Human population overshoot–what went wrong?

There are seven billion people on earth now. I originally thought that the primary reason for the recent human population explosion was that fossil fuels enabled a larger food supply and better medicine, and thus a higher population.

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

While the addition of fossil fuels is part of the story, after reading Craig Dilworth’s Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Mankind, I realized that there might be another contributing factor. Animals of all types (presumably including humans) have instincts and learned behaviors that prevent population from rising without limit.

Dilworth talks about an experiment in which a few Norway rats were put into a cage of 1,000 square meters and provided plenty of food and water for 28 months. If they had produced as many offspring as theoretically possible, there would have been 50,000 of them at the end of experiment. If they had maxed out at the 0.2 m2 allowed for caged rates in laboratories, there would have been 5,000 of them. What actually happened is that the population stabilized at less than 200.

As I read about the mechanisms for keeping the population of most animals down, it struck me that there seem to be parallels in humans. Dilworth talks about many species being “territorial,” and how aggression among groups is one of the first approaches to keeping population down. When that fails (as with humans’ globalization), social power structures and hierarchies become more important. This seems to happen with humans also:

Paul Buchheit, from DePaul University, revealed, “From 1980 to 2006 the richest 1% of America tripled their after-tax percentage of our nation’s total income, while the bottom 90% have seen their share drop over 20%.” Robert Freeman added, “Between 2002 and 2006, it was even worse: an astounding three-quarters of all the economy’s growth was captured by the top 1%.”

This sounds exactly like the kind of hierarchical behavior observed in the animal kingdom when social species get stressed. If there is not enough to go around, resources that are available are concentrated in the hands of those at the top of the pyramid, marginalizing those at the bottom of the pyramid. If total resources are inadequate,  population at the bottom of the pyramid is reduced, leaving those at the top untouched.

In this post, I discuss some of the issues raised by Dilworth  and the parallels I see with humans. I also add a perspective of hope.

Craig Dilworth’s Theory: Too Smart for our Own Good

I won’t be able to do justice to all of the ideas in this fairly academic 500 page book, but let me try to explain some of Dilworth’s ideas.

Types of Species

Dilworth distinguishes between two types of species:

K-selected species: Species selected for Krowding tolerance. Their members are characterized by large size, slow growth and reproduction, few offspring with low mortality, parental care, relatively constant population size, and existence which is easily jeopardized by a new predation threat. Most mammals are K-selected, as are trees.

r-selected species: Characterized by small size, rapid growth and reproduction, short lives (less than 1 year), numerous offspring with high mortality, little or no parental care, and lack of territoriality, and populations characterized by exponential growth followed by crashes. Insects and annual plants are typical r-selected species.

With these definitions, humans are K-selected. Because humans are K-selected, they theoretically should have a stable population size.

Territoriality and other Mechanisms for Holding Population Down

In K-selected species, territoriality tends to hold down population size by restraining the number of breeding pairs. The territories chosen by instinct are large enough to ensure that populations do not grow to such a size that they undermine their own resource base. Thus, if territoriality is working properly, there is no problem with tragedy of the commons (excessive use of shared resources), because the territory selected by the male for his family group is large enough to feed the family, with much available food left over.

There are really two mechanisms at work in K-selected species: food availability and adequate territory. It really is Liebig’s Law of the Minimum that leads to adequate territory usually being the limiting factor for K-selected species. Liebig observed that if a crop needs several types of inputs (such as nitrogen fertilizer, phosphorus fertilizer, and potassium fertilizer), the crop yield would be determined by the scarcest resource, not by the total amount of resources. Thus, additional nitrogen fertilizer cannot substitute for some other type of fertilizer. In the case of K-selected species, such as primates, there are both food and territory requirements, but the limit on territory is usually reached first.

There are a number of  mechanisms for keeping K-selected populations in balance with the rest of the ecological system. For example,

  • Too high population tends to cause stress and leads to violence against neighboring groups. The winner gets more territory; the losers typically are killed.
  • Infants may be killed, to keep the population in line with resources.
  • Learned behaviors or instincts may limit when mating takes place.
  • High population will tend to attract predators (germs, in the case of humans)
  • If population is too high, hierarchical behavior may appear or increase. Because individuals who do not need resources get a disproportionate share of the total, there is less for those at the bottom of the hierarchy, helping to reduce population size more quickly than if resources are shared equally. Those at the top are spared.

With social animals, altruism becomes important, because the instinctual drives that keep the population in check must not be allowed to operate at too high a level within the family group. Therefore, within the home territory, social instincts tend to over-ride more basic sexual or survival instincts. Groups of the same species often share resources, look after young, and protect injured individuals.

