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Peak Oil And Population Decline

By Peter Goodchild

19 December, 2010

A solution that is sometimes proposed for the dilemma of fossil-fuel decline is a global campaign for the humane implementation of rapid population decline (RPD). With all due respect for the attempt to find a satisfying answer to the question of overpopulation, such a proposal would conflict with the available data on the rate of decline in fossil fuels. The annual rate of population decline, in a civilization in which fossil fuels are the principal source of energy, must roughly equal that annual rate of fossil-fuel decline, which is probably about 6 percent (Höök, Hirsch, & Aleklett, 2009, June).

Unfortunately there is no practical humane means of imposing a similar 6 percent annual rate of decline on the world’s population. If we let Nature, i.e. loss of petroleum, take its course, a decline of 6 percent would result in a drop in world population to half its present level, i.e. to 3.5 billion, by about the year 2020, a mere decade from now. The only means, however, would be a rather grim one: famine.

On the other hand, a deliberate global campaign of RPD, even with the immediate implementation of an utterly hypothetical fertility rate of zero (i.e. the implementation of a “zero-child policy”), would be far less dramatic. The rate of population decline would exactly equal the death rate. (This is true by definition: “growth rate” equals “birth rate” minus “death rate”, and we have already said “birth rate” is zero.) The present death rate is about 1 percent (CIA, 2010). At that rate, the global population in the year 2020 would still be about 6.3 billion. There would therefore be no means for such a program of RPD to work before the effects of fossil-fuel depletion took their own toll.

(Such figures for an RPD program, of course, disregard any other possible catastrophic future events such as famine [the above-mentioned means that is in fact likely to prevail], disease, war, general anarchy, and a thousand other side-effects of societal breakdown.)

Incidentally, we can also consider the more long-range effects of the previously-mentioned depletion in fossil fuels. If we assume that agriculture is ultimately unsustainable (Diamond, 1987, May; Ferguson, 2003, July/August; Lee, 1968), then we must regard a population of 1 million, as existed in 10,000 BCE, as ideal. To be generous, however, let us choose 10 million as a final stabilized population. With an annual decline in fossil fuels of 6 percent, a final drop to that relatively feasible population of 10 million will be in about the year 2110.

A global campaign for RPD may be regarded as one form of the soft-landing scenario. If we must reject such an RPD campaign and soft landings in general, the following three points might constitute a basic statement of global systemic collapse:

1. Modern industrial civilization is based on fossil fuels; we have been burning 30 billion barrels of oil a year. Fossil fuels provide our manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, mining, and electricity. The main problem is peak oil: the world’s supply of usable, recoverable petroleum is starting to diminish. The best estimate of the annual rate of decline might be 6 percent, which means production will drop to one half of the peak amount around 2020. There is a common belief that “alternative energy” can replace fossil fuels; the quest for alternative energy, however, has been going on for decades with no very practical results, mainly because of the barrier of insufficient “energy return on energy invested”.

2. Fossil fuels are not the only foundation of modern industrial civilization. Of roughly equal importance are metals and electricity. This triad is synergistic: if one of the three should fail, then so do the other two. Fossil fuels are in decline, but metals are also becoming less plentiful. Electricity will be in decline worldwide because it is produced mainly with fossil fuels.

3. Peak oil basically means peak food. Without mechanization, irrigation, and synthetic fertilizer, crop yields drop considerably, and famine is inevitable. Over the next few decades, the survivors will be those who have mastered the art of subsistence farming. Ultimately, however, it may be that the Paleolithic practice of foraging, with a greatly reduced population, is the only way of life that can be extended for millennia.

The first two of those three points, however, are really a case of going over ground that has been covered many times in the past. What I have stated above about the necessity for a smaller population has certainly also been said, in more or less the same manner, by many others.

The only point that is worth discussing is number 3, not 1 or 2. Perhaps it would also be worthwhile to discuss a hypothetical point 4, whatever that might consist of. On the other hand, there is really nothing to be gained by further discussion of whether the peak oil date is imminent, for example, or whether there are untapped sources of alternative energy. The important topics for further research are solely those related to the survival skills needed by the population that remains. It is only queries of that sort that are positive responses to the coming disaster. Putting further effort into questioning the basic existence of the disaster means wasting time that should be spent in dealing with matters beyond points 1 and 2.

The collective unconscious of the year 2010 seems to have been a mixture of apathy and despair, but such muteness is based on a misunderstanding. While the rich minority are buying land in Paraguay, the poor majority have descended into catatonia, yet it is the former who have a clearer vision of the future. One can only hope that there will be more of a proactive approach, and that more people will acquire the aforementioned survival skills. Perhaps my passion for books influences me unduly, but I even suspect that if reading and writing could be preserved, in the manner of the medieval scriptorium, then some sort of enlightened primitivism could prevail in the coming ages.


CIA. World factbook. (2010). US Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook

Diamond, J. (1987, May). The worst mistake in the history of the human race. Discover. Retrieved from http://www.environment.ens.fr/perso/claessen/agriculture/mistake_jared_diamond.pdf

Ferguson, R. B. (2003, July/August). The birth of war. Natural History.

Höök, M., Hirsch, R., & Aleklett, K. (2009, June). Giant oil field decline rates and their influence on world oil production. Energy Policy, (37) 6, 2262-72. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2009.02.020

Lee, R. B. (1968). What hunters do for a living, or, How to make out on scarce resources. In R. B. Lee and I. DeVore, Eds., Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is odonatus {at} live.com.