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INTELDAILY: The Coming Chaos: Systemic Collapse

For Fair Use Discussion and Educational Purposes


The Coming Chaos: Systemic Collapse
April 23, 2011

by Peter Goodchild

Systemic collapse, the coming dark age, the coming crash, overshoot, the die-off, the tribulation, the coming anarchy, resource wars — there are many names, and they do not all correspond to exactly the same thing, but there is a widespread conviction that something ominous is happening. This event has 10 elements, each with a somewhat causal relationship to the next. (1) Fossil fuels, (2) metals, and (3) electricity are a tightly-knit group, and no industrial civilization can have one without the others. As those three disappear, (4) food and (5) fresh water become scarce. Matters of infrastructure then follow: (6) transportation and (7) communication — no paved roads, no telephones, no computers. After that, the social structure begins to fail: (8) government, (9) education, and (10) the large-scale division of labor that makes complex technology possible. Excluded from the list are such uncertainties as anthropogenic global warming (Singer, 2008), and there are matters such as epidemics that may become important but that are nevertheless tangential. The international credit collapse that began in 2007 is vaguely connected to fossil-fuel decline, but mainly in the sense that both can be partly ascribed to the above-mentioned failure of government.

It should be mentioned that when discussing the 10 elements the terms “sustainable,” “overshoot,” and “carrying capacity” are usually not very helpful. Although Catton (1982) uses the terms appropriately, most attempts to define them lead into ambiguities and self-contradictions. As a result, they often serve merely as buzzwords and fail to clarify the basic issue: the imbalance of population and resources.

After those 10 elements, there are others, forming a separate layer. These are in some respects more psychological or sociological, and are far less easy to delineate, but we might refer to this mixture as “the four Cs.” The first three are perhaps (1) crime, (2) cults, and (3) craziness — the breakdown of traditional law; the ascendance of dogmas based on superstition, ignorance, cruelty, and intolerance; the overall tendency toward anti-intellectualism; and the inability to distinguish mental health from mental illness.

Those three are followed by a final and more general element that is (4) chaos, which results in the pervasive sense that “nothing works any more.” Think of the future USA as a transplant from one of the least-fortunate parts of the ex-Soviet world: vodka-swilling policemen in ill-fitting uniforms, parks strewn with garbage, and apartment buildings devoid of straight lines — nothing that is easy to define, but the subtle and often subliminal indications of general dysfunction.

China is another vision of End Times. It has about 20 percent of the world’s population but produces only about 5 percent of the world’s oil, it uses up coal so quickly that its reserves will not last beyond 2030 (Heinberg, 2009; 2010, May), its water table is falling rapidly, its topsoil is saline, and its pollution problems are terrible. The population has outgrown its food supply: the ratio of population to arable land is more than twice that of the world average (CIA, 2010), which is bad enough in itself. Canada and China are roughly the same size, with roughly the same amount of arable land and a similar range of climates, but China’s population is 43 times larger. In spite of the myth of a vaguely post-Communist utopia, the reality is that Chinese wealth comes from the mountains of cheap goods that are sold everywhere. Those goods are produced by what is virtually slave labor: China is about as far from a worker’s paradise as has ever existed, and it has a dreadful human-rights record. And, of course, shipping cheap goods halfway around the world is not going to work very well without fossil fuels.
Oil Production

Oil is everything. That is to say, everything in the modern world is dependent on oil and other hydrocarbons. From these we get fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, lubricants, plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt, pharmaceuticals, and many other things. On a more abstract level, we are dependent on these fossil fuels for manufacturing, for transportation, for agriculture, for mining, and for electricity. When oil goes, our entire industrial society will go with it. There will be no means of supporting the billions of people who now live on this planet. Above all, there will be insufficient food.

Studying American oil fields in the 1950s, M. King Hubbert found that as the years went by, oil production decreased, mainly because new discoveries became fewer and smaller. The changes in production could be plotted on a graph, forming the left side of a bell curve (Grove, 1974, June; Hubbert, 1956). Looking at the graph, Hubbert could see that the peak of American oil production would be about 1970; after that, there would be a permanent decline. When he announced this, most people laughed at him. But he was right: after 1970, American oil production went into a decline from which it never recovered.

