The Faustian Bargain that Modern Economists Never Mention

This is a guest post by Dr. Gary Peters. He is a retired geography professor.

Historically people have shifted their belief systems in various ways. The Greeks and Romans believed in numerous gods and goddesses and attributed all kinds of powers to them. Then the great monotheistic religions came along and people began to believe in just one god, though they honored him under different names.

Recently, beliefs have shifted again, with people worshipping just one part of a god, the invisible hand. Thanks to Adam Smith and those who followed him, especially the current neoclassical economic theologians, we have seen such an increase in the world’s wealth and sheer numbers that it is hard to imagine life before the industrial revolution, with its shift from mostly human and animal muscle power to the energy dense fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas. It is also hard to imagine that humanity could someday slide back into another age of scarcer and more expensive energy, but that is a possibility that cannot be excluded from our thinking.

The Faustian Bargain

What about the Faustian bargain? It remains deeply hidden from view because its exposure by the high priests of modern economics would force us to rethink how we live and why we live this way, as well as what we’re planning to leave for future generations. The Faustian bargain goes something like this: Thanks to the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels, humans (really just a small minority of them) are able to live richer lives today than even the queens and kings of yore could have dreamed of.

Furthermore, we’ve used some of those finite resources to increase food supplies and to expand the human population, which provides the economic system with both more workers and more consumers, a necessity to keep the economy growing under our current economic model. The world’s population increased from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion today, and we add about 80 million more each year. Humans have quickly become the most numerous megafauna on the planet.

The other side of the bargain, the side hidden from view and never mentioned in economics texts is this: At some undetermined time in the future, one that creeps ever closer, this economic system, fed by energy and other resources at ever increasing rates at one end and spewing out waste products at rates that cannot be absorbed by Earth’s ecosystems at the other, is unsustainable. What that means is simple enough: Industrial society as we know it cannot go on as it has forever—not even close.

Our economic system must exist within Earth’s finite limits, so recent and current generations have sold their soul to the devil for temporary riches, leaving the Devil to collect his due when the system falls apart under its own weight and the four horsemen of the apocalypse ride again across the world’s landscapes. None of this will happen tomorrow or this week or this year, but our economic system is faltering at both ends.

For many, if not most, of the world’s population life may become more difficult, incomes lower, and uncertainty greater. It does not mean the end of the world, as some predict for 2012, but it will mean that future generations probably will not live like current ones. Rather than admit that the current system cannot be sustained, the affluent and powerful will do everything possible to maintain the status quo.

The Fallacy of Long-Term Economic Growth

Economic growth remains a mantra for politicians and corporate leaders, including the banksters who brought us the Great Recession. Even President Obama, like presidents before him, speaks regularly about “growing the economy.” But nothing in the real world suggests that economic growth can continue forever. Nor does much evidence support the notion that economic growth has been a good thing for either the planet or billions of its human residents. It looks more like a colossal Ponzi scheme.

One of the most optimistic supporters of modern economics and its marvels is Tim Harford, who wrote, in his book The Logic of Life, “The more of us there are in the world, living our logical lives, the better our chances of seeing out the next million years.” This may be the dumbest thing an economist has ever written and he shows not even the slightest understanding of the planet on which we live. Homo sapiens has only been around for about 200,000 years, so another 800,000 years at the rate we’re going seems absurd. If our population were to continue to grow at an annual rate of only 1.0 percent, slightly less than our current growth rate, then our numbers would increase to over 115 trillion in just the next thousand years. You can play with the growth rate if you wish, but you cannot escape the cold hard fact that human population growth must stop. Only economists seem to miss the fact that economic growth must stop.

Among the high priests of modern economic theology, Paul Krugman came closer than anyone to admitting that growth could not go on forever on our planet. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (12-26-10) he wrote, “What the commodity markets are telling us is that we’re living in a finite world [my italics] ….” He went on to mention the possibility of peak oil production and even climate change, both of which threaten the modern economic system, but then, returning to the faithful fold, he wrote, “This won’t bring an end to economic growth….” He admitted that our lifestyles might have to change but gave no clue about where and how that might come about or where it might lead.

Economic reality and economic theology don’t fit together very well. In 1988 Edward Abbey wrote, in his book One Life at a Time, Please:

It should be clear to everyone by now that crude numerical growth does not solve our problems of unemployment, welfare, crime, traffic, filth, noise, squalor, the pollution of air, the corruption of our politics, the debasement of the school system (hardly worthy of the name ‘education’), and the general loss of popular control over the political process—where money, not people, is now the determining factor.

Today, 24 years later, virtually every word of Abbey’s statement is truer than ever, yet politicians and economic theologians continue to preach that if we can just grow the economy (local, state, national, and world) then all will be well again. You need not look far or deeply to see how wrong they are and what price we’ll pay when the Devil comes looking for our collective souls.

Among economists, Herman Daly is one of the few who has tried to reveal the Faustian bargain for what it really is, as is apparent in this statement from a Dec. 26 article, Rio+20 Needs to Address the Downsides of Growth:

Even though economies are still growing, and still put growth in first place, it is no longer economic growth, at least in wealthy countries, but has become uneconomic growth. In other words, the environmental and social costs of increased production are growing faster than the benefits, increasing “illth” faster than wealth, thereby making us poorer, not richer. We hide the uneconomic nature of growth from ourselves by faulty national accounting because growth is our panacea, indeed our idol, and we are very afraid of the idea of a steady-state economy. The increasing illth is evident in exploding financial debt, in biodiversity loss, and in destruction of natural services, most notably climate regulation.

As a geographer, I look for signs in my local cultural landscape that look ominous, from potholes in streets to for sale and/or for lease signs strewn around our city like leaves after a storm. Ours is a small city, with about 30,000 residents, yet our city manager, in an end-of-the-year report, pointed out that we would need some $80,000,000 to repair our current infrastructure, a figure out of all proportion to our physical and residential size. That amounts to nearly $2,700 for each man, woman, and child. He also pointed out that our city is operating with below necessary numbers of police, fire, and emergency responders. The potholes will get larger in 2012 and beyond.

Though these and other problems are widely distributed across the nation, I think the infrastructure issue alone is symbolic. The U.S. is becoming a “pothole culture,” one in which the pothole is a symbol of our inability to accomplish all kinds of things any more. (See recent New York Times article.) Other nations are on their way as well.

Despite the continued whirring of the world economy, most people here and elsewhere are not getting anywhere and are feeling jilted by the system they’ve depended on for decades because they thought it could be sustained forever. It cannot, but that doesn’t mean life cannot go on, it means, instead, that we need to move in new directions, but we won’t do that until we understand what is making so many people so unhappy. We need to realize that instead of believing bigger is better we need to decide to favor better over bigger, quality over quantity, less over more.

Two examples illustrate the point that the world economy has exceeded both Earth’s ability to provide ever more inputs and its ability to absorb and purify excessive wastes. Crude oil is a good example of the first; carbon emissions and global warming good examples of the second. Both were mentioned by Krugman, but he provided no details about how we might deal with either issue, nor did he say how economic growth would continue without confronting these and numerous other raw material and waste issues.

First Example of Limits to Economic Growth: Crude Oil

Given that most Americans have a knowledge of history that doesn’t go back much over a month or two, it is no surprise that they cannot conceive of a time without cars, gasoline (preferably cheap), and a pattern of settlement that requires the use of both—our modern suburban landscape. For many years the U.S. was the world’s largest producer of crude oil and the largest exporter of it as well. In 1970, however, our oil extraction reached a peak and then started down hill. We became an importer of oil and today import more oil than any other nation, even though we still produce lots of oil and our extraction has been increasing in recent years.

Since about 2005 the world’s extraction of crude oil has been almost flat, despite prices that rose at one point to around $147 per barrel. Though we may not know for a while whether the world has reached its peak oil production or not, we do know that it will. In the meantime we know that traditional oil fields are getting more and more difficult to find, are harder to get to, and will be more expensive to develop. Alternative sources of oil, such as the Athabascan tar sands, are abundant but also expensive to develop and environmentally undesirable. Substitutes for gasoline, such as corn ethanol, are not only nonsensical from either an environmental or an economic viewpoint, they are also diverting food from humans (mostly via animals) to SUVs, driving food prices upward.

Figure 1 below, by mathematician Tom Murphy on his Do the Math blog, in  post called, The Future Needs and Attitude Adjustment, provides a deeper historical perspective on oil production and industrial societies.

Figure 1: Image by Tom Murphy. Original caption: "On the long view, the fossil fuel age is a blip, with a down side mirroring the (more fun) up side."

You don’t need any knowledge of either deep history or the unpredictable future to get the point of this graph (unless, of course, you are an economist). Like Earth itself, the supply of crude oil is finite, even if we don’t know exactly how much is there, where it all is, or how much of it we can ultimately recover. Though we can tweak this curve, argue about its shape, and nibble along its edges, the basic fact remains: World oil extraction will reach a peak, probably sooner rather than later. After that, extraction will decline, though along what kind of curve we don’t know for sure. Just as the Stone Age did not end because of a lack of stones, the oil age will not end because of a lack of oil. Rather, it will end because what is left of the oil supply will at some point cost far more than it is worth; it will take more energy to extract it than we would get from it.