In  most instances, populations with these (and other) checks and balances will tend to remain in “dynamic equilibrium” with the rest of the ecosystem. One exception to this rule is  in “pioneering” situations, when both food and territory increase, or when predators are removed. Human’s use of stored energy (both wood and fossil fuels) is in a way a type of pioneering behavior, because it allowed us to expand our food supply and eliminate predators.

Figure 2. World per capita energy consumption is now at an all-time high, thanks to the increasing use of coal. (Based on energy data from Vaclav Smil's, "Energy Transitions" and BP Statistical Data; population from Angus Maddison)

Humans are also different from other species in that our intelligence has allowed us to substitute learning for at least part of instinctual behavior. This substitution of learning for instinct, together with the use of external energy, seems to have led to over-population.

There are currently 7 billion humans on earth; Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones in Atlas of World Population History estimate that human population would be expected to be in the 70,000 – 1,000,000 range, based on a comparison with gorilla and chimpanzee populations. Clearly human population now far exceeds its expected share of the ecological system, as one among many animal species.

My interpretation of Dilworth’s theory applied to humans

Primitive Societies. Dilworth indicates that internal population checks (including abortion, infanticide, and prolonged abstention from intercourse) were almost universal in primitive societies. If twins were born, often one was put to death. If a second child was born before a mother was able to take care of it, it would be put to death. These population checks were helpful, but did not keep the population level. At least part of the problem was that new territory and food sources kept being added, because of humans’ inventiveness. Humans began using fire about 125,000 years ago, and emigrated out of Africa and settled new lands about 90,000 years ago.

Religions. Religions have played a major role in encouraging altruism within their own groups, with teachings such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Religions  are also are a way of passing on traditions and building connectedness among members.

Modern religions have not done as well with population control, however. The command, “Be fruitful and multiply” is at counter-purposes with population control. When missionaries are sent to primitive groups who still practice infanticide, this has the effect of raising population. The practice of improving health care without providing free contraceptives and teaching about birth control also tends to raise population.

The “instinct” to fight those of other religions is helpful from a population control point of view, but most readers of this article wouldn’t find it an acceptable way to solve population problems. Unfortunately, if we were to try to parallel population control methods of animal species, death through wars with neighboring countries would need to become acceptable.

Hierarchical behavior. I mentioned that if population control doesn’t come by other means, hierarchical behavior may take over, to solve the problem. Hierarchical behavior was not known among hunter-gatherers, but once humans settled down and started accumulating property for agriculture, hierarchical behavior became more the norm.

Hierarchical behavior has increased recently. Immediate causes of the shift would include such causes as:

  • Greater specialization as processes become more complex. Jobs that are at the top of the hierarchy pay very well.
  • Globalization. Jobs at the bottom of the hierarchy may compete with foreign labor or workers in countries where wages are low.
  • More debt. Debt tends to transfer interest-related payments from those at the bottom of the hierarchy to individuals at the top of the hierarchy.
  • Tax schemes. Modern schemes favor the wealthy and corporations.

Charles Murray recently wrote the book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray explores the formation of classes that are different from those American has known in the past. The lower classes are losing many of the stabilizing influences they have had in the past–marriage; opportunity to attend schools with people of all classes; joining religious groups.

I might also note that economics, and the belief in economic growth as a savior for all, has become almost a new religion. If this “religion” is followed, there is little need for other belief systems. Economic influences are not new, however. Trade was started very early, even before the days of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament. This tended to break down barriers among groups, reducing the effect of territoriality.

Another source of belief systems is television shows. These seem to portray how family life operates and explain what is truly important (more stuff!).

All of these new influences conflict with our instinctual behaviors to stay with our family groups, and not live lives that deviate too far from what we have known in the past.

Hope for the Future

Dilworth doesn’t see much hope for getting out of our of current predicament well. He talks about the vicious circle principle. A particular lifestyle at some point ceases to provide enough food for a growing population, so we develop a new approach that is not really better–for example, farming instead of hunter-gathering, or applying chemicals for fertilizer instead of waiting for natural cycles to take their course. We end up with more people, but those people are not really better off, and we find ourselves further into overshoot.

I can think of a couple of possible mitigations for our apparently bleak future, or at least our response to it.

1. Higher Power Intervention.

If a person looks at how ecological systems work together, one cannot help but be impressed by how the whole system (except possibly for humans, which are out of synch) works together. Perhaps there is a Higher Power behind all of the religions of the world, who has devised the plan as a whole, and who has a continuing plan for humans. We cannot know this with certainty, but the hope can be helpful for some individuals.