Hubbert also reasoned that the same sort of pattern must be true of oil production in the whole world, not just in the US. Plotting the available data, he calculated that global production would peak in 1995. His reasoning about the world situation was the same as that for the United States: the big discoveries were lessening, and newer discoveries were becoming fewer and smaller. Again he was right: in 1960, about 7 billion barrels were being produced yearly, and in 2000 production had increased to about 30 billion, but the peak is close to the latter date.

Perhaps the most common response to the “peak oil” problem is: “The oil isn’t going to disappear overnight. We have plenty of time to prepare.” Unfortunately, the fact that the decline in oil is a curve, not a vertical line, makes it difficult to comprehend. What matters is that the serious damage will be done long before we get to those tiny remaining drops in the distant future — if we decide it is even economically feasible do so.

A good deal of debate has gone on about that “peak,” 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 between the years 2000 and 2020. Within that period, a middle date seems rather more likely.

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, although there are reasons to suspect the decline will be much faster, particularly if Saudi reserves are seriously overstated.

Even we consider that range of 3 or 4 percent, however, there are all sorts of other variables that could distort the picture. To what extent are various nations exaggerating their reserve figures? 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.

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 Hubbert made his predictions, and in 1986 and 1991, when Gever 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.

In 1850, before commercial production began, there may have been 2 trillion barrels of usable, recoverable oil in the ground. By about the year 2010, roughly half of that oil had been consumed, but perhaps as much as 1 trillion barrels remain. A trillion may sound like a great deal but is not really so impressive in terms of how long it will last; in any case, the estimates for recoverable reserves are constantly reduced over the years. At the moment about 30 billion barrels of oil are consumed annually, and that is probably close to the maximum that will ever be possible. When newspapers announce the discovery of a deposit of a billion barrels, readers are no doubt amazed, but they are not told that such a find is only two weeks’ supply.

As the years go by, new oil wells have to be drilled more deeply than the old, because newly discovered deposits are deeper. Those new deposits are therefore less accessible. But oil is used as a fuel for the machinery and for the exploration. When it takes an entire barrel of oil to get one barrel of oil out of the ground, as is increasingly the case with new wells, it is pointless to continue drilling.

Coal and natural gas are also not as plentiful as before. Coal will be available for a while after oil is gone, although previous reports of its abundance were highly exaggerated. Coal, however, is highly polluting and cannot be used as a fuel for most forms of transportation. In addition, coal mining requires large amounts of oil (mostly in the form of diesel fuel) and electricity to be extracted, making its production dependent on oil also. As for natural gas, it is not easily transported, and it is not suitable for most equipment.

In terms of its effects on daily human life, the most significant aspect of fossil-fuel depletion will be the lack of food. “Peak oil” basically means “peak food.” Modern agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers (the Haber Bosch process combines natural gas with atmospheric nitrogen to produce nitrogen fertilizer), pesticides, and the operation of machines for irrigation, harvesting, processing, and transportation. Without fossil fuels, modern methods of food production will disappear, and crop yields will be far less than at present. We should therefore have no illusions that several billion humans can be fed by “organic gardening” or anything else of that nature.

The Green Revolution involved, among other things, the development of higher-yielding crops. These new varieties could be grown only with constant irrigation, as well as with large inputs of fertilizer and pesticides, requiring fossil fuels. In essence, the Green Revolution was little more than the invention of a way to turn petroleum and natural gas into food.

Much of modern warfare is about oil, in spite of all the rhetoric about the forces of good and the forces of evil (Klare, 2002). The real “forces” are those trying to control the oil wells and the fragile pipelines that carry that oil. A map of American military ventures over the last few decades is a map of petroleum deposits.

Alternative sources of energy will never be very useful, for several reasons, but mainly because of a problem of “net energy”: the amount of energy output is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input (Gever et al., 1991). With the problematic exception of uranium, alternative sources ultimately don’t have enough “bang” to replace 30 billion annual barrels of oil — or even to replace more than the tiniest fraction of that amount.

