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Some thoughts about Peak Oil and the Future

My Uncle Bill Lakin passed away in 2002 at the age of 97.  I thought one day that during his lifetime, the world’s population had almost quadrupled.  The day I was born the population was 3.5 trillion.  Up to now it has doubled.  What happens to the world if population doubles again.  Think of a time when you were standing in a crowded room and all of a sudden the number doubles.  14 billion people on Earth is a mind-boggling number.  Is it even possible?

As I contemplated this,  I remembered an astounding fact that I had heard.  With fossil fuels, an acre of corn yields 130 bushels on the average.  If you take away fossil fuels which includes the tractors and machinery, the ammonia fertilizer which comes from natural gas, and the pesticides, that number drops to 30.  If you accept that as a rule of thumb, if you take away non-renewable fossil fuels from our food supply production, you divide the amount by 4.

So we ask ourselves, will population ever stabilize at a constant number.  High school biology has taught you that no population is stable when there are too many or too few of anything.  Too much food means more population. Too little means a dieoff.  Too much water means we drown, too little means we die of thirst or can’t grow food.  There are many factors here.

Let’s look at a history of the World’s population.  In 1000 BC, humans were learning to use iron and starting collective farming.  Population: 50 million.  1000 years later was when Jesus walked the earth.  Population: 200 million.  It took a thousand years to quadruple.  In 1500, the printing press was just starting to increase knowledge exponentially.  Population: 500.  150% in 1500 years during what some believe was a mini-ice age.  In 1810, after an explosion of knowledge and technology, it took us 300 years to double again and hit 1 Billion in world population.

In 1818, Ignaz Semmelweis was born in Austria.  After he became a surgeon, he had this novel idea that you should wash your hands before delivering a baby.  Ignaz ideas were rejected and he was beaten to death in an insane asylum at the age of 47.  But his hypothesis was confirmed by Louis Pasteur and infant mortality dropped from 35% to less than 1% and on his 112th birthday, World population had doubled again to 2 Billion in 1930.  During the heights of the century of World Wars, the population doubled in 45 years to 4 Billion in 1975.  Projections say that it will double again to 8 Billion in 50 more years in 2025.

It is inevitable that World population will reach 8 Billion.  We reached 7 in 2011.  The big question is whether it will reach 16 Billion.  That is an astounding number.  Philosopher and catcher Yogi Berra said, “Predictions are very hard, especially about the future.”  Let me give it a try.

No.  Population will never reach 16 Billion.  Before the end of the current century, population will reach a peak and begin a long-term decline.  This is a totally foreign concept to everyone.  There is a fantasy that we will all just sit down one day and realize that it is in our best interest to have fewer children.  Not gonna happen.  Looking again at the history of population growth you can see that for most of our history, the prime human motivator was Human Survival.  That all changed in 1750 when the first economist, Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations.  Since then, our primary motivator has been Infinite Economic Growth.  This concept is very similar to Human Survival in that the opposite is not an option.  The opposite of Survival is death.  The opposite of Economic Growth is collapse.  Wait.  Can’t we have a smooth decline?  There are many suggestions for a Utopian decline to a more sustainable world but they have too many assumptions when the real world sets in.

So, what will be the causes of this collapse.  Remember Infinite Economic Growth in the last paragraph.  That phase assumes that our resources, our food, our water and most importantly our energy can grow infinitely right along with our population and our economy.  So, we live in a finite world. Somebody will think of something.  Right? Wrong.  Malthus had it right the first time.  He just had the timeline wrong.  A more recent attempt to explain this phenomenon is Limits to Growth commissioned by the Club of Rome.

The most stunning indicator of our limits to growth is the concept of Peak Oil.  Our finite, shrinking supply of fossil fuels is the most egregious indicator that we are not economic animals but human animals whose primary motivator is and always will be survival.  Without a growing supply of energy, our population will approach a peak.  Right now for every 2 people who die, 3 are born.

It is my prediction that by the end of this century that statistic will reverse because of lack of food, water, resources and modern civilization.  By 2100, population will be in decline as will modern civilization.   We will be at the dawn of new Dark Ages.  These dark times will have an end but not until we learn to live within our means.  The environmentalists have always told us that we must protect Mother Earth.  I believe that Mother Earth can take care of herself.  Humans will just have to learn to live with the renewable and sustainable gifts that the Earth gives us.  Interesting Times are ahead and I am worried that if you read this in 15 years, you will think I was an optomist.

 

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