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Petroleum And Population

By Peter Goodchild

31 August, 2011

In The Coming Chaos (Abridged) I make two claims, which at first might seem hard to integrate with one another. Whether or not the claims are proven (which must be determined by examining the whole argument), there are at least some simple ways of checking the figures, and also of correlating the two claims, if I may be forgiven for quoting myself so liberally.

My figures on present and past global population, however, are all drawn from UN sources. Figures for past and present oil production can be found in such sources as BP, Campbell and Laherrère, and even M. K. Hubbert himself (see references below), although figures on early oil production are curiously less accessible than in the days when Petroconsultants was releasing such data.

Roughly speaking, the first claim is that world population must decline in parallel with the decline in world oil production: for example, oil production will fall to half of its peak in 2030, and population must therefore also drop to about half of its peak level. The second claim is that there will be approximately 2.5 billion “extra” (i.e. famine) deaths and lost births by the end of the century. (Yes, these are all very rough figures.)

The first statement (p. 13) is as follows.

“The world's population went from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to 2.5 in 1950, to nearly 7 billion in 2010. . . . [A] calculation about future population can be made by looking more closely at the rise and fall of oil production. The rapid increase in 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. . . . When oil production drops to half of its peak amount, world population must also drop by half.”

The second statement (p. 32) is as follows:

“Future excess mortality can therefore be determined — at least in a rough-and-ready manner — by the fact that in modern industrial society it is oil supply that determines how many people can be fed. An increase in oil production leads to an increase in population, and a decrease in oil production leads to a decrease in population.

“In round numbers, global oil production in the year 2008 was 30 billion barrels, and the population was 7 billion. The consensus is that in the year 2050 oil production will be about 2 billion barrels. The same amount of oil production occurred in the year 1930, when the population was 2 billion. The population in 2050 may therefore be the same as in 1930: 2 billion. The difference between 7 billion people and 2 billion is 5 billion, which would therefore be the total number of famine deaths and lost or averted births for that period. (A more-precise measurement would entail looking at the number of survivors in each year and then determining what might be called the 'temporary carrying capacity' for that year, based on the remaining oil, but the grand total would be roughly the same.)”

If we now pick some easy-to-remember dates, we can see how all these figures come together. Let us first look at the year 2030. With a 3-percent average annual decline in oil production (defined here as “percentage of the previous year's amount”), there will be 13 billion barrels produced. The same oil production occurred in 1966, which had a population of 3.4 billion, and so we can conclude that in the year 2030 there will likewise be a population of 3.4 billion – very close to previously-stated “half” of the “peak population” (i.e. half of the population of about the year 2010).

1966: 13 bbl oil -----> 3.4 billion population

2030: 13 bbl oil -----> 3.4 billion population

Another curious pair of years includes 2050, which at 3-percent annual decline will have the same oil production as the year 1934, and therefore the same population of 2.4 billion:

1934: 1.6 bbl oil -----> 2.4 billion population

2050: 1.6 bbl oil -----> 2.4 billion population

Here, of course, the significant fact is that the population has fallen to 2.4 billion, which can be subtracted from 7 billion, the peak population, to give us the total of 4.6 billion, which is roughly the same as the “5 billion” mentioned earlier as “the total number of famine deaths and lost or averted births for that period.”


BP. Global statistical review of world energy. (2010, June). Retrieved from http://www.bp.com/statisticalreview

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

Goodchild, Peter. The Coming Chaos (abridged).


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

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




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