European Debt Crisis and Sustainability

What would humans have to do to really live sustainability with the world’s ecosystems?

I got a shock when I read about the pattern of species extinctions which is taking place that form a part of what is called the “Sixth Mass Extinction.” It turns out that man’s adverse influence on ecosystems didn’t start a few hundred years ago, when we started using fossil fuels. Instead it started way back, when man was still a hunter-gatherer, and there were fewer than 100,000 people on earth.

According to Niles Eldridge, in describing the Sixth Extinction:

  • Phase One began when the first modern humans began to disperse to different parts of the world about 100,000 years ago.
  • Phase Two began about 10,000 years ago when humans turned to agriculture.

In this post, I’ll explain a little more about the Sixth Mass Extinction, and how fossil fuel use has contributed to it in recent years.

I’ll also talk about a new bottleneck that humans seem to be reaching related to oil limits and financial crises that grow out of these oil limits, with the current example being the European Debt Crisis. Depending how this and other debt crises work out, it seems possible that human population will decline. If this should happen, it could lead to a reduced problem with species extinction.

But the whole situation illustrates just how difficult attaining sustainability with world ecosystems is likely to be. Humans by their nature seem not to mesh well with world ecosystems. Unless humans become completely extinct, it seems likely that humans will always have difficulty living in a truly sustainable way.

The Sixth Mass Extinction

In the last 500 million years, there have been five mass extinctions, removing varying percentages of animal species. The last happened 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs became extinct. Biologist (including Michael Soulè and E. O. Wilson) have calculated that the current rate of extinctions is 100 to 10,000 times the background rate.

Niles Eldredge describes the Sixth Extinction as follows:

Everywhere, shortly after modern humans arrived, many (especially, though by no means exclusively, the larger) native species typically became extinct. Humans were like bulls in a China shop:

  • They disrupted ecosystems by overhunting game species, which never experienced contact with humans before.
  • And perhaps they spread microbial disease-causing organisms as well.

Regarding agriculture, Eldredge states:

Agriculture represents the single most profound ecological change in the entire 3.5 billion-year history of life. With its invention:

  • humans did not have to interact with other species for survival, and so could manipulate other species for their own use
  • humans did not have to adhere to the ecosystem’s carrying capacity, and so could overpopulate
Homo sapiens became the first species to stop living inside local ecosystems. All other species, including our ancestral hominid ancestors, all pre-agricultural humans, and remnant hunter-gatherer societies still extant exist as semi-isolated populations playing specific roles (i.e., have “niches”) in local ecosystems. This is not so with post-agricultural revolution humans, who in effect have stepped outside local ecosystems. Indeed, to develop agriculture is essentially to declare war on ecosystems – converting land to produce one or two food crops, with all other native plant species all now classified as unwanted “weeds” — and all but a few domesticated species of animals now considered as pests.

Now, with the advent of fossil fuels, we have been able to take our attack on ecosystems to a new higher level. I have previously shown how population greatly expanded, as the use of fossil fuels expanded in the last 200 years.

Figure 1. World population from US Census Bureau, overlaid with fossil fuel use (red) by Vaclav Smil from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects.

It is difficult to even show population growth and fuel use on the same graph. They exploded at the same time, so the amounts overlay each other.

The New Bottle Neck

Fossil fuels in general, and oil in particular, enabled a great increase in food production. It is this increase in food production that has allowed world population to grow to nearly 7 billion.

Recently, however, we have started experiencing a change. World oil production has not grown nearly as quickly as demand since 2005, leading to high oil prices. These high oil prices (and the high food prices that go with them) lead to recessions, and layoffs, especially in oil-importing nations. Governments try to fix these problems, by bailing out banks that have failed and by stimulating the economy, but find themselves in increasingly unacceptable debt positions. I have described these issues in previous posts.

The current situation is brittle. If there are severe financial dislocations, they could feed back and disrupt other systems, such as international trade and industrial agriculture. We could see political upheavals and reduced oil production, and because of all of these issues, reduced human food supply. The changes that may happen could be quite sudden, much faster than one might expect, if the Hubbert Curve were the only factor influencing the amount of oil available to society.

The European Debt Situation and Beyond

Clearly Greece has severe financial problems, and is near default, but European financial problems extend beyond Greece. Banks in other countries hold Greek debt. If Greece should default,  banks outside Greece that hold Greek debt would stand to lose money, and would likely need to be bailed out. Otherwise, the many individuals with deposits in the banks would find themselves without the funds they had deposited. Businesses might not be able to pay their employees, if their funds are in a “bad bank”.

If there is a default, countries vary in their ability to deal with it. If a country is outside the Euro, such as the UK or Switzerland, it can “print” more money, and can use these additional funds to recapitalize the banks in financial difficulty with freshly issued money. Thus they have a way around the problem, although it may result in some inflation.

Countries that are part of the Euro have a bigger problem because they are more like an individual state of the United States. They use a common currency, so cannot themselves issue more currency. Unless they have a lot of funds available from other sources, it is difficult for them to recapitalize banks when there are defaults.

EU countries have been arguing for months about how to solve the problem, but there is no easy solution, in part because the problem easily spreads from country to country, so it is a much larger problem than simply paying for defaults on Greek debt. It is likely that there would be defaults related to the debt of other PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) countries as well. Some banks in France would also need recapitalization, because of loans they made.  The EU itself is limited in the amount it has available to bail out countries with problems, and individual members object to spending huge amounts to bail out governments that are likely not to be able to pay back the debt.

The European situation may eventually bring about the end of the Euro. If this should happen, we don’t know what the indirect impacts of this would be. A recent UBS publication talks this issue and  mentions the possibility of civil disorder, saying:

Past instances of monetary union break-ups have tended to produce one of two results. Either there was a more authoritarian government response to contain or repress the social disorder (a scenario that tended to require a change from democratic to authoritarian or military government), or alternatively, the social disorder worked with existing fault lines in society to divide the country, spilling over into civil war. These are not inevitable conclusions, but indicate that monetary union break-up is not something that can be treated as a casual issue of exchange rate policy.

Whether or not the Euro situation leads to disorder, there are innumerable other debt problems around the world that are likely to  get worse, as world oil supply gets tighter. Countries are likely to go back into recession, or see anemic job growth, and their governments will try to fix the situation. Eventually, the “borrow your way to prosperity” approach will have to end, either though debt defaults or through unwillingness of investors to purchase more debt.

Over time, the debt “unwind” I have talked about since early 2008 is likely to grow and gather steam. As more states, cities, businesses, and individuals default on their debt, recession is likely to worsen.

One of the questions in all of this is whether the international financial system withstand all of this disruption. If Greece defaults, and then pulls several larger European countries with it, how will this affect international trade? Even if this hurdle is passed, can debtors such as the United States and the United Kingdom continue with their high level of imports, if their financial condition continues to deteriorate? Perhaps the value of all of the OECD currencies will drop greatly, relative to non-OECD currencies, or countries will choose to trade only with trusted partners.

If any of these things happen, trying to maintain the world’s current level of oil production and food production will become more and more of a challenge. Countries with debt problems are likely to find themselves unable to afford their prior level of oil imports, or will find trading partners unwilling to trade with them.

What Happens when the Current System Stops Working?

