Should We Take United Nations’ Projections Seriously?

This is a guest post by Dr. Gary Peters, author of Population Geography.

The United Nations warned recently that the global consumption of natural resources could almost triple to 140 billion tons a year by 2050 unless nations take drastic steps to decouple economic growth from an ever-expanding use of natural resources.  The United Nations also recently projected that the world’s population would exceed 9 billion by 2050.  Neither of these projections makes sense and neither will happen.

The world’s population reached 2 billion in 1927; it is expected to reach 7 billion later in 2011.  Much of what neoclassical economists consider “normal,” mainly sustained economic and demographic growth, has actually occurred during a period unprecedented in economic and demographic history.  Both their models and underlying assumptions evolved during an era that cannot be duplicated, leaving us with numerous and serious questions about how good their models will be in a very different demographic future, especially if that future is constrained by flat or declining crude oil production, rising energy costs, and spiking food costs.  The era of cheap fossil fuels has ended, but the kind of thinking that accompanied it has not, which bodes poorly for our ability to deal with the future.

It is easy to see why economists suffer from “physics envy.”  After all, that proverbial apple that fell on Isaac Newton’s head in the 17th century, supposedly prompting his discovery of the law of gravity, would have fallen at the same rate then that it would today.  The acceleration of gravity has not changed.  On the other hand economics as a field of study didn’t even exist then; if it had it would have created “laws” that would probably be of little or no value today because economic laws exist within a much broader world of social and cultural conditions, which are always subject to change.

Consider the notion of tripling our use of natural resources over the next forty years, starting with one example:  crude oil.  According to the EIA, total oil production in January, 2011, averaged 88.2 million barrels per day (mbd).  There are still “experts” who believe that total oil production can be pushed to perhaps 100 mbd, but I know of no one who believes it could approximate three times that, or 244.6 mbd.

The figure below (from Gail Tverberg) shows how total oil production has increased during the last decade.  Even if this rate of increase could be maintained over the next 40 years, which is virtually impossible, total oil production would still fall far short of 245 mbd.  Both the United Nations and most economists are living in another era, the nineteenth century, when cheap fossil fuels were being discovered and extracted as if there would be no tomorrow.

Figure 1. World "Liquids" Production through January 2011, Based on Energy Information Administration

But tomorrow has arrived! That is critical because if oil cannot be expanded by nearly that much (a tripling), neither can the use of most other natural resources because they are so dependent on the use of oil for their extraction and usage.

Even Nobel laureate economist and New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman wrote last year (Dec. 26, 2010), “What the commodities markets are telling us that we’re living in a finite world, in which the rapid growth of emerging economies is placing pressure on limited supplies of raw materials, pushing up their prices.”  Unfortunately, after admitting that Earth was finite, he left that reality behind and in the end embraced the nineteenth century illusion that economic growth can go on forever.  As he put it, “This won’t bring an end to economic growth….It will require that we gradually change the way we live, adapting our economy and our lifestyles to the reality of more expensive resources.”

That may be OK for the well off everywhere, at least for a while, but more expensive resources for the poor will translate into more expensive food and an even more marginal existence.  Those living in growing shanty towns throughout the poor world know little about economics, but they are living proof that the promises of neoclassical economics have been hollow, and that the distribution of benefits has been extremely skewed.  They do not know, either, that their continued reproduction is seen by economists as little more than a steady supply of cheap labor that will be easily exploited in order to supply the rich world with all of the stuff that people want at low prices.

What kind of thinking has so little concern for the welfare of the many even as the few live like royalty?  What has happened to justice for all?  Why has economic growth over the last century or so resulted not in a better world for all but in a much more populous world of mostly poor people?  Economists point at China’s success in raising the living standards of perhaps 300 million people—a rising middle class.  They seldom point to the remaining billion or so in China who are still poor and sometimes desperate.  With only 5 percent of the world’s people, Americans consume about 25 percent of the world’s energy and other resources, yet most Americans see that as fair and want even more.