Knowing this, the prudent course would be to wean ourselves from this energy source as soon as possible, in order to treat our addiction before it is too late. However, we live in one of the most competitive periods in world history. Not only do Americans not want to be parted from their cars but millions of Chinese, Indians, and others are lining up to get their first taste of “the freedom of the road.” That is one of the reasons why, despite a sagging world economy and lower crude oil consumption in the U.S. in recent years, the price of crude oil has hovered around $100 per barrel through most of 2011 ($98.83 on Dec. 31).

Second Example of Limits to Economic Growth: Carbon Emissions and Global Warming

Burning fossil fuels to provide energy at the input end of our economic system results in a combination of outputs or waste products that cannot be removed or neutralized quickly enough by our ocean and atmosphere. That leads to an increasing amount of gases and particulates gathering in both, changing the chemistry of both the ocean and our atmosphere. Among the gases is carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that we know plays a role in how Earth’s atmosphere is warmed. Adding more carbon dioxide to our atmosphere is analogous to turning our heater up a little—we get more heat.

We know that the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has gone from about 280 parts per million around 1850 to 390 parts per million in 2011, an increase of just over 39 percent. Though we did not discover how to measure the atmospheric content of carbon dioxide directly before the mid-1950s, we do have a careful record of what it has been doing since then, as shown in Figure 2 below (from Wikipedia):

Figure 2. The Keeling Curve of atmospheric CO2 concentrations measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory. (From Wikipedia)

It is hard to miss the upward trend in the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere since 1958. Few scientists would identify a source for this trend outside of humans and our burning of fossil fuels. Figure 3 below  shows how much more carbon dioxide humans are adding each year through the burning of fossil fuels, setting a new record for emissions in 2010 (source):

Figure 3. Greenhouse Gas image from Yahoo News

It also shows the major contributors, China and the U.S. The failure of the U.S. to lead the world toward an economic system less dependent on fossil fuels is monumental. Modeling shows that rising carbon dioxide emissions can be expected to lead to global warming.


Though causes and effects may be difficult to connect, the outbreak of protests around the world in 2011 doesn’t seem coincidental. From the Arab Spring, to Greece and other European countries, to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S., and even to demonstrations in Russia, people have taken to the streets to protest governments, corporations, and policies that are affecting their lives in negative ways. TIME magazine in 2011 chose “The Protestor” as its person of the year.

The are several reasons for people to be angry and upset. High oil prices and more extreme weather conditions have been driving food prices upward and high gas prices act as a tax on consumers, slowing modern economies. In addition, in the U.S. awareness has grown that most of the gains of economic growth are going to the top one percent (or less) of the population. Figure 4 below from Mother Jones (“It’s the Inequality, Stupid,” by Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot, March/April 2011) says all one needs to know about inequality in the U.S. today.

Figure 4. Average Income Per Family Distributed by Income Group. (From Mother Jones)

Figure 5 below from the Congressional Budget Office shows how things have changed for different income groups in recent decades in the U.S. Citizens who are not in the top 1% are coming out very much worse than those at the top, whether they realize it or not.

Figure 5.

Even as nations continue to prop up banks and the Fed plays games with trillions of dollars, the general feeling seems to be that the “pothole culture” or its equivalent is spreading, that the benefits of what economic growth there is are not being shared equitably, and that many places cannot even maintain what they have in terms of infrastructure. Frustration is widespread, and much of it seems connected to what may be first signs that our modern industrial economy is breaking down. An analogy might be those first tiny pools of oil that you start to see under your car, warning you softly that things may be going wrong.

Unless humanity recognizes the bargain we’ve made with the Devil, and soon, we’ll saddle ourselves or posterity with paying the Devil his due. We cannot treat our current addiction to fossil fuels and economic growth until we admit we have them. Perhaps the best advice I’ve seen lately came from John Greer, who wrote:

Right now, as the limits to growth tighten around us like a noose and an economy geared to perpetual expansion shudders and cracks in the throes of decline, one of the things that’s needed most is the willingness, in a time of gathering darkness, to locate what lamps can still be found, and light them.

Is anyone out there listening? You can bet the Devil is!

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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81 Responses to The Faustian Bargain that Modern Economists Never Mention

  1. Pingback: IL PATTO FAUSTIANO CHE GLI ECONOMISTI MODERNI NON CITANO MAI | cogito ergo sum…penso dunque sono

  2. Thanks Gail – and Jerry! That’s an interesting interpretation of Easter Island. I just read a couple of things that support that idea – one, a history of the essential role of wood in the rise of civilizations, from the mideast (which once was forested!) to the Spanish Armada – and how running out of trees often underlies their downfall. Also, trees make climate, according to recent research – so your point about getting down to a critical point may be accurate. Without their evapotranspiration, the tendency is for less rainfall…a feedback loop. Here’s a link to the history of wood post –

    And the other study I came across today, which was actually published in 2009, links the near-eradication of whales to a total collapse of other marine mammals in the Pacific, as whale predators – orcas and sharks – turned for food to smaller creatures – like seals, and the otters that my daughter is studying for her PhD – decimating their ranks. It’s a staggering crash in population, there are almost none left:

  3. witsendnj says:

    Hi Gail, a friend of mine sent me this 2009 discussion from TOD ( which discusses the book, the Limits to Growth, I guess because I had just posted on that topic here:

    I can’t really speak about the accuracy of their model for other limits such as energy and population. However, I believe their expectation for the limit to pollution are overly optimistic. For one thing, we haven’t really reduced pollution as many people mistakenly believe. We have simply made it invisible, by reducing SO2 and particulate emissions in the US, partially by cleaning it up but also by exporting the manufacturing of goods to other countries, from whence it eventually returns. However, the precursors for ozone – reactive nitrogen and methane – are increasing and traveling across oceans and continents.

    Primarily however the background level of tropospheric ozone is inexorably rising. Extremely high, episodic peaks have been reduced however, there is now constant, global air pollution from which humans, animals and plantlife can get no respite. It’s no secret that ozone is linked to the epidemics of cancer, heart disease, emphysema, allergies, asthma, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, autism and diabetes. It’s also well-established in the scientific literature going back decades that vegetation is even more sensitive than people.

    Ozone injures the stomates of foliage, interfering in the ability to photosynthesize. It causes profound physiological changes, particularly in long-lived species such as trees, that suffer cumulative damage. Symptoms include reduced root mass, loss of protective coating on leaves, stress-induced vulnerability to attacks from insects, disease, fungus, wind-throw, winter-kill and drought. Dozens upon dozens of experiments (links on my blog), including controlled fumigation, have proven that the essential annual crops we rely on – among them wheat, rice, soy, cotton, corn – are significantly reduced in yield and quality. This effect is magnified as feed for ruminants like cows and pigs has less nutritive value.

    The upshot is that trees are dying all over the world at a rapidly accelerating rate. Local incidents tend to be blamed on invasive species or climate change, ignoring the universal trend, which can only be explained by the one variable trees from Alaska to South Africa share in common – the atmosphere.

    I have found this simple, easily verifiable truth meets more resistance than even the existential threats of peak oil or climate change or ocean acidification. It’s not hard to see why – without trees the ecosystem will collapse. It’s a soul-crushing prospect.

    Gail from New Jersey

    • I am afraid I don’t know much about pollution issues. Thanks for the link to your blog.

      It seems like every time we “look under another rock,” there is another issue related to limits that we weren’t thinking about.

      I think any one limit could cause an end to growth and then collapse. Pollution might be able to do this by itself, but there are a lot of other issues out there as well.

    • Jerry McManus says:

      I enjoyed reading the blog at Wits End, the latest (and exhaustive!) post is titled “Bleached Bones and Jumbled Residue” in honor of the King quote.

      The plight of our forests reminded me of the people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Jared Diamond constructs a good narrative of their fate in his book “Collapse“. The question is asked “what were they thinking when they cut down the last tree?”, but given what we know about complex systems and feedback delays then I think it’s safe to say that it probably didn’t happen that way.

      At some point an invisible threshold was crossed which reduced the resilience of the forest beyond a critical level. This probably happened while the island still enjoyed a large percentage of forest cover, and the people alive at the time probably had no idea that they had just passed the point of no return.

      Many years later, by the time the last pockets of scrub woodlands died out, perhaps due to climate change, the people alive at the time probably didn’t notice. What little existence they could scrape together would have long since been reduced to a terrible hardship and their days of cutting down large trees long gone. The lives of plenty that their ancestors enjoyed while hunting marine mammals in ocean going canoes offshore a densely forested island would already be a distant memory.

  4. Jody says:

    Who owns the air?
    What if a private entity had ownership of the very air we need for our survival?
    Plans are afoot to claim that ownership, stay tuned!

  5. Pingback: Il Patto Faustiano che gli Economisti Moderni non Citano Mai « FreeYourMind!

  6. Jerry McManus says:

    Excellent comment, thanks!