In a “normal” ecological situation, humans would have co-evolved with the plants and animals around them, so that stopping parts of the fossil fuel system would be no problem. Our current situation isn’t normal, though. We have found any number of ways to make our current way of life dependent on fossil fuels. At the same time, our way of life does not fit with our local ecosystems:

  • Population has been allowed to grow far beyond what carrying capacity would support without fossil fuels.
  • Big cities have been developed which allow germs to spread. Without fossil-fuel dependent pharmaceuticals and immunizations, diseases would greatly reduce populations.
  • Land has been planted with large monocultures of plants. Animals have been specially bred for industrial agriculture. Special seed hybrids have been developed, and many varieties of crops that were grown in the past are no longer available. We have grown dependent on fertilizer and sprays for our crops.
  • Modern medicine has effectively stopped “selection of the fittest.” Many people alive today depend on today’s medicines for their continued health.
  • People have resettled to parts of the world where their genetics do not match up with the climate. For example, I am a blue-eyed blond, because my ancestors were Norwegian, but I live in Georgia (USA), which is a warm location.
  • We have become dependent on our financial system, our international trade system, our electrical system, industrialized agriculture, the automobile, computers, and many other inventions and systems that depend on fossil fuels.

Thus, if something like the financial crises that we are now seeing causes any of our major systems to fail, we are in danger of finding ourselves poorly adapted to the world around us, because we depend on fossil fuels in so many ways, and because we have spent so many years not evolving with the ecosystems around us.

Exactly how things will work out is unclear, but there seems to be a possibility of a substantial reduction in human population. This change seems possible, because we are so poorly adapted to living in the areas around ourselves, if we lose any of our major systems, such as industrial agriculture. The fact that other systems (ocean acidification, climate change, water tables) are currently undergoing adverse change makes the situation worse.

The timing is not clear. Theoretically, a decline in human population could come as soon as  an  indirect result of European Debt Crisis. But governments may be able to find ways around this crisis, and the next several that follow. And financial crises don’t necessarily translate to food crises, but they may.

If there is a reduction in human numbers, it may actually help other species survive, and make the sixth mass extinction “less bad” in terms of the percentage of species lost. The world is resilient, and will eventually recover.

Our Response

All of this discussion makes it clear how very difficult it is to fix our current predicament, and how difficult it is to truly live in a sustainable way.

It seems to me that, in spite of our current predicament, we need to go on with our lives, and appreciate what we have now. Some of us may be able come up with partial mitigations, such as finding ways to better live within our local ecosystems.

Any change will take some time.  Perhaps we will have several years, before major changes take place.  We need to take each day as it comes.

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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100 Responses to European Debt Crisis and Sustainability

  1. Pingback: European Debt Crisis and Sustainability » Plan B Economics

  2. seo software says:

    ‘Eurozone ministers under pressure as debt crisis dominates IMF summit’ – what absolute nonsense. All they’re doing is extending and pretending and hoping against hope that something will come up in the meantime. They don’t have a clue!

  3. Dave says:

    A frequent topic on this blog is the subject of growth.
    In today’s Daily Reckoning ( Bill Bonner writes a story titled, “When Economic Growth is a Thing of the Past.” I enjoyed it but made me think of previous stories that Gail has done where she addressed it from different points of view.

  4. kealolo says:

    I haven’t commented here before, but will in the future now that I see the active commenting going on here. The following comment was posted to this same article on “Energy Bulletin” this morning)..

    It could be that a human-systems collapse sooner than later is the only realistic hope of amelioriating the depth of the mass extinction. It’ll be brutal either way, of course. An economic depression which throttles back the metabolism of human extractive/distributive systems will do far more than a Kyodo treaty or any other ‘voluntary sacrifice for the future’ plan.

    This sort of discussion is a touchy subject, for who wants their friends and family to be unemployed? If framed exclusively in terms of saving other species, other species will always lose out. But if we step back and look at slightly longer time scales – say the next thousand or ten thousand years – it becomes pretty clear that what minimizes the mass extinction also maximizes human prospects. Once the fossil fuels are effectively out of reach and the metal ores played out, we’ll be largely back to what the natural world and ecosystems will sustain.

    Thus, a collapse of current highly-leveraged infrastructure is almost certainly the best thing for life on earth, and to maximize human experience and happiness. Indeed, if some of the more dire positive-feedback scenarios on greenhouse heat-forcing are as credible as they seem, a relatively fast crash relatively soon might be an existential necessity, despite it’s high bummer factor.

    Thus among peak oil activists, a slight difference in temporal focus may lead to two very different rationales and courses of action: to attempt ameliorating suffering by humans in the near future by trying for an extended powerdown, or to encourage the abrupt cascade to simpler systems on behalf of future humans and other species. It feels right to do the former, and is probably wiser to do the latter.

    The future will, inexorably, arrive. It’d be nice if it included humans and a livable planet for the next million years.

    • That is an interesting comment.

      We probably can’t put off collapse very long. About the most we can do is burn a lot of coal and natural gas to supplement the oil and natural gas to supplement the oil we produce, and produce the oil from increasingly risky sources. The way accounting is now done, increasing coal and gas use, as by switching to plug-in autos is counted as a sustainable solution by some.

      I am afraid the intelligence of humans is part of the problem. It puts them at an unfair disadvantage relative to other animals, and leads to species extinction. If we could all change our ways to living outside without clothing; eating things that are close at hand, without cooking them; and not hunting anything with anything other than our bare hands, then we could live in a sustainable way with other species. Unfortunately, we have evolved to need cooked food (Cooking releases nutrients from food), and we are not about to give up our advantages, so it is not clear that this can be done.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        We probably can’t put off collapse very long.

        Unfortunately, you are probably right that some degree of collapse will happen within the next decade or so. However, academic as it may be, I have a question: is it technically possible to avoid or limit the scope of a collapse scenario (like a 5-10 year process that halves the global population and leaves the remainder impoverished)?

        Putting aside politics, nationalism, religion, jingoism and other such human artifacts, is it possible that certain significant power-down measures could greatly mitigate such a scenario? For example: licensing child birth to one in a group of 50; elimination of all private cars in 3-5 years; elimination of most global transportation for unnecessary items like food, clothing and electronic gadgets that could be produced locally; elimination of all non-medical A/C; strict budgets for building heating using FF; prohibiting international vacationing; elimination of all non-essential plastic items; de-commissioning of 2/3 of all roadways, parking lots and airports; criminal fines for all forms of motor racing; greatly restricting power boating. And many other such measures. Totally putting aside the unwillingness of almost every human on the planet to adopt these measures, my question is: could this work to avoid or greatly diminish collapse? If the answer is that even these measures would be insufficient, then we should probably focus on simple survival strategies or how to end our lives with the least amount of pain. If the answer is that these measures would work, then we have a whole new set of questions about the value of this belief.

        • All of those cutbacks would put a huge number of people out of work and would reduce government tax revenue greatly. The people who are out of work won’t be able to eat (or will send up unemployments/welfare costs). The result would be a financial collapse, regardless of what it does energy-wise. If you don’t get the whole world “on board,” it is very easy for the ones who are not on board to soak up the resources that the ones who are saving, save. I think as a practical matter, it is impossible to do very much. Things are too interconnected.

          • Bicycle Dave says:

            Hi Gail,

            As I said, it is an academic not practical question. I just wonder if the motivation was there (like history has shown with nations under attack) is it possible to moderate collapse? I discount the financial argument because fiat money, who is saving and who is not, who has wealth and who doesn’t, all become irrelevant in a very real crisis. Other things become much more important.

            I agree with “whole world on board” factor being the real show stopper. But, ask the same questions if a huge asteroid was on a date-certain collision path with earth – how would we respond (aside from the Rick Perry crowd)?

            • The world can only make small incremental changes, pretty much in a direction that individual people view as good for them. There are many other changes that have to take place at the same time–alternate ways of doing things, new ways of employing the people left out of work, new belief systems (religions or economic beliefs) to support the changes, etc. That is why changes are so difficult.