2. Greater Flexibility and Focus on the Present.

I think of a letter I received from “Derek” who has spent considerable time in Kenya.   I put up a letter from him on The Oil Drum in April 2009. He talks about a very different life there.

What I experience there [in Kenya] is a society that does pretty well with VERY little energy, all things considering. This wouldn’t be ‘pretty well’ by any standard of the Western world, though. But survival – and happiness! – are pretty much possible. Oddly, a first-time visitor would think the Masai live quite horribly, but they are very happy people and wouldn’t want to change a thing.

It’s the mindset that makes most Kenyans experience a happiness most Westerners would not consider possible given the realities, as they see and experience them.

In Kenya, we do use electricity (hydro / diesel), if we can. We have constant power cuts. But that’s not the only limit. In fact, the vast majority of us, even the so-called middle-class, build our lives around limits. Limits are the basis for every decision we make, business or otherwise. It is, you could say, a way of life that is happy when it is not done in, and not unhappy if things go wrong.

People there – including myself – would celebrate every day that was a good day. And a good day is one where we got by. I would say, for 95% of Kenyans, life there is very much focused on the hour, and hardly ever on the future.

One secret Derek points out is how this works out, when there is a great mishap, like a child dying.

. . . I have also been witness to a great many situations where people lost their children, cried for a week, and moved on, had new babies, weren’t depressed – nor impressed. This is strange to me too, but that is the way it is. People in Kenya have a different view of things.

We have been led to believe that we can control our futures by going to the “right” colleges and getting the “right” degrees and investing in the “right” investments. It looks like these approaches are not going to work any more. Perhaps we need to have the flexibility to try new (to us) more traditional approaches. Along with this, we need the ability to move on, when things aren’t working. If a child or spouse dies, we will somehow need to move on quickly.

Another piece of what needs to happen is that we need to find a way to get more connectedness and altruism back into society.  This is part of what makes life in Kenya as positive an experience as Derek reports that it is. Religion has played a role in this in the past. It seems to be especially the marginalized groups of society that are losing this connectedness.

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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153 Responses to Human population overshoot–what went wrong?

  1. Sky says:

    I guess I am wondering if there’s another negative feedback loop that might occur, the re – emergence of some strong instinct perhaps, something not in the present ‘World 3’ model? One can only hope!

  2. Justin Nigh says:

    I listened to a radio podcast today that featured a guest named Dave Gardner who has produced a film about our religion of growth. The film is called GrowthBusters and while I haven’t seen it yet, the trailer looks like it is very much worth watching. Holding screenings in your community is promoted by Dave as a way to get the message out about what growth is doing to us. It’s presented in a way that will hopefulyy appeal to a wide audience. See below for the trailer. Feedback from those who may have seen the movie is welcomed.

    • David Harney says:

      Hi Justin,

      GrowthBusters on DVD (New Version, 90 Minutes, Personal use & groups up to 20) Ships by 28 Feb. $19.95 plus $3.95 S/H

      In the clip you referenced, there is a comment “The first step toward curing an addition is to recognize that you have a problem” (or words close to that). I still think this is the crux of the issue and even the best of solutions are worthless without this first step. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that this problem recognition is forthcoming – perhaps a movie like this will help.

      Another interesting question arises if one really believes that mass extinction (however slow or fast) is inevitable: what kind of personal agenda does one adopt? Do you spend time/money on this movie? Is activism ultimately a futile gesture and a waste of time (other than its value as a hobby)? It seems that many of us commenting here speak of enjoying the realities of our daily life and not getting too stressed about events beyond our control. However, there are lots of practical implications associated with this viewpoint. If you want to enjoy your life (plus life of family and friends) do you stay politically active and vote for people you believe will avoid war, protect the environment, etc? Do you give money to charities that try to save lives in other countries? Do you spend time/money on preparation for hard times or self protection issues? Or, do you just go about your own established personal routine (whatever it is) and attempt to be flexible when things change? Or, maybe you just expect to die early? Or what?

      I don’t think there is a way to avoid making a decision. Making no decisions about these issues is actually making a decision.

      • Actually, pushing for drill-baby-drill would seem to have the possibility of putting off the crash to the extent that doing so is possible. But is this the right approach, ethically? The downslope looks pretty bad, regardless of timing or preparation.