The figure below (from the United Nations FAO) shows what has been happening in recent years to world food prices.  While Americans and others in rich countries complain about high food and gas prices, people in Third World cities will become more desperate and death rates, especially for infants, may well increase, leading to what I have referred to previously as a “third demographic transition.”  It is only a matter of time before death rates in poor countries start to rise.

Figure 2. FAO Food Price Index, June 7, 2011

It is inhumane for the United Nations, most economists, politicians, corporate leaders, and others to pretend that economic and demographic growth are sustainable.  They are not, period.  Given how nearly 7 billion people are living today, it seems irresponsible to project a population of more than two billion more forty years from now.

Because it has become the overwhelmingly dominant view today, one accepted by the UN, IMF, the World Bank and others, we should look more closely at neoclassical economics.  As an example of this view, consider Tim Harford, who wrote  in his book The Logic of Life, “[O]ur rational behavior can also produce wonders.  The more of us there are in the world, living our logical lives, the better our chances of seeing out the next million years.”  Don’t worry about how few other species there might be by then, or what a million years really is, just consider how many humans there might be.  If you need an additional image, consider all the cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens that will be needed in order to provide all those humans with enough food to keep them healthy, wealthy, and wise.  Harford provides no hint of how many more of us he’d like to see, so let’s consider a couple of examples.

In round figures the world is growing at 1.2 percent annually.  If growth continued at that rate, the population would double in about 58 years.  But that growth rate is gradually slowing, so to provide our first example of future growth let’s start by slowing the rate of growth to one with a doubling time of 100 years (about .7 percent annually).  If we round the current world population off to 7 billion, then we can make some simple calculations.  By 2111 there would be 14 billion humans; by 3011, only a thousand years from now, the population would be 7.168 trillion.  That is about as far into the future as the Vikings are into the past, so don’t even think about a million years from now.

What if we assume a much slower growth rate, so that human numbers double only every 1,000 years?  Then it would take ten thousand years for our numbers to reach 7.168 trillion, still far short of the next million years.  That would be about as far into the future as the agricultural revolution is into the past.   Keep in mind that Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years and we are struggling to provide 7 billion of us with sufficient food, clothing, and shelter to lead decent lives.  There cannot be an economist on the planet who thinks Earth could support 7.168 trillion people.  Human population growth cannot go on forever, no matter how optimistic economists might be.

In the meantime we know what has been happening to other species as our own numbers have become rapidly more numerous.  The figure below (Source) leaves nothing to your imagination, but these species seem to be written off as little more than collateral damage in the quest for the holy grail—endless growth.

Figure 3. Species Extinction Since 1800

As Gail Tverberg noted recently:

We are consuming a huge amount of fossil fuels, and to maintain anything close to our current economic state, we would need to continue to consume a very large amount of fossil fuels.  If a person stops and thinks about it, no level of fossil fuel is sustainable, because we only have a finite amount of fossil fuels.  At best, we would be talking about stair-stepping extraction—reducing it to a lower level than today, and holding there for a while.

Even using fossil fuels at current high rates has not been enough to move more than a fraction of the world’s population to a standard of living that most would consider “well off,” let alone extravagant.  Billions struggle to survive on a dollar or two a day; hundreds of millions are malnourished.

Widespread evidence of the failure of the modern neoclassical economic model, with its underlying assumption of sustained economic growth, so far has not loosened its grip on the world’s leaders, in part because most of them have not experienced the downside of that model.  Most also ignore, or even fail to admit the existence of, externalities that have piled enormous costs on Earth’s environment and on the backs of its people and other residents.

Robert Jensen wrote recently, and perhaps presciently:

More difficult is facing the possibility that the human species has been cast as a tragic hero. Tragic heroes aren’t characters who have just run into a bit of bad luck but are protagonists brought down by   an error in judgment that results from inherent flaws in their character.  The arrogance with which we modern humans have treated the living world—the hubris of the high-energy/high technology era—may well turn out to be that tragic flaw. Surrounded by the big majestic buildings and tiny sophisticated electronic gadgets created through human cleverness, it’s easy for us to believe we are smart enough to run a complex world.  But cleverness is not wisdom, and the ability to create does not guarantee the ability to control the destruction we have unleashed.