    • Brian says:

      I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but consider when you think of the Sahara, Iraq, Syria, and Greece. I am sure the first thing that comes to mind is lush forests or vegetation. No? The East Coast of North America is more forested than 400 years ago. This is great, right? Fossil fuels have allowed us to shift away from using the incident sunlight collected from our trees and use buried sunlight, tough we still create deserts in some pretty awesome ways in places with less access to fossil fuels. Places like Africa and West China are great place to look if you want to see what post PO will look like. Just enough fossil fuels to kill the environment, but not enough to care for it. Cuba might be an exception to the rule with their heavy use of permaculture, though they have few native species left on the island. The truth is that humans have shown a consistent ability over the past 10,000 years to create massive deserts that are both physical and of the genetic information variety and that was with a population that was tiny compared to today’s population. And some earlier commenters think humans may go extinct. We are exceptional in that we occupy more ecological niches (even before fossil fuels) than any other single species that I can think of, especially for mega fauna. We will only have a high chance of extinction if nearly the entire terrestrial global ecosystem is wiped out by some externality and then who cares about the extinction rate. I just want our ancestors of the future not to have to wait 10 million years (E.O. Wilson’s words) for this much complexity to arise again. The only true response to PO is to plant trees and almost never cut them down. Collect the nuts and fruits if you must, but almost anything else humans can do about PO is habitat destruction that leads to deserts of one kind or another. This sadly is too radical for most. Maybe even myself.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        I think it was David Holmgren (co-founder of Permaculture) who said, “Civilization is preceded by forests, and leaves deserts in its wake.”

        Thank you for bringing up that industrialized countries are more forested than they were before the widespread use of fossil sunlight. I fear that not a tree will be left standing, once we get off the current uneasy plateau and seriously start sliding down the backside of Hubbert’s Peak.

        (We heat with firewood, but have not yet taken a live tree. So far, we only take fallen deadwood, leaving standing deadwood for the Pileated Woodpeckers and other critters.)

        • wye says:

          Just curious. What is your source for the east coast of North America being “more forested than it was 400 years ago”? I am just about positive that the present day United States east of the Mississippi was (generally) one solid old-growth forest prior to serious westward expansion which only began around 1800, and progressed slowly. In the present day state of Mississippi for example, the Delta region was solid forest and the plantations had to be painstakingly carved out of the woods. There are few woodlands there now, it having all been converted to farmland long ago.

          Ok, looking around a bit the full story seems to be here:

          I am not wrong about my history, but I can see where the above posters’ misconception comes from – forests have made a partial recovery east of the Mississippi since 1920, but they are nothing like the solid old growth forest that occupied the territory 400 years ago.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “400 years ago” is too far back. 150 might be better.

            Prior to the widespread use of fossil sunlight, much of the eastern hardwood forest was decimated, and has since largely recovered.

            I don’t have a reference. I read it in a tract at Catoctin State Park in western Maryland, where the remains of an old iron foundry is still there. According to that tract, much of the Mid-Atlantic forests were clear-cut for use as fuel for iron working, just as Europe was before. After coal became widely available, the forests began to recover.

            • Here are two photos of my locality (Southern Tasmania), 100 years apart.

              Typical of many places. 100 years ago, much of the local forest was cut out for domestic firewood, but also for home construction. Typical homes of those times had 4 to 6 fireplaces. Carting wood from far afield was too horse-intensive.

              I hadn’t thought of the effect of deforestation that Peak Oil will pose, until reading this thread. Yes, we’re heading back to those times.

            • Brian says:

              I am sorry I said 400 years. I perhaps went back too far and was thus wrong. I can’t find the citation for the true date, but it is more forested today than prior to fossil fuel usage. I think too many people miss the point that things like the EPA, Fish and Game, and zoning boards are only possible due to oil. Is every sherrif’s department of a post PO future going to police these regulations? I seriously doubt it. Further, we have cries from business of doing away with EPA regulations to make the diminishing returns on expensive oil more profitable. China is already knee deep in ecological disaster because they refuse to take on regulations that make business take on higher costs on top of the diminishing returns on oil, which is one of the reasons I believe (I do not have empirical evidence) businesses ship jobs to China.

          • weaseldog says:

            The railroads were another major factor in deforestation.

            Before the invention of creosote (from oil), timber cut for ties, would rot quickly and had to be replaced often.

          • Brian says:

            I went searching, though I admit I spoke out of ignorance when I said 400 years and 160 years would be more accurate, and found an article ( that talks about how the Americas may have been more forested in 1850 than 1492 because the amount of native americans killed off when the Europeans arrived. I have also been to lectures where the speakers have talked about there being few primary old growth forests in the world and, from what I remember though cannot cite, America was mostly secondary growth forests. Though, I totally agree that there is a change in forest quality.

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  7. Les D. says:

    “Without fossil-fuel dependent pharmaceuticals and immunizations, diseases would greatly reduce populations.”

    Gail, I don’t think this is as important as you say. The major improvements in life expectancy in the last century have been due to public health improvements, many of them quite inexpensive and not directly dependent on much fossil fuel. Perhaps the largest single factor in increased life expectancy is chlorination of public water supplies.

    Of course, the existence of public water supplies is dependent on fossil fuels in many places, but that’s a different aspect of the problem.

    • I know you are right about public health improvements being important. I think the issues is the one you mention at the end–these are really dependent on fossil fuels. We need fossil fuels to pump, the water from the ground, to produce the chlorine and transport it to the right location, and to pump the treated water to the right place. All of the sewage treatment is similarly tied to fossil fuel use (and the availability of other fertilizer). Spraying for mosquitos to prevent disease is also important, but again this spraying is fossil fuel dependent.

  8. St. Roy says:

    I agree, the financial collapse will cause current political boundaries to disappear. We may see the European Union begin to dissolve even this year. The US is also fracturing but I don’t think it will be along state lines, but rather by natural geographical resource regions and cultural values. I live in Mexico and the locals here see the Southwest again becoming part of their country.

  9. DavidB says:

    What Happens when the Current System Stops Working?

    Casual observation tells me it has already stopped working. Sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes not so subtle.
    I have recently joined my closest Transition Town Initiative, here in the UK where I live. I’ve never been overly keen on the transition initiative because I don’t feel it is sufficiently deep enough to cope with what is to come.
    I have no high expectations of TT, but I consider it to be a kind of ‘lightning conductor’, which attracts people who ‘get it’, and gives me the opportunity of contact with like minded individuals.
    The fact that they ‘get it’ does not mean that they will think in a similar way to me. Maybe that’s a good thing, in that I will learn new or better ways of approaching the problems of peak oil.

    I can see from simple observation around me, that most people can see that something is wrong. The economy is not working as it should, and there is no clear solution on the horizon to give them a route to the business as usual they are expecting.
    If we could get people to understand the issues of peak oil early, they might (might!), adapt in a constructive way.
    Yet I struggle to convince even close relatives, that there is a problem.
    None of us know if the decline will be 2 years or 20 years. I hope it will be closer to 20 years, to give us all a chance of adjusting without major trauma.

    • Everything I can see says we are going to start taking very big steps down within 2 years, just because the problems have now been moved to the governmental sector, and they can no longer hold things at bay. As you say, it looks like the system has already stopped working. Now much of the question is how long the problems can be kicked down the road.

      • Ed Pell says:

        I think one of the stages we will go through is government controlled rationing of gas, home heating oil, housing and food. Until I see that I think we can kick the can a few more times.

