Click on the image below for a brief overview of the game.
Zero Population Growth organisation
6 Billion - Future Fact, or Mere Fantasy?
(This is background information only - you do not need to know this to play "6 Billion")
"...the special horror of the present world is that is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to." J.R.R Tolkien, author of the epic fantasy "The Lord Of The Rings," in a wartime letter to his son Christopher. Humphrey Carpenter (1981), Letters Of J.R.R Tolkien.
"...the hearts of Man should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein." (Silmarillion:41. Allen & Unwin 1977, 1979)
I found these priceless quotes in "Tolkien - A Celebration" edited by Joseph Pearce.
Let's be clear about what 6 Billion is about. It is not about humanity's future on Earth, and it does not propose that the colonisation of space is the solution to over-population on Earth. 6 Billion is about humanity's future in our own solar system. It uses exponential growth, via population doubling, to explore this future. Or, to put it another way, humanity's future is measured in people, and not time. Why design a game that does this? Because it gives people a new, original, and (hopefully) inspiring view of our future as a race. It's a long-term view, that is true. So, don't expect a short-term view in 6 Billion .
In 1964, the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed that space-faring technological societies would pass through 3 stages (now known as Kardashev Level 1, or K-1, etc). K-1 societies utilize all the resources of their home planet. K-2 societies utilize all the resources of their home solar system, and K-3 societies utilize all the resources of their home galaxy. 6 Billion is about our transition from a K-1 society to a K-2 society (note: we are not yet a K-1 society).
These are the true "limits to growth" for any space-faring civilisation.
Few people accept 6 Billion as future fact, and this is not surprising. We are now 6 billion people (and counting), we are still on Earth, where we always have been. Our first few tentative steps in space were decades ago, and yet the game predicts not just billions of people living in space from turn one, but trillions by the end of the game! These days, "population growth" as an idea is generally regarded as undesirable, the very words considered filthy... wrong in some way. The subject, perhaps not fitting for a game. I'd like to challenge that thinking.
In 6 Billion YOU, the players, get to decide the timescale. Will it take humanity centuries, or thousands of years? YOU get to decide for yourselves. Bear in mind that 6 Billion can be played just as easily as 12 Billion, so you can set the start of the game into the future if that makes you feel more comfortable, perhaps 2100. Mere fantasy - nice and safe. See the Variants page. For myself, I think our 6 billion landmark is reasonably realistic place to start the story of the next thousand years. Read on...
Three possible demographic futures.
Assuming sufficient major advances in science to support colonies in space or on moons and asteroids, could the first few billions of people get into space during the timeframe of the first turn? This does appear to require a massive leap of faith, even allowing for the fact that a turn represents the amount of time it takes a population to double. However, consider the predicted demographic future of mankind. All the experts talk of a stabilised population of around 9.5 billion by 2050. What does stable mean? Generally speaking there are three possible demographic futures:-
- Zero Population Growth (ZPG)
- Some experts seem to think anything below a 0.5% growth rate is acceptably "stable"
- A few talk about population reduction (Negative Growth)
Taking the first possibility, ZPG, how long is our population meant to stay stable? Of course, nobody knows. However, the longer the population stays stable, the more likely it is (thanks to the extended period of scientific progress) that we will attain the ability to live and expand into space. Now, as soon as this happens, isnt it likely that we would then expand into space and population growth would recommence? So, desirable as ZPG might be in the short-term, it is a myth in the long-term. Therefore, inevitably, our population will double. In this scenario it may take centuries, but well get there. In that timeframe 6 Billion seems quite reasonable.
Taking the second possibility, it will take (we are told) from 1999 to 2050 to get to a "stable" 9.5 billion on Earth, then until 2097 (at 0.5%) to reach 12 billion. Could we send our first few billions into space by then? Certainly, by then, I would hope we have learned how to live out in our Solar System.
I explore some example scenarios in my article Exploring Our Demographic Future.