      • Justin Nigh says:

        Hey Dave,

        I couldn’t agree more that the crux of the issue is first raising awareness and getting acknowledgement. People don’t change until they make such acknowledgements and have a desire to change. This often comes with a personal crisis. For example a heavy smoker that suffers a stroke that isn’t life threatening but jolts them into acting to quit. I think this came for a number of people with the GFC and we see the results in the Occupy movement, so I do believe awareness is increasing.

        I think it would be foolish to fiddle while Rome burns in case we’re wrong. Right or wrong in terms of the outcome of all this, the culture we’ve developed is one in which many people are unhappy so taking steps to exit the culture or remove oneself from it as much as possible is in my opinion a positive action, if only for personal mental health. While the fate of the species may be questionable, it’s important for people to feel like they have a purpose, otherwise they tend to get sick and die. Personally I’ve made steps to escape the ‘matrix’ by quitting my 9-5 job, consciously reduce our consumption of luxury goods, grow a % of our own veggies, use the car as little as possible, make a number of our own goods like bread, roasted coffee, pesto, hummus,etc. I’ve also started a business doing something I enjoy and feel is making a contribution to society. Initially, a sign of the growth cultures’ tenacity, I wanted to make this business a big success and take it nationally. I suppose the motivations behind it were fair; wanting to make enough money to have the freedom to visit my family in Canada more often, possibly splitting my time between Australia and home. Now I’m thinking I might just take it slow, reduce my work week to maybe 3 days and spend the rest getting involved in my community, volunteering in the local permaculture group, etc. while making a modest income that allows for the basics and not much more. I’m also inclined to buy at least one copy of the GrowthBusters movie and have contemplated sending some copies to the local council, government, and mining mogul (whose rotund appearance would indicate he has as little self control when it comes to food as he does with the desire for more of everything material), at least just for a laugh and if it elicits more than that it’s gravy. I’m relatively young at 33 so I might witness a lot of what is to come and as mentioned previously, not planning or preparing at all and getting caught out by it goes against the survival instinct. If things work out, well I still believe the lifestyle I’m working toward is positive in either scenario.

  3. Andrew of the Bay Area says:

    One of humanity’s little peculiar and asinine tendencies is to constantly attempt to avoid and deny that which it truly is: an animal. Capable of vicious, hateful and depraved acts under bad circumstances, such as lack of food.

    To me, religion or a value system of similar sorts, has historically held this back among individual communities. The wars between different communities are almost a part of the process of population control. Despite the growing hatred of religion in this country (and it IS hatred and intolerance), it will live on past some of the more modern and urban new religions (of secularism) which are merely the result of oil wealth and short-sighted thinking.

    It will be interesting to see how much white communities in the country (most communities in the country in the U.S.) are concerned with racism in the future. Ha. I am sure glad I am white!

  4. Justin Nigh says:

    I came across this video and thought I would share (at the end of the thread). David Korten’s presentation to 39th Trinity Institute National Theological Conference on Radical Abundance: A Theology of Sustainability. While I think everyone should watch, Dave in particular, I urge you to give this your time and I believe you’ll be able to find some agreement with a great number of points made. It would be a shame to miss them in light of the religious context.

    I was inspired to see this conversation occuring in a church. While I myself don’t align with a particular religion, I agree with most of their central beliefs which promote the sacredness and value of all life. While we’re aware of some of the church’s shortcoming and failings, largely due to it’s being usurped as an instrument of control by the dominator culture, in my opinion it’s important we don’t also lose it’s messages of life with the understandable rebellion against religion that is all too common today. As intimated here, there is a spiritual element to our predicament and so religion has a role to play.

    I especially liked Korten’s suggestions of how to effect great change by referencing the women’s liberation movement. He presents the idea of two narratives; the public narrative and private narrative. The public narrative was that women had no rights and shouldn’t have any, while women privately understood this was wrong. The same could be said today. The public narrative says growth and greed are good, we should be in opposition to each other through competition and predation. The private narrative tells us this isn’t true, that cooperation is our inclination, what’s good for others is good for us, and our culture of growth is not sustainable. Women started by sharing this private narrative with each other in private gatherings. Slowly, as they realised they weren’t alone in their private narrative, it became their public narrative and the knowledge began to spread until they acted on the new narrative which then became the new norm. You may recognise this is not unlike Charles Eisensteins method that I’ve spoken of here before. The conversations we’re having on this very blog are part of this process and I urge you all to have similar conversations in your communities as well.

    This is the approach I believe is necessary if we’re going to come together to attempt any change of trajectory. There is an epic battle of ideas happening in the world today. The converging crises are bringing this about. Let’s hope the most beneficial idea to our survival wins. It begins with talking about it, then doing it, and finally being it. (scroll to the bottom of the page for the video)

    • Don Stewart says:

      Dear Justin
      I read your ‘broken computer’ post the first time and agreed with it.