    I like the black-ice-meet-granite-wall metaphor, I’m reminded of William Catton’s book Bottleneck in which he compares our situation to the unfortunate airline pilots who realize that their speed and momentum is far too great and the runway far too short. Much to their horror they also quickly realize that the opportunity to avoid their fate has long since passed, and no amount of brakes will save them.

    One of the co-authors of The Limits to Growth recently pointed out that this message, namely the critical need to respect feedback delays in complex systems, is often lost. Not just due to outright denial, but lost also on people who accept the nature of our predicament but still can’t accept that the opportunity to “do” something about it probably passed several decades ago.

    In keeping with the recent holiday here in the states:

    The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too Late.”

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
    Riverside Church
    New York City
    April 4, 1967

  7. Pingback: Unsustainable, but economists ignore it… » Joe Parente's Thoughts and Dreams


  9. Bicycle Dave says:

    Hi RE,

    On what basis do you exterminate 6B people?

    Keep in mind that I’m not disagreeing with your overall conclusions. I think what you’re reacting to is my contention that:

    In theory at least, Homo Sapiens do actually have the awareness, intelligence and means to deal with our exponential growth problem in a reasonably humane fashion.

    This contention is based upon the supposition that the great majority of the world’s people fully recognized our problem and decided to undertake a globally coordinated plan of action to mitigate the consequences of a degraded planet. As I said, given our delusions this is highly unlikely to occur until it is too late to be really effective.

    However, using that supposition, I don’t think your timetable for downsizing humanity needs to be so extreme. The goal would simply be to husband our existing resources for the amount of time it would take to get down to a long-term sustainable population level – I don’t know if that is 2B or 4B; but I’d guess it is not much more than that. As for the amount of time – it could be a 100 years – which is a decrease of 30M a year to get to 4B. Dr Peters said:

    In 2012 there will be about 140 million births, 60 million deaths, and a net gain of some 80 million new residents on the planet.

    So, the first part of the solution is to decrease 140M to about 30M (which gets easier over time). The world’s 2012 peoples would have to set this goal and then make it happen – 7B divided by 30M means about one child per 116 couples. Groups would have to form and agree to raise one child per this many couples. Radical? Of course, but I just did the arithmetic and therefore truly rational creatures could translate this into action to avoid catastrophe. We have this ability to be aware; do the math; and control our behavior.

    The second part of the solution is to drastically cut down on most forms of consumption and biosphere degrading behaviors. No more military action of any kind, no private cars, elimination of half or more of roadways, minimal air travel, 80% reduction of animal husbandry except where proven long term sustainable, no large scale ocean fishing, no A/C and no building heating above 60 degrees, etc, etc – you get the idea. Again, radical but doable by rational people who prefer not to be visited by the 4 horsemen. And, life could still be better than that enjoyed by a majority of our ancestors.

    You and I both know that these two solutions are not going to happen because we are simply not able to get beyond our delusions and use the intellectual capacity that nature evolved for us.

    • One child per 116 couple is 2 orders of magnitude past the 1 child per couple policy of the Chinese, already a notoriously unsuccessful attempt even at that level. In order to achieve such a draconian reduction in Birthrate, you’re going to have to enforce either policies of Forced Abortion or Forced Sterilization, and on the Totalitarian Level, this is not a whole lot different than Forced Exterminations. Who gets to make the decision on who gets Sterilized, who gets Aborted here? On what basis do you award Reproductive Rights to anyone? Is it on Economic wherewithal, aka the Rich can reproduce, but the Poor cannot? Cue Margaret Sanger. Or should you base the RRs on IQ and only permit outrageously smart people to reproduce? Cue the entire Eugenics crowd here, from Woodrow Wilson to John Maynard Keynes and of course Maggie Sanger herself as well here. Or maybe you just run a Lotto on this one? More fair but unlikely to be accepted by people with Power and Money.

      Even if you could get a social agreement on such moral quandaries, your next issue is a Demographic one if you just attack the problem from the Birth end of the Birth-Death Model. You think the Japanese got a problem with an Aging Population? If you allow only one new birth per 116 couples, inside 20 years 80% of your population will be Old folks pretty much finished with their productive lives, leaving just 20% of the population to support them until they buy the farm of natural causes. It just gets worse the longer you run the paradigm.

      You CANNOT attack the problem from the Birth end of the equation only, it does not work demographically. You HAVE to increase the Death Rate as well. How do you do that one equitably and humanely eh? You could set a Max Lifespan and off everybody who passes their 70th Birthday, but I’m sure a lot of Seniors would be against that idea. Even though this might better insure the survival of the Human Race as a whole, generally speaking most people won’t willlingly buy a ticket to the Great Beyond even at the age of 70 if they are in reasonably decent health at that time and not in pain from one body system failure or another. So again, you have to compel the trip into the Euthanasia anteroom of the Human Waste Reprocessing Facility in San Antonio.

      What is a demographically workable solution that is pretty fair here? A disease vector of some sort with around an 80% Infection rate and 80% Mortality rate would probably do the trick pretty well, but only of course if some people do not have access to medical treatment that would up their survival chances from such a Plague. Guess what though? No human beings have to instigate such a Plague, though at some point here some may very well do that. its already been reported that at least two Labs have manipulated the H1N1 virus to make it more virulent, with the excuse that this then allows the molecular biologists in charge to come up with vaccines for such mutations. Who get’s those vaccines when the new virulent strain “accidentally” escapes from the Clean Room in the Lab?

      Anyhow, in the absence of some nefarious folks purposefully sending out such a biological extermination agent, Nature itself will eventually do this job once the crowding becomes too much and the sanitation facilities in the Big Shities begin to fail in earnest. This is how nature resolves Overshoot in any biological population, and Homo Sapiens is no different here. It cannot be avoided now, not even if some charismatic leader got on the Tele and told it like it IS. Its like telling a bunch of people in a car travelling at 100 MPH who already hit a patch of Black Ice in front of a Granite Wall 100 feet away its time to step on the Brakes. Its TOO LATE to step on the Brakes! The car is gonna hit the Granite no matter how hard you step on the brake pedal or how much you pump it.

      In essence, this is why there is so much Denial going on. When a Problem has No Solution other than a massive Die Off, you just close your eyes to the problem until you actually hit the wall. You can’t fix it, you can’t stop it. Its going to happen no matter WHAT you do.

      Of course, this is a generalization overall, and not all people are in the same car travelling at the same speed heading at the same Granite wall here. There are some better cars to be riding in, but overall the situation remains the same. On an aggregate level, exponential growth in the population cannot be sustained, and when it does crash, ti will crash Big Time. That is carved in stone now.


      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi RE,

        Either I’m not doing a good job of making my point or you’re misinterpreting it. All of your reasons for why people will fail to manage their population growth simply supports my contention that humans have allowed themselves to become too deluded to understand the problem and take effective action – really extraordinary action. We tend to believe that we have some kind of god-given right to bear children when there is absolutely no proof that such a god even exists; we tend to think that “our race” is more deserving when there is no scientific reason to even believe in the commonly held notion of “race”; we tend to think in terms of infinite linear projections when most things in nature behave more like sine waves; we like conspiracy theories; we like to believe in the magic of technology even as it destroys our planet; we tend to think that watching mega professional sports events on TV is somehow “normal”; we revere ideologies about economic theories that are actually destroying our means to survive; we have allowed ourselves to abandon critical thinking for the comfort of these and many more delusions.

        But the existence of these delusions does not invalidate my point that we are the first creatures on the planet to actually have the ability to avoid the usual overshoot-collapse paradigm. I’ve said repeatedly that I predict we will not use this ability for all the reasons you suggest. However, I think history supports the notion that humans are capable of extraordinary feats when they actually have the desire and will to deal with a problem or an opportunity – early explorers and groups of people fighting for survival come to mind. I also make the point that humans who survive another possible “bottleneck” might decide to utilize this ability and take a more rational view of life on this planet (or maybe not).

        Perhaps I also failed to make the point that population management would only be effective with if it was coupled with a radical change in the way we consume resources and degrade the biosphere with our behaviors – these are not mutually exclusive options – they would need to be done together. Again, I know this is not going to happen this time around.

        In theory, at least, I disagree with your strident position on the need to increase the death rate. Although it will probably come to that, it is not absolutely necessary. IMHO, humans do have the inherent ability to overcome all the obstacles you enumerate. Just because a massive die-off is most likely does not mean that there is no other alternative. Maybe your car/ice/wall analogy is accurate and maybe knowledgeable folks understand the futility of trying to avoid a massive die-off. However, the idea of “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” and get ready to enjoy the “nine circles” is not a message that motivates me to get up in the morning!

        I realize that I’m not going to change your mind on this point but, never-the-less, this is my position and others will have to draw their own conclusions.

        • I don’t think you are failing to make your point and I don’t think I am misinterpreting what you say either. We basically just disagree on this fundamental point:

          “In theory, at least, I disagree with your strident position on the need to increase the death rate. Although it will probably come to that, it is not absolutely necessary. IMHO, humans do have the inherent ability to overcome all the obstacles you enumerate.”