How this works in 6 Billion™
For those unfamiliar with 6 Billion, a game-turn represents the amount of time it takes the entire game population to double. Then, in game terms, a populations leaving the Earth would have to survive a turn in the holding box for their destination planet, or for the Asteroid Belt. Then they require another full turn to become established as a viable colony of 1 billion. So, in real terms, were talking about centuries for the first few billions (from the different player factions) to become established in colonies away from Earth. These billions dont come from Earth, the majority are born at their new colony in the intervening centuries as demonstrated. Surely that must be possible?
Dont forget that the Earth population track represents people living on Earth, our Moon, and space stations in orbit around both, and space stations in the same orbit as the Earth around the Sun. Thats a lot of space! In a sense, this is where Double cards can actually represent the building of space colonies around Earth, including on/around the Moon. Or, later in the game, migrants from other planets and the Asteroid Belt coming to Earth to live. Think about it - without the Double card there is no way to "colonise" Earth orbit, or "migrate" to Earth (without playing the "War Of The Worlds" variant).
Now the third of our future demographic trends - negative growth. This is entirely possible, perhaps because of war, famine & plagues. Or, a happier possibility, the trend in Europe and other Western democracies is repeated world-wide and natural negative growth ensues. Regardless of which possibility becomes reality, this is little different to our ZPG scenario. Eventually we would acquire the technology required to live and grow in space, and negative growth would be reversed into positive growth. The longer this takes, the more realistic 6 Billion becomes due to greater opportunity for scientific progress.
So, 6 Billion copes with each of these 3 possibilities.
The overall trend is population doubling.
But 6 Billion doesnt allow for negative growth, you say. Thats true, for good reasons. First, the game would drag. Second, I genuinely believe that negative growth can only ever be temporary (see Hooray For Negative Growth? in my article The Cassandra Prediction), or else it is terminal for those concerned. So, if negative growth is only temporary, and ZPG is a myth, then overall trend is for population doubling. Historically, all the classical checks on growth (war, famine, pestilence etc) and the supposed "limits to growth" have failed to stop global population doubling.
Look at these estimates of actual population doubling rates over time from "Stars In Their Courses" by Isaac Asimov (1971):
- up to A.D. 100 - 1400 years
- 100 to A.D. 1600 - 900 years
- 1600 to A.D. 1800 - 250 years
- 1800 to A.D. 1900 - 90 years
- 1900 to A.D. 1950 - 75 years
- 1950 to A.D. 1969 - 47 years
This means that, taking any year during the time span on the left, the doubling rate was the figure on the right. In 1999 the actual doubling rate is 39 years. That is, it took 39 years to get from 3 billion in 1960 to 6 billion in 1999! The good news is that the doubling rate has started to decline. Our population growth rate peaked at 2.1% in the 1960's (making a projected doubling rate of 33 years, but an actual doubling rate of 39 years). The bad news, for me at least, is that I find it hard to believe that the Earths population will reach ZPG by 2050! Who are they kidding? Look at those figures! These changes to our doubling rate have historically taken centuries to get from 1400 years to 39 years. Now were told ZPG will happen by 2050! I dont think so and I believe these figures speak for themselves.
If it did take centuries to slow our population growth down then were in trouble! Double Earths 6 billion (6,000,000,000) people 10 times at its present doubling rate of 39 years and you have over 6 trillion (6,000,000,000,000) people in just 390 years! Even at a 1% growth rate wed reach that figure in about 700 years! Human populations are capable of growing much faster - localised doubling rates of 10 years, and less, are documented (around 7%). Imagine that on a global scale.
Once the lid is off, and some minority population learns to thrive in space, population doubling is guaranteed. By thrive, I simply mean a sustained positive annual growth rate (however small).
Those colonists & migrants.
