Why Malthus Got His Forecast Wrong

Most of us have heard that Thomas Malthus made a forecast in 1798 that the world would run short of food. He expected that this would happen because in a world with limited agricultural land, food supply would fail to rise as rapidly as population. In fact, at the time of his writing, he believed that population was already in danger of outstripping food supply. As a result, he expected that a great famine would ensue.

Most of us don’t understand why he was wrong. A common misbelief is that the reason he was wrong is that he failed to anticipate improved technology. My analysis suggests that there were really two underlying factors which enabled the development and widespread use of technology. These were (1) the beginning of fossil fuel use, which ramped up immediately after his writing, and (2) a ramp up in non-governmental debt after World War II, which enabled the rapid uptake of new technology such as the sale of cars and trucks. Without fossil fuels, availability of  materials such as metal and glass (needed for most types of technology) would have been severely restricted. Without increased debt, common people would not have been able to afford the new types of high-tech products that businesses were able to produce.

This issue of why Malthus’s forecast was wrong is relevant today, as we grapple with the issues of world hunger and of oil consumption that is not growing as rapidly as consumers would like–certainly it is not keeping oil prices down at historic levels.

What Malthus Didn’t Anticipate

Malthus was writing immediately before fossil fuel use started to ramp up.

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

The availability of coal allowed more and better metal products (such as metal plows, barbed wire fences, and trains for long distance transport).  These and other inventions allowed the number of farmers to decrease at the same time the amount of food produced (per farmer and in total) rose. On a per capita basis, energy consumption rose (Figure 2) allowing farmers and others more efficient ways of growing crops and manufacturing goods.

Figure 2. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

Figure 2. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

If it hadn’t been for the fossil fuel ramp up, starting first with coal, Malthus might in fact have been right. As it was, population was able to ramp up quickly after the addition of fossil fuels.

Figure 3. World Population, based on Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

Figure 3. World Population, based on Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

A person can see that there was a particularly steep rise in population, right after World War II, in the 1950s and 1960s (Figure 3). This is when oil consumption mushroomed (Figure 2, above), and when oil enabled better transport of crops to market, use of tractors and other farm equipment, and medical advances such as antibiotics. The Green Revolution allowed agricultural production to expand greatly during this period. It used fossil fuels (particularly oil and natural gas) to enable the synthetic fertilizers, irrigation, hybrid seed, herbicides and pesticides, allowing increased food production.

It is likely that increased consumer and business debt following World War II (Figure 4) also played a role in the post-World War II ramp up.

Figure 4. US Debt excluding Federal Debt as Ratio to GDP, based on Z1 Debt data of the Federal Reserve and GDP from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Figure 4. US Debt excluding Federal Debt as Ratio to GDP, based on Z1 Debt data of the Federal Reserve and GDP from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The reason I say that debt likely played a role in this ramp is because at the end of World War II, people were, on average, pretty poor. The United States had recently been through the Depression. Many were soldiers coming back from war, without jobs. Without a ramp up in factory work and related employment, many would be unemployed. A ramp up in debt fixed several problems at once:

  • Allowed low-paid workers funds to buy new products, such as cars, that used oil
  • Allowed entrepreneurs funds to set up factories
  • Allowed pipelines to be built, and other support for ramped up oil extraction
  • Provided jobs for many coming home from the war effort

The debt ramp up, and the resulting increase in oil production, raised living standards. Figure 2 shows that the increase in per capita energy consumption was far greater in the 1950 to 1970 period when oil production was ramped up than in the coal ramp-up between 1840 and 1920. The long coal ramp-up period does not appear to have been accompanied by such a big ramp-up in non-governmental debt.

Tentative Conclusion

A tentative conclusion might be that as long as we can keep ramping up availability of energy products and debt, Malthus’s views are not very relevant.

Of course, things aren’t looking as benign today. World oil production has been close to flat since about 2005 (Figure 5).

Figure 5. World crude oil production (including condensate) based primarily on US Energy Information Administration data, with trend lines fitted by the author.

Figure 5. World crude oil production (including condensate) based primarily on US Energy Information Administration data, with trend lines fitted by the author.

