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Peak Oil And Famine:
Four Billion Deaths

By Peter Goodchild

29 October, 2007

At 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 [9]. 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" [8]. 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 [3]. 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 [5]. 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 2050.

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 1990.

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

(The "normal," 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.


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.

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.

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.

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. He can be reached at [email protected].


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