In 6 Billion I differentiate between colonists and migrants. Colonists colonise new worlds (or Asteroids, space habitats etc), and migrants migrate to those existing colonies. In the game, the lowest number is 1 billion. So, at a minimum, you appear to send out 1 billion colonists or migrants. However, as mentioned earlier in this article, it actually takes 2 turns (if they survive) for your 1 billion to become established as a viable colony (or migrants at someone else's viable colony).
Of course the numbers of actual colonists, and the actual rate of migration will determine the initial numbers on your new colony. Then exponential growth will apply to that figure. I fully understand that each of these 3 factors is a variable. Because a game-turn could represent centuries, I again state that I believe this to be realistic. 1 billion people in 300 years, for example. Remember, we went from 3 billion to 6 billion on Earth in 39 years - this was during a period in which population growth was discouraged!
Science & Society as factors affecting growth.
Slow growth is likely when resources are limited, and high growth is likely when resources are abundant. In times of slow population growth, more time passes before a population doubles - this gives more time for scientific progress. In times of high population growth, less time passes before a population doubles - less time for scientific progress. So, periods of scientific growth (and population stagnation) will be interspersed with periods of population growth (with little time for scientific progress).
If you read my article on the Demographic History Of Humanity, you will see that our hunter gatherer ancestors doubled in numbers very slowly. Then the ancient civilizations doubled much more quickly. Our industrial & technological civilizations today have doubled even more quickly again. Interestingly, the resources on Earth have been eroded over this time - so how can the rate of growth increase if resources are getting scarcer? It's simple really - our ability to exploit the raw materials of the Earth has improved thanks to scientific progress. I believe this trend will continue, thus buying more time on Earth but at the expense of the species we are wiping out.
Of course, society is often slow to change in the face of scientific progress, and so this will be another factor in affecting the rate population growth. On Earth we are doubling very rapidly indeed. Most people would agree that we are doubling too rapidly, and hence the preferred trend for society on Earth is towards a slower rate of growth. Quite right, too.
In 6 Billion the timescale for scientific progress, population growth or even sociological change is not fixed - YOU get to decide what is realistic. In this article, I provide my own opinion. You are invited to provide your own.
The Four Riders Of The Apocalypse.
Dont forget, these doubling rates were possible despite the all the wars, famines and pestilences that Death could throw at us! All of them - every single one you care to mention could only cause a "minor" local population decrease. Its not a popular view to consider the Black Death, Tuberculosis, Cholera, World War One, The Spanish Flu (which killed more people than World War One), World War Two, and all the famines you can think of, as minor. But, during whatever year they occurred, the Earths population had doubled in the timeframes given.
Of War, Famine & Pestilence, War is the only deliberate act of killing. Hence, in the game, War is the only one that halves a token. The others prevent doubling, as does the Death card. Its a subtle difference, and all heavily abstracted to fit the Four Riders Of The Apocalypse into the theme of the game.
Exponential growth is a scary thing. People dont generally appreciate what it means. Take the classic example of the pond weed that doubles the area of the pond it covers every day. If it covers the pond in 30 days, how much of the pond does it cover in 29 days? The answer, of course, must be exactly half of the pond. Thats 29 days for the first half, and 1 day for the other half, to state the obvious.
Whats scary is that we dont know how far through our 30 days (as pond weed) we are. What makes it scarier is that we cant agree on whether our pond is really finite (which, by definition, it must be). Earth is, without question, finite. Somehow, people think that science can turn the finite into the infinite. It cant. Often, it is those same people that refuse to accept that the only hope for mankinds future is to adapt to live around the pond, on the land, or in other ponds... Science can help us do that.
Even scarier is the slow, slow start to an exponential series and the explosive end. Whats scarier is the 6 billion you start with, and the trillions of people you end up with. Just play 6 Billion to get the idea of the numbers. Numbers of people; people like you and me.