          You don’t think it is necessary to increase the death rate, while I enumerate the reasons it is necessary to do so. You think humans have the inherent ability to overcome all these obstacles, I don’t think they do. Never been demonstrated that they do anyhow. You just seem to take it on faith that this inherent ability exists.

          Anyhow,I think we have both pretty well stated our respective points of view here, so we can just agree to disagree on this point. Its pretty moot anyhow, since even if the ability does exist, we both agree the likelihood of it being acessed is quite small. The result thus is the same.


          • Bicycle Dave says:

            Hi RE,

            From a practical perspective, you are right – it is a moot point. I started this as more of an academic exercise and probably should not have let it evolve into a debate of sorts. Anyway, the preponderance of historical evidence would certainly support your POV.

            And, I’m not trying to continue a debate, but I’ll try to defend against the ” You just seem to take it on faith that this inherent ability exists. ” Ouch! That hurts, as I try to never hold any faith-based beliefs. My line of thinking was actually picked up from Carl Sagan when he mused about our potential to survive as a species for something like the next million years. I don’t recall his actual words (and Wiki is down today), but the idea was that we have evolved with this unique dichotomy of characteristics that, on one hand, give us this inherent ability to master our destiny (awareness, reasoning, planning, etc) and, OTOH, we have all this inherited stuff that allowed us to survive in the first place (aggression, territorial behavior, etc). His contention was that we have the potential for long term survival if we could redirect, reshape the baggage that keeps us persisting in self destructive behaviors.

            I’ve long been intrigued with his thought and have speculated on just why we seem to be unable to make this transition – hence the notions about delusions (memes in another parlance). I probably should have framed it more as a couple of questions than a flat statement about our ability: Is it possible for humans to make a transition to a culture that would enable long term sustainability? If so, what might actually facilitate this transition (short of a near-extinction experience)? Is it really true that there is not the even the slightest possibility that humans can avoid utter collapse? If this latter proposition is true, then what principals should guide our lives?

            So, it is not really a matter of faith but simply an observation that we are different from rabbits in our abilities to comprehend our role in the biosphere and we have the means to consciously make radical changes to our behaviors. But, we continually demonstrate our inability to make these changes – Why? Even if it is too late now, why did we ignore the obvious logic of “Limits to Growth” when it was published years ago? I’m not expecting answers to these questions – just explaining where my POV comes from.

            It’s been an interesting discussion!

            • Very interesting discussion indeed Dave. At the same time I don’t want to wear out my welcome here on OWF by further hijacking Gary’s thread. I’d like to continue it with you, you are a very good writer and you ponder on these things quite a bit obviously. I think you would fit in well with our group of Collapse theorists on Reverse Engineering. If you are interested, I invite you to Join the Group. If your screen ID isn’t recognizable on the Yahoo system, just mention who you are and where you got invited in the comments of the Join dialogue box.



  10. While Homo Sapiens has been around for 200,000 years, its not been a steady upward climb through the period. 70,000 years ago there was a massive Bottleneck of Homo Sapiens, and its estimated that only 10,000 Human Souls or 1000 Breeding Pairs made it through that Apocalypse. That was of course the Super Volcanic eruption of Toba in Indonesia.

    Virtually regardless of what is or is not done here, Homo Sapiens will experience another Bottleneck at some point in the future. There is no reasonable way to stop the Breeding problem, its simply not sufficient to attack the problem just from the Birth end of the Birth-Death model anymore. Contraception and a One Child Policy did not work for China and is less likely to work on a Global scale.

    To resolve the population problem the Death Rate must increase, and increase it will resultant from the typical means administered by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. To try to control or administer such a thing is to become a Monster, another Hitler/Mao/Stalin type. We have long since past the point where collapse was avoidable. You only need to look at the graph of the Deer on St. Matthews Island to see what lies ahead for the population of Homo Sapiens on Earth. Biological Populations which undergo a period of exponential growth ALWAYS crash. They do not gradually diminish in size.


    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi RE,

      Unfortunately, I suspect you are probably right. However, and this is probably just an academic point, I don’t believe it would be necessary to have a “monster” to administer a softer descent through the bottleneck. In theory at least, Homo Sapiens do actually have the awareness, intelligence and means to deal with our exponential growth problem in a reasonably humane fashion.

      By comparison, suppose astronomers could predict with certainty that a huge asteroid was going to strike earth in 20 years and it would render half of planet Earth uninhabitable for humans. Aside from fringe elements of deniers, the problem would be clear and drastic action unavoidable to save a big chunk of humanity. How this would sort out in terms of the specific actions (or how messy it might be) is irrelevant for this discussion. But, my guess (and I could be wrong) is that there would be a kind of cooperative global mobilization that doesn’t require a monster-type to force a plan of action against the will of most people.

      However, the reason I think you are probably right about the 4 horsemen, is because our Peak Everything predicament is too easy to deny – there is no aspect of the problem that has the clarity and immediacy of the asteroid analogy. Our collective delusions about the nature of humans feeds our motivation for denial and cripples our inherent mental capacity for dealing with the issues.

      • The difference between rallying people around dealing with an impending asteroid impact and dealing with an overshoot problem is that in one case you are trying to save lives; in the other you are trying to extinguish them.

        I’ve been pondering on and writing about these issues for many years now, and given the fact that we probably need to take down the population by an order of magnitude to compensate for the loss of fossil fuel energy, I see no way that an equitable and humane method could be organized. On what basis do you exterminate 6B people? Even if you spread it out over a decade, that’s 600M people per year. Unlikely we get a decade though, when biological populations crash, they do so rapidly.

        The fact most of the population is in denial doesn’t help matters of course, but even if they weren’t we are simply too far down the road into overshoot now to engineer a soft landing from this. Also remember that the pain here is unlikely to be distributed evenly and some places will get hit much harder than others. That begets warfare, which then exacerbates the problems.

        About the best we can hope for here is that this is not an Extinction Level Event.


  11. Ed Pell says:

    It is all just evolution in action. The poor will die and the rich will reproduce.

  12. Andras says:

    Well Done! Thank you for this post. Clear Summary of our situation.

  13. joe says:

    i usually don’t comment on news articles, but i’d like to add something in. we do have time to shift over from the fossil fuel system to more stable systems. a good contender to replace it would be second and third-generation biofuels utilizing plants like prairie grass and micro-organisms like bacteria or algae to generate oil-like substance. the interesting aspect is this means we can keep many of the same amenities we have that utilize oil products while making it a carbon-neutral cycle at the same time. this needs more research, but it’s not impossible for us to have a future where we utilize biofuels. corn ethanol is kinda stupid, but it’s only part of first-generation efforts. also, i gotta say that i really don’t care as much for the environment. minimizing pollution would be nice, but getting into space is a great deal more important. if we cannot do the latter, we might as well kill ourselves now and save the trouble of future generations being unable to manipulate as much energy as we can now. unlimited resources in space, and no fragile biospheres out there. space, it’s kinda big.

  14. concerned citizen says:

    At least Dr. Faustus sold his own soul to the devil. We, on the other hand, have selflessly sold the souls of our hapless children and grandchildren to the devil. Dr. Faustus had his 24 years of high living, then submitted to his side of the bargain. We have had our 150 years of high living, but are offering up our young ones as sacrifices to the devil. Do you think they might turn on us when they find out the terms of the contract ? Maybe we should do something to forestall this sad outcome.

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      HI Citizen,
      You have articulated the horns of my dilemma. At my age, the grim reaper could come knocking any day and I can look back on a pretty good life. So, it is relatively easy for me to give up on beating the drum to promote rationality. OTOH, I have a great granddaughter. If those of us who frequent this blog are even half right she will not have good life and the people making decisions today are the ones who will be responsible for her plight.

      When I say “responsible” I don’t just mean the rich and powerful – it is every common person who supports the religions of the world, it is everyone who votes for the guy who promotes unregulated free enterprise, it is every person who thinks that their country needs a strong military, it is everyone who denies GW/PO/Evolution, it’s the people who value “liberty” above all, etc – it’s most of the planet’s population for one reason or the other.

      I’ve had numerous people tell me, something to the effect, that “hey, these kids today are smart – they will deal with their challenges just as we dealt with ours in years gone by – it’s their problem, not ours”. I suppose psychologists and philosophers can explain this extraordinary selfishness. But, somehow, most of the so-called “developed” world has lost any sense of things like “common good” or sacrifice for future generations or appreciation for the simple concept of what is “true” and what is “false”. Instead we have “ideologies” – or, as I see it, thinly veiled religions. There is an old saying “you can expect bad people to do bad things, but to get good people to do bad things you need religion”. Religion today may be some form of christian evangelism or it might be some economic theory like free market capitalism, or like one of the comments above, a belief that rugged, rural survivalists are inherently superior to urban intellectuals – the latter deserving to perish very soon.

      Hard to see how this sorts out in a user friendly fashion.