      As for modeling the future, it seems to me that we have many different issues:
      1. Liebig’s law of the minimum. The failure of the first critical system or input is the death knell. In a complex machine such as a computer, there are many, many such components.
      2. Exponential doubling. Before the last doubling, the glass was still only half full. Which makes it hard for human’s to see the danger. This applies not only to use of resources but also to debt.
      3. The nature of human behavior. The way hormones control us in pretty predictable ways. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow is a pretty good layman’s introduction to all that.
      4. The thermodynamic principles which imply flow of energy from areas of surplus to areas of shortage.

      I will elaborate a little more on the fourth issue–thermodynamics. Adrian Bejan, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University, has just published Design In Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization. I haven’t yet finished the book, and am certainly no expert–so caveat emptor. The gist of his argument is that it is simply a law of physics that design emerges in the world to facilitate flows. Thus, a tree is a design which facilitates the flow of water from the relatively saturated ground to the relatively dry air. And if you examine the design of trees in detail, you will find that the tree tends to accomplish that mission pretty effectively in terms of the collection system (roots), the trunk, and the spacing of the branches and leaves which actually lose the water to the air. Bejan sees global trade, similarly, as facilitating the flow of goods and services through human societies. And he derives from his root theory the designs that we should expect and shows that they are what we see.

      I should note that he does not require the presence of any ‘Designer’. A river’s flow can be predicted from the root theory. He even shows that mathematical patterns such as the Fibonacci series and the Golden Mean are derivable from his root theory.

      One of the implications of the theory is that evolution generally does have a direction–toward more efficient flow and more complex organizations. This assertion is in violation of the current Evolutionary Dogma that evolution has no direction.

      Bejan, perhaps since he sees direction in Evolution, is optimistic about the future. He sees continual improvements in human ability to use energy flows. If hydrocarbons are impossible because of Global Warming, then we will just use solar energy in all its manifestations.

      I am not ready to make any grand pronouncements about whether Bejan and the cadre of scientists who subscribe to the theory are correct or incorrect. I see many, many different ways to interpret it all. For example:
      1. Immense stores of hydrocarbons were locked up in the Earth (and Solar System, if you are a True Believer) and, in the course of time, Humans evolved with the brains to facilitate the flow of that buried energy into the atmosphere. Our history is similar to that of trees.
      2. Number 1 is true, but it turned out to be a catastrophic mistake and resulted in the Sixth Extinction on an obscure planet in the Milky Way.
      3. Bejan is correct that evolution tends to result in more efficient facilitation of flows, but he fails to see the immense ‘gift’ that hydrocarbons have been. Take away the hydrocarbons and the increased facilitation of flows would not be nearly so impressive in terms of the world made by machines.
      4. The most complex substance we know about is probably healthy soil. The soil ecosystem required a couple of billion years of evolution, mostly by single celled creatures. Everything Bejan says about facilitating flows can be said about healthy soil. To then claim, as Bejan does, that Industrial Agriculture (which kills soil) is a great advance is evidence of insanity.
      5. The future of the world COULD be modeled as the thermodynamically directed dispersion of energy equally among all people. Just as a tree takes water from the ground and moves it to the air, globalization might take resources and distribute them equally. This would likely be welcomed by those who have traditionally been shortchanged on resources, and provoke violent responses in those who have traditionally been gifted with excess resources.

      There are many other interesting question that will occur to you if you take Bejan seriously. But that is enough for now. All this stuff indicates to me that forecasting the future is very nearly impossible. I think humanity is walking on a knife edge–and prudent people will focus on some basic issues and prepare as best they can.

      Don Stewart

      • Justin Nigh says:

        Hi Don,

        I haven’t come across Bejan’s work before so thanks for sharing. I was just watching some videos by an economist, Jeff Rubin, who believes that, in the near-term, increasing oil prices will drive behaviour toward more local economies as global trade is no longer cost effective, but that it won’t signal the end of the world just the end of globalisation as we’ve known it. This is probably one of the more optimistic visions of post-peak oil. I suspect improvements in energy efficiency and decoupling from fossil fuels would also be an implicit effect of this process. If goods don’t need to be transported around the world, the volume of oil required in such an economy would be much lower. It strikes me as a pattern of crude lower energy efficiency globalisation (now) which collapses back to refined higher energy efficiency local economies, and may be viewed as progress or evolution of the trade and economic system and the energy inputs into them. This pattern of expansion followed by contraction or consolidation before the next increase in complexity is not an unusal growth pattern. Just another idea to add to the list.

