CONTEXT: Chapter 2

Enlarging the World's Capacity and Our Humanity

“We are in a race between education and catastrophe.” —H. G. Wells

Thinking about what the world wants, and how to get it, immediately raises a myriad crucial questions. Some of the first would have to include these: What is global capacity? Do we have enough to meet the basic needs of everyone in the world? How is the world's capacity related to the number of people on Earth, and to their education, health, creativity, and access to resources and technology? And what do humans, individually and in our proliferating numbers, contribute to global capacity?

In Chapter 1, I asserted that it is possible to get what the world wants, and that there are several keys to unlocking this perspective. One, as noted there, is recognizing that the world's financial resources are much broader and more complex than simply national government budgets or traditional "helping" agencies. Another is to take a fresh look at the value of a human being, especially in light of just how many humans now inhabit the Earth. Still another is to look at the way human beings relate to each other, our essential humanity. The world's future largely lies in human hands, and while some find that a frightening prospect, my view is that the seven billion souls who will be alive within a few decades hold the master key to getting what the world wants.

What Our Numbers Mean
One of the most astounding facts of the world right now is how many of us humans there are. The increase in the number of human beings over the most recent moments of our planet's history is unprecedented, unpredicted, and transformational. For good or bad, something big is up. Ito not that there are too many humans in the world, or that we are doing too much damage to the environment, or exhausting the planet's capacity to support us. The point being made here is simply that the sheer magnitude of our numbers is, in itself, absolutely incredible.


As the most complex thing in the known universe other than the universe itself, a human being is a miraculous bundle of self-renewing and replicating matter, energy, and information. The amount of complexity, structure, intelligence, curiosity, imagination, compassion, love—all the qualities this wonderful amalgam of protoplasm and spirit has brought into the world, multiplied by more than six billion—is almost scary in its implications.

All this new life has brought a situation containing both delight and trepidation to our planet. One danger is that the vast amount of intelligence now residing in the nervous systems of six-plus billion humans will become incandescent before it becomes transcendent—that is, it will blow itself up before it learns what it is; that it will not learn fast enough how to lessen its negative impacts on the planet and how to creatively cope with all the varieties of language, organization, wealth and world view that exist side by side by side in the increasingly interconnected world. Intelligence, or at least one component of it, seems a highly volatile substance. If we do not learn fast enough how to deal with the phenomenon of seven billion or more humans on a finite planet, we could do ourselves in. As H. G. Wells said in 1928, “The world is in a race between education and catastrophe.” We are living in a new world—one for which there is no instruction manual. A world of six billion humans is totally different than a world with 50 or 100 million or 1 billion humans. The working principles for that world are as invalid for our world as the instructions for a slide rule or abacus are for operating a computer. We have to learn how to make this planet work on our own, and do it fairly quickly

Human Consciousness: An Emergent Structure
The graph showing population growth makes it clear that this moment in the flow of time is radically different than any other in humanity's history on this planet. Whether we are in command of a spacecraft lifting off to discover exciting new prospects, or floating helplessly in a balloon about to burst because it has risen too high, is up to all of us to determine.

It bears repeating: There is no precedent for 5 to 7 billion people—it has never happened before in the 4.5billionyear history of the planet. Perhaps even more astonishing is the rate of growth the chart depicts. The number of human beings in the world doubled in the last 40 years and tripled in the last 100 years. Ninety-nine percent of all human experience has taken place in a world with a population one-one-thousandth the size of ours today. Being born into a world so different from any before it is truly a privilege—as well as a responsibility and challenge.

Five to seven billion people bring to the world a radically different sum of needs, gifts, talents, and capacities than 100 million or one billion people do. For example, with 1 billion people in the world there are 24 billion person-hours each day; with 6 billion people the daily figure rises to 144 billion person-hours. How much more joy, pain, creativity, care, love, and thought are packed into those extra 120 billion hours each day? What effects will this have?

We are already confronting the resource needs of sustaining our large numbers. These are crucial challenges for our time. But other, equally important questions begin to arise when we view the growth of human population from the longer perspective of the last four and a half billion years. Some examples:

 • More than six billion people today seek to provide a good life for themselves and their families, and to evolve. As a collective group, what do they want for themselves? What kind of forces do these wants set in motion?

How can the capacity of the planet to provide the wants and needs of six billion-plus people be increased? 

What happens when the forces of globalization link up all the humans in the world into one system?

The population increase of some 1.2 million over the last fifteen years has brought the number of children under age five on the planet to more than 400 million. (If these 400 million were a country—Childland—it would be the third largest country in the world, larger than any except China and India.) These young lives represent the largest infusion into the world of organized complexity, need, and trust, and love in history. They have arrived, as do all children, completely helpless and in need of physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment. Each new life has to trust that it will be taken care of. Fortunately, the trust of children is spontaneous, as is (usually) the love and care their parents offer. What are the effects in the world of this massive two-way exchange of trust and love?