  10. Gary Peters says:

    I would add two brief comments to a good post and some good comments:

    If any dimension of physical growth is included, the term sustainble growth becomes an oxymoron.

    Today’s basic demographic arithmetic looks like this: each year there are about 140 million births and 60 million deaths, leaving us with an additional 80 million or so each year. This is also unsustainble.

    We have adopted an economic system that cannot deliver what it promises, in part because its underlying assumption is that economic growth can go on forever on a finite planet. Economists cannot accept that our planet is finite; rather they argue that resources are either infinite or infinitely substitutable. Economics is not a science; it is closer to a theology, a belief system, one that may have worked well in the 19th and early 20th centuries but it isn’t working any more. Until we accept that, we will see more of the same, from finding and burning every possible fossil fuel to creating an ever more carbon dioxide laden atmosphere. If nothing changes, the latter will change climate enough in many places to conditions much less friendly for agricultural production. Look to Texas as a good example, then to its governor for his moronic comments on climate change.

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Gary,

      Plus 10 on your comment. Isn’t it amazing that your math is beyond the comprehension of even PHD types. Scholars who can expound on quantum mechanics (and, can do the math!) are unable to deal with (140 – 60) * 10 = 800. Nearly another billion in 10 years when millions are currently starving to death each year.

      You mention “finite planet…..until we accept that” and “Economics ….. closer to a theology”. I argue that there will be no such acceptance until humanity collectively moves from “faith based” beliefs to embracing science. But, as you said “Texas…Governor … moronic” – unfortunately, millions of Americans idolize the man.

  11. St. Roy says:

    Hi Gail:
    It seems that if the decline in fossil energy supply happens at the rate we (peak oil believers) foresee, the carrying capacity that supports 7 billion of us will rapidly erode. Having then to depend on daily sunlight for most of our energy needs (maybe nuclear will provide some extra) the Earth can probably only sustain 1-2 billion of us. If we take 2100 as a generous date when the EROEI from fossil sunlight in less than 5:1, it would seem that the population will have to decline, on a linear basis, by about 50 to 60 million per year starting soon. Can we do that by birth rate alone? Maybe, but not linearly, but possibly with some form of tradable fertility licenses as Kenneth Boulding proposed in “The Meaning of the 21st Century” (Harper and Row 1964). More likely, humans will not be able to organize such an effort and Nature will do the work. I would really like to see your actuarial skills applied to these two extreme scenarios. Something in between will probably be reality.

    • The issue I see is that the financial situation will cause political systems to collapse (or to be taken over by dictators–remember Hitler came to power in the Depression). I expect the Euro will disband to its member countries, and think it is likely that the United States will disband to its member states (or perhaps some of these will split further, or regroup). In the new configuration, trade will be much more difficult, and groups will be unwilling to trade with those who seem to be in financial difficulty. Each smaller group will have its own currency, and you may need a passport to go from, say, North Dakota to South Dakota.

      We can hardly think in terms like these. (Hopefully I am wrong.)

    • Jan Steinman says:

      @St. Roy wrote: “Having then to depend on daily sunlight for most of our energy needs…”

      To be on the safe side, I think we should plan on no more than half the sunlight actually harvested by photosynthesis as our energy budget — and even that is probably shorting many other animals who count on that.

      Many “cornucopian” views of solar energy simply take the amount of sunlight falling on the earth and say, “See, no problem! There’s plenty!” The slightly more responsible will factor in the conversion efficiency of solar cells, and then say, “See, still no problem!”

      But I am not convinced that, long-term, humans can actually do better than a billion years of evolution has achieved. The conversion efficiency of photosynthesis is about 6% or 7% — what, in all our arrogance, makes us think we can maintain an efficiency greater than that?

      Note also that the energy used in North America currently exceeds the solar energy harvested by all the plants in North America by about 50% — this obviously cannot continue, unless one believes that high-tech solutions like super-high efficiency solar cells cover a significant portion of the land mass.

      • Ed Pell says:

        I am not following the math. In one day the US uses 3TW x 24hr = 72TWhr of energy. One meter square at 6% harvests about 240Whr per day. One square kilometer harvests 240MWhr. So dividing 72TWhr by 240MWhr we get 300,000. We need 300,000 square kilometers. That is an area 550km by 550km or 330 miles by 330 miles. This would fit nicely in the Southwest of the US.

        • Our big problem is storage of solar electricity. It is not very useful for most purposes, if it just comes at one time and is gone. While there are a lot of theoretical solutions, they tend to either not be available locally (pumped storage) or are very expensive and lose quite a bit of the electricity in the process. They also require continual manufacture and transport of batteries–something that is not possible with renewables alone.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          My 6% – 7% number is for an unshaded leaf on the equator. You can’t simply cover several southwestern US states with leaves and harvest the sunlight.

          Kling of the University of Michigan reports that the gross photosynthetic efficiency of the entire Earth (gross basic productivity* divided by gross insolation) is more on the order of 0.06%.

          The info I had about the energy use of North America exceeding the basic productivity of North America by 50% came from an article in The Oil Drum, and I suspect it was using gross numbers like Kling. (I did a cursory search on The Oil Drum, and could not quickly locate that article.)

          The devil is in the details.

          * Note that “basic productivity” means something different to an ecologist than to an economist. It is the amount of chemical energy amassed by all autotrophs or plants and photosynthetic algae capable of directly turning sunlight into chemical energy.

      • Gustava says:

        Yes, but the US could probably cut its electricity use by 90% without huge consequence for quality of life. My parents use about 2 kWh/day in summer (more in winter for cooking).

        • weaseldog says:

          Yes, we could probably conserve. Moving people out of the Southern states where a lot of electricity goes to life saving air-conditioning would help too.

          Then we could continue to expand our population until it’s unsustainable, do to this and many other factors.

          • Actually, I think handling cold may be a bigger problem than handling heat. If we have indoor plumbing, pipes have to be kept about 32 degrees. So some heat is needed in northern states and Canada. Air conditioning can be omitted, if a person chooses, in most places.

            • Bicycle Dave says:

              Hi Gail,

              Agree. Although I grew up in Northern Minnesota, I was drafted into the army and spent many days at Fort Hood Texas in temps over 100 degrees – even up to 115! We had no air conditioning. Of course, we were also in the prime of our lives.

              I’m not sure about the history of A/C, but back in the 40s and 50s I don’t recall A/C being widely used. There were roof top water coolers, ceiling fans, 12 ft ceilings with vents at the top, etc – but not much dependency on electricity beyond fans.

              But cold is another story! I recall many days of 20 to 40 degrees (F) below zero in Minnesota. Humans can dress for this cold, but modern buildings are highly vulnerable without efficient heat sources. The days of using simple wood burning pot belly stoves is long gone for heating a large home, office building or factory. Nearly all conventional heating systems rely upon electricity regardless of fuel type. Extended electricity outages have serious implications for heating issues.

              We have a passive solar home but I’ve not yet tested to see if it would remain above freezing after 2 weeks of very cold and cloudy days. Although I could probably get by with a small amount of heat from a wood burning stove. Cold is serious stuff.

    • Gustava says:

      It seems to me that a tacit assumption in your post is that the carrying capacity of Earth will be less without the injection of fossil fuels into agriculture. I am not a permaculture expert, but what I have studied does not support this assumption. My understanding is that small areas of land intensively farmed using permaculture principles are at least as productive (and perhaps more so) than industrial level agriculture.
      Of course, this would require a much larger proportion of the population being involved in food production and uninvolved elsewhere, so would mean huge societal changes, but I am not convinced we should be assuming the immanent starvation of great swathes of the population.

