious cause for concern. The spokesmen then gave the number of infections that occured during the previous month followed by the predicted figure for the month to follow, and the figures were exactly the same. This implied that he either didn’t understand exponential, or the increase wasn’t exponential at all. The statement was confusing: was the  rate of infection steady and controllable? Or was it expanding  exponentially, suggesting that  heading for the hills was the best possible option?

Understanding exponential growth shouldn’t be a problem. Most small children can draw it, even if they can’t describe the outcome.

Little Timmy can't say the word, but he can certainly draw it - a simple example of exponential growth.
Little Timmy can’t say the word, but he can draw a simple example. Here, a single person infects two others and if the disease is passed on in the same manner, the infection quickly gets out of control. This kind of growth applies to many things including human population growth.

In everyday life, most people don’t think much beyond arithmetic progressions, where the increase between numbers is constant.  But exponential growth is nothing like that. Once you start down the road to exponential, by doubling up, it isn’t long before the figures are mind blowingly large, and if they relate to a dangerous disease that goes unchecked, no health service on the planet will be able to deal with it.

There is an ancient Persian story that explains the process well. An inventor who pleased his king with a wonderful invention was asked to name his reward; but he at once disappointed the ruler with the seemingly meagreness of his choice. The inventor asked for grains of wheat to be placed upon a chess board in the following manner: one grain on the first square, two grains on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth, 16 on the fifth and so on, until all of the 64 squares were covered. The numbers start small and most of us don’t think much beyond the 8th square where the total hits 128 grains, which isn’t an outrageous figure. Quite a surprise then to discover that to reach the 64th square requires 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of wheat – more wheat than was available in the whole kingdom. The tale is spun as  an example of intelligence winning the day, or alternatively, it is a story of cunning and greed –  the inventor either becomes ruler of the kingdom, or he loses his head.

In today’s world we might relate this story to pyramid selling where an investment doubles up every move it makes down the line and before long the numbers become vast, but by then, many individuals have dropped out of the scheme and never pay their contributions, while those who stay in begin to run out of suckers to sell to.

Telling a story is a great way to explain numerical change, but an artful graphs is a more visual approach. The two graphs below are free of annotation which allows the image to pass for art if you prefer it – perhaps as a late Matisse paper collage.

This could be a late period Matisse paper collage, but we might also consider it as representing two curves on a graph running along a base line of time. curves
Consider the above as two curves on a graph with a base line (or x axis) representing the passage of time, and a vertical (or y axis) representing the numbers or the density of an animal population increasing linearly as the line progresses upwards. This colourful ‘picture’,  interpreted correctly, contains enough information to save the planet .

The upper curve begins between yellow and red but continues for the most part  between yellow and green – it starts shallow, then rises exponentially before levelling off. This forms a ‘logistic curve’ first used by Pierre Verhurst  in the mid 1800s to show natural population growth where numbers are held to an upper limit by predation and availability of resources.

The lower curve that runs at first between red and yellow and then red and green takes time to rise, but when it does the line steepens rapidly – this is exponential growth that hasn’t levelled off. The world human population presently follows this ‘run away’ curve, but without infinite resources it cannot continue to grow in this manner. In a finitely resourced world the predictable result is a sudden levelling of the curve and a plummet downwards that mirrors the up. To alleviate suffering, it makes sense to control the drop – this really is a case of the higher you go the harder the fall.  Birth rates are presently falling across the developed world, but for economic reasons the numbers are usually bolstered by immigration (O.K. there will then be fewer people somewhere else, but that doesn’t regulate the population in places where people are genuinely trying to control their numbers).

The logistic curve along with the wave curve (see the predator prey relationship graphs below) apply to almost any species other than our own and they have longterm benefits for both the species and the environment – and make better models for longterm regulation than does uncontrolled exponential growth. All the information we need for responsible behaviour is contained within a couple of simple graphs, indicating that self regulation of human population is a better option than the inevitable collapse that continued exponential growth has in store .

Unfortunately, governments do not run economies with a view to longterm sustainably – they invariably opt for growth above all else, and are reluctant to make changes, preferring instead to pass the parcel onto the next generation – a ticking time bomb which they’ve chosen to ignore. Economies are run as if resources are infinite and without cost beyond extraction, refining and transportation. However, at a certain point, the Earth will no longer be able to sustain this, and if the present generation continues to charge up the steep end of exponential… future generations will be forced to pay the price, and will know that we had all the information available to make the right decisions, but instead carried on, business as usual.

