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« Our energy cocoon | Main | Subjects of interest »

February 07, 2009


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Thank you for a most interesting essay.The points you make must be apparent to anyone who has given the greatest problem of the last century:and that is overpopulation.
I have argued for the last forty years that the earth can sustain 5hundred million in comparitive comfort perhaps for ever.But with seven milliards devouring the planet and its resources there is virtually no hope for us or the earth.As you so succinctly say;clever,inventive but certainly not wise.

George Mobus


Can you say where you got 500 million population size? Other estimates I am familiar with (from research efforts) range from 2 billion down to 10 million. My own hunch (and it is more of a hunch than a research answer) is that your number is about right. But I haven't seen it explicated by, say, ecological footprint analysis balanced by reasonable estimates of per capita consumption. Thanks.



Your post reminds me of the concept of ecological overshoot; Earth’s biocapacity is the amount of biologically productive area – cropland, pasture, forest, and fisheries – that is available to meet humanity’s needs.Humanity is no longer living off nature’s interest, but drawing down its capital.Since the late 1980s, we have been in overshoot-the Ecological Footprint has exceeded the Earth’s biocapacity - by about 25%. Effectively, the Earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand – people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources.As TD Foster above mentions its all related to 2 billion humans consuming excessively and the other 4 billion aspiring to the lifestyle of the richer North..and if they are imprisoned in a Sao Paulo favela who can blame them?
Globalised capitalism Aka Globalisation is the real culprit behind just about all the contempory woes of the planet (soviet materialism was just as destructive but its been 'vanquished' now) One product of the current crisis could be a return to nationalist protectionism-its happening already...the question is will it be a sane contraction or a aggressive overreaction among the 'reinvigerated' political elites?
Its ironic that the credit crunch has temporaliy done what 40 years of environmentalism (mainly internally flawed green consumerism) failed to do; namely halt globalised expansion in its tracks! We can only hope its a lasting one.....
Reading something like the latest WWF state of the planet report is deeply depressing, the enormous scale of the conflation almost defies belief.

Which is why I am more fearful than ever that the retreat from the precipice may turn into a jungle-entangled free for all with the environment the last thing on anyones agenda.



I have never seen that non-renewable energy source model before, Thank you for the excellent post. I agree that coming up with PRACTICAL and realistic ideas is the best thing we as people can do at this point. I was wondering about the graph of net energy and total raw energy extracted, and I was wondering what role our relentless pursuit towards efficiency plays towards shaping the net energy curve. I believe that the equation of the net energy for sonsumption graph is energy_yaxis=(Ereturned-Einvested-Econsumed)time+current net energy. So the slope of the graph would be (Er-Ei-Ec)? and efficiency increases mean you can keep growing energy consumption? Would that mean chasing efficiency speeds up the way along this curve, although, I think at some point not chasing efficiency allows you to do less with your net energy thereby causing human suffering, famine, economic turmoil? Just some thoughts.

Also in the back of my mind I have considered a rather unpleasant scenario. The scenario that industrial society will continue to live ,via vast reductions in the population of the world poor and starving, for many more decades than many peak oiler's and related views would think. We have seen that the market mechanism places those poor to be the first to lose out in the bidding on the world food supply. Starvation, Famine and Economic turmoil would tend to intensify this process, where the poorest third world countries, will collapse first, due to rising social instability among the poor, aka food riots, health riots ect, along with their populations. What keeps industrial civilization alive is per capita energy, so reductions in population and consumption would allow, the civilized world to drive their cars and eat their McDonald longer( maintain per capita energy. So basically via pathogens( man made?), famine, war and all those other horsemen, population becomes reduced to lengthen survival on dwindling resources. The negatively sloped portion of the overshoot-collapse waveform, might allow the elite of the world to continue listening to ipods. The marketplace will shed demand, and I'm afraid it might be done by rather crude and unforgiving methods, all while they elite of society fiddle/go to parties/listen to ipods while the world burns. It is a disturbing thought indeed but, I think in the lens of history, this scenario might be relevant. After all, If we took the moral optimistic side in our predictions 1000 years ago we would not have foreseen a fraction of mankind's bloody and violent history. One could argue that morals are a luxury, and there are few who stick to their morals even when their survival is a stake, (that's why they call them martyr's) Are they all of rich and elite of the (it would only take a few) going to sit by and watch civilization crumble, or are they going to use all those, weapons of mass destruction (Modern Armies, nuclear weapons, human manipulated Virulent 99% lethal Ebola strains, the marketplace pricing mechanism) or just let them sit there? I am not arguing a conspiracy theory as much as that these outcomes could arrive by much more reasonable processes, such as war for dwindling resources? I think in a way the world has chosen, out of ignorance, to bring this scenario upon itself by growing population in that face of dwindling resources[ who has all those Somalian children anyway, ]. Most of the smooth net energy curves, oil consumption, and population graphs) are assumed to be static in these type of speculative analysis. However, we all know the world is many systems connected together, and that smooth curves, only result from very simple one variable experiments, and these problems involve an incredible amount of variables. When I'm researching these issues, I always come back to the quote said by whom I don't know, probably someone very wise, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."