      • weaseldog says:

        Permaculture takes years to set up, and it takes a population that has some training in it and the will and time to invest in it. I don’t see a population who thinks that an easy life is their birthright, getting involved in this.

      • A big issue is irrigation. Without fossil fuel, it is hard to have even city water supplies. A person can do something with the run-off from their roof, but this is not enough to feed a big group.

      • justnobody says:

        I doubt that permaculture will give you the same production that you would get from modern agriculture. Take a garbage can, drill holes in it, fill it up with organic matter such vegetable and other similar mater and mix it up with dead leaves. Two months later the garbage can will be fill with 3 inch at the bottom of compost. From there it is easy to image how much organic matter you will need to replace modern fertilize. Much more that you think. Try to multiplied that into a bigger scale. Where would you get your brown matter ( such as dead leave) matter to create your compost.

        • weaseldog says:

          Some people will respond that they collect leaves that their neighbors bag.

          I can say the same, but… I realize that if all of my neighbors gardened like I do, they wouldn’t be putting out bags of leaves for me to snag.

          And even so, my small lot would never feed us in this part of the country without inputs from civilization.

        • Gustava says:

          Again, I am not an expert — just studying.

          To respond to your comment about compost — most of what is lost when composting is the water — the nutrients remain. Hence the idea that, because it shrinks, you need a lot more is incorrect.

          To carry the theme in general:

          Yes, organic gardening takes time to establish, and requires the injection of large amounts of organic matter into the soil. If you’re trying to establish a permaculture garden on disused/abandoned cotton plantation you have your work cut out for you.

          If, however, you’re setting one up in your backyard, things aren’t so bad.

          If you plan to export a lot of food (ie. nutrients) from your land, you will need a corresponding intake. But if you plan to eat your own produce, then you’re ok as long as you have a plan for returning the nutrients to the soil when you’re finished with them (eg. humanure). The measure of the fertility of the soil is not the absolute number of nutrients there, but how quickly you can get them to cycle (I’m quoting from Linda Woodrow’s “permaculture home garden” here). Obviously, other things being equal, the more organic matter in the soil the better.

  12. St. Roy says:

    Hi Gail:
    I enjoy your posts. Your comment about human beings not being able to live within the Earth’s ecosystem reminded me of Alan Gregg’s (VP Rockefeller Foundation) article in Science (121, 1955) where he proposed that we think about humanity as a cancer of the Earth. I don’t think that there is any question that the number of humans on the planet will decline by several billion during the 21st Century. The bigger question is what will be the rate? The Mayan population declined 85% in 100 years – from 3 million to 450,000 during 850 to 950 A.D. This is proof that it can happen. The St. Matthew’s Island reindeer population went from 6000 to 42 in 3 years – another benchmark of reality. As an actuary I would like to see some of your hypothetical projections of population decline based on various birth rate/death rate scenarios. I know this is a taboo subject but I believe your audience is mature, intelligent and open enough for a such a discussion.

    • Thanks to the reference to Alan Gregg’s statement. I hadn’t run into it before. I didn’t run into the actual Science article on a Google search, but I did find lots of references to it.

      Regarding making an estimate of the shape of the decline, earlier this year, I said that I thought that most of it would occur in the next 20 years. I probably should revisit the subject.

  13. Julie Schenk says:

    This is not possible as social justice would disappear which is not possible under progressive ideologies.

  14. justnobody says:

    I tried to be more independent from the system but I found it was difficult. Five year ago, I started a small garden. I go and order soil. My seeds will germinate and died. After investigation, I discover that the soil was death, it has no nutriment. I added fertilizer and thing go better. I want the be organic as much as possible, so I was looking for mulching coming from dead trees. Very difficult to find. I am not talking about the constant fight against ground hog and insects or if you prefer constant fighting against nature. Some of sprouts were eaten before they reach 1 inch high. This experience show me how we have destroyed nature and we still alive because of oil. If the trade system collapse, where do I get my fertilizer, where do I go my biological insecticide. I thing the we have damage the ecosystem so much that we might be looking at a die off here. If there is no electricity, how do I save my tomato for the winter, canning required electricity so does dehydration especially in cold climate like Canada. There is very few place on earth that can support live without a lot of energy such oil, coal. Maybe the best preparation for the collapse is spiritual.

    • If you stop and think about it, the “original plan” was that the insects, birds, and other animals would get their fair share of what you planted. Some seeds would grow, but others wouldn’t. There would be natural fertilizer being added to the soil, and food wouldn’t be extracted at a rate higher than the natural fertilizer replenished itself.

      I was looking at Energy Bulletin recently, and saw a book review of Spin Farming Basics by Rob Hopkins. This seems to be a version of high intensity farming. The text talks about making $36,000 -$72,000 revenue a year on 10,000 -20,000 square feet. From the description (uses “relay cropping” to get multiple crops and from the pictures, the whole thing doesn’t sound even slightly sustainable, yet Rob says in his review, “I have something to share in this post which I think is hugely exciting and which I think you are going to enjoy.”

      • justnobody says:

        I look at it. Like some of the comments at the bottom of this article I am skeptical. After my first crop of beets, I had to put more fertilizer, otherwise the beet will be small. I never had a crop that did not depleted the soil almost completely. My experience is that vegetable take a lot from the soil.

        • We would have a lot to learn, if we are to grow vegetables truly sustainably.

          In North Georgia, where I live, it rains a lot–an inch a week, on average. This amount of rain washes nutrients down to very low levels, I have heard, which is why trees do so well around here, but not other crops (unless you do a lot of work). We are going to have to learn how to live with local conditions. Some areas may not be very conducive to growing vegetables, I would expect.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          @justnobody, you do need to constantly replenish soil fertility. But you don’t need to do it with chemicals.

          You can do it with animal manures — including manure from the human animal. You can also do it with “green manure” and “cover crops” — plants that are not intended for direct harvest, but rather are ploughed-down or mulched in place to provide nutrients for other plants. Such crops are most often nitrogen-fixers, like clover or other legumes, but can include specialty plants that are “dynamic accumulators” of specific soil nutrients. Cover-cropping with fall rye, for example, can add as much potassium as using a chemical fertilizer.

          I’d encourage you to explore the Rodale Institute website. Robert Rodale was one of the pioneers of the organic farming movement. You might also look into Permaculture.

          • Gustava says:

            Further to this, it is possible to grow a fair amount of food from a fairly small area (I’ve heard it said that a person can be completely fed from 10 square meters in a sub-tropical environment — I am a little skeptical of this though).
            However, to grow organically, you need to build up the organic matter and microbial life in the soil. This takes time (a couple of years). You also need to encourage insects, birds and lizards in your garden to predate the pests. Think of your vegie garden as establishing an ecosystem that will provide you with food. Not all of the production is for you — some of the food will go to feed your helpers.
            If you do this sensibly, and use permaculture crop-rotations and interplanting, and don’t allow too many nutrients to leave your land*, then once you have the system up and running it should be quite productive. There is a big learning-curve though.

            *further to this, to follow from what Gail said. The more organic matter you have in your soil, the fewer nutrients are washed away by the rain. Also, all the sewerage that you flush away are nutrients that are leaving your block. If you come to truely rely on the food production of your land, you will _need_ to keep these. Read about humanure.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              @Gustava wrote “Read about humanure.”

              The very best on the source is Joe Jenkins’s book, The Humanure Handbook. An older edition is available free on-line, but really, send the guy $10 to download the latest edition — he deserves it!