  If a couple of hundred million people could bring the world to its present state, what could billions of creative minds do? The intellectual and creative potential of the human brain is staggering. What effects will this additional thinking capacity have on the world?

ˆWill humankind's quantitative increases bring about a qualitative transformation? The new field of complexity science shows that “a highly interconnected set of units or nodes can give rise to emergent structures and behaviors that differ from the sum of the parts.” The exponential, almost overnight growth of the Internet, which caught nearly everyone by surprise in the early 1990s, is one example of a new emergent structure. It should not be surprising, however, that an organism as complex as human beings, which thrive on communicating and making connections, would devise new ways of forming connections with others, even ways of interconnecting into one self-communicating organism.

What role does humanity's gifts of consciousness, intelligence, and making connections play in the universe? What are the economic, cultural and spiritual implications of a world with so much consciousness?

There is much literature decrying the increase in humanity. Many people are threatened by changes in the status quo brought about by the new world created by new human numbers. Many others are concerned that humankind's increasing numbers pose a threat to the environment—and therefore to themselves—or see the potential for vast human misery if the human population outstrips its potential to support itself. More human beings is seen as a negative—a “bomb,” to use one perverse but popular metaphor.

That is not the perspective presented here. A hungry or malnourished person, a homeless or illiterate person, someone without access to health care—these are tragedies and outrages, not the person. A human being is a miraculous creation, full of spirit, initiative, intelligence and love. It is time we recognized, from a global perspective, how important this resource is to our collective well-being and that of planet—and how incredibly destructive it can be if denied what it needs to survive and thrive.

The Value of a Human Being: How Much Are You Worth?
What are you worth? Is it the amount in your bank account or stock portfolio? Is it the amount you might be expected to earn over the course of your life, or what a well-educated person such as yourself might be expected to contribute to society? Is it how much you are loved or needed by your family? Or how much you are worth as a member of a complex ecological system? How about your worth as another node in a network, or as a consumer that helps drive the economy?

And how much are you worth in dollars? Of course, to place any value other than “priceless” or infinite on a human being is, in the big picture, a devaluation of all human life. Nevertheless, as we will see, placing a dollar value on a human being does have some usefulness in a world where desires are infinite and resources limited.

When I was in high school I read that the human body was worth $1.29. This was the value at that time of the human body's constituent chemicals on the open market—so much for the carbon, so much for the nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, etc. By now, with inflation, that figure should be at least $10.00—chemically speaking, the human body is still a poor thing.

Today, however, I could get orders of magnitude more money from selling my corneas, heart and other body parts than from the mere chemical elements of which I am made. This is understandable, as these parts are very complex structures, adding enormous value to the raw chemical elements. Assuming that my body parts could bring at least $25,000 each on the market and that I have at least ten such parts, I would be worth at least $250,000.

Anyone who has had a conversation with another human being knows that we are much more than a collection of disemboweled body parts—or for that matter, more than small piles of chemical elements. Yet somewhat surprisingly, our worth as a whole entity, a fully functioning human being, may be less than we are worth as parts.

Worth more dead than alive? Well, yes, in certain cases. Tragically, there are over 27 million slaves in the world.[1] I am confident that none of them is worth $250,000 to the slave masters who “own” these people. From at least one perspective, it seems we are worth more as accident victims than as living creatures.

There is yet another way of looking at this question, one that government policy makers have been grappling with for close to 50 years and that has vital significance for how we regard the economics of getting what the world wants. It turns out that the worth of a living human being has some important policy implications in a complex society with limited resources and competing needs. Here's why: governments are charged with the responsibility of protecting their citizens from harm. Their constituents expect this, and sometimes leaders actually try to do it. Governments are not endowed with infinite resources to do their job, however, hence they must make decisions that protect the well-being of their citizens while also keeping an eye on costs.

As a means of grappling with the complexities of limited resources and unlimited notions of what to do with those resources, governments have been forced to do cost/benefit analysis of policy options. Setting the “worth” of a human being plays an important role in this process. An example: if the value of a human being is set at $100,000, it means that we should be willing to spend up to $1 million on a program that saves the lives of ten people. If we place the value of a human life at just $10,000, then the same program needs to save 100 lives to be economically justified.

Taking the analysis further, if a certain policy--say, a law mandating the use of seat belts--saves 10,000 lives per year and its cost to implement is $10 million per year, then each life saved will have cost society $1,000.[2] If the value of a human being is set at $1 million, then the monetary benefit (the gross "profit" or net benefit) to society of such an investment would be $9.99 billion[3]—clearly, a financial winner. With that same million dollar value on a human life, if the safety measure costs $10 billion to implement, then each saved life would have cost $1 million—and profit would be 0 (plus all those lives saved).[4]

At some point the cost of the policy will outpace society's ability and/or its willingness to pay. For example, do you think society would pay $100 billion to save one life? Although possibly desirable from an abstract ethical point of view, such an expenditure in the context of competing programs that save 1,000 or a million lives with the same amount of money would appear both unethical and economically foolish.

