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Oil Decline Rate And Population

By Peter Goodchild

26 January, 2011

The rapid increase in the world’s population over the last hundred years is not merely coincident with the rapid increase in oil production. It is the latter that has actually allowed (the word “caused” might be too strong) the former: that is to say, oil has been the main source of energy within industrial society. It is only with abundant oil that a large population is possible. It was industrialization, improved agriculture, improved medicine, the expansion of humanity into the Americas, and so on, that first created the modern rise in population, but it was oil in particular that made it possible for human population to grow as fast as it has been doing (Catton, 1982). When oil production drops to half of its peak amount, world population must also drop by half.

A good deal of debate has gone on about “peak oil,” the date at which the world’s annual oil production will reach (or did reach) its maximum and will begin (or did begin) to decline. The exact numbers are unobtainable, mainly because individual countries give rather inexact figures on their remaining supplies. The situation can perhaps be summarized by saying that at least 20 or 30 major studies have been done, and the consensus is that the peak is somewhere in the first or second decade of this century.

One reasonable description of past and future global oil production is Campbell and Laherrère’s 1998 Scientific American article, “The End of Cheap Oil,” which serves as a sort of locus classicus. Their main chart seems to indicate an annual rate of increase of about 4 percent from the year 1930 to 2000, and an annual rate of post-peak decline of slightly over 3 percent, which would mean that around 2030 oil production will be down to about half of the peak amount (Campbell & Laherrère, 1998, March). The chart is based partly on the bell-shaped curves that M. King Hubbert used in the 1950s when making accurate predictions of American and global oil decline (Grove, 1974, June; Hubbert, 1956).

Most major studies place the date of “peak oil” somewhere between 2001 and 2020, and within that period a middle date seems rather more likely (Campbell, 2004, 2009; Gever et al, 1991; Oil Drum, 2010, February 4; Oxford University, 2010, March 23; Petrole, 2010, March 25; Simmons, 2006; Youngquist, 2000, October; 2008). For years the main anomalies have been some American government forecasts: those of the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the US Department of Energy, and those of the US Geological Survey. However, Robert L. Hirsch of the US Department of Energy in 2005 produced “The Inevitable Peaking of World Oil Production,” the famous “Hirsch Report,” which begins with the sentence, “The era of plentiful, low-cost petroleum is reaching an end.” He goes on to say that “oil production is in decline in 33 of the world’s 48 largest oil-producing countries” (Hirsch, 2005, October, p. 5). The EIA’s 2009 “Sweetnam Report,” in fact, shows world oil beginning a permanent decline in 2012, although the wording is somewhat ambiguous (EIA, 2009, April 7). Colin Campbell (2009, November 16) has responded to this report. Another anomaly has been that of the International Energy Agency, which has tended to follow US figures, but they may be revising their claims (Macalister, 2009, November 9).

After the “peak” itself, the next question is that of the annual rate of decline. Estimates tend to hover around 3 or 4 percent, which means production will fall to half of peak production by about 2030. Even within that range, however, there are all sorts of other variables. Is it possible that fuels outside the range of conventional oil can make a significant difference? To what extent will enhanced production methods (water-flooding etc.) result in a “cliff” rather than a “slope”? How would a major financial recession (i.e. one not caused by oil scarcity), resulting in lowered demand, affect both production and prices? The biggest problem may be the synergism of fossil fuels, electricity, and metals: as one of the three declines, there is a decline of the other two, and the result is a chain reaction, a feedback mechanism, a tailspin, or whatever metaphor one chooses, so that industry in general comes to a sudden halt. Perhaps some of these unknowns will work out to be either irrelevant or identical in the long run, at least in the sense that (e.g.) a cliff and a slope both end at rock bottom.

One solution that is sometimes proposed for the dilemma of fossil-fuel decline is a global campaign for the humane implementation of rapid population decline. 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 by far the most important sources of energy, must roughly equal the 3-percent (if not greater) annual rate of fossil-fuel decline.

Unfortunately there is no practical humane means of imposing a similar annual rate of decline on the world’s population. If we allow the loss of petroleum to take its course, a decline of 3 percent would result in a drop in world population to half its present level, i.e. to 3.5 billion, by about the year 2030. The only means, however, would be a rather grim one: famine.