At the same time, alternative forms of energy are so dependent on the very petroleum that they are intended to replace that the use of them is largely self-defeating and irrational. Petroleum is required to extract, process, and transport almost any other form of energy; a coal mine is not operated by coal-powered equipment. It takes “oil energy” to make “alternative energy.” “Alternative energy,” in other words, is always riding on the back of a vast fossil-fuel civilization.

The use of unconventional oil (shale deposits, tar sands, heavy oil) poses several problems besides that of net energy. Large quantities of natural gas and water are needed to process the oil from these unconventional sources. The pollution problems are considerable, and it is not certain how much environmental damage the human race is willing to endure. With unconventional oil we are, almost literally, scraping the bottom of the barrel.

More-exotic forms of alternative energy are plagued with even greater problems (Younquist, 2000, October). Fuel cells cannot be made practical, because such devices require hydrogen obtained by the use of fossil fuels (coal or natural gas), if we exclude designs that will never escape the realm of science fiction; if fuel cells ever became popular, the fossil fuels they require would then be consumed even faster than they are now. Biomass energy (from corn or wood, for example) requires impossibly large amounts of land and still results in insufficient quantities of net energy, perhaps even negative quantities. Wind and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas and for certain purposes. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their practical limits. Nuclear power will soon be suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious environmental dangers.

The current favorite for alternative energy is solar power, but it has no practicality on a large scale. There is a great deal of solar energy reaching the Earth, but it is too diffuse to be of much value. A good analogy to that diffusiveness, and in fact a somewhat related problem, is that metals have been of use to mankind only because they were found in concentrated deposits.

Proponents of solar energy must therefore close their eyes to all questions of scale. The world’s deserts have an area of 36 million km2, and the solar energy they receive annually is 300,000 exajoules (EJ), which at a typical 11-percent electrical-conversion rate would result in 33,000 EJ (Knies, 2006). Annual global energy consumption in 2005 was approximately 500 EJ. To meet the world’s present energy needs by using thermal solar power, then, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) with a size of 500/33,000 x 36 million km2, which is about 550,000 km2 — a machine the size of France. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials — a self-defeating process. Solar power will therefore do little to solve the world’s energy problems.

The quest for alternative sources of energy is not merely illusory; it is actually harmful. By daydreaming of a noiseless and odorless utopia of windmills and solar panels, we are reducing the effectiveness of whatever serious information is now being published. When news articles claim that there are simple painless solutions to the oil crisis, the reader’s response is not awareness but drowsiness. We are rapidly heading toward the greatest disaster in history, but we are indulging in escapist fantasies. All talk of alternative energy is just a way of evading the real issue: that the Industrial Age is over.

Petroleum, unfortunately, is the perfect fuel, and nothing else even comes close. The problem with flying pigs (as in “when pigs can fly”) is not that we have to wait for scientists to perfect the technology; the problem is that the pig idea is not a good one in the first place. To maintain an industrial civilization, it’s either oil or nothing.

Most schemes for a post oil technology are based on the misconception that there will be an infrastructure, similar to that of the present day, which could support such future gadgetry. Modern equipment, however, is dependent on specific methods of manufacture, transportation, maintenance, and repair. In less abstract terms, this means machinery, motorized vehicles, and service depots or shops, all of which are generally run by fossil fuels. In addition, one unconsciously assumes the presence of electricity, which energizes the various communications devices, such as telephones and computers; electricity on such a large scale is only possible with fossil fuels.

To believe that a non petroleum infrastructure is possible, one would have to imagine, for example, solar powered machines creating equipment for the production and storage of electricity by means of solar energy. This equipment would then be loaded on to solar powered trucks, driven to various locations, and installed with other solar powered devices, and so on, ad absurdum and ad infinitum. Such a scenario might provide material for a work of science fiction, but not for genuine science — and most certainly, not in the context of the next few years.

It is not only oil that will soon be gone. Iron ore of the sort that can be processed with primitive equipment is becoming scarce, and only the less tractable forms will be available when the oil powered machinery is no longer available. Copper and other metals are also in decline. These materials are now becoming irretrievably scattered among the world’s garbage dumps.