Perhaps surprisingly, the U.S. government thinks more highly of you (if you are a U.S. citizen) than the numbers I have just used would indicate. But as you might expect, there is some controversy around the actual dollar value placed on a human being. In the mid-1990s the worth of a human life was set between $750,000 and $2.6 million.[5] By 2001, the value, as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency's Clear Skies analysis, was placed at $6 million.[6] The Bush administration sought to reduce this to $3.7 million per life (so much for family values) and to set the value of anyone over 70 years of age at only 63% of this amount (so much for respecting our elders).[7] Other countries vary in the monetary value placed on their citizens. As Figure 2-x indicates, Japan leads the pack— it prices the life of a human being at nearly $10 million, which is 372 times the average income of the Japanese citizen.[8] The U.S. figure is 200 times our average income. India, one of the poorer countries in the world, values its citizens at well over twice the U.S. rate, as measured by the multiple of average income.

The average income per person in the world is a little over $5,000. If we use the U.S. multiple of average income as a global benchmark, that would set the value of each human in the world at over $1 million. (Using India's factor puts the value at $2.3 million.)

human value

Still another measure of the monetary value of a human being is the amount paid out to members of the U.S. armed forces—which is $250,000 in the event of death, plus $948 a month to the spouse and $237 to each child.[9] Over the course of the average life of the spouse and one child this will amount to over $1 million. We might also look at the compensation given out for the victims of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. These claims have averaged $1.4 million for those who have died.[10]

There is sound basis, then, for using a $1 million figure as a monetary value for a single human life. And doing so leads us to a startling conclusion: that meeting the needs of everyone in the world, including saving the lives of the billion-plus people in the world who are dying ahead of their time or leading less than productive lives, can be seen as adding trillions of dollars of value to the global economy. Even if we use a figure substantially lower than $1 million, we come inescapably to the realization that what the world wants is more than affordable: it is a bargain of such unprecedented magnitude as to constitute a windfall for the entire population of the planet. Not to make the investments that would result in such a positive gain in well-being and prosperity would be not just ethically reprehensible and criminally irresponsible, it would call into question the notion that there is indeed intelligent life on Earth.

This reasoning and conclusion may seem abstract, but the same kind of cost and benefits logic underpins almost all social policy in modern society (military expenditures being a notable and huge exception). The conclusions of where to spend our government's limited revenues shape the lives and well being of millions, even hundreds of millions of people. It is termed “fiscal responsibility” when a government engages in comparing costs with benefits. The results often get implemented as legislation— and if the cost/benefit analysis is correct, society ends up wealthier. The same is true here. The trillions of dollars added to our global and local common and personal wealth represents real money, not an abstract concept or morality.

By pointing out that meeting the basic human needs and rights of everyone in the world and regenerating the environment, in short, getting the world what it wants, will result in trillions of dollars of added wealth to the world we are making the case that such actions are do-able, affordable, economically rational, and profoundly positive for the poor and the wealthy of the world. This is not a bloody revolution where the bottom pulls the top down, but a “we all win” encounter between technology, resources and human values and ingenuity. Given the source of wealth in an information and knowledge-intensive world is information and know-how, making the investment in human well-being (the major source of know-how and information) is an investment in economic well being and wealth creation.

Our Enlarging Humanity
A basic fact of the world is that there has been a huge increase in the number of human beings. A basic tenet of this book is that the quantitative increase in human numbers, and consequently of human creativity, imagination and problem-solving abilities, has profoundly increased the capacity of the world. A concurrent phenomenon, I believe, is that our humanity—our awareness of other people on Earth and our compassion, sympathy and concern for their plight—is being enlarged. And it is the scope of our humanity that determines and expands the radius of what the world wants.

It is not that we are nicer than our ancestors, or smarter. It is that the technology of our age has made the state of the world and the situation of our fellow humans more visible and more transparent, and with visibility and transparency comes responsibility and accountability. We are more humane today because we have the option and the need to be. Not all of us might always do the right thing for the right reason--but why quibble when so much is at stake?

(Maybe we developed our technology as an external conscience because we were aware of our own potential to take moral shortcuts? As our communication technology developed, and continues to develop, it has made our other technology and who has access to it— as well as our needs, resources and capacities— more visible to more and more people in the world. Each year we add hundreds of millions of cell phones and computers and Internet users to the world's community of the connected (to say nothing of the even larger, but more passive, crowd of television, radio and newspaper readers[11]). With these additions, the number of people who have almost instant access to the basic facts about the state of the world grows, and along with this growth comes the increasing sense of what the world could and should be. In a sense it goes back to the 1970's cliche about going to the Moon: “If we can go to the Moon, why can't we make a (fill in the blank)?” If we are capable of interconnecting the world into a vast web of communication, then we should be able to feed, educate, or (fill in the blank) everyone.