We can still pull back from the abyss, but only if we recognize that we are approaching it.  In order to succeed we must confront some basic facts, however inconvenient or unpleasant they might seem.  As a geographer, I like to think that we can help by combating ignorance about the natural world in which we live and replacing it with firsthand knowledge about interactions between people and places.

First, we need to make it clear that physical growth of any one or any thing is unsustainable on our planet, so we can either change our ways, which would probably mean on a worldwide scale moving from competition to cooperation, or we can let nature decide for us.  Nature is impartial; it will not care whether we win or lose.   The sooner this lesson is learned, the better.  Geopolitics will complicate the issue of cooperation considerably, but it would help if thinking at the United Nations and elsewhere would switch from believing in infinite growth to telling people that the world really is finite, that our numbers are already far beyond what can be sustained at any reasonable standard of living for all, and that our current economic models are inappropriate for the 21st century.  Ecological and biological economists need to be elevated to a more respectable position in the field of economics as it is remolded to fit the world in which we now live—we’ve entered an era of rising fossil fuels costs.  According to Richard Heinberg:

The stark reality we face is that humanity has embarked on the era of extreme energy, where there are no simple solutions. The inexpensive, high-yield fossil fuels that powered the industrial revolution and that helped make the U.S. the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation are dwindling, and all of them emit dangerous levels of greenhouse gases. While enormous amounts of natural gas, oil, and coal remain, the portions of those fuels that were cheapest and easiest to produce are now mostly gone, and producing remaining reserves will entail spiraling investment costs and environmental risks. Moreover, while alternative energy sources exist—including nuclear, wind, and solar—these come with their own problems and trade-offs, and none is capable of replicating the economic benefits that fossil fuels delivered in decades past. There is no likely scenario in which the decades ahead will see energy as abundant or as cheap as it was in decades past.

Second, we need to develop methods to weigh such environmental damage as forcing species into extinction or warming Earth’s climate with the benefits of expanding human numbers and gross national products.  Neoclassical economics is amoral, but the times call for a much more careful consideration of morality.  We cannot continue on our current trajectory without hitting a ceiling, perhaps soon.  Whether that ceiling is a lack of sufficient cheap energy, water scarcity, collapse of an important ecosystem, war, or something else, prudence dictates that we act now.  William Catton may have been right when he wrote, at the end of his book Bottleneck, “Too late, we have begun to see the runway’s end.  I have pity for all who insist ‘there’s still time.’  I deplore those who naively count on merely ‘stopping the clock’ by some yet-to-be-made miraculous breakthrough.”

Third, we must recognize the potential negative consequences of freeing all that carbon stored in fossil fuels for tens of millions of years and sending it back into the atmosphere.  Over the last 160 years or so the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has risen from about 280 parts per million to 390 parts per million and it continues to tick upward steadily.  Since carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, our atmosphere is getting warmer.  As a result, it contains more moisture than it used to and that moisture is showing up in the form of more dramatic storms and more severe flooding.  Wet areas in all likelihood will become wetter; dry ones drier.

Fourth, we must focus more attention than ever on ourselves.  It is possible that the low total fertility rates in Europe and elsewhere will spread more quickly than we think to the poor countries, especially in this era of modern communications.  We should do everything possible to aid that process, from providing effective contraceptives to anyone who desires them to facilitating the education and empowerment of females around the world.  That trend needs to be encouraged; in reality, it may be a necessity.  Worse yet, it will probably be forced on us sooner rather than later.

