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Peak Oil And Dunbar's Number

By Peter Goodchild

29 December, 2007

Within modern capitalism there is no solution to the problem of oil depletion. Oil energy cannot be replaced with the equivalent amount of "alternative" energy in the required time, so the consequences of oil depletion will be disastrous. Those disastrous consequences are beyond the range of the normal or acceptable issues of political debate. No political contender can win votes by saying that the world is coming to an end. The "end" may be real, but there is no political mechanism to deal with it in the over-crowded and overly complex modern state.

As the twenty-first century progresses, urbanization will increase, and most people will live in about twenty or thirty mega-cities, although the very rich will live in fortresses with armed guards [3]. These very rich will be trying, more or less successfully, to insulate themselves from the coming economic troubles. During this era, however, "oil wars" will continue to devastate the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Balkans, and elsewhere, as the great powers try to control the oil-producing regions and the pipelines.

There is nothing newsworthy about the above; the problem of oil depletion [2] has been described in detail for at least the last few decades. As Schumacher points out [5], the only problem with The Limits to Growth [4], first published in 1972, is that the authors should have focused more on the loss of petroleum. However, the problem of "peak oil" is largely obliterated from human consciousness by widespread denial of its existence: a gentle but persistent flurry of skepticism, of not-quite-deliberate misinformation, appears on the back pages of newspapers and magazines. The reports of oil depletion are exaggerated, we are told, or the predictions have never come true. Or we are reminded obliquely of Adam Smith’s "invisible hand": control of the economy is, in some sense, unnatural, and if we would only allow market forces to have free play, all the temporary anomalies would be sorted out. The economy is something like God, in a Deistic sense, and we should have respect for all those gears and pulleys and levers that are beyond our comprehension.

Writers on issues of natural resources are so fastidious about statistics and probabilities — admirably, because of such is the nature of science — yet they usually fail to pay attention to detail when writing the last chapter of a book, the unit on "what must be done." To prevent a truly enormous problem of oil depletion, it would first be necessary for a large percentage of the human race to become literate, to read books, and to understand difficult scientific abstractions, scholarly entanglements which are neither comic nor tragic but simply unpropitious. Yet that is precisely the opposite of how most people behave.

Secondly, the entire political structure of every country would have to be changed almost instantly. The American political system, for example, would have to be utterly transformed so that political representatives were chosen, not from among those who have learned the art of buying votes, but from a group of philosopher-kings like those of Plato’s Republic — although perhaps one should not trust kings of any sort.

Thirdly, the President of the United States would have to go on television, disrupt the leading prime-time program, and announce that unlimited driving of automobiles was no longer possible in the United States and its territories. He would also have to explain that tax incentives would be provided to people who have few or no children. All of that from a country that is one of the worst at devouring resources, and that consistently boycotts all serious international efforts at solving global problems.

Since all of that is highly improbable, it might make more sense to say, "A catastrophe is inevitable. What do we do next?"

The disaster has one fundamental cause: human overpopulation. In the year 1950 the world’s population was less than three billion, and in the year 2000 it was six billion. The authors of The Limits to Growth found that the problems of overpopulation and resource-consumption tend to intensify each other, no matter what future scenario is examined. Or rather, the problems will first be reciprocal and then mutually exclusive: there will be a moment in which all problems reach a cataclysmic maximum, and then there will be a massive die-off.

In various macabre ways, however, perhaps some of the approaching problems might tend to preclude others. Global war, for example, might somewhat reduce the problem of excess population. A general economic collapse would decrease the need for oil.

It is not so much that it is difficult to find a political solution to the problem of oil depletion. There is, in fact, no such thing as a political solution, difficult or otherwise. That is to say, there is no solution within the most commonly accepted modern sense of the word "politics": the cluster of misconceptions generally referred to by the terms "capitalism" and "democracy."

At this stage of western history, the biggest problem with democracy is that most of the important issues are now beyond the understanding of the average person. Unemployment, oligopoly, the welfare state — how is the average person to comprehend such things? Ironically, one of the most important economic events does not entail the production and distribution of goods, or even the production of services, but rather the movement of pure money, raw money — it is often the daily shifting of large amounts of money, plain finance capital, that determines whether an individual person has a job tomorrow, and whether that same person can buy what he needs tomorrow.

The general corruption and dishonesty among politicians in modern democracies are so common that the topic can rarely even sell newspapers anymore. (There is no reason to fear the loss of freedom of the press, since the press’s few attempts at truth are largely ignored anyway.) The small voter turnout in any election is a sign of the anger and hopelessness that most people feel toward modern "democratic" government. What is wanted is a new life, a new birth, not the silliness of a false democracy.