Partly thanks to your excellent blog - those dots keep getting connected - and things I see happening in my daughter's kindergarten I recently had an insight and wrote this on Joe Romm's blog:

"I believe the main cause of all the problems the world is facing (declining fresh water availability, soil fertility loss and area loss, financial bubbles and economic recessions, depleted fish stocks, the increasing social inequality between rich and poor, peak oil, global warming, spiritual impoverishment) is the concept of (exponential) economic growth. Growth is fine when it resembles that of a child or a plant and gets living standards above the minimum, but it soon crosses a threshold that makes its growth resemble that of a cancerous tumour. Western society crossed the threshold a few decades ago.

The problem of this concept of economic growth is that for it to work, i.e. get people to produce and consume ever larger quantities, it has to embed itself in culture. And culture, the context in which people relate to each other etcetera, is for a large part subconscious. This means that most people are not aware how their behaviour and relationships with other people is fuelled by the need for economic growth. They think that by altering the things they DO they can solve the problems, when what they actually should be doing is changing the way they ARE. Windmills and fluorescent light bulbs are in a way cosmetic surgery, nothing more.

Now how to change something that is so invisible, so deeply embedded in all our institutions, our educational system, our livelihood? The psychological need for keeping the system in place, the not having to live through the pain of radical change of psycho-physical patterns, the addiction to things that threaten our individual and collective survival… It’s simply enormous and almost impossible to grasp. I don’t know how to get the real transition going. But if we don’t throw the concept of economic growth overboard and work towards a steady state economy, if we don’t give 100% attention to food and energy security first (which can only be obtained on a local, decentralised and transparent basis), societal collapse will be inevitable.

I personally believe it’s inevitable because the real cause of all the problems and its solutions are practically invisible."

You are describing in this piece that part of the solution would be for all those people losing their useless jobs (where they produce to consume) to get to work in agriculture and all things related to efficiency and renewable energy. I think this would involve a drastic reversal of rural-urban migration. With rural areas becoming more like urban ones because of the Internet (replacing for instance parts of physical social life), and cities becoming more rural due to all that vacant space opening up, enabling people to start growing food right where they live.

George Mobus

GaryA and AndrewC,

Every analysis I've seen leads to the conclusion that the population of man as a whole is in serious overshoot as a consequence of abundant, easy to get, high quality energy (fossil fuels). Even populations in poor countries (where the growth rates remain high) are largely possible because of fossil fuels. The wealth that has been created by developed countries trickles into those poor regions (food aid, etc.) allowing subsistence without adequate birth control. Humans do what humans do in such situations (I just read that in this economic slump that the sales of condoms are up because people are spending more time 'nesting' without the normal outside diversions!)

There are going to be consequences since the energy flow is slowing dramatically. And we had better steel ourselves for the horrors that those consequences will bring.

Sometimes it takes a catharsis to clear for a better future.


I vacillate between suggesting solutions that would help alleviate the pain and get us moving toward a truly sustainable future and despair that people will not act wisely because they just can't see the reality. Every morning listening to the news reports about the 'stimulus package' and everybody's absolute commitment to restoring the very process that is now going to cause the depth of pain we will suffer just drives me a little more insane!

James Howard Kunstler is right. People live with fairyland thinking. How grown humans can ignore physical reality when thinking about what is feasible and achievable has always amazed me. But here it is, every administrator, every congressman, almost every citizen sincerely wants to go back to the borrow-spend-consume economy and see it grow so everyone can have a job making stuff to buy.

Collective madness.


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