  15. Don Stewart says:

    Just another example of reaching the limits of human nature. From Zero Hedge today:

    FoxConn, which at last count had well over 1 million workers and rising, appears to have had enough of being the global electronic gadget sweatshop, and in as the Telegraph reports, saw its workers threaten with mass suicides unless working conditions are not improved. “Around 150 Chinese workers at Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, threatened to commit suicide by leaping from their factory roof in protest at their working conditions. The workers were eventually coaxed down after two days on top of their three-floor plant in Wuhan by Foxconn managers and local Chinese Communist party officials.” Does this mean that in the latest Apple prospectus there will be a Risk Factor which says: “Our profit margins may be severely impaired if our contracted work force decides to proceed with mass self-induced genocide.” We will find out, but if anyone needed a loud and clear warning that the record profitability of high margin electronics producers is about to go down, this is it.

    Don Stewart

    • Gary Peters says:


      You’ve given readers a lot to think about here, especially in your first comment; the second was is more direct. I’m glad you’ve picked up on the “pothole” as a symbol for all kinds of things that are happening around us that just don’t seem right, don’t fit with our business as usual model.

  16. Don Stewart says:

    Dr. Peters advises us to look for the potholes. I would like to suggest a pothole that is all around us, but is seldom mentioned in the vicinity of Peak Oil or even Peak Everything. The potholes are the dysfunctional behavior we see all around us (but never in our selves, fortunately!). James Howard Kunstler call our attention to dysfunctional behavior most every Monday morning.

    Humans have, roughly, invented four different ways of living: hunting and gathering, agriculture, pastoralism, and industrialism. Humans have demonstrated an ability to reach the limits of each of those systems and to overshoot. If we looked at hunter gathering, the overshoot took the form mostly of excess population, but also perhaps the killing of all the large mammals. Industrialization is the most complex system we have built, and thus Leibig’s Law has a lot more factors to operate upon.

    Suppose we have reached the limits of what human nature can stand? Suppose people just aren’t meant to live in this kind of world–and provide grist for Kunstler’s weekly rants.

    To illustrate, I will use the Immune System. (I’m no doctor, so be forewarned).
    Dr. Joel Fuhrman has just written a book called Super Immunity: The Essential Nutrition Guide for Boosting Your Body’s Defenses to Live Longer, Stronger, and Disease Free. No Shots. No Drugs. No Sick Days. Suspend your disbelief and accept for the sake of argument his proposition that a healthy immune system gives you all that.

    Gabor Mate clearly articulates why experience, and particularly early life experience, shapes our brain. Some quotes from Gabor are embedded in Albert Bates blog, talking about how the human brain developes, uniquely for mammals, under the influence of the environment–not genes. If you don’t want to read Albert’s socio-political ramblings, scroll down to the picture of the military men and below that look for a little white space and then the sentence,
    “The human brain, unlike any other mammal, for the most part develops under the influence of the environment
    The quotations from Mate continue down, interspersed with Allbert’s socio-political comments. Sorry about that if they offend you.

    The link:…theocracy.html

    For more on the environment in childhood and problems in adulthood, see Staci Bilbo, Duke University, on the direction of her research. Note that the immune system is ‘trained’ by very early experience in rats. Which makes the adults more susceptible to counterproductive actions in response to stress as adults. The adult will find it hard to learn. When I have heard Staci talk, she clearly believes the rat results have analogues in humans.…47-staci-bilbo

    Finally, Barbara Fredrickson, University of North Carolina, on Positive Emotions. I have heard Barbara speak a couple of times. She makes the point that people who can contemplate change in their life tend to be ‘safe and sated’. That is, not under stress.

    When I put all this together:
    1. Dr. Fuhrman clearly articulates the mechanics of a strong immune system and the magical things it does for us.
    2. Gabor Mate clearly articulates why experience, and particularly early life experience, shapes our brain.
    3. Staci Bilbo is exploring in detail the brain and behavior implications of early childhood experience and our adult response to stress via the immune system. Many adults have a ‘pretrained’ immune system which is vulnerable.
    4. Gabor Mate explains why junk food consumption increases in times of stress–which ties in neatly with Staci’s research and, I think, Kunstler’s observations.
    5. Since so many children are born into stress (overweight mothers, drug use by mother, lack of maternal care, etc., etc.), it is easy to see why, from Staci’s research, so many adults are predisposed to immune system dysfunction.
    6. And since the immune system of so many adults is predisposed to be dysfunctional, it is easy to see why Barbara Fredrickson finds that people have great difficulty changing (learning) if they are stressed.

    But also, one might observe, people usually don’t change unless there is pressure for change. Some stress from somewhere. So many of us can’t change in response to stress, and the rest of us won’t change unless there is stress. We seem to be in a trap, as a society.

    I suggest that the type of Industrialization we have pursued now for a few hundred years leads inevitably to the dysfunctional immune system and dysfunctional immune systems can become one of Leibig’s limiting factors.

    So I think we need to look carefully at the potholes…Don Stewart

  17. Ed Pell says:

    The four horsemen are listening. They are still getting the horses ready. They do not care about the potholes they have horses.

    • John Griscavage says:

      Ed, it’s funny…because I was raised Catholic and have always been somewhat spiritually minded…but these days (I’m only 31) we live in a world that aggressively and hatefully denounces religion..especially in academic circles and even more especially on the Coasts like where I live in California…..but as these terrible events start to unfold and only the rare few of us have the knowledge (we sought it out), it makes one wonder if there really is a spiritual aspect to all this. If maybe indeed there is some reckoning coming and the spiritual and physical world are not as separate as some of the technocrats of the modern mess would like us to believe.

      • Arthur Robey says:

        John, I have the same intuition.
        There is so much we don’t know, and so much of what we think we know that just ain’t so.
        My God is not the God of the Gaps. my God is the God of the Yawning Chasms.

  18. Jerry McManus says:

    Alder Stone Fuller: Why large-scale climate change (probably) cannot be stopped

    Fear, despair, and denial are indulgences we cannot afford

    This essay is not about good news. In fact, it is about some of the worst news our species has ever faced. Period. As I explain in detail below, climatologically-speaking, the future looks like a very rough ride. And I don’t even address other big issues like peak oil and global economic meltdown because I think climate change is going to have a much greater impact on humans (and other species) than the other issues.

    In a nutshell, he makes a detailed argument that we are not facing a gradual change in the Earth’s climate, what he calls type I, but that there is good empirical and theoretical evidence that the climate will shift very abruptly, type II change, and probably within decades not centuries.

    Not good news indeed.

  19. Arthur Robey says:

    Cheer up.
    The underlying assumptions of this piece are
    1.We know everything we need to know about everything. We don’t. We only know those things that we have discovered. New things are being discovered all the time.
    2 The two dimensional surface of the sphere is a limit.
    It is, if we decide it is.
    Lift your eyes up from the dirt beneath your feet. Embrace the Void.

    • Joe Clarkson says:

      1. Cold fusion better hurry up and show itself! It has been 24 years since Pons and Fleischmann reported their results. I suspect that there has been more energy come out of the mouths of everyone talking about it than from the total of all LENR devices so far.

      2. The Void is aptly named. Fascinating to look at for sure, but there is nothing out there for us live on, except perhaps sunlight, and there is plenty of that falling on our sphere already.

    • Gary Peters says:


      I agree with Joe, the Void is aptly named and offers us nothing. We put a man on the moon in 1969 and now we’d have a hard time even doing that again. On the other hand, that dirt beneath your feet is going to produce most of your food, so I think you should embrace the dirt, not the Void.

      • Arthur Robey says:

        There will be orders of magnitude more people living off-world than on the Planet. Once we are out of the gravity well we will send our felons back down.
        I have ordered my 10 to 15 Kw Cold Fusion reactor from eCat.
        This minute orb will not support an exponential population growth. To sit on our hands is immoral. I am from Zimbabwe. Doomer porn is well and good, but like war it should be practised in the privacy of your bedroom.
        Dr. Gerrard O’Neil and Co. did the business model up for the colonisation of L3 and 4 way back in the 70’s.
        You Americans failed to take him seriously. It is necessary for your civilisation to collapse so that the new world order can emerge spontaneously from the chaotic conditions.
        Isaac Asimov said that a civilisation size is measured by it speed of communications. The speed of communications is now spontaneous.
        It will be a volatile transition, many will die but those of us who are up to the mark will leave a caretaker remnant on this Mother planet.
        Some of us are less influenced by our Limbic system and have an infinite discount rate.

        • Joe Clarkson says:

          Having read hundreds (if not thousands) of science fiction books in my younger days, I have a certain sympathy with the concept of expanding the realm of human habitation to space, even to other star systems. But I think it is improbable that a species that is incapable of managing the relatively simple task of managing our life on earth would be capable of managing the far more difficult task of life in space.