              Jenkins manages to bridge the gap between informative and entertaining with this book. Nerds will delight in the facts and figures, and the rest of us will enjoy the puns, double-entendrés, and other humorous forays into the taboo subject of dealing with human “waste.”

              But there is no “waste,” is there? If we don’t put it to use, less desirable pathogens will. Properly composed humanure is no more a health risk than healthy soil, but sewage treatment plants both cause the evolution of anti-biotic resistant pathogens and end up with something that no one wants, neatly turning one solution into two separate problems.

              You can start with a five-gallon bucket and some sawdust. It ain’t hard. Just do it. The future of humanity depends on closing the nutrient cycle.

      • Kevthefarmer says:

        I have a problem equating Rob Hopkins’ upbeat gushing “If you don’t do it someone else will, and they likely won’t do it in a way rooted in social justice, community benefit, food security and Transition”. The only “spin” I see here is the spin trying to add the sustainable label to a “system” which is to all intents equivalent to “French intensive gardening ” and the 101 variants that have been seen for the last eighty or ninety years and written about by dozens of practical and decades-experienced gardeners- My bookshelves have several’ all similiar. Interestingly, a common thread is they all seem to be former military officers- which gives the key to the success or otherwise of the intenseve gardening venture- discipline, a factor entirely missing in the lexicon of the new-age aesthetes that make up the majority of the would-be “community resilience” movement.

        The authors say, “once you put on SPIN glasses, you start seeing dollar signs all over vacant and underutilised patches of land” There are two problems with focussing on “dollar farming” rather than “calorie farming”. The fact is that during and after the protracted economic trauma that we are / are going to experience, the dollars won’t be there for purchase of “high-value crops, such as spinach, carrots, fresh herbs, lettuce, a variety of leafy greens, radishes, scallions and chard”. What people need is calories, and in order to produce sufficient energy dense foods there is no substitute for acres. Where I live in NZ we a large commercial fruit producing area and yet what are the Transition towners doing? – Planting “community orchards”! I suggested that maybe we should instead be making contingencies for pulling out orchards in order to grow wheat and potatoes- needless to say I am considered by many to be a pariah!

        • I have had some of the same problems with reading about the “We are growing high value crops, so as to earn the most money” approach. It makes sense to me to grow potatoes or grains as your main crop. Then at least you have something to eat.

          I think one of the problems is that we have a lot of people who think that tomorrow will look exactly like today, except oil will be high priced. It is sort of a belief that our only problem is a Liquid Fuels shortage, and that this shortage will automatically be solved by making it high priced. Somehow, everything else will go on as today–transportation to market, irrigation, electricity, other people willing and able to buy goods, availability of organic soil amendments and sprays, etc..

          • Jan Steinman says:

            I think the key is not necessarily “high value,” but “value added.”

            If you just grow wheat, you’re competing with the huge commodities producers. But if you combine that wheat with some local honey and some wild blackberries, you’ve got an artisanal cottage-industry muffin!

            The key is to have multiple price points. I can get $25 for a quart of zero-mile, organic, raw goat ice cream. But I also provide raw goat milk to herd shareholders at a more reasonable price, so they can make their own ice cream.

        • Gustava says:

          Another consideration might be that many high-calorie foods store and travel well. For example, dried grains and pulses could be brought from the surrounding countryside in bulk (even if this was achieved by horse-and-cart), to be augmented by market gardens in the cities (whose goods are more fragile and must be fresh).
          To be more clear: calories come from farms surrounding cities, vitamins and minerals come from market-gardens in cities.

        • weaseldog says:

          It’s harder to garden if you have a job.

          My gardens peaked in beauty and productivity when I was unemployed.

          On major factor is that I could spot problems early and correct them. Further it was relatively easy to wander in and out of the garden all day, just doing little simple tasks. Now that I’m working again, I see my gardens at night when the daytime stresses are over, or on weekends when days of damage may already have been wreaked upon them.

          My efforts now are in getting perennials established and laying down lots of organic matter. This year I had a good crop of melons, by preparing for lazt gardening in advance. I essentially planted them in deep unfinished compost made from leaves and chopped up branches. I placed them along the track where I laid a soaker hoses, then covered the area in straw. the soaker hoses are on electronic timers. I still have melons left ripening in spite of record breaking heat here in Texas.

    • Dee says:

      Justnobody”, I think that you need to study and understand the art of organics and sustainability a little more.Solis and fertility can be produced from local materials, to include mulch from dead tress,but also available other resources in the vast waste stream of this country; that’s the way nature does it. Also all things grown does not necessarily have to be sown directly in the soil, IE (aquaculture,hydroponics,raised beds,vertical gardens etc….Tomatoes can be canned without the use of electricity by the use of heat from any fire source,or dried and then stored even in the coldest of climates.There are many options available,but one has to learn them,and believe me its time now.An African saying: “If one is starving,its to late to plant a garden”. I recommend that you read up on Permaculture in addition to organic growing……Peace “Dee

    • EastEurope says:

      Well, being in a “cold climate like Canada” has the advantage of a sort of a natural refrigerator during winter, so food preservation is easier if anything. Also, it’s quite possible to preserve tomatoes as tomato sauce (I do it) just by boiling, without any electricity (plenty of wood for fire in Canada I would think)… People have lived in that environment, so it can be done, getting the lost knowledge and skills in time might prove to be a bit of a problem…

  15. Ed Pell says:

    You equated EU member states with states within the US federal government. Just as US states can not print money EU member states can not print money. This is very helpful to me. Thanks.

    I see world trade turning into world barter. As long as the two parties have tangible goods to exchange they will. Like food for oil, manufactured goods for oil or food. We will have balanced trade which is a good thing.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      @Ed Pell wrote: “I see world trade turning into world barter.”

      I believe that’s an Orlov Level-2 collapse. Russia has been through it.

      • By the way, I will be talking with Dmitry Orlov on a panel at the ASPO-USA conference in November on a topic related to Russia’s collapse, and what we can learn from it.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          ” I will be talking with Dmitry Orlov on a panel at the ASPO-USA conference in November…”

          Great! I hope you’ll report on that meeting. I’m a big fan of his work. He puts depth and breadth behind collapse. So many people see things as binary: either “business as usual,” or “Mad Max.” Orlov shows us that collapse is a process, not an event, and that it is a continuum, not a switch.

          Short of an Orlov-5 collapse, there is a lot to life for those who are willing to prepare. In fact, it could be said that collapse at least to Level-3 could be seen as A Good Thing.

          (Brief review of Orlov’s collapse taxonomy from memory: 1: financial collapse, 2: commerce collapse, 3: government collapse, 4: NGO/social system collapse, 5: moral/ethical collapse.)

          Another thing Dmitry wrote that made a big impression on me: collapse can be nearly imperceptible. He noted that until looking at a high school yearbook and noticing that half the people in it were dead (who should have instead been middle-aged), he hadn’t really internalized that nearly half the population of Russia has “gone away” since the Former Soviet Union.

          On a darker note, he also describes the myriad ways in which the FSU was more prepared for collapse than the Western World. For example, some 45% of Russian food comes from 7% of the land, via individually-farmed “dacha gardens.” I don’t think Americans are at all ready to feed themselves — and their government and the big agribiz corporations are doing their damnedest to keep people dependent on corporate food from far away.

          What I take from Orlov is: plant a garden — NOW! If you wait for “things to get bad,” it will be too late. Only those who are rich, or those who are progressing toward food sovereignty will have a chance. Which one of those two are you?

      • Gustava says:

        Thanks very much for the reference to Orlov — found some of his papers and am checking them out — very interesting.

