Increasing population + declining fossil fuels = less population

[ This essay looks at the human footprint on the planet, how it grew so large, the problems it causes, and the consequences.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

Now that oil, coal, and natural gas are at peak production or will be soon, how can any rational person argue there’s no need for birth control and less immigration with 5 of the 7 billion humans alive due to fossil fuels?

Not only that, we’re driving other species extinct now that we’re using up three-quarters of the Earth’s land:

  • 1%     Urban and infrastructure
  • 11.7%  Cropland
  • 26.8%  Forestry
  • 36%     Livestock grazing. 20% of all animal biomass on the planet (UNFAO 2006).

The 24.5% that we aren’t using is:

  • 12.5%  Rocky, desert, or covered with snow
  • 7.4%    Unproductive arctic and alpine tundra, grasslands
  • 4.6%    pristine forests, including boreal and tropical rainforests
Source: (Erb, 2009 – doesn’t include Greenland or Antarctica)

A Litany of Evils caused by overpopulation and immigration

  • Aquifer depletion, especially northwestern India, northern and western China, northern Mexico, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and Syria
  • Climate change
  • Climate refugees: New Orleans among the first climate refugees – soon those in London, New York, Washington, Miami, Shanghai, Kolkata, Cairo and Tokyo will join them.
  • Storms from higher surface water temperatures in Central America, the Caribbean, the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the USA, East and Southeast Asia, japan, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Viet Nam, and Bangladesh.
  • Desertification. Expanding deserts include the Sahara into Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. The Sahelian is moving southward into Nigeria. Deserts are forcing migrations in Iran, Brazil, and Mexico. The expansion of deserts in China has accelerated since 1950. 24,000 villages have been abandoned partially or entirely. The Gobi desert grew as much as half of Pennsylvania in just 5 years and is within 150 miles of Beijing. The 1930s dust bowl forced 2 million people to leave Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. As the Ogalalla aquifer continues to deplete, the conditions for even larger dust bowls grows more likely.
  • Extinction
  • Invasive species
  • Pollution refugees: Love canal, Times Beach Missouri, Chernobyl area, cancer villages in China, Fukushima
  • Rising oceans
  • Water shortages
  • Toxic pollutants in local environments
  • Wildlands lost, wildlife habitat fragmented, converted to farmland, reservoirs, power lines, roads, mines, logging, overgrazing, bottom trawling, urban sprawl

What’s at stake: 5 billion people dying, starvation, disease, Genocide and madness on the scale of the Nazis, Rwandan Hutu-Tutsi, North Korea, Mao, Stalin, nuclear war, chaos, and endless wars.

Feeding the next 3 billion means cutting down the remaining forests, and unprecedented biodiversity destruction as we take over what few bits of wild remain and replace them with soil-eroding, aquifer guzzling, toxic pesticide polluting crops. Most scientists don’t think we can sustain the 7 billion we have now, ten billion is a sick fantasy.

One reason not even 7 billion can survive much longer is that we’re mining topsoil to grow enormous amounts of food now.  This has always been a factor in the fall of civilizations in the past, it just took them longer to destroy their soil in the past (on average 1500 years) because they didn’t have mega-horsepower tractors to compact and till the soil so it could wash and blow away within 100-200 years.  Soil erosion is happening 17 times faster than new soil is being formed on 90% of farmland (IUGS 2013).  Future generations simply won’t be able to grow as much food.

Population growth relentlessly destroys past environmental victories.

A wild river that was once saved gets dammed. A freeway that was once prevented is built, ripping apart the ecosystem and tight-knit neighborhoods.

A million acres of prime farmland in America is paved over by sprawl every year

2.2 million acres if you include wild land.  Who benefits? Developers and businesses that can pay cheap wages.