          If Dr. O’Neil’s business model was so good, why aren’t there people living on L3 and L4 right now? The simple answer is that even if it were technically possible, no one wanted to spend the money. Consider the prospect of powering human civilization with renewable energy. It is certainly technically possible, but no one wanted to devote the necessary resources to mankind’s future needs, especially when spending our fossil patrimony was so much fun. And these are the folks who will colonize space? LOL

          • gus says:

            Hi, Joe & Arthur,
            I’m fond of SF, too; One of my favorites, though, isn’t a space novel — it’s Stephen Baxter’s Evolution, which shows our civilization disintegrating but life (even human genes, in various forms) going on into the very distant future. I find that rather optimistic given our current dilemma, although I would prefer an opportunity to go to the stars if, and ONLY if, we can clean up the mess we’re in here first. I don’t see it as responsible to attempt space colonization without doing that; the LAST thing we need is sociopathic Taker-types blazing into the distant reaches as our “emissaries” just because they happen to have the wealth to do it.
            Arthur, you wrote, “There will be orders of magnitude more people living off-world than on the Planet. Once we are out of the gravity well we will send our felons back down.” The first sentence will only happen if actual colonies get established, and we’re quite some distance from that, even if the technology exists. Who decides who goes? With what qualifications? Regarding the second sentence, even if, in millennia, space population DOES massively exceed Earth’s, there will STILL be a significant number of people on Earth. What gives you the right to make it a penal colony? I can’t imagine a much more disrespectful way of treating the world on which humanity was born (other than what we’re doing now or nuclear war!).

            • Arthur Robey says:

              I don’t claim the right to send felons to earth. Earth is not the only gravity well in the Cosmos.
              We are not living out of this well for the same reason that the US Army rejected aviation, total lack of foresight and imagination. The army had to be belted over the head by reality before they understood the significance of air power.
              Dr. O’Neill faced the same malfunction of the human mind. The morons and psychopaths in charge chose to do what they always do. They chose to spend the Nations capital on wars. Endless bloody wars.
              The fact that I alone can see the necessity to escape the Orb of our creation if we are driven to expand our feeding frenzy, makes me doubt my humanity. We are a species apart.
              The evolutionary process will decide to whom the future belongs.

            • Arthur Robey says:

              The point that I was trying to make is that from the point of view of future generations to live at the bottom of a gravity well will seem like a punishment. We are living a life fit for felons, because we are at the bottom of the well.
              You accept your situation as normal only because it is all you have experienced.

        • Ed Pell says:

          Elon Musk is working on colonizing Mars. See SpaceX.

  20. Jerry McManus says:

    Paul Chefurka: Population – The Elephant in the Room

    The human cost of such an involuntary population rebalancing is, of course, horrific. Based on this model we would experience an average excess death rate of 100 million per year every year for the next 75 years to achieve our target population of one billion by 2082. The peak excess death rate would happen in about 20 years, and would be about 200 million that year. To put this in perspective, WWII caused an excess death rate of only 10 million per year for only six years.

    Given this, it’s not hard to see why population control is the untouchable elephant in the room – the problem we’re in is simply too big for humane or even rational solutions. It’s also not hard to see why some people are beginning to grasp the inevitability of a human die-off.

  21. John Griscavage says:

    Seems like very little upside here to me. Sounds to me like a large and all powerful government dictating everything and removing liberty for all to ensure…what exactly? (survival only?)…is the only viable solution. At what cost? Complete lack of liberty in the name of what? Survival of a bunch of degenerate and illiterate scum in inner city ghettos and useless smug yuppies with no agricultural or trade skills at all? I’d rather see these people die off for the good of humanity and I have zero concern in working with them or helping them survive at all. They are poor specimens of humanity at best.

    Frankly, the complexity of the solutions (there are no real solutions here but pain) and their anti-liberty nature do not inspire me to work with my fellow man….except when our interest collide. It inspires me to hoard resources, form alliances and war with those who try to take anything from us. In the future, an intellectual will be worth nothing. Enjoy it while it lasts.

    • Gary Peters says:


      I think there are solutions but whether we or Earth decide which of them to employ remains a (somewhat) open question. It certainly looks like humans are hard-wired to stay on the path that we’re on. As a species, as a couple of comments above suggested, we may be too smart for our own good, allowing our advanced technology to finally lead us down a path of no return. We don’t know what is going to happen, though there are some ominous trends out there. There are also some “black swans,” and they may change our course.

  22. Pingback: The Faustian Bargain that Modern Economists Never Mention »

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  25. Jerry McManus says:

    Dr. William E. Rees asks: Are Humans Unsustainable by Nature?

    pdf here:

    All of which means that, our species may well be the most voraciously successful predatory and herbivorous vertebrate ever to walk the earth. In this light we can interpret unsustainability as the most recent and possibly terminal manifestation of humanity’s competitive superiority.

    Humanity’s extraordinary material success actually makes us the archetype for an idea first articulated by ecologist Alfred Lotka in 1922 and now known as the ‘maximum power principle’: systems that prevail in the struggle for life (i.e., successful individuals, species and ecosystems) are those that evolve in ways that maximize their use of available energy and material resources (see Lotka 1922). H. sapiens’ adoption of agriculture ten millennia ago was the first great leap forward in our species’ capacity to harvest energy from nature and the one that made permanent settlements and large-scale civilization possible.

    However, more than any other factor, our ability to exploit fossil fuels explains the explosive expansion of the human enterprise that began in the 19th Century. In effect, the modern world is made from petroleum.

    • Michael Lloyd says:

      Dr Peters: Thank you for your interesting post. I am not surprised that it has been well received here. Somewhat like “preaching to the converted” (and that includes me!).

      Perhaps I can add a sobering link in addition to those given by Jerry McManus:
      “War, plague no match for deforestation”

      This brings me to the question, posed in two ways, which most concerns me now:

      We are smart enough to get into this mess, but are we smart enough to get out of it?
      We didn’t plan to get into this mess. What makes us think we can get out of it by planning?

      • Gary Peters says:

        Michael, I’m sure you’ve seen this quote from Albert Einstein before: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” If the free market system and profit maximization have led us to where we are, then I don’t think they will lead us out. Any economic system that tries to exist outside of Earth’s ecosystems is doomed to fail, though perhaps slowly.

        In his book A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote the following:

        “The question is, does the educated citizen know he is only a cog in an ecological mechanism? That if he will work with that mechanism his mental wealth and his material wealth can expand indefinitely? But that if he refuses to work with it, it will ultimately grind him to dust? If education does not teach us these things, then what is education for?”

        Economists seem to me to be particularly insular, reading nothing outside of their narrow field if they can help it. I think Abbey was right in 1988 and others were right long before him, but our current economic system is seductive. Ecologists are much closer to the “truth” about how our world works, but they are given short shrift. An economic system that may have worked OK in the 18th and 19th centuries is today wreaking havoc on the planet, making promises it just can’t keep.

        • gus says:

          What keeps the system running is that it’s highly addictive, far more like a religion than the “logical” decision-making its propagandists like to claim. Like many cults when their prophecies fail, its players have a strong tendency to “double down” and stay in the game, be part of the in-crowd, regardless of the cost. (Very few actually jump out windows, although the rest of us might be better off if they did.) If it were rational, it would have been killed long ago as an abject failure for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants, human and otherwise, but that failure is simply explained away as “supply and demand” or some such nonsense. They have far too much of their personalities tied into it to admit that they and the system they worship are WRONG; in fact, they point to all of the things we see as warning signs of impending collapse as evidence it works extremely well.
          Humanity is at a crossroads where our evolved tendency to maximize our short-term, selfish interest is coming into conflict with our equally evolved capacity to think about and plan for the more distant, collective future. Our current economy and political rhetoric strongly favor the former and claim the latter has already been defeated, so how do we get people to realize that the latter is necessary for the former, while the former can prevent the latter from ever happening?

    • Gary Peters says:


      The modern world may well be made from petroleum (along with coal and natural gas) but as the graph in my little essay showed, it can’t last. What no one knows is what will come after that, though plenty of people see no problem. Had we not used so much of that stored solar energy to expand our population, from less than a billion when Malthus’s essay first appeared to more than seven billion today, we would face a much different situation today.

  26. Gary Peters says:

    I would like to thank all of you for your support and thoughtful replies. Tomorrow I will try to provide a few more personalized answers to some of you.

  27. St. Roy says:

    Dear Dr. Peters:
    Your posts are always stimulating. I like your metaphor of a “pothole” culture, This aptly explains what is happening to every aspect of our lives. The potholes keep getting bigger and our standard of living continues to decline. I think that by the end of this century life will mirror 1900 with about the same number of humans.

  28. Robin Datta says:

    Thank you, Dr. Peters, for another great essay, and thank you, Gail, for posting it!

    One aspect that tends to be under emphasized is that economic growth is an increase in the rate or an acceleration of the conversion of resources into products.

    Resources>(energy)>>products>>wastes (expended products, & byproducts)

    If the rates of conversion at each stage remain constant, the above might represent a no-growth economy. It is however synonymous with a sustainable economy.

    To sustain renewable resources, consumption has to be no greater than the rate of replenishment. Non-renewable resources are not sustainable, but to avoid running out of them when they are still needed, the rate of consumption has to decrease at a rate no less than that of the resource depletion.