    • The problem with world barter is that the countries that have been spending more than they sell (particularly the US) will suddenly have to live within their means. I think it will also cut back on imports of things we have come to expect –for example, repair products of things that need repair parts, like wind turbines, and availability of high tech goods like computers.

  16. santaluciae says:

    This problem with Greece will prove to be a storm in a teacup. Today it is clear in Europe (at least reading the newspapers, but not the newspapers in English) that they are going to default with the backing of the EU, at least partially and yes some banks, some people are going to lose money and well they deserve it. After all if you lend money to somebody you know is a bankrupt it is half your fault, too. It is not generally known that Greece bought enormous quantity of weapons from Germany: tanks, submarines, warships etc, way more than their actual needs, an obvious source of corruption. That has kept Germany going and they were sold -that’s how International commerce works, with the guarantee of Banks.
    The problems of Greece are not because of the Euro, they have roots in a society that is not really European in their behavior, more like Syria or Lebanon. Greek professionals don’t pay taxes, not even newspaper sellers, or bar owners or barbers, doctors, architects etc, only the people who draw a salary because they can not cheat. There are many stories of abuses, like the functionaries who manage a lake who’s been dry for generations, of priests, widows of Army officers and their children drawing pensions for ever, and unfortunately they are all true.
    It is changing, but society changes don’t come quick if they themselves have to do it.

    The situation of the other countries is totally different, each with its own problems.
    Unfortunately for you across the Atlantic most of the news about Europe that you can read are from English newspapers like the Telegraph or The Times. They have their own axe to grind and are totally unreliable. To get a true panorama of the situation you would need to read fluently five or six different languages, some of them very difficult like German or Dutch. Not easy, that.

  17. Brian says:

    I think the article is too optimistic at the end. When 6.9 billion of the 7 billion people go, we will go kicking and screaming. We will try to extract the missing exojoules that used to be in our economy and diet from the most ready available sources and those will be any animals and plants big or small in the environment. Maybe the whales will be better off and those things in the deep sea, but anything close at hand like deer, squirrels, and trees for my inefficient campfire will be gone. The humans on the other side of the bottleneck might be even worse than we are. The crazy part about bottlenecks is that what comes out the other side is what was best able to survive the bottleneck and not what type of human will act most responsibly (Ruppert’s Post Petroleum Man, Please). Why are most politicians liars and on the dole of large corporations and not those that care most about making (insert your country here) great? Because the bottleneck is one of patronage and those politicians that don’t follow suit don’t normally win. I think we are in for a double dip recession/depression in the mass extinction department when fossil fuels go into decline. But then again I will have to check with the NBER (E is for ecological) to see if we still tack this one onto the 6th mass extinction or if we should call it the 7th mass extiniction.

    • Dave says:

      If we look at the adaptive cycle of growth and collapse we may see humans are just another one of many global forces that influenced the evolutionary cycle. If we discount our exceptionalism and accept we are only here by geologic acquiescence then our species future looks to run the course of most other species. I would also argue that our intelligence will be detrimental to our future survival due to Tainter diminishing returns on complexity theory. I see this applying to species as well as civilizations. We probably have many years left from a human perspective but not in terms of evolutionary eras. The above article is right on by alluding to an inflection and a bottleneck evident in current events.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        Nice to see someone familiar with Joseph Tainter!

        It seems clear that we are in the “omega phase” of a panarchy loop, with no doubt that the next loop will be at a lower energy level. The question is: have we damaged carrying capacity so much that the loop (as far as humans are concerned) will collapse completely?

    • It may very well be too optimistic. There is a limit to what readers can take in at a time. I was afraid this post was getting close to the edge.

      • Too optimistic! Sorry, but I have to laugh.

        The reality of the world situation is very disempowering for all those keen people who see that there is a big problem and think that it can still be fixed.

        But after a while you cross over a threshhold and realize that we have little power to avert a major realignment that has to happen. So you become estranged from all of your more hopeful colleagues.

        And then they will say something that makes you sit back: “If you don’t give people some hope, then your dire prediction becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. People won’t act on despair.”

        And so I am caught between being intellectually honest and reserving some pragmatic
        need to bolster public empowerment, rather than disempower people totally. Because to be honest means telling well meaning activists that they are wasting their time and may as well go home and grow vegetables.

        And I find that a very hard thing to say to an earnest young starry-eyed activist. Reality can be very disempowering.

  18. wiseindian says:

    I believe Jared Diamond has written extensively about this extinction and how it influenced the course of human history over the centuries

  19. phil harris says:

    It is worth bearing in mind you quote a ‘work’ of ‘popular science’.
    We need original science with all its caveats and critical evidence, and must not be diverted by a meme “we humans have always done it” .
    There is mass-extinction taking place, but ‘we’, as a species, hardly figured in our past. The USA had not been invented, let alone a wider human capacity to trigger a change in global climate. Fossil fuel triggered climate change is one major factor in the looming event.
    Most human evolution and spread as hunter-gathers took place between 200 to 10 thousand years ago (Over 2 glacial periods; one interglacial and the beginning of a 2nd interglacial: this climate variability causing massive changes in habitat and biodiversity across land masses, but these seem relatively small as extinction events go, let alone the massive event we humans are currently building towards.)
    There is terrifying present evidence though that human-caused mass-extinction is taking place that now that far exceeds anthing attributable to past glaciations or our human past.
    I would go further and argue there was no human-caused mass-extinction during the pre-modern period. In Southern Africa for example even the mega fauna survived the human presence for over 20,000 years BP. Of course, human-related local habitat change and extinctions, including extinction of some mega-fauna, did happen; for example, China’s early agriculture extension removed all ‘natural’ habitats in the Yangtze basin within recorded history. [References available].

    What we are looking at now since the industrial revolution though is many orders of magnitude different from anything human-related that has gone before. Now the amphibians, then a lot else.

    QUOTE from a useful paper by Jim Chen
    Biological ignorance is rampant in the United States. Nearly half the American public rejects the evolutionary account of natural history. Ours is a country whose president [in 2005] believes “the jury is still out” on the validity of evolution.
    Roughly “two-thirds of the public believe that alternatives to Darwin’s theory of evolution should be taught in public schools.”[ref] (Much of this public support, to be sure, arises from an apparent postmodern willingness to accommodate different beliefs rather than afirmative credence in a divine or other supernatural agent in biological origins.) A University of Texas study found that one of three public school biology teachers thought it possible that humans
    and dinosaurs might have lived simultaneously.

    • wiseindian says:

      Read Diamond’s book, he has given enough references beyond ‘popular science’ regarding this extinction theory. Big fauna survived in Africa because Africa being the cradle of humanity the animals evolved along with the humans and had adapted to our existence.

    • I will have to admit that I am not conversant enough with the scientific papers to figure out how much of the popular science is backed up with scientific evidence. I do read several sources, though, and there seems to be overlap.

      I was reading “Pandora’s Seed” by Spencer Wells, and in Figure 8, it shows that the only continent where big animals were able to hold their own after Homo Sapiens entered was Africa, where they co-evolved, starting far longer than 100,000 years ago. In Australia, North America, Madagascar, and New Zealand, big animals soon became extinct after the arrival of humans. In Australia, this was far more than 10,000 years ago (but not as much as 100,000 years ago).

      I was reading the academic paper “Genetic Feedback and Human Population Regulation,” published in Human Ecology DOI 10.1007/s10745-009-9234-5. (Also available at )In that paper, I read,

      Recent studies have indicated that the sixth great extinction is currently taking place (Pimm et al. 1995). It is not difficult to imagine that the human species may eventually be one of many moving towards extinction, especially because of, not in spite of, our great numbers.