The infrastructure will no longer be in place: oil, electricity, and asphalt roads, for example. Partly for that reason, the necessary social structure will also no longer be in place: efficient government, high-level education, and large-scale division of labor.

Without the infrastructure and the social structure, it will be impossible to produce the familiar goods of industrial society. Without fossil fuels, the most that is possible is a pre industrial infrastructure, although one must still ignore the fact that the pre industrial world did not fall from the sky in a prefabricated form but took countless generations of human ingenuity to develop. Furthermore, pre-industrial technolgy had a very much smaller population to support.

Fossil fuels, metals, and electricity are all intricately connected. Each is inaccessible on the modern scale without the other two. Any two will vanish without the third. If we imagine a world without fossil fuels, we must imagine a world without metals or electricity. What we imagine, at that point, is a society far more primitive than the one to which we are accustomed — and also far more primitive than the one our great-grandparents knew.

Arable Land
With “low technology,” i.e. technology that does not use fossil fuels, crop yields diminish considerably. David Pimentel explains that the production of so-called field or grain corn (maize) without irrigation or mechanized agriculture is only about 2,000 kilograms per hectare. That is less than a third of the yield that a farmer would get with modern machinery and chemical fertilizer (Pimentel, 1984; Pimentel & Hall, 1984; Pimentel & Pimentel, 2007).

Yields for corn provide a handy baseline for other studies of population and food supply. At the same time, corn is an ideal crop for study because of its superiority to others: it is one of the most useful grains for supporting human life. For the native people of the Americas, it was an important crop for thousands of years (Weatherwax, 1954). Corn is high-yielding and needs little in the way of equipment, and the more ancient varieties are largely trouble-free in terms of diseases, pests, and soil depletion. If it can’t be done with corn, it can’t be done with anything. Of course, in reality no one would live entirely on corn; the figures here serve merely as a basis of comparison with other crops in a mixed diet.

A hard-working (i.e. farming) adult burns about 1 million kilocalories (“calories”) per year. The food energy from a hectare of corn grown with “low technology” is about 9 million kilocalories (Pimentel, 1984). Under primitive conditions, then, 1 hectare of corn would support only 9 people. Those figures are rather idealistic, however. We are assuming that people will follow a largely vegetarian diet; if not, they will need much more land. We need to allow for fallow land, cover crops, and green manure, for inevitable inequities in distribution, and for other uses of the land. We must account for any rise in population. Finally, most other crops require more land than corn in order to produce the same yield. On a global scale, a far more realistic ratio would be 4 people to each hectare of arable land.

The average American house lot is about a tenth of a hectare, including the land on which the house is sitting (Mason, 2010). Those who expect to get by with “victory gardens” are therefore unaware of the arithmetic involved. Perhaps some of that misunderstanding is due to the misconception that humans can live on “vegetables” in the narrow sense of the word (i.e. in the sense of “green vegetables”). In reality, it is not “vegetables” but grains that are the present foundation of human diet. During the Neolithic Era, our ancestors took various species of grass and converted them into the plants on which human life now depends. Wheat, rice, corn, barley, rye, oats, sorghum, millet — these are the grasses people eat every day. It is members of the grass family that are used in raising the pigs and cows that are killed as other food. A diet of green vegetables would be slow starvation; it is grains that supply the thousands of kilocalories that keep us alive from day to day. There are reasons to question the benefits of a diet of cultivated grains (Diamond, 1987; Ferguson, 2003), but at least over the next few decades it will be the localized production of grains that will support those who survive the collapse of civilization.

In the entire world there are now about 15 million km2 of arable land (Bot, Nachtergaele, & Young, 2000; CIA, 2010). This is about 10 percent of the world’s total land area. The present world population (in 2010) is approaching 7 billion. Dividing the figure for population by that for arable land, we see that there are about 470 people per km2 of arable land. On a smaller scale that means about 5 people per hectare, more than the above-mentioned ideal ratio of 4:1. In fact, most of the world’s 200-odd countries have more than 7 people per hectare; these countries, in other words, are already beyond the limits of the number of people who can be supported by non-mechanized agriculture. The UK, for example, has a population-to-arable ratio of slightly more than 10 people per hectare; what exactly is going to happen to the 6 people who will not fit onto the hectare? But many countries have far worse ratios.