        I do agree forecasting the future of such complex systems can be difficult if not impossible. As you say it’s a tight rope we’re walking at this critical juncture in our journey. I think you’re right about focusing on what you can control. Even if things aren’t so dire as they seem, people are longing for a return to some of the more fulfilling activities we’ve left behind, so such a focus on basic needs is a bit of welcome relief regardless of the outcome. Most of us know we’re living beyond our means, and a return to living within them might be a positive thing even if we had unlimited energy today.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Justin
          I am in a Permaculture class with a group of mostly mid-20s kids. The teacher of the class has been instrumental in helping people build 12X12 houses (144 sq. ft) and was immortalized in the book Twelve by Twelve. There is a similar movement in the US which you can find with a search on ‘tiny houses’. Many of them are around a hundred square feet and are on wheels. The teacher also helps Habitat for Humanity build simple houses which minimally comply with zoning and building and environmental codes.

          The teacher was talking about the regulatory hoops anyone building a 12X12 has to jump through (such as swearing that you do not intend to live in it–which troubles the religious people) to live like Thoreau lived almost 200 years ago. I asked about the tiny houses on wheels. The teacher was not very forthcoming on that subject. Apparently, if you have one of these and are living in it and have evaded the notice of the Authorities, it is best to keep quiet about it.

          In our area, there are areas of clay soils which cannot pass the percolation test for a septic tank. But the rules require either a conventional toilet hooked up to a city sewer system or else a septic tank. There is no provision for a composting toilet such as you might find on a boat. Since the Official Regulations sound absurd, the Officials came up with another option (drip lines) which cost roughly 35,000 dollars. Simple living, indeed! Yet I can show you dozens of composting toilets scattered around–you just have to keep yourself under the radar.

          So…as you say, many people are simplifying their lives in ways they find gratifying despite the best efforts of the Authorities to force them back into conventional channels.

          Don Stewart

      • It sounds like Bejan gets at least a little of the story. It is hard to see how he gets a happy ending out of it though–we head toward 10 million people, an even more industrial agriculture system, and even more distortion of the natural processes. Somehow, we keep appropriating more energy to help us do this, but the energy we appropriate doesn’t add to global warming. Perhaps he thinks the “can” can be kicked down the road farther–but how does this not lead to a crash as well, perhaps a bit later?

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Gail
          Bejan is an interesting person to study. Born in Bulgaria, living under the Soviet system, and choosing to emigrate to the West. He sees nothing to question in the Western lifestyle–cars and airplanes and shiny appliances are just the latest and greatest examples of his particular brand of evolution and its direction toward ever greater perfection (Airplanes are an advance on birds, automobiles and advance on walking).

          It’s interesting that he starts from some of the same observations as Permaculture: conservation of or maximum utilization of energy and materials. He does not seem to have much interest in some of the other Permaculture principles such as ‘no waste’, ‘respect for people’, ‘respect for the land’, and ‘work with nature, not against it’. He doesn’t have much taste for religion, but other than that he probably admires Rick Santorum. If you were to question him about Global Warming, he would probably opine that we can fix it technologically by deploying the appropriate earth based or space based systems. Just as he thinks industrial agriculture is a ‘fix’ for the flaws of organic agriculture or Permaculture. He probably also thinks that The Toxic Triad (big agriculture, big food, and big pharma) are cures for Chronic Disease).

          Having just recently read his book (and thus perhaps not having a completely balanced perspective), it seems to me:
          1. His observations on energy use and conservation and their connection to Design are on the money.
          2. His lack of any religious or spiritual or otherwise non-self centered system of values makes him dangerous.
          3. His embrace of pretty rigid hierarchies makes him the kind of man I probably couldn’t have polite discussions with.

          Don Stewart

  5. Since the Nesting was getting ridiculous again, I’m going to paste Gail’s last post, then reply here.

    gailtheactuary says:
    February 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm
    I am sure that there will be some living organisms on earth that continue to do quite well, especially if humans are much less numerous or cease to exist. It is our existence that has caused the death of or reduced habitat for many species.

    My guess is that the collapse in human population will be fairly rapid (20-50 years), after the financial system implodes, and it becomes much more difficult to transact business long-distance. We will need to relearn how to do things that we could do 50 or 100 or 1000 years ago, because the systems that were in place then are no longer in place. This will make it difficult to do things that were at one time taken for granted–operating huge fleets of sailing boats, for example.

    I expect that infectious diseases will likely become a problem quite quickly, even if food and water can somehow be handled, because of our high population now.