      It was after reading that quote, that I decided to investigate further about the Sixth Extinction. I had intended to quote from that paper at some point, but as usual, a lot of stuff ends up on the cutting room floor.

      I don’t know how well accepted the Sixth Extinction is. It may be like Peak Oil, not accepted by very many. That doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, however.

  20. Jan Rufer says:

    You wrote it right; it is a predicament. There is no way getting around Die-Off…

  21. RobM says:

    Dave, the sole purpose of all life is to maximize reproduction of its genes subject to the constraint of available resources. Humans are thus doing exactly what we (and all life) are genetically programmed to do. Our large brain enabled us to tap into a finite reservoir of stored sunshine and we’ve thus been able to engineer the largest overshoot this planet has or ever will see. Our large brain also permits us to understand our impending demise and to discuss it with people all over the world which is rather amazing. But if it wasn’t us, then some other species would evolve to use the stored fossil energy. It seems the universe abhors concentrated energy and prefers high entropy. Life, by maximizing its reproduction, is the best method that universe has found to get rid of concentrated energy. Too bad there is no god to save us.

  22. bluestar says:

    Read Why the automobile world is sticking to fossil fuels

  23. Jan Steinman says:

    Between hunter-gatherer and agriculture, there was a period of perhaps as much as 5,000 years (in some locations) when humans achieved an uneasy stasis with their local environment. After killing off the mega-fauna, and before being tied to the soil and a growing dependence on monoculture, there was a relatively peaceful period of pastoralism.

    The dairy goat may have been one of the first domesticated animals. Instead of hunting large animals, man discovered that he could re-produce them at will. Instead of killing them for the insatiable energy and protein needs of the kilogram of nerves that enabled man’s cleverness, he could milk them and sustainably co-exist with the remaining mega-fauna.

    It’s doubtful that seven billion of us could return to a pastoral lifestyle, but that’s my theory, and me and our flock of eight dairy goats are sticking to it!

  24. Bicycle Dave says:

    Hi Gail.

    This is a profound post. It goes to the heart of why of some new type of car or fuel source is irrelevant. Earth simply cannot support the current human population. But, I disagree with you that “We need to take each day as it comes.” This POV simply resigns us to collapse. Maybe collapse is inevitable, but should we not try our best to avoid this result? I see three basic messages that need to be promoted (as best we can):

    – The actual facts about FF depletion rates and what PO actually means.
    – Why technology can’t sustain BAU
    – What is the underlying cause for our inability to recognize this problem and react appropriately

    It is the third point that is most important. Without a gut level recognition of the problem we will never implement effective solutions. And, the solutions to this predicament are relatively simple. Anyone looking a similar problem with rabbits could easily outline a set of solutions (humane or otherwise). I’ve promised you in the past not to rant about religion. But, I ask: how can it be that a species capable of a moon landing, can’t understand the simple math and physics of “limits to growth”? How is it that mankind can’t understand that we are simply one part of the biosphere and dependent upon the rest of it? Why do we generally persist in believing that we are superior to “animals” and not bound by the same rules that govern all other species?

    We need to look at the bigger picture and should not be blinded by notions of “good works” and “supportive community” of some mythical belief systems. We need to ask what fundamental assumptions we have made about our species and how well they serve our potential for survival in the long term. We clearly need a new perspective on the role of humans on planet Earth. Of, of course, suffering, misery and ultimate demise are also a future scenario that some folks might find desirable to support their faith based beliefs

    • I am afraid avoiding the result as long as possible really is equivalent to ramping up oil, gas, and coal.

      Ramping up “renewables” is equivalent to taking significant amounts of oil, gas, and coal out of the ground now, and hoping that their current use will help later (a little like squirrels with acorns). But unless we really have a long time until collapse, it seems to me that this takes more resources than any benefit received. EROI calculations really need to be done with a short time horizon.

      Having fewer babies is too little, too late, but would help. Cutting way back on meat consumption would help, and would be much quicker. So would reducing the number of big pets (since stopping them from eating is not an option).

      The post is disturbing, when you think about religious beliefs, how they tie in with each culture, what the leaders were trying to accomplish, and the extent to which this deviated from natural patterns.

      Somehow, I can’t image a hunter-gatherer father telling his son, “Now don’t go and make spears. That puts us at unfair advantage, relative to other animals. We need only to catch what we can with our bare hands.” And further thinking, “If one of our children gets eaten by a bear or lion, that is God’s will. It is good that our population be kept in balance with what nature can support.”

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “If one of our children gets eaten by a bear or lion, that is God’s will. It is good that our population be kept in balance with what nature can support.”

        When I’ve been around a whining, squealing child, I’ve longed for large predators. The whiny, squealing ones would be culled in a “natural” environment. Recently, a child was attacked by a cougar, and wildlife authorities went out and shot the cougar. Too bad! It looks like Darwinism in reverse! Reward those who can’t avoid predation, and punish the successful predator. Sigh.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Gail,

        What I’ve suggested in other comments does not imply “ramping up” extraction of FF just for delaying the inevitable. What I’m suggesting is the idea that it is technically possible to avoid serious collapse in both the near and distant future. I’m not saying your general view of the future is wrong – I actually think you are pretty realistic. However, this does not mean that a serious collapse is totally unavoidable.

        Humans are unique in the history of the planet and the evolution of species. We are the first animals with the brain power to manipulate the environment in profound ways. We actually are “smarter than yeast” – dinosaurs were not. Our raw brain power combined with a culture that accumulated knowledge over thousands of years makes us the first species that could actually deviate from the usual overshoot and collapse paradigm. I don’t see any relevance to comparing current human behavior with that of hunter gatherers. Although humans 50,000 years ago may have had equivalent (probably superior) raw brain power, they did not have at their disposal thousands of years of accumulated scientific research. Nor did they have to deal with 7 billion fellow humans and zero new frontiers. Humans of 50K years ago behaved in a perfectly rational manner for their circumstances – otherwise we would not be here. Today, we are anything but rational if our goal is to avoid collapse.

        If the collective human species decided to prevent collapse and were willing to take any and all preventive measures – I argue that we could be successful in avoiding the worst of the potential consequences of our predicament. Of course these measures would be viewed as extreme, unnecessary, and totally impractical by most people. The sad thing is that effective measures to avoid collapse might actually improve the quality of life for a large part of the human population. I’m happy to repeat my suggestions if anyone is interested.

        • weaseldog says:

          Dave, I’ve been hearing argument like yours for over a decade. Maybe even from you on other forums.

          I used to even make these arguments.

          I think that some subset of our population could do what you propose. On the whole though I think it’s completely impossible. I believe that most of our population would have faith that we can keep on truckin’, even if you could prove to them beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your plan was our only hope for long term survival.

          I believe this, because I believe that evidence backs my position that most humans are completely irrational in their thinking. They could easily discard any fact, in order to rationalize goals that satisfy them emotionally.

          • Bicycle Dave says:

            Hi weaseldog,

            Unfortunately, I agree with you 100%. I just feel that some of us need to keep beating the drum with the message that: “If you recognize the problem and are will to take drastic steps we can avoid a lot of pain for humanity and the rest of the planet that is otherwise inevitable.” But, I agree, probably just tilting at windmills. My wife thinks I’m a hopeless dreamer!

            With all the disinformation flooding the MSM, it just seems like some of us should be that little dissenting voice in the back of the room. Of course, we risk being the first candidates for the guillotine when the mob gets riled up. Sometimes not a good thing to take an unpopular position.

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