A deliberate global campaign of rapid population decline, even with the immediate implementation of an utterly hypothetical fertility rate of zero (i.e. the implementation of a “zero-child policy”), would have far less dramatic results. 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 postulated that “birth rate” would be zero.) The present death rate is only about 1 percent (CIA, 2010). At such a rate of decline, the global population in the year 2030 would still be about 5.7 billion. There would therefore be no means for a program of planned population decline to work before the effects of fossil-fuel depletion took their own toll. (Such figures, of course, disregard any other possible catastrophic future events such as famine [the above-mentioned means that is likely to prevail], disease, war, and a thousand other side-effects of societal breakdown.)

I had at one time stated that the annual decline rate would be about 6 percent. A rate of about 3 or 4 percent now seems more likely. Actually the revision of the decline rate, from 6 percent to 3 percent, does not make much difference in the long run. It means oil production falls to half of its peak rate around 2030, rather than 2020, a mere 10 years difference. The general result, over the next few decades, is still almost the same. Perhaps more importantly, it is still a fact that even with an instant (and impossible) “zero-child policy,” the population decline rate would still be only 1 percent annually, whereas oil decline is 3 or 4 percent annually. In other words, one cannot even come close to making a significant difference via birth-control policies before oil decline makes its own “decisions.”

The argument about the date of “peak oil,” and about the ensuing rate of decline, will probably go on for a few more years. The basic issue, however, was made clear in the 1950s, when M. King Hubbert made his predictions, and in 1986 and 1991, when Gever et al. described the situation; after all, there is no enormous change in the data from one decade to another. Perpetual doubt about the decline in oil production is less useful than genuine preparation for the event. During the Cold War, “emergency measures” were a common topic of discussion, but no serious measures are now being taken for a much greater emergency.



Catton, W. R., Jr. (1982). Overshoot: The ecological basis of revolutionary change. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Campbell, C. J. (2004). The coming oil crisis. Brentwood, Essex: Multi-Science Publishing Company.

------. (2009, November 16). Colin Campbell’s response to the Guardian IEA reporting. The Oil Drum. Retrieved from http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5970

------ & Laherrère, J. H. (1998, March). The end of cheap oil. Scientific American.

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

EIA. (2009, April 7). Meeting the world’s demand for liquid fuels: A roundtable discussion, a new climate for energy. EIA 2009 Energy Conference. Retrieved from http://www.eia.doe.gov/conference/2009/session3/Sweetnam.pdf

Gever, J., Kaufmann, R., & Skole, D. (1991). Beyond oil: The threat to food and fuel in the coming decades. 3rd ed. Ed. C. Vorosmarty. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado.

Grove, N. (1974, June). Oil, the dwindling treasure. National Geographic.

Hirsch, R. L. (2005, October). The inevitable peaking of world oil production. Atlantic Council Bulletin 16 (3).

Hubbert, M. K. (1956). Nuclear energy and the fossil fuels. American Petroleum Institute. Retrieved from http://www.hubbertpeak.com/hubbert/1956/1956.pdf

Macalister, T. (2009, November 9). Key oil figures were distorted by US pressure, says whistleblower. Guardian.

Oil Drum. (2010, February 4). World oil capacity to peak in 2010. The Oil Drum. Retrieved from http://www.theoildrum.com/node/6169

Oxford University. (2010, March 23). Oxford report: World oil reserves at tipping point. Energy Bulletin. Retrieved from http://www.energybulletin.net/node/52093

Petrole. (2010, March 25). Washington considers a decline of world oil production as of 2011. Retrieved from http://petrole.blog.lemonde.fr/2010/03/25/washington-considers-a-decline-of-world-oil-production-as-of-2011/

Simmons, M. R. (2006). Twilight in the desert: The coming Saudi oil shock and the world

Youngquist, W. (2000, October). Alternative energy sources. Oil Crisis. Retrieved from http://www.oilcrisis.com/youngquist/altenergy.htm

------. (2008). Geodestinies: The inevitable control of earth resources over nations and individuals. 2nd ed. Portland, Oregon: National Book Company, Education Research Assoc.

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



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