    The reason why I see a fairly rapid decline is because we don’t have systems in place (that I can see) to facilitate a transfer to a lower-energy world. In the past, we built systems gradually, expanding and upgrading as we went–everything from banking to trucks and trains to electrical systems to manufacturing facilities to healthcare. We don’t have a good way of going backwards, that I can see. If we scale back the transport system, the electrical system will suffer, if for no other reason than that it is not meant to operate at much lower capacity. It is still necessary to repair transmission lines, even if there are fewer users, and fewer roads servicing those transmission lines. And of course electric utilities must still pay back debt, regardless of how few customers they have. This is just an example–nothing really moves backwards well.
    20-50 years would be a mighty quick extinction.

    First off, this means even knocking off the last of the Inuit in Nunavut, the last of the Kalahari Bushmen, the last of the Aboriginal Australians, the last of the Amazonian tribes.

    From Wiki:

    “On 18 January 2007, FUNAI reported that it had confirmed the presence of 67 different uncontacted tribes in Brazil, up from 40 in 2005. With this addition Brazil has now overpassed New Guinea as the country having the largest number of uncontacted peoples.

    Besides that are numerous neo-Primitivists who already are practicing neolithic living. So, while perhaps you could achieve a 99.9999% Dieoff of Homo Sapiens inside 50 years, it is highly unlikely you could completely squash out the species simply through collapse of the Ag systems.

    Besides all these folks, there are also numerous EXTREMELY wealthy people who have underground Bunkers built complete with renewable energy power sources, hydroponic growing systems, and freeze dried foods with shelf lives of 50 years by themselves.

    Now, once 99.9999% of the Homo Sapiens population gets knocked down, the prey move back in much faster than the predators do. So by the time you emerge from your Bunker, there are caribou that have moved in to downtown Anchorage.

    In the absence of some disease vectors or Nuclear poisoning or sufficient Ocean acidification to knock down the phytoplankton and destroy the food chain from the bottom up, I do not think you possibly could wipeout Homo Sapiens in 50 years. You don’t have a vector strong enough to accomplish the task, and their are too many people still left who know how to live by the old ways.


    • Reverse Engineer, you make a good argument, and if the environment stays roughly the same, then I would agree with you. But there are several things that simply won’t stay the same: first is climate change. Overwhelming evidence shows that climate change is happening far more quickly than was predicted originally. What’s more, there is mounting evidence that we are about to pass, or already have passed, climate tipping points which lead to runaway warming – not in a hundred years, but in 10 or 15.

      Second, are nuclear power plants. Assuming Gail and many, many others are right and we have a rapid massive die-off, what happens to the 400+ nuclear power plants that are out there requiring significant amounts of energy and technology to keep them functioning? Even if we shut them down, what do we do about the millions of tons of radioactive waste that requires constant cooling for thousands of years? The plants are positioned in such a way that virtually every place on the planet will be doused with lethal amounts of radioactivity. So much for the aboriginals.

      Nuclear power plants are just one example of the chemical and biological nasties that the modern industrial technology has created. Alan Wiesman covered this fairly extensively in his book “The World Without Us”. A sobering read but definitely recommended.

    • You may be right about that. I was thinking about people living in New York City and Tokyo.

  6. As I said, in the ABSENCE of Nuclear Poisoning you don’t have a powerful enough vector, not even climate change is powerful enough. Homo Sapiens has lived through Ice Ages and in hot climates also. Just their locations would shift as far as what zone is habitable. The gas balance on Earth even in an extreme situation isn’t enough to produce runaway heating like on Venus. So much water would go up into the atmosphere a permanent cloud cover would remove heat from the surface. Albedo effect. It just can’t get that hot on Earth.

    Nuclear Waste as it is currently distributed out is an ELE waiting to happen. I favor collecting all the material, glassing it with silica so it doesn’t dissolve and dropping it into a subduction zone off of the coast of Antarctica. It wont go super critical and should only kill off very deepwater fish and anaerobic life forms that aren’t critical to the food chain.

    Left where it is, when the society breaks down, you’ll have a Fuk-U-Shima on every streetcorner. In theory though, it can be avoided.


  7. Justin Nigh says:

    Hi Gail,

    I’d be interested in getting your analysis of the following argument made by economist Jeff Rubin. I agree with his theory of an oil shock causing the GFC and while his suggestion future shocks will drive us to rengineer our economy to one that is local and regional and therefore less oil dependent, I wonder if the economy is flexible enough to make the transition.

    • Justin,

      Sorry I am so slow in responding (traveling, illness, thought the video was longer than it was).

