Oil And Famine:
Four Billion Deaths
By Peter Goodchild
29 October, 2007
some point in the early years of the 21st century, there will be a clash
of two giant forces: overpopulation and oil depletion. That much has
been known for a long time. It is also well known that population must
eventually decline in order to match the decline in oil production.
A further problem, however, is that it will be impossible to get those
two giant forces into equilibrium in any gentle fashion, because of
a matter that is rarely considered: that in every year that has gone
by — and every year that will arrive — the population of
the earth is automatically adjusted so that it is almost exactly equal
to its carrying capacity. We are always barely surviving. Population
growth is soaring, whereas oil production is plunging. If, at the start
of any year, the world’s population is greater than its carrying
capacity, only simple arithmetic is needed to see that the difference
between the two numbers means that mortality will be above the normal
by the end of that year. In fact, over the course of the 21st century
there will be about 4 billion deaths (probably about 3.6, to be more
precise) above normal.
Let us refer to those 4 billion
above-normal deaths as "famine deaths," for lack of a better
term, since "peak oil" in terms of daily life is really "peak
food." There will, of course, also be famines for other reasons.
It is also true that warfare and plague will take their toll to a large
extent before famine claims those same humans as its victims.
The increase in the world’s
population has been rather simple: from about 1.6 billion in 1900 to
about 6.1 billion in 2000 . A quick glance at a chart of world population
growth shows a line that runs almost horizontally for thousands of years,
and then makes an almost vertical ascent as it approaches the year 2000.
As Gordon and Suzuki said in 1990, "more people have been added
to the Earth during the past 40 or 50 years than have been added since
the dawn of man" . That is not just an amusing curiosity. It
is a shocking fact that should have awakened humanity to the realization
that something is dreadfully wrong.
Mankind is always prey to
its own "exuberance," to use William R. Catton’s term
. That has certainly been true of population growth. "Do you
have any children?" or, "How many children do you have?"
is a form of greeting or civility almost equivalent to "How do
you do?" or, "Nice to meet you." But that vertical ascent
of world population growth has always been hazardous. The destruction
of the environment reaches back into the invisible past, and the ruination
of land, sea, and sky has been well described if not well heeded. But
what is not so frequently noted is that with every increase in human
numbers we are only barely able to keep up with the demand: providing
all those people with food, water, and living space has not been easy.
We are, in other words, pushing ourselves to the limits of Earth’s
carrying capacity. The same has been true for most of human history.
Even that is an understatement.
In the late 20th century we actually went beyond the carrying capacity.
No matter how much environmental degradation we created, there was always
the sense that we could somehow get by. But in the late 20th century
we stopped getting by. It is important to differentiate between production
in an "absolute" sense and production "per person."
Although oil production, in "absolute" numbers, kept climbing
— only to decline around 2000 or 2010 — what was ignored
was that although that "absolute"production was climbing,
the production "per person" was not. In the year 1990 there
were 4.5 barrels of oil per person per year. By the year 2000 there
were only about 4.3. The same sort of problem was occurring with world
grain supplies: although government sources cheerfully tell us that
grain production in absolute terms is still increasing every year, what
they are not telling us is that because of overpopulation the amount
of grain per person is actually declining . There is more grain,
but there are more mouths to feed. The same problem of resources "per
person" can be seen in the world’s fish catches. We are no
longer getting by. We have been scraping the edges of the earth’s
carrying capacity, and we are now entering a dangerous era.
But the main point to keep
in mind is that throughout the 20th century, oil production and human
population were so closely integrated that every barrel of oil had an
effect on human numbers.
While population has been
going up, so has oil production: from about 0.1 billion barrels in 1900
to about 4.2 in 1950, to about 27.0 in 2000 [1,2]. According to most
estimates, the peak was (or will be) around 2000 or 2010. The rest is
a steep drop: 20 billion barrels in 2020, 15 in 2030, 9 in 2040, 5 in
Exact figures on future oil
production obviously do not exist. Nevertheless, the 1998 figures of
Campbell and Laherèrre are commonly considered reliable. In any
case, the 2007 BP Global figure of 1.2 trillion barrels of proved reserves,
when divided by annual production, gives us virtually the same results
as those of Campbell and Laherèrre. The main discrepancy is in
the years 2000 to 2006, for which the BP report is both more up-to-date
and more generous, and the BP figures for those years are therefore
incorporated in the present predictions. The year 2006 has somewhat
arbitrarily been chosen as the date of peak oil. The much-later projections,
from 2051 onward, are merely an extrapolation (growth trend) of the
projections for previous years.