The world’s population went from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to 2.5 in 1950, to nearly 7 billion in 2010. Most of this increase, of course, has been in “developing” countries, suggesting that the term “developing” is less of a euphemism than a misnomer, since a combination of environmental degradation and rapid population growth makes development impossible (Catton, 1982; Kaplan, 2001). It has been said that without fossil fuels the global population must drop to about 2 or 3 billion (Youngquist, 2000, October), although even a number of that size may be questionable. The above figures on arable land indicate that in terms of agriculture alone we would not be able to accommodate the present number of people.
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PART 2 Re: INTELDAILY: The Coming Chaos: Systemic Collapse

For Fair Use Discussion and Educational Purposes



The world’s population went from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to 2.5 in 1950, to nearly 7 billion in 2010. Most of this increase, of course, has been in “developing” countries, suggesting that the term “developing” is less of a euphemism than a misnomer, since a combination of environmental degradation and rapid population growth makes development impossible (Catton, 1982; Kaplan, 2001). It has been said that without fossil fuels the global population must drop to about 2 or 3 billion (Youngquist, 2000, October), although even a number of that size may be questionable. The above figures on arable land indicate that in terms of agriculture alone we would not be able to accommodate the present number of people.

Another 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. 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.

There may be a time lag in the population decline while people manage to get by with less. Any such “bulge” in the middle of the decline curve, however, would not make much difference in the long run. In fact, if we consider that famine is already rampant it is questionable if there will be any spare capacity for such a bulge.

Of course, all of this calculation of population on the basis of oil is largely the converse of the calculation on the basis of arable land, since in industrial society the amount of farm production is mainly a reflection of the amount of available oil.

If we look further into the future, we see an even smaller number for human population, still using previous ratios of oil to population as the basis for our figures. But the world a hundred years from now might not be a mirror image of the world of a hundred years in the past. The general depletion of resources might cause such damage to the structure of society that government, education, and intricate division of labor will no longer exist.

The matter of division of labor might be illustrated by a simple thought-experiment. If we grant that a thousand workers can produce a billion widgets per year, does it then follow that one person stranded on a desert island can produce a million widgets per year? No, of course not. Yet the ratio — one person per million widgets — is the same in both cases. The difference is implied in the words “large scale.” The complexity of division of labor in the modern world is truly staggering: in order to produce almost any of the goods of modern society, there must be very large numbers of people trained in many different roles. These roles must then be fitted together to form interactions of tremendous complexity. In a milieu of social chaos, therefore, what are the chances that the oil industry will be able to use extremely advanced technology to extract the last drops of oil?

Even then we have not factored in war, epidemics, and other aspects of social breakdown. The above-mentioned figure of 2 or 3 billion as a surviving population may be wildly optimistic. In fact, if we assume that agriculture is ultimately unsustainable (Diamond, 1987, May; Ferguson, 2003, July/August; Lee, 1968), we must regard an ultimate global population of 1 million, as existed in 10,000 BCE, as more likely.

Overpopulation is the overwhelming ultimate cause of systemic collapse (Catton, 1982). All of the flash-in-the-pan ideas that are presented as solutions to the modern dilemma — solar power, biofuels, hybrid cars, desalination, permaculture, enormous dams — have value only as desperate attempts to solve an underlying problem that has never been addressed in a more direct manner. American foreign aid has always included only trivial amounts for family planning (Spiedel, Sinding, Gillespie, Maguire, & Neuse, 2009, January); it would seem that the most powerful country in the world has done very little to solve the biggest problem in the world.

The reasons for this evasion of responsibility are many, including the influence of certain religious groups with the misnomer of “pro-life”; left-wing reluctance to point a finger at poor people, immigrants, or particular ethnic groups; right-wing reluctance to lose an ever-expanding source of cheap labor and a growing consumer market; and politicians’ reluctance to lose votes in any direction (Kolankiewicz & Beck, 2001, April).