      I agree with most of what Jeff Rubin says. I certainly agree that we are running out of oil we can afford.

      The one place I am somewhat iffy is on how the globalization situation works out. Higher oil prices will certainly make it more expensive to transport heavy, bulky items, long distances. For small, light-weight items, this is less of an issue.

      I am less sanguine that Jeff Rubin is on how this will work out. We optimize the amount of “stuff” we can make by combining cheap labor from one place, lithium from another, oil from another, iron from another, and transporting things around the world to produce the desired product. I think regionalization is likely to lose a lot. (Jeff may understand this as well, but not be talking about it.)

      As I look back at the ancient world (and probably every time in between), there was quite a bit of transport by barge and boat, within what now are probably regions. People realized that it is very difficult to survive with just the goods that can be produced from one particular location. When we didn’t have oil, we optimized the system to use whatever was available–animal power or coal. What we really need is new systems, optimized for entirely different variables than huge ships and long-distance air. This works pretty well, if we gradually build up to a system, as when people keep improving on sail transport and adding new ships. But now, it is almost impossible to go back. We don’t have the systems in place we would need, and I find it hard to believe that we will be able to create new systems fast enough, to adapt to a changing world.

      There is also the issue of too many people now. If regionalization loses total capacity, it will be difficult to feed the people now on earth.

      • Justin Nigh says:

        Hi Gail,

        No problem. Thank you for taking the time to watch the video and provide a thoughtful reply. I too have been busy lately and haven’t had a chance to respond. I agree with your analysis. I believe the complexities of the system are such that it’s beyond our control, and when the unravelling begins in earnest will be hard to stop or redirect its’ momentum. It’s nice to think perhaps a solution will be found at the 11th hour, and such solutions can’t always be anticipated so it’s not impossible. Hoping for the best and expecting the worst sums it up.

        TED has a couple of videos up at the moment which appear to be opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is a talk by Peter Diamandis on ‘abundance is our future’, the second a talk by Paul Gilding on our, by now, well dissected failure of the infinite growth/finite resource paradigm titled ‘the Earth is Full’. Peter strikes me as naively optimistic and seems to have tunnel vision in regards to his views on technology. He sends people into zero gravity and has created a rocket racing league; both obscene wastes of energy against a backdrop of dwindling supply. Paul is much more realistic but retains a twinge of optimism that perhaps is required to avoid people tuning out (other than the choir). The reaction of the crowd after each presentation is also telling. Peter gets a standing ovation. Is this because he has a more compelling argument, or is it because he is telling people what they want to hear? Both videos have created heated debates between the optimists and the realists on Facebook and the TED comments. Links to the videos are below.

        Paul Gilding

        Peter Diamandis

        • I listened to Paul GUiding’s talk. He doesn’t seem to understand the resource limit problem we are up against. All of his concern is focused on climate change (and some related issues like ocean acidification), and how we can overcome that (using resources I don’t think we have). He is only telling part of the story. With that part of the story, he can claim the possibility of a happy ending. So I don’t think that even he has the story right. I am not sure that there is any of this story that people would be interested in listening to (unless we could come up with a fake happy ending).

          • Justin Nigh says:

            He has demonstrated a recognition of the resource limit problem, specifically peak oil, in other talks, but I agree that he could be underestimating the implications and magnitude of the problem. You’ll have noticed he has a strong belief in the human ability to respond quickly and with enormous effort in the face of immediate crisis (which he says we’re entering now). He cites wartime efforts such as WW2 following the bombing of Pearl Harbour. He has also stated elsewhere that if we are unable to respond adequately to the crisis, it’s likely to end our civilisation. Essentially I would say he is on board with us, but in he interest of marketing the issue to elicit a response, he proposes a ‘fake happy ending,’ by holding onto a thin thread of hope that we’ll find a way to avoid collapse through such efforts. He also admits that whatever the outcome, the path is certain to contain much suffering. Given all this, I think he gets it, but is toning down the doom and gloom to avoid being ignored altogether, and despite this that’s exactly what’s happening with many of the comments on the video.

  8. tampatiml says:

    Reblogged this on Tampatiml’s Blog.

  9. timl2k11 says:

    Reblogged this on Sunset America.

  10. timl2k11 says:

    I’m persuaded that society will break down in a very disorderly manner, i.e. we won’t even see it coming. What about you?

    • I think you may be right, but fortunately we don’t know. We can spend a lot of time worrying about these things, but I don’t think it will help a whole lot for planning. I expect contagious diseases will play a bigger role than we expect.

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