As our external nervous systems developed ever more nerve endings it became increasingly difficult to hide anything— whether it was illegal beatings of citizens by police, starving children or genocide. The spread, speed, and anonymity of the Internet makes it increasingly difficult to hide anything— from corporate wrong doing and governmental malfeasance to political intrigue and personal failings— the Internet, the great revealer, makes it all transparent. As the great revealer, it is helping the world learn about itself, and to become, possibly, eventually, self-conscious. And if, as Aldo Leopold said, “Ethics is knowledge of interdependence,” then our growing interdependencies and our growing knowledge of them is making us more ethical.

The earlier quote by H. G. Wells that “We are in a race between education and catastrophe” is a good summary or encapsulation of the argument between neo-Malthusians and the perspective presented here.[12]. There definitely is the possibility of catastrophe. In fact, there is the probability of one if we, and our education, do not win our race. Evidence that we are winning, or at least making progress, is contained in the litany of “good news”— the “Positive Long Term Trends” cited in the Introduction. These plus the works of the 3 million plus non-governmental organizations of the world, such as Amnesty International, Transparency International, Free the Children and the, literally, millions of neighborhood organizations improving the daily lot of the people in their areas of concern all testify to the continuing improvement, the gradual winning (or at least the evening of the odds) of the race with catastrophe.

(Given our notion presented earlier that the glass is both half full and half empty, it needs to be pointed out “catastrophe” and its technological powers to win the deadly race are also growing. Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the sociopath, something that was not possible until relatively recently, has increased the importance and urgency of our race, and the demand for diligence. Resting on the way side, a la the hare's race with the tortoise, is a guarantee for disaster.)

The astounding nature of the present world created by the current numbers of humans and the ways in which we are connected has mostly gone unrecognized because the everyday world we live in—our neighborhoods and communities—look roughly the same today as they have throughout most of history. We have family, friends, and the activities we pursue to earn our daily bread. Few of us are old enough or have seen enough of the whole world to recognize the global transformation that is occurring. All the world's people do not show up in our backyards, so few of us are feeling all that crowded. We do not notice that there are more of us and that our backyards are now touching. We do not personally notice that more than 74 million people—the population of two and a half Canadas —are added to the world's population each year, nor do we notice incremental increases in the interconnections among us all. The “part” does not often recognize the “whole.”

But from these interconnections, like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, is emerging a totally new set of capacities and possibilities.. Those new capacities will transform the world. Our awakened and enlarged humanity will see what the world wants, and do something about it. As we go about working together on getting the world what it wants, we are part of that global transformation.


“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
—Albert Einstein

[1] While slavery is outlawed under about 300 international treaties, there are 27 million slaves in the world today. Up to 20 million of these are bonded laborers. A person becomes bonded when their labor is demanded as a means of repaying a loan. Sources: Anti-Slavery International: Trocaire:
[2] $10 million divided by 10,000 (lives) = $1,000 per life
[3] 1,000 lives at $1 million each = $10 billion; $10 billion – $10 million cost of program = $999 billion
[4] $10 billion cost of program - $10 billion (10,000 lives saved X $1 million per life) = $0
[5] The Economist, December 4, 1994, The Price of Life, p. 74.
[6] "How Much Are Human Lives and Health Worth?" (Science, March 21, 2003. p. 1936). This figure was an average derived from wages for high-risk jobs and surveys asking people what they think a life is worth. Also see: [6] S..W. Pacala, et. al. "False Alarm over Environmental False Alarms," (Science, August 29, 2003, p. 1188).
[7] The Bush admisistration subsequently backed off this controversial stance.
[8] "The price of prudence," (The Economist, January 24, 2004, p. 6 in "Living Dangerously: A survey of risk").
[9] "How Much Are Human Lives and Health Worth?" (Science, March 21, 2003. p. 1936). This figure was an average derived from wages for high-risk jobs and surveys asking people what they think a life is worth. Also see: [9] S..W. Pacala, et. al. "False Alarm over Environmental False Alarms," (Science, August 29, 2003, p. 1188).
[10] The Economist, April 12, 2003. "The impossibility of making whole,"  p. 65.
[11] The great difference between the phone, computer and Internet user and the television, radio and newspaper reader and viewer is that the former are two way
"neo-malthusians": those who are still arguing that the world is running out of the resources needed to take care of the world's growing population (or more precisely, that the world's population is increasing at a geometric rate and our resources, such as food, are only increasing at an arithmetical rate).

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