As Ian Morris wrote recently, in his book Why the West Rules—For Now, “The great difference between the challenges we face today and those that defeated Song China when it pressed against the hard ceiling a thousand years ago and the Roman Empire another thousand years before that is that we now know so much more about the issues involved.  Unlike the Romans and the Song, our age may yet get the thought that it needs.”  We can hope that he is right, but it will not come from economists and others who insist on holding on to 19th century models to explain the world economy in the 21st century.

No matter what humans do to the Earth, it will survive.  But to our only planet—with all its wonder, beauty, and mystery—we are nothing, so if we fail to get the thought that we need and instead meet the same fate as the Dodo, we will not be missed. One clear lesson from the geological record is that all species sooner or later go extinct; we should not rush the inevitable.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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32 Responses to Should We Take United Nations’ Projections Seriously?

  1. arthurrobey
    Arthur Robey says:

    I prefer not to be too agreeable. It serves no purpose.
    The Romans made one tiny little inovation, they used lead for plumbing. (from the latin plumbus, lead.) And it affected their mental facilities.
    We have made a myriad innovations. The probability that one of them will have “unfortunate” consequences is high. A prime candidate is Roundup which is linked to infertility in mammals.

    The popular weedkiller Roundup includes Glyphosate, which one prominent scientist claims is linked to infertility in animals, and may have similarly adverse effects on humans.

    http://visionsgreen.com/2011/05/roundup-monsanto-linked-to-infertility/
    I invite you al to consider your favourite examples. PCB’s anyone? Phytoestrogens? Any endcrine disruptor will suffice.
    Pure extrapolation of the existing situation is the condition that you rail against, but it is your own error.
    That the future will not be the same as the present is a given, but pure extrapolation is not.

    Here are my predictions.
    We will go through a bottleneck.
    Evolutionary pressure will be brought to bear on H.Sap.
    We will become extinct, but our successors will inherit more than this blue insignificant dot floating in the void.
    I feel no need to appologise for this distateful prognosis.

  2. zzxtty – United Kingdom
    ZTY says:

    Any politician will tell you (or probably not) that the most important thing is economic growth. Politicians are ruled by the economy, if there is growth we vote them in, if not we kick them out. Everything else comes second (possibly third, I suspect second is the ability to vote themselves pay and pension benefits). We have been conditioned to want more, if a politician promises more we will vote for them, we don’t think any further than that.

    The environment, natural resources, population and economy are all tied together. We are heading for an economic crash, when this happens there will be political instability. With political instability it will become impossible to pass laws, there will be social unrest. What follows is anyone’s guess.

    There is no avoiding this, listen to anyone on the street, they want to pay less tax, have access to cheaper goods, and higher pay. It’s always somebody else who is blamed for our predicament. There is no solution.

  3. RobM says:

    All solutions require humans to override the inherited behavior of all life to consume all available resources. Its interesting to contemplate whether this is feasible. Perhaps on the issues that really matter, humans are no different than yeast. I’m reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins with the hope of gaining some insights.

  4. denisaf
    Denis Frith says:

    This is a fairly realistic anthropocentric view of what has happened and what the future is likely to be. It implies that people have caused the problem and they can help to ease the inevitable powering down. The fact, however, is that people devised the technology that has made use of natural forces to consume the limited natural resources. Humans have made the decisions, wise and unwise, but natural forces have, as ever, done the work. There is no way this process can change. Humans may make some wiser decisions in the future but that cannot change the demise of our civilization as many limited natural resources run out. Continual growth in the global population is not possible for the very simple physical reason that natural resources will not be able to satisfy the demand for essentials.

    • Gary Peters says:

      Thank you Denis. Though I tend to agree with you that “There is no way this process can change,” I guess I just keep hoping that enough of us will see what is happening to make a difference. The deck is heavily stacked against that, however, and in favor of continuing the path we’ve been on until something truly catastrophic happens.

    • Humans may make some wiser decisions in the future but that cannot change the demise of our civilization

      Hopefully the future civilization that next arises will have learned from our tragedy. And perhaps the reintroduction of locked up carbon into the atmosphere (and hence, the biosphere) can be viewed as a natural process facilitated by humans.