 

HERE WE ALL ARE, UP ON THE STEEPEST PART OF THE CURVE.

Human population growth started off slowly.It is obvious that population wasn't a problem prior to 1800, but an agricultural revolution, an Industrail Revolution and the development of modern medicine has aided population growth and  when the graph is climbing as it is today, there is a genuine need for us to engage with the reality.
Human population growth started off slowly. Population growth clearly wasn’t a problem prior to 1800, but an Agricultural Revolution, an Industrial Revolution and the recent development of modern medicine have all helped to allow our numbers to grow exponentially and there is now a genuine need for us to engage with reality.

Things often start off slowly before exponential growth kicks in. With the human population nothing much changed for a very long time. There was even a period around70,000 years ago (long before the time line represented in the above graph), when the human population dropped so low we almost disappeared altogether.

It may well have been cooking meat and the development of  agriculture that started things moving, but there have been other set backs: the black death was a devastating pandemic and can be seen as a dip in the population graph around 1400. Prior to the plague weather conditions around the mid-1300s  were unfavourable, and throughout Europe crops repeatedly failed. It was a perfect storm of a disaster and millions died – but the loss of a third of Europe’s population did change the economy. Suddenly, there was a shortage of workers and for the first time in recorded history a more reasonable wage could be asked by those who survived the devastation. Poverty was still widespread, but many people were liberated from serfdom, and took the first steps along a path that generations later would drive the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and eventually the modern Western economic system we have today.

In the broadest sense exponential growth isn’t a disaster, it is often the way things increase in the natural world, but there are always boundaries. A fertilised ova wouldn’t develop at a rapid enough rate if cell growth wasn’t initially exponential, but once a certain functional level has been reached, cells are programmed to be replaced when and where they are needed – if they keep on dividing without control, we call it cancer.

Almost everything that relates to our rapidly increasing human population is unsustainable.  The graph below demonstrates a normal predator prey relationship where foxes are eating hares; it could equally be wolves preying on deer, or any number of other predator prey interactions.

Along a base line of time the green curve of prey animals increase, producing more food for predators which set the pattern for controlling the prey as the prey numbers decline, so do the predators. The winner is plants. Without the predators the world becomes less diverse as the plants are eaten. This of course is an oversimplification as there is a web of life, but the principal holds.
Along a base line of time, the green curve shows prey animals beginning to increase in number, thus producing more food for their predators, the foxes – shown in black. Foxes then increase in number, eat more hares and cause their prey to decline. Fox numbers begin to fall in response to the diminishing food supply and hare numbers pick up again – the process continues in a cyclical manner.

Other species also benefit as predator and prey numbers ebb and flow. Plants for example will escape total obliteration by hares and rabbits as predators reduce herbivore numbers. Without natural predation environments become less diverse as certain species are eaten beyond their capacity to regenerate. However, the predator prey graph is an oversimplification, and although the general principle holds true, the system is really a three dimensional web of life that demonstrates far greater complexity. We refer to a natural balance of nature, but the reality is closer to a series of peaks and troughs. If our human population followed closer to the logistic curve, modern technology would allow us to regulate against a roller coaster of loss and gain in a manner that can’t so easily be applied to the steep end of exponential growth.

Related closely to our population numbers is the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

This graph shows the level of oil extraction (fossil fuel) and as would be expected it follows the same line of exponential growth for the human population. Coal extraction starts a fraction earlier on the time line, but follows the same exponential growth line.
This graph shows the level of oil (a fossil fuel) extraction.  As expected it follows the same line of exponential growth shown on the human population graph. Coal extraction starts a fraction earlier on the time line, but clearly follows a similar exponential growth curve.

It is impossible for us to remove and burn fossil fuels indefinitely, because such resources are finite and as time passes, these diminish and become increasingly difficult to extract. And another consideration is the effect that burning fossil fuels has on our atmosphere should we decide to try it.

The increasing emission of carbon into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned is clearly changing the Earth’s atmosphere.