Perhaps the question of the ideal political system is essentially not a political question but a psychological one. Homo sapiens and his ancestors spent several million years living in small groups, hunting and foraging. The group was small enough so that each person knew every other person. Democracy could work because the voters were visible. It has only been in a tiny fraction of the life span of humanity that political units have been created that are far too large for people to know one another except as abstractions.

The maximal practical size for human association seems to be Dunbar’s number of 150, but for an optimal number we might allow some leeway in either direction — perhaps somewhere between about 20 and 200. Roman soldiers, for example, were organized into "centuries," and modern Hutterite communities have between 60 and 160 members. Chester G. Starr’s statement [6] is probably as good as any: "Whereas Paleolithic packs numbered perhaps 20 or 30, Neolithic farmers either lived in family homesteads, in villages of 150 persons (as at Jarmo), or in even larger towns (as at Jericho)."

Groups larger than that of the band, the small tribe, or the village just do not function effectively, and by "function effectively" I mean "make people happier than if they were in some other arrangement." A social group of a million or a billion may have military advantages but is more likely to operate as a tyranny than as a democracy — China is the obvious case. That is not to say that a social unit of over 200 is entirely unworkable, but that as the size of the unit expands the chances of true psychological cohesion are likely to diminish.

In any case, neither military power nor economic well-being is necessarily correlated with the size of the political unit. Switzerland, for example, can hardly be considered either weak or impoverished. Schumacher claims that there is actually an inverse relationship between the size of a nation and its and well-being.

When I suggest that the "tribe" is the ideal unit, however, I am speaking somewhat metaphorically. Primitive cultures may be organized into any of a number of social groupings, distinguished by anthropologists as tribes, clans, moieties, sibs, bands, and so on, but in every case the group has two characteristics. In the first place, it is ancient; any group has been forming and reforming for generations, and one might say that the group is as old as humanity. Secondly, any group consists of members who are all tied by the bonds of blood or marriage. For those two reasons, a sudden ad hoc clustering of humans would face psychological challenges unlike those of people living deep in the jungle.

Small groups have their problems. Nevertheless, in terms of providing human happiness for the average person, the tribe is always more efficient than the empire. Any political party that was at all honest in its dealings would therefore state quite plainly that the human population must drop from seven billion to several million. Schumacher’s solutions are couched in patronizing monosyllables about moral reawakening, but he is on the right track. The anarchistic dreams of Kropotkin and the ecological dreams of Schumacher are complementary; they are both visions of a world without a corrupt and inefficient government, a world not covered with concrete and asphalt, a world that leaves room for trees and birds.

Humans were not designed to live in groups of such immense size as we see today, nor were they given the physiological equipment to deal with the over-stimulation of crowded living-spaces. It is also true, for various reasons, that the sight of green trees is more pleasing than that of gray machines. It is not just a platitude to say that we are out of touch with Nature.

To the extent that empires have formed vast cycles, one can compare present-day America to a world of many centuries ago. In the year 731, the Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People, describing the world of the Heptarchy, the Seven Kingdoms of Kent, Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Sussex. Bede was a monk in the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria, and his History is dedicated to Ceolwulf, the king of that land. In the final chapter ("Chronological Recapitulation"), Bede tells us that "in the year 409 [actually 410] Rome was brought down of the Goths; from which time the Romans ceased to rule in Britain."

Yet the end of one world is the start of another. When Bede was writing, the Roman Empire was still slowly turning to rubble and dust, but England’s "Dark Ages" were filled with light, as the monks scratched away in their scriptoria. In his penultimate chapter, Bede tells us that in that year 731 there was "the pleasantness of peace and quiet times." On a planet so primitive that even such basic problems as war, overpopulation, and government have not been solved, like Bede we can keep alive the miracle of reading and writing.


1. Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. Population Resources Environment: Issues in Human Ecology. 2nd ed. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1972.

2. Goodchild, Peter. The Post-Oil Economy: Beyond the Techno-Fix.

3. Martin, Hans-Peter, and Harald Schumann. The Global Trap: Civilization & the Assault on Democracy & Prosperity. Trans. Patrick Camiller. Montreal: Black Rose, 1997.

4. Meadows, Donella H. et al. The Limits to Growth: a Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. 2nd ed. New York: Universe, 1982.

5. Schumacher, E.F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

6. Starr, Chester G. A History of the Ancient World. 4th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

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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