    “Money” – little green pictures of dead presidents, magnetized rust particles on metallic disks, etc. is symbols mutually agreed upon, or used because of coercion/the threat of force (“fiat” money). The symbols have perceived exchange values for resources and products, and thus serve as a medium of exchange. 

    Natural systems tend to be closed cycles, with the wastes of one phase being the resources of another: plants put out oxygen, which we (and the plants) use; we breathe out carbon dioxide, which plants use. Unless closed into cycles – with the wastes fully used as resources – the open linear streams of industrial production will be unsustainable.

    When the pie starts shrinking, those at the top of the hierarchy, through their control of the system, can minimize shrinkage – and even grow – their slice of the pie, shifting all the shrinkage to others lower in the hierarchy who do not have such control. The progressive increase in disparity of incomes in society is a manifestation of hierarchical societal organization and control in a time of increasing societal privation. Those at the top of the pecking order get to peck (to their hearts’ – and  stomachs’ – content) regardless of whether or not others get to peck at all. 

    • Gary Peters says:

      Robin, I’m not sure we know any more what might be sustainable. If I take an example from landscapes I know, it would go something like this, a simple story based on facts but without an ending written yet.

      I was born and raised in California. Native Americans first moved here more than ten thousand years ago and lived here sustainbly, so far as we know, until Euroeans arrived. If we were to have asked these people a thousand years ago what resources they considered most important for their lives and posterity, I suspect they would have named the rivers full of salmon, the oaks full of acorns, and the considerable supply of obsidian on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.

      After ten thousand years Native Americans had treaded very lightly on the land, sustained a way of life that respected the land and thhe fellow creatures and plants with which they shared it, and probably never reached a population much beyond 300,000.

      If we take 1769, when the first mission was founded by the Spanish, as the beginning of European settlement in California, we can see what has happened. In less than three centuries the population has grown to perhaps 38 million, hardly a river runs free, few ecosystems remain as they were, and an artificial landscape has spread across much of the state. It beats me how anyone can think this might be sustainable.

      • Robin Datta says:

        What I meant was “It is however not synonymous with a sustainable economy.

        • Gary Peters says:

          Hi Robin,

          My last sentence was not aimed at you but at all those who think what we are doing now can continue into the future. I’m sorry about that!

    • You will remember my post quite a while back called There is No Such thing as a Steady State Economy (Except at a very basic level). I noticed Dr. Peters comment in his post, but thought I would let him talk about the issue. My point was the same as yours. If all we have available is replenishable resources, there won’t be very much to share.

      • Gary Peters says:

        That is quite a problem when we have seven billion people to share with. The arithmetic of population growth is simple and inexorable. In 2012 there will be about 140 million births, 60 million deaths, and a net gain of some 80 million new residents on the planet.

        In 1948 Aldo Leopold wrote that we should “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Perhaps if we had listened to Leopold and others we would not face our current predicament. Instead we just keep moving in an unsustainable direction, hoping that “progress” will save us.

        • gus says:

          Hi, Gary,
          Although I think we have the intellectual capacity to make the necessary changes and apply Leopold’s ethos to cultural choices, I don’t think we will. I just hope the collapse when it comes is in a “natural” form — killer pandemic, akin to the novel Earth Abides — rather than manmade self-destruction. The former will leave some humans and most of the surrounding species alive, but most of the technological catastrophes would decimate the biosphere as well. Recent coverage of the Dutch/US scientists genetically-modifying H5N1 bird flu to an airborne form could well be such a pandemic if it ever escapes.
          You know things are REALLY screwed up when something that has a 60% death rate is the GOOD option!

          • Gary Peters says:


            When Leopold wrote those words there were about 2.5 billion people in the world, compared to today’s 7 billion. Those in power have never paid much attention to ecologists or to the few economists, e.g. Schumacher, who have long seen population growth as a serious threat to Earth’s ecosystems.

            No one knows what will happen in the future, though I think it will favor T.S. Eliot’s idea of the industrial age ending with not a bang but a whimper. We’ll see.

  29. step back says:

    Dr. Peters,

    Your following line is priceless:
    As a geographer, I look for [tell tale] signs in my local cultural landscape

    This after all, is the scientific method, namely, to make observations and then try to square them with existing theories.

    If a society cannot keep its infra-structure in good shape, that indeed is an ominous sign.
    Moreover, if a society is looking to low EROEI solutions (i.e. tar sands) for its salvation, that too is an ominous sign.

    Our roads and highways into the future are filled with too many ominous and foreshadowing road signs of catastrophe a comin’. And yet many of us blind our eyes and plug our ears so that we shan’t be distracted from keeping our focus aimed at that promised shiny city at the top of the hill. Basically: I’ve already picked my happy-ending story and I am sticking to it. Please don’t upset my apple cart by loading it up with inconvenient facts.

    • Gary Peters says:

      Thank you, Step Back. I appreciate your comments and will try not to upset your apple cart.

  30. Jerry McManus says:

    I echo the previous comments, an excellent post.

    Shortly after learning about peak oil several years ago I read up on the literature and discovered that most everything about our predicament can be put in the context of ecological overshoot, which in turn led me to learn about systems thinking and how all complex systems can be understood in terms of the stocks and flows of resources and sinks, as Dr.Peters so ably describes in this post.

    It took me longer to understand that our behavior is not evil, as in “bargain with the devil”, but actually quite natural. A conclusion I slowly arrived at with diligent study of the work of late ecologist H. T. Odum, among others.

    All systems, both living and non-living, will self organize to maximize available resources. In situations where large accumulations of free resources occur it is quite natural for a species population to explode, until those resources are depleted, and then die-back to levels that can be supported by long term carrying capacity. This “pulsing” can be observed at many scales, and Odum speculated that it actually serves to increase the potential of the system over the long run.

    Granted, I realize that observation will be of small comfort to the people who will live to see the worst of the inevitable collapse, and yes, there is a very real danger that our overshoot will be so profoundly destructive that the long term carrying capacity of our lovely speck of a blue planet will be reduced to a level only seen during mass extinctions every few million years.

    Even so, I often ponder two questions that put even that dire scenario somewhat in perspective:

    First, if a wealthy industrialized society unilaterally decided to make draconian cuts to it’s standard of living in the interest of preserving resources and unburdening sinks, would that not put it at a competitive disadvantage to other societies that have no such compunction? Short of a totalitarian world government coercing the entire global population into compliance (one of the favorite bugaboos that right wing conservatives hold against greens), I don’t see a way around that problem.

    Second, are we really doing anything that any other species, given our unique abilities, would not do? If the ecologists are correct, and I have every reason to believe they are, then the answer is no. From that perspective we humans, as a species, have simply been extraordinarily successful at what millions of years of evolution, the laws of thermodynamics, and the hierarchies of complex systems have programmed us to do.

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Jerry – enjoyed your comment,

      are we really doing anything that any other species, given our unique abilities, would not do?

      I’m currently reading “The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived” and it makes me wonder if those of us here and on blogs like TOD are just “spinning our wheels” for our own amusement. Perhaps there is really nothing that any of us can do to avert the inevitable fate of our species. It is just pretty much a matter of luck that we are typing these comments instead of the Neanderthals.

      “Given our unique abilities” it would seem theoretically possible for us to be the first species to “self reprogram” to be good stewards of planet Earth and insure a reasonable existence for homo sapiens and most of the other existing flora/fauna. Carl Sagan mused about this potential. Perhaps some of us will make it through the “bottleneck” and will understand the kind of “bargain” we really need to strike with Mother Nature. BTW, I liked the movie Avatar.

      Even on this blog, we get a smattering of wishful thinking about cold fusion, space colonization, etc. – like desperate gamblers willing to bet it all on one final throw of the dice. There are precious few voices like Dr. Peters that actually articulate the one fundamental problem facing planet Earth: human population growth. Regardless of new energy sources, conservation, efficiency, inventions, etc – the fundamental fact is that every human impacts the resources of the planet. We can delay the inevitable, but not forever unless we recognize the need to reduce human population. Demographers argue about whether our current 7B will peak at 9 or 10B or actually grow beyond. Some optimists dismiss my fear with the canard that a natural population peak will be followed by a gradual decrease to a steady state that is sustainable. Perhaps – but the evidence from the fossil record of our planet suggests that this “gradual decrease” may be anything but gradual and probably will be very painful for the participants.

      I don’t see any leader, organization or movement that leads me to believe we will actually utilize our “unique abilities” this time around.

      • Jerry McManus says:

        Hi Dave, thanks for the thoughtful reply.

        My favorite quote on the population problem:

        Trying to solve the other problems without stopping population growth is like trying to mop the floor with the faucet overflowing

        Unfortunately, the subject of population is taboo. Another good example of where only a totalitarian state (like China for example) could force people to limit childbirths.

        The base case scenario in the Limits to Growth analysis projects population peaking at about 8 billion and then dropping rapidly in the second half of this century, not voluntarily mind you, but due to much higher death rates.

        For comparison, I believe about 50 million people are thought to have died in the 5 or so years of WWII. It’s sobering to think we would need to match that level of horror every year for 40 years just to reduce our population by 2 billion, not counting new births.