Not surprisingly Carbon dioxide emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels also follows an exponential line.
The time line starts here at 1600 – before this time, man’s burning of fossil fuels was negligible, but when the Industrial Revolution kicked in Carbon dioxide emissions began to pick up and were soon growing exponentially. Once again the sudden ‘up’ part of the curve runs close to the curve for human population growth.

Burning fossil fuels has a special place in the grand scheme of things, because it increases the levels of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that in turn increases global temperatures. Continuing to do so at an ever increasing rate not only changes the atmosphere, it also changes the weather and at a certain point these changes may be irreversible.

Some times politicians and spokesmen do know how to use the figures in their favour. Global temperatures are evidently rising, but what if they were to show you only the section on the red box?
Some politicians and spokesmen do appear to know how to use graphs when they work in their favour. Global temperatures are clearly rising, but what if you were shown only the section of graph in the red box?

If you looked only at a graph showing the period between 1950 to 1970 you’d consider global temperatures to be fairly stable.  There has also been a similar levelling of temperatures in recent years; these are the favoured areas for climate change sceptics to cherry pick their examples and tell us, ‘there’s nothing to worry about’, but unfortunately, there can be no denying the general temperature trend is upwards – the planet is warming, which supports the idea that it is necessary to always view the whole picture.

The Ebola infection figures discussed earlier do indeed appear to be growing exponentially (at the time of writing). The curve ran fairly level through May and June, which would have been the ideal time for the developed world to have moved in and defeated the disease before it took off. To have ignored this opportunity seems careless if not arrogant. The question is, if I can manage the calculation on the back of a cigarette packet (see below), why can’t those in power do the same. It would be generous to put the terrible suffering in West Africa down purely to ignorance, but sometimes it is suffering economies rather than suffering people that elicit the most rapid responses.

Below: an ‘on the back of a cigarette packet’ calculation derived from figures freely available from news reports. This was quite tricky – not the mathematics… it’s just that I don’t smoke.

A back of a piggy packet graph for Ebola infection. Hopefully the infection will now begin to come under control - an exponential doubling month by moth is almost too horrible to contemplate.
A back of a ciggy packet graph for Ebola infection shows more than 13,500 cases at the time of writing ( I drew this graph during October. Since then the figures have rapidly picked up and I’ve had to extend the graph upwards). Hopefully the infection will now begin to come under control – an exponential doubling month by moth as can be clearly seen between the beginning of October and the beginning of November is too horrible to contemplate. Potentially, there is a long way to go before the disease peaks and crashes naturally if it is allowed to spread unhindered.

 

So far there have been around 5,000 deaths due to Ebola and there will be many more in the coming months, but hopefully, now that medical help is arriving in the affected West African countries (better late than never), the infection will begin to come under control.

Whenever we hear a spokesman say that ‘growth is exponential’ it is good to be clear about what he or she means. Certainly this is important when it refers to human population growth; or the increasing use of fossil fuels; and the rapid spread of a contagious disease. In each case we need to ask the right questions, then be certain that our answers make sense, and last but not least, act as quickly as possible – and so far we have been unforgivably slack on the last one.

The ciggy packet slip aside, all of the simple ‘mathematical’ pictures shown above have been colourful, and without exception are easy to interpret – this isn’t intended purely for the benefit of small children – it is also to grab the attention of the mathematically challenged politicians making important decisions; they really do need to, ‘get the picture, act in good time’, and in so doing, ‘save the planet’.

In mid October 2014 Tony Abbott predicted that coal would be the world’s principal energy source for decades to come. It was he said, ‘Good for humanity’. I wonder if I’m living in a parallel universe – Tony Abbott must be better informed than I am… he’s the prime minister of Australia.

At the time of posting there was some hopeful news. A decrease in the number of reported cases of Ebola in Liberia. WHO’s spokesman Bruce Aylward said the response to the virus was now gaining the upper hand, but warned the crisis wasn’t over. The Head of the U.N. Mission says that ‘presently he doesn’t have the  resources to defeat the disease’. How nuts is  that?

For a perceptive and amusing view of man’s destruction of the Planet,  take a look at this cartoon:

http://laughingsquid.com/man-animated-short-showing-our-destructive-relationship-with-earth/

 

 

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