The world has been able to increase production of other fuels to compensate so far. Unfortunately, the big increase is in coal (Figures 1 and 2). This mostly relates to growth in the economies of Asian countries, which are large users of coal.

The cost of oil has more than tripled in the last ten years. The higher cost of oil is a problem, because it leads to recession, unemployment, and governmental debt problems in oil-importing countries. See my posts High-Priced Fuel SyndromeUnderstanding Our Oil-Related Fiscal Cliff, and The Close Tie Between Energy Consumption, Employment, and Recession.

Continued increase in debt now seems to be running into limits. Federal government debt is in the news every day, and non-government debt seems to be contracting relative to GDP, based on Figure 4.

Looking Ahead

I am not sure that we can conclude that we are headed for catastrophe the day after tomorrow, but the graphs give a person reason to pause to think about the situation.

The reason I write posts is to try to pull together the big picture. If we only look at the latest new item  forecasting huge increases in tight oil production or talking about 200 years of natural gas, it is easy to reach the conclusion that all of our problems are past. If we look at the big picture, they clearly are not.

Debt problems are closely related to high oil prices in recent years. Debt problems are today’s issue, and they are not being considered in the huge oil and gas forecasts we see everywhere. The new tight oil and the new shale gas resources likely will need to be financed by increasing amounts of debt, so there is a direct connection with debt. There is also an indirect connection, through governmental debt problems, higher taxes, and the likely resulting recession (leading to lower oil prices, perhaps too low to sustain the high cost of extraction).

Also, it is interesting that the supposedly huge increases in US oil supply don’t really translate to any discernible bump in world oil supply in Figure 5.

We know that the world is finite, and that in some way, at some point in the future, easily extractable supplies of many types of resources will run short. We also know that pollution (at least the way humans define pollution) can be expected to become an increasing problem, as an increasing number of humans inhabit the earth, and as we pull increasingly “dilute” resources from the ground.

Based on earth’s long-term history, and on the experience of other finite systems, it is clear that at some point, perhaps hundreds or thousands of years from now, the earth will cycle to a new state–a new climate with different dominant species.  It may turn out that these new species are plants, rather than animals. The new dominant species will likely be ones that can benefit from our waste. Humans would of course like to push this possibility back as long as we can.

At this point, my goal is to pull together a view of the big picture, in a way that other analysts usually miss. The picture may not be pretty, but we at least need to understand what the issues are. Is the shift in the cycle very close at hand? If so, what should our response be?

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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160 Responses to Why Malthus Got His Forecast Wrong

  1. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    My interpretation of your experiences in Russia is pretty grim: a country that collapsed and is still getting worse. Then I read Dmitry Orlovs report from St. Petersburg today and it is all sweetness and light. Ugo Bardi chimes in and agrees that everything is getting better over there. Since I have no desire to spend a year touring around Russia trying to decide for myself, I can’t come to any conclusion.

    I have similarly been looking into the interesting questions that you, in part, raised about soil fertility and the end of fossil fuels, and the need for mined minerals. I find diametrically opposite conclusions. Some people find, with evidence, that just adding organic matter to the soil is all that is needed. Others find, with evidence, that the addition of very specific mined minerals is essential to restore nutritional balance.

    In short, I am just not smart enough to sort out all the conflicting evidence. Do you have any suggestions? Am I just too stupid to figure it out?

    Thanks…Don Stewart

    • I don’t think you are stupid. I think we live in a world similar to that in which people each described an elephant very differently, depending on which part of the elephant they were looking at (legs, trunk, tail, side). The reports we get are all skewed by the perspective of the authors. Somehow, we have to keep trying to dig through, and see what the big picture is saying.

      These are my takes on the two questions you mentioned:

      I think in Russia, there is a big difference between the major cities (St. Petersburg and Moscow) and the rest of Russia. I know Dmitry makes this distinction as well. There is also a distinction between things that can be helped by private investment (more cars, more restaurants, etc) and things that require government upgrades (roads, pipelines, etc.) The private investment part is doing well. The public part is doing less well. There are many indicators that things are not going all that well. In 2010, the life expectancy for males was only 63.0 years. This is far lower than for other developed countries. You need to somehow wade through different trends. The country is terribly dependent on oil and gas exports for tax revenue. A report by Mark Lewis of Deutsche Bank indicated that Russia needs a price of $115.90 to meet its budget (Slide 26 of this presentation).