Overpopulation can always be passed off as somebody else’s problem. It is the fundamental case of what Garrett Hardin calls “the tragedy of the commons” (1968, 1995): although an oversize family may have a vague suspicion that the world will suffer slightly from that fecundity, no family wants to lose out by being the first to back down. Without a central governing body that is both strong and honest, however, the evasion is perpetual, and it is that very lack of strength and honesty that makes traditional democracy an anachronism to some extent.

For all that might be said about their politics and economics, the Chinese have made quite an effort at dealing with excess population growth, but even they have not been entirely successful. Since 1953, the year of the first proper Chinese census and approximately the start of concerns with excessive fertility, the population has gone from 583 million to over 1.3 billion. For that matter, since the official starting of the one-child campaign in 1979 the population has grown by over 300 million (Riley, 2004, June).

Overpopulation, however, is a problem that occurs not only in poor countries. The evidence is also clear in the US:

. . . Mounting traffic congestion; endless disruptive road construction; spreading smog; worsening water pollution and tightening water supplies; disappearing wildlife habitats, farmland, and open spaces; overcrowded schools; overused parks and outdoor recreation facilities; the end of small-town life in communities that until recently had been beyond the city; the impending merging together of separate, unwieldy metropolitan areas into vast megalopolitan miasmas; and the overall deterioration in quality of life and the increasing social tensions of urban dwellers reflected in such phenomena as gated communities and road rage (Kolankiewicz & Beck, 2001, April).
Discussion of overpopulation, however, is the Great Taboo. Politicians will rarely touch the issue. Even the many documents of the United Nations merely sidestep the issue by discussing how to cater to large populations, in spite of the fact that such catering is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

To speak against overpopulation is an exercise in futility. How likely is it that the required massive change in human thinking will ever take place? Even in “developed” countries, to broach the topic of overpopulation is often to invite charges of racism and elitism. And after living in one or two “developing” countries myself, I must say that there seems something both naïve and presumptuous in the common liberal American belief that people in such countries are waiting to be “enlightened” to American ideals. On the contrary, my impression is that inhabitants of poor countries are often quite determined to hang on to their present systems of politics and religion, no matter how archaic and oppressive those systems may seem to outsiders, and would prefer that any proselytizing go in the opposite direction. Indeed, there is the frightful possibility that one reason why the US government gives so little aid to some countries is that the problem of overpopulation there is regarded as hopeless, and any assistance would be just money down the drain (Kaplan, 2001). Instead of dreaming of ways to reduce a population of several billion to a reasonable number overnight, therefore, it might be more sensible to think in terms of the medical system of triage: let us save those who can be saved.

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 the “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 more than 5 billion. (With an aging population, the death rate would increase slightly over the two decades, but not significantly.) There would therefore be no means for a program of planned population decline to work before the effects of fossil-fuel depletion take 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.

Like so many other species, humanity expands and consumes until its members starve and die. The basic problem of human life has still never been solved: the imbalance of population and resources. As a result, the competition for survival is intense, and for most people life is just a long stretch of drudgery followed by an ignoble death. It is ironic that birth control, the most important invention in all of human history, has been put into practice in such a desultory manner. There is still no intelligent life on earth.

In view of the general unpopularity of birth-control policies, it can only be said euphemistically that Nature will decide the outcome. It is St. John’s Four Horsemen of war, famine, plague, and death who will signify the future of the industrial world. Nor can we expect people to be overly concerned about good manners: although there are too many variables for civil strife to be entirely predictable, if we look at accounts of large-scale disasters of the past, ranging from the financial to the meteorological, we can see that there is a point at which the looting and lynching begin. In fact, the basic cause of warfare throughout history and prehistory has been, quite simply, a lack of food (Harris, 1989). The survivors of industrial society will have to distance themselves from the carnage.

The need for a successful community to be far removed from urban areas is also a matter of access to the remaining natural resources. With primitive technology, it takes a great deal of land to support human life. What may look like a long stretch of empty wilderness is certainly not empty to the people who are out there picking blueberries or catching fish. That emptiness is not a prerogative or luxury of the summer vacationer. It is an essential ratio of the human world to the non-human.


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