The 6 Billion map shows 10 such "ponds", 1 population track for each of our 9 planets (Pluto has been re-classified as a dwarf planet) and 1 for the Asteroid Belt. On each, the last doubling always reflects exactly half of the total population allowed in that "pond". This should be what we expect. The Asteroid Belt "pond" allows for 10 doublings before the game ends (the game had to end somewhere, so this became one of the possible 2 ways. The other is when all "ponds" are inhabited). On the Asteroid Belt, and the Earth track, the last double is for 512 billion people. Thats an awful lot of people, especially when you allow for up to 6 factions each with a token allowed per population track.
Earth cannot sustain us indefinitely. The longer we stay, the more harm we do to the planet that gave us life. We are causing a mass extinction of life to rival the end of the dinosaurs. At the same time, overall quality of life for humans appears to have improved despite all the predictions of gloom (though plenty of people would gladly swap their quality of life with yours or mine). Its possible that this trend will continue for some time, before First World countries also begin to suffer along with the rest of the planet... Centuries of suffering would be followed by centuries of greater suffering in a vicious spiral descending into a kind of Hell on Earth. Even if we could postpone the inevitable for centuries, what would be left? I dread to imagine any future in which humanity restricts itself to the Earth. I, for one, would die inside if I thought there was no future for us in space.
On the other hand, if we adapt to live away from the Earth, we can take life with us. In the new environments in which we live, life will adapt. Inevitably, we will change too. I wish I could see it all. Still, as Arthur C. Clarke (1999) so eloquently states in "The Obsolescence Of Man" in Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds! (p, 225): "Man, said Nietzsche, is a rope stretched between the animal and the superhuman - a rope across the abyss. That will be a noble purpose to have served." Or, as Nietzsche himself put it "Man is something to be surpassed".
Now, if you were an intelligent species, when would you leave your home pond for new, strange ponds? Would you wait until your last doubling? Because, from what I read on the United Nations Population Fund web page and other sources, that would give us until 2100 until our pond is full and theres no more doubling. Their prediction, not mine.
Prophets of doom and predicting the future.
A. J. Balfour (1848 - 1930), in The Foundations Of Belief, wrote "The energies of our system will decay, the glory of the Sun will be dimmed, and the Earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will do down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish." As you can see, the doom prophets have been around for some time. Whilst there's not much to be done about the future of our Sun, there's plenty to be done for the future of our race.
Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), in his An Essay On The Principle Of Population wrote of "The perpetual struggle for room and food", and our tendency to outstrip our ability to feed ourselves. Yet there are more of us than ever before! The doom prophets keep getting it wrong because they look back and see humanity at double its previous population, for as far back as records go, any year you care to mention. Up until the sixties the doubling rate kept getting faster (no wonder they became doom prophets), now it has just begun to slow down. Only just. Isaac Asimov, and Paul Ehrlich (co-author of The Population Explosion), have both been quoted giving the example of the man who jumps off the Empire State Building. As he passes the 10th floor he says how good things are going so far... Lets hope he lands in our pond!
In Profiles Of The Future (2nd edition, 1973) Arthur C. Clarke discusses the failures of prediction, including The Failure Of Nerve, The Failure Of Imagination, and documents what has become known as Clarke's Three Laws of Prediction (the most famous of which is "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"). Interestingly, in the chapter "Rocket to the Renaissance" (first published 1960, re-published in Profiles Of The Future, reworked in 1999 in Clarke's Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds!) Clarke restricts humanity to no more than "a few thousand human inhabitants" living on the "strange, hostile places" that are the moons and planets of our Solar System. He insists that "the population battle must be fought or won here on Earth" and warns of the dire consequences if we delay the fight. He then speculates that, on Earth, the battle may already be lost. Is this a failure of nerve, or imagination? Still, by his own First Law Of Prediction, one should not trust an elderly scientist who says something is impossible (only believe them when they say something is possible).