      Best hopes for the future of life on earth with or without us.

  5. It is not a coincidence that our population has grown so much; the easiest way to increase GDP is to increase population, so you have more cheap labor in some parts of the world and more consumers at the opposite end. Growing population and growing consumption have been driven by the relentless pursuit of growing economy. So the question is not only to stop population growth (that is required, sure!) but also to stop consumption growth, even to reduce both population and consumption. Thinking that a Toyota Prius will save the day is a kind of self-cheating: let everyone have a Prius (provided that the required precious neodymium was available) and we may postpone the problem some 5-10 years: Prius still consumes oil, although more efficiently, and the problem with exponential growth is that you cannot push the problems very long into the future.

    Let’s face the truth. We must stop, we must accept to go into three descents at the same time: population descent, energy descent, consumption descent. The alternative is likely very crude.

    • Gary Peters says:

      Antonio,

      We probably will go into those three descents, but not willingly. We already see signs that maintaining our current path is unsustainable, but we will try to sustain them so long as possible. Every day in the U.S. politicians of all stripes tell us that we need to get back to a pattern of continued economic growth, that magic key to everything. But getting back to where we were looks less likely all the time, as is apparent in current high unemployment and underemployment figures, high crude oil prices, the continued downturn in housing, etc. As Kunstler has often said, the era of “Happy Motoring” is over. So far, however, none of this has shaken the faith that most economists have that economic growth is just around the corner.

      • There is the same political nonsense talking here in Spain and, you know, if things are getting bad in USA try to imagine how are they becoming in the last letter of PIGS… We have now the fresh windo of “indignados” (enraged), but wonder for so long…

    • Ed – I am interested in energy issues.
      Ed Pell says:

      Population growth is good if you are the owning class. More people more profit. You get richer. But if you are the working class population growth has no value. It is in fact a harm. More population more downward pressure on wages, higher cost of food and materials, more police and government due to higher densities of people.

      Growth benefits the owning class and harms the working class.

  6. RobM says:

    Thanks to Dr. Peters for a well written and well intentioned paper. Unfortunately I do not think Dr. Peters understands the gravity of our situation.

    There is plenty of evidence to suggest we are past the point of no return for climate change, and even if we are not past this point, the “solutions” are highly improbable. For example, to stabilize at 450 ppm, which is too high for safety, we need to both crash the economy and build about one nuclear power plant per day. See Timothy Garrett for the analysis. http://www.earth-syst-dynam-discuss.net/2/315/2011/esdd-2-315-2011.pdf

    With regard to engineering some form of soft landing from peak oil, we have already used up the 10+ years we would need.

    With regard to the biggest debt bubble in human history, we have done nothing to deflate it since the 2008 crisis and in fact everything possible to make it worse.

    Someone reading Dr. Peters paper may walk away thinking we have some problems that need to be worked on, rather than an series of imminent civilization threatening crises, none of which have business as usual solutions, and all of which require dramatic reductions in material consumption and population, yesterday.

    • Gary Peters says:

      RobM, I don’t believe I painted a picture that lacked reality and I certainly hope that people who read this little essay don’t walk away with the idea that any of our problems have business as usual solutions. I agree with you that that is certainly not the case. We have been warned for at least twenty years about climate change, for example, yet last year we set another new record for carbon dioxide emissions. We also added another 80 million to Earth’s population last year. Realistically, I don’t see these trends changing, so part of what I do is try to add to the many voices that warn us that there are consequences for our actions, they may be dire, and they are coming to a place near you (wherever you live).

  7. pecondon
    P. E. Condon says:

    I’ve done yet another calculation that shows the impossibility of un-ending growth: Assume that the average weight of a human being is 50 kg. Look up on Google and find that the mass of the Earth is 5.97×10**24. Using these numbers, the total mass of the human population will equal the mass of the Earth after about 80 doubling times. My opinion is that this obviously cannot happan — ever. But such obvious statements have no effect on the minds of economists and politicians.