Overpopulation was caused by coal, oil, and natural gas

Fossil fuels allowed up to agricultural intensification and equally important — the ability to harvest, preserve, and deliver food before it spoiled in myriad ways:

  1. Iron made with coal rather than charcoal is what launched the industrial revolution and made combustion engines, tractors, vehicles, etc., possible
  2. Trains delivering food to inland areas of famine and later trucks that could deliver food and other essential goods anywhere
  3. Up to five times as much food grown with Haber Bosch nitrogen natural-gas fertilizers
  4. Public Health – clean water and food (i.e. sewage and water treatment, etc., raised average lifespans far more than medicine and continues to do so)
  5. Container ships, above all, made globalization possible (Levinson). America now imports half of its food.

Fossil Fuels have allowed us to go way past carrying capacity

Since the 1980s we’ve been using about 1.5 Earths by burning vast troves of oil, coal, and natural gas. This energy allowed us to go way beyond our carrying capacity by intensifying agriculture and using up resources that would have otherwise been preserved for future generations.

There are many other reasons why population went up

  • Wanting children is a biological drive
  • Abortions and birth control were hard to come by
  • Capitalism depends on endless growth
  • Religious leaders depend on endless growth of worshippers to amass power and wealth
  • Before oil-based weapons systems, the largest army was the most likely victor
  • Political, military, business (especially real estate) leaders want more voters, the largest armies, and more consumers which leads to abortions being banned and birth control hard to come by
  • Humans don’t think very well, see my list of “Over 250 cognitive biases, fallacies and more” at energyskeptic, or read Carol Tavris’s book “Mistakes Were Made But Not by Me: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, & Hurtful Acts”
  • It is taboo to be realistic. Reality-based talk is labeled pessimism and dismissed. Happy endings to Hollywood movies, lack of critical thinking skills and science in schools, and other cultural factors in America have taken this “must always be optimistic” to such a crazy level that “Positive Thinking” ought to be in the DSM-5. Some good books to read: Ehrenreich’s “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” and Kuntsler’s “Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation”
  • The business need to make products break so more products could be sold led to a much earlier peak of resources. Read Slade’s “Made to Break Technology and Obsolescence in America”.
  • Even people who were aware of “The State Of The World” had children, hoping that “The Scientists Would Come Up With Something”.
  • We live in the moment. Today. People have a hard time imagining they’ll be hungry tomorrow after a large meal. Even if you could convince people that times would be hard decades ahead, that would not be a strong enough reason to refrain from having kids.

America could have stayed below 200 million

Several systems ecologists have estimated that the carrying capacity of the United States without fossil fuels is somewhere between 100 and 250 million people.  How do we get from over 317 million to 100 million in less than 20-30 years?  It’s already too late for no immigration or one-child per woman to do the trick, but still, both of these would help a bit.

Limiting our population in America would have a huge impact.

Americans consume 5 times as much as the average person, so 317 million Americans is the same as 1.58 billion Chinese.

Exponential Growth: Sustainability Impossible

Above all, if the concept of exponential growth had been taught in schools, or explained by journalists and environmental groups, Americans would be more willing to have fewer children.

Here’s how Albert Bartlett explains it: “The growth in one doubling time is greater than the total growth during all the preceding doubling times”.  For instance, oil production. Over 100 years world oil production grew 7% per year. That’s 10 doublings which means 1970 oil production was a thousand times more than in 1870. So every decade, more oil was produced than in all preceding decades.

Similarly, with each doubling of population, we cause as much destruction as all of the preceding doublings.

It took 5,000 years for population to double from 1 to 2 million people between 20 and 15 thousand years ago at a rate of almost zero growth. But it only took 37 years to go from 2 to 4 billion between 1930 and 1976. Now, 37 years later, we haven’t quite doubled, but we’re close — 7.13 billion. The rate of population growth has gone down very slightly, but the rate is still exponential, and orders of magnitude larger than the almost zero rate for most of human history.

Global population grew at a 1.6% compound rate from 1970 to 2010. So if  there were 15 million people 13,500 years ago, we’d have over a google of people now at a 1.6% compound rate.  A google has 100 zeros.

Once Upon a Time, people understood population mattered

1963 President Johnson told the United Nations that “five dollars invested in population control is worth 100 dollars invested in economic growth” (Erlich 1970)

1968 President Eisenhower: “once as president, I thought and said that birth control was not the business of our Federal Government. The facts changed my mind…I have come to believe that the populatin explosion is the world’s most critical problem.”