Also in Profiles Of The Future (p. 101), to give credit where it is due, Clarke acknowledges "it is scarcely profitable to speculate about the societies that may evolve, a hundred or a thousand years from now, upon the Moon, Mars, Venus, Titan and the other major solid bodies of the Solar System." And, back to the pond analogy, Clarke speculates what the fish of 1 billion years ago would have said about their amphibian cousins: They ..."will bear no resemblance to piscatorial life. We will stay where we are." As Clarke points out: "They did. They are still fish." Not stated, but implied, is that we are descended from those amphibians who left their "pond", the sea.
Analysing the past is a subjective past-time, but predicting the future is that and also something which can be proven wrong, over and over. People are tired of false prophets of doom and, if theyre not now, they will be after all the lunacy leading up to 1st January, 2000. Predicting the future is not what it used to be.
6 Billion hopes to avoid this trap by providing an abstract model with no hard-and-fast timeline. Itll all happen, some time in the next millennium, and it starts now. Thats the extent of my prediction.
There is hope.
As to the science which will let us or our descendants live on Mercury (or, more likely, beneath its surface), terraform Venus & Mars, live inside the asteroids, on the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, live on faraway Pluto and its moon Charon, and live in space habitats around these planets - read the bibliography that comes with the game, and read the bibliographies of those books and so on. And check the links on the 6 Billion web page. I have read enough to give me hope, though I dont think most people would choose the future which awaits mankind in space.
For myself, this future is a bright and shining beacon. Intelligence and knowledge will continue to exist alongside compassion, love and beauty, and will take life with it to the stars. Our species - Homo sapiens sapiens, mankind, humanity, call it what you will - our species can make this happen, no other (that we know of, so far). It is true we have a dubious track record which shows the flipside of our nature - stupidity and ignorance together with cruelty, hate and ugliness. Technology will not change that, but neither has it eradicated the better side of our nature - nor will it. I believe we can and will achieve the colonisation of our Solar System. So, for now, we on Earth must take Virgil's advice "Endure, and preserve yourselves for better things."
Back to the future.
As for fans of Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5 and so on - theyre great fun, but hopelessly unrealistic. Star travel of that nature is extremely unlikely compared to colonising our own Solar System. The Dyson Sphere is realism, the Asteroid Belt is realism. And with the numbers available in our future, even colonising Mercury and Pluto is realism. We know we can travel to them even with todays technology, we know they are made of materials we can use as resources. Thats all we need to know to know that humanity (in one form or another) will live there, one day.
Back to prediction again for a moment. Arthur C. Clarke (1999), in the final chapter of Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds! makes the following predictions (amongst others):
2020 - Artificial Intelligence comparable with human intelligence, AI space probes. Two intelligent species on planet Earth.
2040 - The Universal Replicator, based upon nanotechnology. The age of plenty, bringing the end of work!
2045 - Totally self-contained, recycling, mobile homes.
2057 - Humans on Moon, Mars, Europa, Ganymede, Titan and in orbit around Venus, Neptune & Pluto.
2095 - Interstellar space-drive that reacts against the structure of space-time.
In his 1997 book The Spike : Accelerating Into The Unimaginable Future (p. 215), Australian Damien Broderick says that: "...there seems little doubt that a world with the limitless resources of AI-coupled nano minting could make the leap into solar space." By "minting" Broderick refers to his word for Molecular Nano Technology, or MNT. Broderick goes on to say: "In a minting world, there might be no particular brake upon human population growth..." and argues that "..even with genome control, it is unlikely that we will change ourselves as much as our circumstances."
Lee M. Silver's (1998) Remaking Eden (Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World) makes superb use of short science-fictional tales mixed with science to illustrate the potential behind the growing science of reprogenetics (as he calls it). The forthcoming diaspora of humanity into multiple species dazzles the imagination, nor is he afraid to tackle some of the moral issues involved.