    Second comment. Historical world population numbers are available at
    http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/worldhis.html
    From these numbers I compute the population doubling time during the interval from 400BC to 1800AD. It is 787 years. I can use this doubling time to extrapolate to this year (2011) what the population would have been if we a kept to the trend of the previous 22 centuries. It would be only 1.35 billion, cf 6.9 billion for actual world population and 1.34 billion for China, alone. We are well above the multicentury trend in recent times. Had we kept to the long trend doubling time, the situation today would be very different, but the long term prognosis would still be very unpleasant.

    I don’t see how these calculations move us towards a useful response to this impending resource crisis. But some might find them interesting.

  8. David Harney
    Bicycle Dave says:

    Hi Gary,

    No matter what humans do to the Earth, it will survive.

    The authors of “Under a Green Sky” and “Storms of My Grandchildren” point to the possibility of a planet that more resembles Venus than Earth as we know it now.

    Otherwise, your essay does an excellent job of articulating my concerns about the future of my grandchildren.

    It is my very strong opinion that the great majority of humans simply don’t understand the problem – a problem that is analogous to a fairly large asteroid on a collusion path with earth. I believe this state of denial is the product of political, ethnic/tribal, corporate and religious powers engaging in disinformation propaganda for their own narrow self interests. Given the strangle hold these forces have on the flow of realistic information and beneficial advocacy, it is very difficult to see how a rational mindset/worldview can evolve in the general world population – absent a total reset such as might be provided by a nuclear oriented world war – after “The Road” plays out.

    It is so strange, bizarre even, that 99% of the people in my community drive around in huge vehicles, life in very large homes, engage in every form of energy intensive activity, and have zero clue that there is any problem at all with the availability of resources. Indeed, the usual sentiment is that the world is “awash in oil – absolutely no supply problem” – the problem is speculators, the EPA, etc. They complain about the price of gasoline and would cheerfully kill anyone who seriously suggested adding a couple of dollars to the price of a gallon of gas for environmental reasons. Listen to the Republican presidential debate today (6-13-2011).

    I’ve come to the conclusion that one group must be totally delusional: the two groups are either the tiny group of people like you, me, Gail, etc – or the other group which is most of the rest of the world. I don’t believe in 99.9% of conspiracy theories. I don’t think I’m the smartest guy in the room. Something is terribly wrong with one these groups.

    • pecondon
      P. E. Condon says:

      It’s my understanding that current astronomical theory predicts that some time in the far future the Sun will become a red giant. In this stage of its development, it will expand to a radius larger than the radius of Earth’s orbit. At that time, the whole Earth will be subsumed into the Sun and there is no reasonable sense in which it can be said that the Earth continues to exist. Before that happens however, all life on Earth, not just human life, will have been incinerated by the expanding orb of Sun. And before that happens at lot of human history will have unfolded. And to some limited extent this future history can be better or worse depending on how we behave now.

      As to being delusional. Perhaps both groups are delusional, but merely have different incompatible delusions. Be careful what you think. It may turn out to be actually true.

      • Ed – I am interested in energy issues.
        Ed Pell says:

        Near future being a few billion years. I do not worry about that one.

      • L. Rogers says:

        I have read that the sun will become a red giant in 4 billion years. Maybe that will be enough time for us (humans) to evolve enough to leave the solar system, provided we still exist. By then there might be yet another petroleum age.

    • Gary Peters says:

      Dave,

      We may just have a slight semantic difference. I said Earth will survive; I didn’t say it would change considerably. I assume you are talking about heading back toward where the planet was during what is known as the PETM (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum), a period when it was much warmer and when all glacial ice had melted. There is no doubt that Earth will continue to warm, but for how long it is hard to say. Sadly, few seem to care, as the rest of your comments suggest. Nothing in our current economic system will move us away from a warmer future.