Another point to keep in
mind is that the relation between population and oil production is one
of cause and effect. The skyrocketing of population is not merely coincident
with the skyrocketing of oil production. It is the latter that actually
causes the former. With abundant oil, a large population is possible
— ignoring, of course, the fact that environmental degradation
may eventually wipe out those human numbers anyway. Without abundant
oil, on the other hand, a large population is not possible. (There is
no point in belaboring theories of "alternative energy." [5,6])
It was industrialization, improved agriculture, improved medicine, the
expansion of humanity into the Americas, and so on, that began the upward
climb, but it is oil that has allowed human numbers to triple over the
last 70 years.
Incidentally, carrying capacity
does not increase in direct proportion to the number of barrels of oil
per person, because as the population goes up there is more strain on
the environment. As a result, we were comfortable enough with 1 barrel
per person in 1940, but less comfortable with 4 barrels per person in
Because oil production is
the determining factor in population growth, we now have a useful set
of numbers: the "existing population" for any given year in
the past is roughly the same thing as the "carrying capacity"
for that year. We can thereby deduce another useful set of numbers:
the "existing population" at the start of any given year in
the future must decrease to become the "carrying capacity"
for that year. "Oil production determines carrying capacity":
that is an immutable law.
Human population will collapse
in any year in which there is a difference between the initial population
and the carrying capacity. The equation is not complex: (A) the previous
year’s population (in billions) can be subtracted from (B) the
carrying capacity (in billions) to give us (C) the number of deaths
(in billions) by famine. The data for carrying capacity can be inserted
by looking at similar data for oil production and population in the
years 1900 to 2000. Some samples of future years are:
2031 (oil 13.8G bbl): (A)
3.5 minus (B) 3.4 equals (C) 0.1
2032 (oil 13.2G bbl): (A)
3.4 minus (B) 3.4 equals (C) 0.1
2033 (oil 12.6G bbl): (A)
3.4 minus (B) 3.3 equals (C) 0.1
non-famine-related, birth and death rates are not included in these
figures, since for most of pre-industrial human history the sum of the
two — i.e. the "growth rate" — has been nearly
zero. And the future will be generally "pre-industrial.")
Applying the above equation
to all the years from 2000 to 2100, we arrive at a total number of famine
deaths of about 4 billion, with the greatest annual mortality in the
earlier years. Following these equations further down the years, we
find that by 2100 there are still 2 billion humans, with 10 million
famine deaths in that year of. The famine deaths do not become zero
until nearly the end of the 22nd century, when the population reaches
about 1 billion, with almost no oil left, duplicating the conditions
of the year 1900 or earlier. That 22nd century may add another 1 or
2 billion famine deaths to the 4 billion of the 21st century. These
later figures, of course, are far less reliable. War, disease, global
warming, topsoil deterioration, and other factors will have unforeseeable
effects of their own.
These equations obliterate
all previous estimates of future population growth. Instead of a steady
rise over the course of the century, there will be a sudden slump, with
the clash of the two giant forces of overpopulation and oil depletion,
followed by a less precipitous ride into the unknown future.
SOURCES, REFERENCES, AND FURTHER READING
1. BP Global Statistical
Review of World Energy. June 2007.
2. Campbell, Colin J. and
Jean H. Laherrère. The End of Cheap Oil. Scientific American,
March 1998. http://www.dieoff.org/page140.htm
3. Catton, William R. Overshoot:
The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana, Illinois: U of
Illinois P, 1982.
4. Duncan, Richard C. The
Peak of World Oil Production and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge. http://dieoff.org/page224.htm
5. Earth Policy Institute.
Earth Policy Indicators.
6. Goodchild, Peter. Peak
Oil and the Myth of Alternative Energy. Countercurrents. Sept. 6, 2006.
7. . -----. Peak Oil and
the Problem of Infrastructure. Countercurrents. Sept. 29, 2006.
8. Gordon, Anita, and David
Suzuki. It’s a Matter of Survival. Toronto: Stoddart, 1990.
9. United Nations Population
Fund. World Population to 2300. New York: United Nations. http://www.unfpa.org/swp/
Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of
the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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