        Unless we suffer some sort of global catastrophe such as that alluded to in “The Road”, I expect the future to look very much like that depicted in “Children of Men“, at least as far as the wealthy industrialized countries are concerned.

        • gus says:

          Hi, Jerry,
          Even China didn’t really succeed at that — they have a fair number of orphan kids, some of them being sent overseas for adoption, some being abandoned or killed, and their pop. is still growing. A one-child policy, if it were actually implemented, would cause population to FALL.
          That said, I agree with your general point: the prospects aren’t inviting at all. Even a 2 billion decline is probably not enough; that only takes us back to the 1980s, population-wise, and we exceeded one Earth in resource consumption in 1980, IIRC.
          Earlier (above), you asked “… would that not put it at a competitive disadvantage to other societies that have no such compunction?” In what sense? Economically, probably, but evolution does not care about economics. A society that made a concerted effort to reduce its impact, esp. if it involved “getting back to the land,” would be more likely to have some of its people in future generations after the “no compunction” society imploded. In the short term, the less-impact society might have to physically defend itself vs the other one and would certainly lose some people, but, being less consumption obsessed, would also be far less likely to get into a tit-for-tat escalation that leads to global holocaust. That can be said for subgroups within the “no compunction” culture as well.
          Although the sociopathic ruler types don’t want to see it, evolution has been selecting for cooperative and non-confrontational people just as much as (probably more than) it selects for the predatory ones. The cooperators typically don’t make the headlines and usually live longer if they can stay out of the way when the predators go on their rampages.

  31. Don Stewart says:

    I would like to comment on ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. I can’t give you the reference, but an MD I respect told me that a recent study found that people in England are living to almost exactly the same age as English people 400 years ago–if you exclude from the 400 year old data the infants who died and the women who died in childbirth (we all know the dangers of childbirth). Furthermore, the Englishman of 400 years ago was sick for around 6 months before death–not the years that modern people are sick and spend in nursing homes or under care for chronic disease.

    So the fossil fuel era of the last 400 years has given us good infant mortality and childbirth statistics, but it has also given us declining years suffering from chronic disease and requiring very expensive professional care. And thus we get the medical cost crisis.

    I think it is important for our sanity and ability to respond to the challenges to look at the facts instead of the ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ story. If we can act with objectivity, rather than trying to save all the cars and the stock market, we can:
    a. Keep the advances in infant mortality and childbirth. Cuba does as well as the US with a fraction of the resources.
    b. Avoid chronic disease. We know how–we just let the Big Farms/Big Food/ Big Pharma complex lead us down the garden path by manipulating our human predilections in ways that aren’t good for us.
    c. Copy Cuba (and perhaps other countries) in terms of urban food production. (A local group tours Cuba each winter to look at urban agriculture there. I received their email invitation today. There may be other places that do it even better.) Urban agriculture also produces plentiful fruits and vegetables which keep our immune system strong and resistant to infections.
    d. Get about rebuilding Mayberry.

    Who wouldn’t rather live in Mayberry?

    Don Stewart

    • Ikonoclast says:

      The critique of my Hobbsian throw-away line (“nasty, brustish and short”) has some validity. Yes, Cuba’s low energy, low consumption, high human service model dies illustrate the best of the possibilities ahead of us. Whether this possibility is probable given all the insanity going on in our consumption-addicted culture is the question. A feature of extreme overshoot is collapse caused by the wrecking of carrying capacity.

      As to life expectancy it is not valid of course to remove infant mortality, maternal mortality and so on. In Admiral Nelson’s time of childhood, records show 1 in 4 infants died before age 2 in his father’s parish.The study mentioned probably also only included better class, well off rural people for the most part (including landed gentry) as these would be the only ones leaving full enough records for the study. Impverished people, particularly impoverished city people probably had much higher mortality rates at younger ages. Periodic plagues, epidemics and so would have carried off far more people than we are used to losing.

      Even my father, who grew up in the 1930s, stated (before he got demntia) that after each school holidays when they came back to school one or two schoolmates would be missing, having died in childhood disease epidemics. This was in Melbourne, Australia in the 1930s as stated.

  32. Laurel says:

    Excellent post by Dr. Peters. I will be sharing it.

    • Gary Peters says:

      Laurel, thank you. I would also like to thank Gail for allowing me this opportunity. It is nice to see that her blog attracts attention from people who are concerned about the future of both humanity and the planet we call home.

  33. Ikonoclast says:

    This guest post by Dr Gary Peters is very well written. The opening is witty, amusing and quite true. Here we are now, doing nothing worthwhile about our predicament but simply worshipping an invisible hand and beseeching it for a cornucopia of wealth without consequences. It captures very aptly our stupidity and cupidity, our culpability and gullibility.

    As soon as I came across the work of Meadows et. el in the first Club of Rome Report, the Limits to Growth (published in 1972 and I read it in 1973 as an undergraduate), I knew our goose was cooked. The thesis was elegant and irrefutable. Essentially that thesis is that growth cannot continue indefinitely on a finite earth. This is the elephant in the room that (almost) nobody will talk about.

    Again, in my undergraduate days, I co-wrote a short paper (for assessment) somewhat related to this topic. Our thesis was that scientific experts (in their general field of expertise) can give timely warnings of impending but still avertable disasters. The second part of that thesis was that the government and the general public will generally ignore or even remain ignorant or incredulous about these warnings. The more dire the reliably predicted event, the more incredulity the scientists’ warnings are subjected to. We cited various examples from much of the first half of the 20th century.

    Sadly, the thesis of our little undergraduate paper has also been borne out. Here we are today, after almost 40 years of dire warnings, in precisely the worst predicament possible. We have taken no heed of the warnings and no substantive action. The capital-industrial-technological system has a momentum not easily turned around. Like a lunatic-driven locomotive hurtling towards the end of the line buffers and well past the final safe braking distance, we are not only NOT applying the brakes we are stoking the coals or pouring on the diesel as we open the accelerator ever wider. It will be a train wreck.

    It’s already started to happen of course. The so-called Arab Spring is not a democratic dawn for MENA and elsewhere. It is simpy what happens when the masses rebel against the combined effects of repression (an old force) and the rising food and fuel prices and shortages.

    I find myself wondering when our system, our people and our government will finally GET IT. Television ads still promote the message of rising consumption, consumer goods worship and endless cornucopian wealth. What will Americans and Australians do when they can’t continue their love affair with their automobiles? What will they do when they realise the glut is over and nothinh beckons ahead except a long, grinding and civil unrest ridden decline. Who will they blame (probably everyone but themselves) and how will they behave? it’s going to get nasty. About 95% of the population will living worse than the Ozarks in Winter’s Bone. Once again life will be nasty, brutish and short.

    As I travel to the old people’s home to see my ill and dementia-addled parents, I think well there will be none of this me. I won’t make it to that age and there will be no spare resources to keep excessively old people alive in any case. And you know what? I think that’s a good thing. Let nature do its work via the four horsemen since we were not smart enough to forestall it. We will get the outcome our behaviour merits.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “As I travel to the old people’s home to see my ill and dementia-addled parents, I think well there will be none of this me. I won’t make it to that age and there will be no spare resources to keep excessively old people alive in any case. And you know what? I think that’s a good thing.”

      “Peak longevity” is something to embrace, not resist!

      (But I feel that way about most of the trials we’re going through…)

    • Gary Peters says:

      Ikonoclast, you make some very good points. It is now about 40 years since The Limits to Growth appeared, yet most economists still ignore it, betting instead that growth can continue forever. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a real scientist agree, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Ecologists have a much different story to present, but it lacks the “sex appeal” of economic growth; we’ll find that Earth cares not in the least about humans.

    • Widget says:

      ikonoclast “opening is…and quite true”

      Not quite true, since the monotheistic beliefs of Abraham and his descendants were around long before the Greeks or Romans became empires. Dr Peters’ anthropology is a therefore a bit adrift.

  34. That is a terrible fate we bequeath to our children. I can’t understand why governments don’t fund research on renewable energy rather than armies. Our Presidents and Prime Ministers only think in the short term and that is getting us to a deep abyss from where nobody can be bailed out.

    Gail, you’ve been brilliant once again.

    • I should point out that this is Dr. Gary Peters post, not mine. So he should get the credit for being brilliant, not me.

    • alan says:

      To get more minerals we would have to mine space, which is not practical due the extremely long time it takes to travel round our solar system. The only feasible way to reduce the travel time is a fusion engine (yet to be invented). The trip time to Mars would be a couple of weeks, for example.

      The ideal energy technology would be fusion, it would solve two of the major problems.

      • George says:

        Yes it may allow mineral recovery and greater energy availability, but how would it solve food shortages, biodiversity loss etc. And the more energy and resources we have, the more we use, the more emissions and waste and so the cycle goes on. It just drives the consumption and population growth cycle.

        With this reasoning, The “impossible hamster” just keeps getting bigger.

  35. John Weber says:

    Gail – as usual, wonderful, lucid and please send to all newspapers.
    Have a great and interesting new year.

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