      Those big vehicles you mentioned in your location predominate where I live as well and it will take more than $4/gallon gasoline to change behavior for most Americans.

      • Gary Peters says:

        Please add a “not” after would. Earth will change, perhaps considerably. It will, however, survive for perhaps another 4.5 billion years. At the rate we’re going, humans won’t have to worry about that. Unless something unforeseen happens, we are probably heading toward another bottleneck that may reduce our numbers considerably.

  9. There is a growing number of people who have identified the realities of our global situation. Gail Tverberg is certainly one of them. Unfortunately the number has yet to reach ‘consequential mass’.
    I seriously doubt that the necessary social changes can now be made in time to avert major upheaval. All around I see straight line acceleration rather than veering and braking. However, IF it is possible to change in time, it has to involve a consequential shift in the mass perception – a public re-education or enlightenment (about the realities) that will launch and power the change. Our political and corporate leaders are incapable of initiating it. In 2009, I published a novel, ‘Pachacuti – Mankind in the Coming Re-genesis’ dealing with how we got to where we are, the human impediments to change, some postulations on the future and a proposal for a new social model. This has since grown into a social awareness campaign piggy-backing social message onto mass entertainment. Screenplays for feature film and television have been adapted from the book. Music has been composed and released. It’s a great project, commercially viable and a sound concept for promoting the needed change but it is coming from a little backwater with little recognition in the entertainment industry. “It’s not what you know, but who you know” is an apt summary of our situation. We have a great pitch but we need introductions to people of influence. Do you know any? Browsing our website will reward with new and useful perspectives. Please contact me if you think you can help.

  10. Ed – I am interested in energy issues.
    Ed Pell says:

    The article poses the problem clearly. It does not pose any solutions. The solutions seem to be in three groups:
    1) convince, educate, train people to want two or less children
    2) government force to stop people having more than two children
    3) mother nature will take care of it (starvation, disease, war and pollution)

    Any solution needs to be applied globally. Unilateral disarmament does not work. I do not think 1 will work.See recent study by Hebrew University in Israel on the 7 children per women in conservative communities in Israel. I hate to give government so much power as in 2. So I guess I will go with 3 and hope me and mine are able to cooperate with you and yours to out compete them and theirs.

    • Gary Peters says:

      Ed,

      Sad to say, #3 may be the choice we face; those four famous horsemen may soon ride again. In round figures there are about 140 million births each year in the world and around 60 million deaths. The difference, about 80 million, is our absolute growth each year. Even if you could cut the birth rate by 5-10% or raise the death rate by the same, it wouldn’t make a great difference. We’ve squandered part of a one-time inheritance of fossil fuels to pump Earth’s population up to numbers that cannot be sustained at anything approximating a reasonably good life.

  11. Julie Schenk says:

    The answers here are clear: we the enlightened in the bigger cities need to promote more electric cars, more urban farming and a ban on polluting industry and oil mining (and any kind of mining) completely. Technology is clearly going to save the day on energy. My Prius is proving that to be everyday. The upside of all of this is all the racist conservative hicks in the rural areas will likely die off. Obama understands all of this and will help it along.

    • Ed – I am interested in energy issues.
      Ed Pell says:

      Are you serious or sarcastic? I can not tell.

      Vermont a rural and poor state is the first to enact single payer health for all Vermonters.

      Where does the electricity for your Prius come from? Coal? What percentage of your cities food is grown in your city? How much electric power will be needed to run the grow lights for you to reach 100%? The cops in Miami that fired 100 shots into an unarmed car killing one person, will we call that urban racism or rural racism?

      • schoff – I’ve been blessed with lots of experiences and great people in my life. I try to think deeply about what is happening around me, and right now vocationally that is manufacturing alcohol in Pennsylvania commercially.....a long road and story....
        schoff says:

        The coal of course is mined by poor conservative rural hicks. As is the food. The entertainment is produced by wealthy liberal urban sophisticates.

        We need a Jimmy Stewart in a new “It’s a wonderful life” to explain who works and dies making some of this happen.