1976 Gallup poll: 84% said they didn’t want more people in the United States (Hays). The population was 200 million back then.

The consequences: If journalists and environmental groups had kept population issues and awareness in print we more than half of the American people wouldn’t have to die of starvation, disease, or war in less than a generation (that’s how Mother Nature solves overpopulation).

The consequences: Sprawl and consequent lower carrying capacity

Sprawl is one of the largest environmental problems in America and world-wide. It increases energy and water consumption, air pollution, and destroys wildlife. In the USA between 1982 and 2001 we lost 34,000,000 acres of forest, cropland, and pasture to development, an area the size of Illinois.

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2 Responses to Increasing population + declining fossil fuels = less population

  1. The population problem is likely to be solved the hard way: the four horsemen will ride as they have many in times past. Using other large animals as a reference point, the optimal, sustainable population for the planet is likely 7 million … for the whole planet.

    The easy (easier) way is for governments (or non-governmental organizations w/ governments) to pay young girls not to have babies. In many places in the world $1000 is a large fortune. Even in the US, a girl will take the money even though she might not have a child, anyway. A girl who makes a dollar a day in slum marketplace would be able to escape the slum w/ a thousand dollars. It would be life changing on both sides of the equation: for the girl, and for the rest of us who would have the burden lifted that child represents.

    – A thousand dollars/year X 100 million girls is a very small number compared to the cost of 100 million girls giving birth. $100 billion is a negligible fraction of world GDP and can easily be borrowed from finance. A trillion dollars a year would be negligible: the cost of a few years’ oil drilling is a trillion dollars w/ no increased return.

    – Money is infinitely reproducible so finding money is never the problem.

    – Paying young girls puts money in circulation. It is also a capital investment in the truest sense b/c mouths not born do not need to be fed with capital. Right now finance pays people to waste capital which is self-destructive.

    – Any girl can participate including girls in the West. It is easy to determine if a girl is pregnant or has had a child. Girls could leave the program and have a child but the marginal effect would be fewer children overall as instead of four or five children the girl might have only one or two.

    – Money in hand in poor countries would make a huge difference, it would allow better care for families — a reason for childbirth today in countries w/o a ‘safety net’. It would empower girls who otherwise become over-burdened by the costs of childbearing and rearing and become little more than slaves to relatives or in-laws.

    – Paying people to do something is more effective and is less costly than coercion. ‘One child’ policies in China and Singapore worked but caused unnecessary distress: coercing a child not to have a child is strongly personal. Paying someone to do something you want is a business deal.

    – Paying girls not to have a child is a good habit, it leads to paying people not to do other things like buy a car.

    – Because people die of old age, cutting birthrates would have a very rapid effect … without suffering that will accompany coercive approaches or simply ignoring the problem. As the older people die the surviving family members will become ‘richer’ as there will be less demand for capital.

    $100 billion to $500 billion/year would be a small investment. Not every girl, not every family or even country would participate … but they would watch those that do choose the program, they would see the participants’ prosperity vs their own onrushing ruin and extreme poverty and choose the program for themselves.

    • energyskeptic says:

      You might enjoy Alan Weisman’s latest book, “Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?”. Iran, Costa Rica, and other nations were able to bring their birth rates down with no coercion at all. If women everywhere had access to birth control, they will take it. The problem is that macho men dominate the planet, and they do not want women to have it. Perhaps this is a part of being an animal species, and a political animal where leaders see the need for large populations to keep economies growing, the Ponzi schemes of social security and Medicare going, and men to die in future wars.

      Also, the coercion in China has been painted much darker than it was in fact. Yes, there are some Chinese who want more children, and of course some areas were too harsh in how they forced women to have abortions, but on the whole, it was obvious to rational people in China that too many people made it harder for everyone and the vast majority of Chinese support this policy, which by the way, has been relaxed.

      I like the idea of paying women to not have children, but we are on the cusp of the money/energy transition so a business-as-usual solution would be temporary.