In the face of these predictions, and others, I repeat - we will colonise our Solar System: "Itll all happen, some time in the next millennium, and it starts now. Thats the extent of my prediction." For me, that is the extent of the 6 Billion prediction (you may have your own view). That, and the huge numbers of humans and their descendants. Some of Clarke's predictions now reinforce my 6 Billion prediction, and some go way beyond it (and all by 2100 when, as Clarke puts it, "History begins..."). And Arthur C. Clarke was happy to endorse Marshall T. Savage's book The Millennial Project (Colonising The Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps), the book that inspired 6 Billion , by writing the introduction in 1993.
6 Billion - it's a boardgame, isn't it?
6 Billion is a fun game to play, designed to be challenging and entertaining as a game. It is also intended to raise peoples level of awareness about our population and exponential growth; for those already with some awareness of our current predicament, I hope I at least made you think beyond 2050 (the limit of most peoples vision, especially when it comes to demographics). 6 Billion lets you think about humanity's future in space in terms of population without imposing a strict timeframe, giving the player's own imagination free reign. I have given you my view of that timeframe, which in no way restricts the player's view.
Being a game, a model of reality (how accurate, you now decide), it allows you the player to experiment. If it were a book, or an article, the words are fixed. With a game you can try different approaches, and think about what they mean. You can play the game with different groups of people, each of whom will have his or her own way of playing, his or her own opinion of the game, and the issues it raises. Or, you could just have fun from the different player interactions, or just by winning.
And all this without anybody getting hurt in the process. After all, its just a game!
6 Billion - a final word to the critics.
A final word to critics of the theme of the game. Yes, I am aware of the immediate issues that face the Earth. I agree with all the efforts being made to address those issues. However, my view is that in trying to save humanity on Earth such efforts may (I did not say will) condemn humanity to hell on Earth (no longer able to afford the effort of leaving Earth in sufficient numbers to ensure our existence off the planet). Not only that, but the longer we focus on Earth the more harm I believe we do to all life on this planet. It is estimated that we are wiping out a species every hour! The sooner we start our great leap forward into space, the better!
I want to help to shift humanity's focus just a little so that at least some of our descendants can take life with them from this planet. I want to help save humanity and I want to help save as much non-human life on Earth as possible. If you don't agree then you have your way, and I have mine. In my view, both approaches are valid. One approach is short-term and practical, the other approach is long-term and seemingly impractical. Nobody knows whether we currently have the balance right, but it is my contention that we have the balance wrong. Hence, I prefer to emphasise the colonisation of space. Call it an insurance policy, just in case I'm right. The real question is - how much can humanity afford for an insurance policy?
If we fail to colonise space with a viable population then all our descendants will live on Earth, with all that that entails. If that is your preferred future then I oppose it. Yes, I am quite zealous about it. I make no apology for that. In my ideal future, humanity slows its growth on Earth, then colonises space, then our populations grow. If this much happens then, whether you abhor the idea of more humans or not, the mechanism of exponential growth will produce them. Only the rate is debateable.
I don't advocate more humans just for the sake of more humans. I believe that, in time, our capability to exploit (in the true sense of the word, not the cynical sense) the enormous resources in our solar system will provide the means to encourage such growth, and that therefore such growth would be inevitable. However, if all those people were wealthy, happy and nurtured life then I would be in favour of such a future. Who knows what kind of civilizations they will have. As Winston Churchill put it "The empires of the future are the empires of the mind."
By the way, 6 Billion doesn't just focus on numbers of people. You could win the game by staying on Earth, and scoring points for your happy, wealthy or "environmentally friendly" people. Plus, you can score points for helping others. This means that all you "stay at home" types could actually win against those of us who prefer to quit the nest! Plus, just for you, I've added The Earth First variant to the Variants page. That's not so bad for a game with a declared focus on billions of people living in space.
I leave you with a quote from Oscar Wilde: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
Per Ardua Ad Astra(Through Struggle To The Stars)
For a list of articles by me, see the Articles page.
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