      • Art Myatt – Retired engineer and environmentally aware activist with Green Party of Michigan, Sierra Club and Alliance to Halt Fermi 3.
        transitionferndale says:

        It always helps to get the technical details straight. It’s especially important when the viability of our civilization depends on technical details.

        The electricity to run a Nissan Leaf or the first 40 miles of a Chevrolet Volt is going to come from the grid, unless the owner happens to have installed a $100,000 or so photovoltaic system or severely limits the miles driven to the output of whatever alternative electrical generating capacity is on hand. These are the only vehicles so far commonly available from the manufacturers as Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs). So far, there are very few of these on the roads, so there are very few cars getting their electricity from the nuclear and coal powered grid.

        A Prius, unless it has been modified by its owner into a PHEV, gets its electricity from the generating capacity of its gasoline engine. This is also true for other hybrids sold by Honda and Ford. If the Volt is used for any driving over 40 miles between plug-ins, it will also get its electricity from the generating capacity of its gasoline engine.

        In short, most hybrids are a complex and relatively efficient way to run a vehicle on fuels derived from oil. Because of the efficiency, they can go further on a gallon than their non-hybrid counterparts. If the liquid fuels stop flowing, these hybrids stop just as finally as conventional trucks and cars.

        Art Myatt

  12. Fay Helwig says:

    Australia has the potential to feed millions more than its own population, but sadly due to political mistakes we are now becoming reliant on imported foods with the result that food prices in this country have increased enormously in recent years.

  13. donsailorman
    Don Millman says:

    Gail,
    I think we are in a social trap: The elites who have the power to make political and macroeconomic choices benefit from the status quo–Business As Usual. BAU is premised on economic growth, and I think the elites will fight to the bitter end to maintain the system that has benefited them.

    You mention a change in thought as needed for a prerequisite to change in action, and I agree with you on this point. However, to get a change in thought there will have to be an economic catastrophe at least as big as the Great Depression. The Keynesian revolution in economic thought came directly out of the Great Depression. I think a Greater Depression is likely during the next ten to fifteen years, and we can hope for another economist of the stature of John Maynard Keynes to overturn the current neoclassical consensus among economists. It is noteworthy that JMK in his essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” wrote that a two percent rate of economic growth (in the absence of major wars and population growth) from 1930 to 2030 would be enough–that there would be no point in further economic growth. In other words, Keynes thought that the economic problem could be solved, and then we would be faced with the huge problem of what to do with the leisure that technological advances would provide.

    • Gail Tverberg – My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
      gailtheactuary says:

      Don,
      This is really Gary Peters post. I am supposed to be working on writing a book, so I have been taking a little time to do that–thanks to Dr. Peters for his essay.

      I agree with you that there is likely to be an even Greater Depression coming up, probably quite soon. I am trying to write about some issues related to this in my book, even though I am not an economist.

      • Gary Peters says:

        Gail,

        I think not being an economist is an important credential for you. Given that 99.9% of economists failed to predict our financial collapse, their record of predictions is laughable, or at least it would be if it were not for the fact that they go right on making them and people in power go right on believing them. Good luck with that book.

    • schoff – I’ve been blessed with lots of experiences and great people in my life. I try to think deeply about what is happening around me, and right now vocationally that is manufacturing alcohol in Pennsylvania commercially.....a long road and story....
      schoff says:

      There is another issue, beyond politics. Solutions that create additional complexity or rely on the complexity in place (new wine in old wine skins). I marvel at the amount of PV being put into place in Europe and to a limited extent in NA. I hope it continues; however, with the focus on very large installations of tens of megawatts to hundreds, what I see is additional complexity relying on the same old grid model. I’d be much more interested in seeing a significant portion of the PV dollars being used at the demand sites in the 10’s to 100’s of kw’s to provide resilience. I have seen reports of 150% growth in power outages from the 90’s to now due to grid only issues. I suspect this will continue.

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