      With soil, I think that there are long term and short term issues. The way nature has arranged things, base rock erodes at a rate of about 1″ per 1,000 years. It provides the micronutrients we need, and is the major source of new top soil. As far as I can see, the only truly long-term sustainable course of action is the one nature provides. Nature also has a system of predators, insects and microbes. For now, humans have taken over the role of top predator. I don’t think the current system, with humans as top predator, can last. Eventually, the natural system will cycle to a new equilibrium, with new top species–not humans.

      The sustainability actions are about providing fixes, nearly always temporary (in geologic time) and not quite complete, for our long-term problems. If we define success in terms of 50 years, or 100 years, or even 500 years, some of them may well be successful. It probably doesn’t hurt to find out.

      The sustainability fixes nearly always have a fossil fuel component to them, so that “embedded energy” is part of the solution. This works for now, but we can’t count on replicating them for the long term. For example, forest gardens assume that we have a fossil fuel system that allows us to find plants from other areas, and move them to the desired location. We have educated people who can study the related needs of plants, and try to figure out which plants are complementary. Over time (perhaps very long–say 500 years, but it could be shorter), nature is almost certain to undo our work, through changing climate, or mutations of plants, or diseases, or something. The result is likely to be a somewhat changed system that produces somewhat less food for humans (“reversion to the mean”). Without education, and access to plants at a distance that we might substitute for ones that are going downhill, it will be difficult to keep up the system for the long term.

      Nature has provided its own system which works very well, although it doesn’t produce as much human food as we would like. We can try to imitate it, and can come up with a mix of plants that provides a greater mix of food and no degradation of the soil. It is hard to do as good a job as nature, though, and it will be very difficult to maintain for the long-term. Also, the share of the food that humans get from these gardens is likely to be skewed in current analyses with what we are capable of now, when we have tools such as ladders and shovels and ways of shielding plants from predators. If we lose these, we will go back to a situation closer to hunter-gatherers.

  2. Dear Gail, Even though I commented earlier I still like reading your post. You have many.many responses and have actually either felt the public pulse or hit a nerve. I’m not sure if poeple realize that you’re not claiming to be an expert. You just reporting your facts and observations as you personally crest the horizon. It’s obvious that you are leaning things from your readers and that is very good.

    So here’s what i think again. If you keep stirring the pot…….i’ll keep adding the salt and pepper. Keep Blogging. Keep Writing.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Here is a little more information on soil minerals which serve as plant nutrients, organic matter in the soil, weathering, losses to leaching, etc. I will give you a few excerpts from Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden. If you go to Amazon, you can use the ‘look inside’ feature and search for ‘Bringing the Soil to Life’. They will let you look at about 4 pages, which isn’t the whole story, but will give you a good flavor for what is going on.

    ‘Once these nutrients have been chiseled out of the stone, in a natural ecosystem they are husbanded with great care. Life is the great recycler, scrupulous in not letting go of any useful substance. An example from a typical northern forest illustrates this. Researchers found that the plants and soil of 1 hectare of forest contained 365 kilograms of calcium. Of this, only about 8 kilograms (2 percent) was lost each year in runoff. Most of the forest’s calcium–98 percent–was being decomposed and held by soil life and transferred back to plant roots for another round. The washed-away 8 kilograms of calcium could easily be acquired by the forest each year: More than half that much splashed down as dissolved calcium in rainwater. The remainder of the lost calcium could be weathered from the rocks by roots and soil life.’

    ‘How does life do such an incredible job of recycling, and how can we duplicate this economy in our gardens? To work toward an answer, let’s look at the fate of a falling leaf as it composts into nutrients and is readied for a return to life.’

    And then if you follow along on the next half dozen pages, you will learn exactly how Mother Nature accomplishes the feat, how The Green Revolution destroys the ability of Mother Nature to do her work, how the agriculture practiced before the Green Revolution destroyed the ability of Mother Nature to do her work, and what we need to be doing instead.

    I warn you that I am not a farm consultant for soils. But my guess is that if you are starting with seriously degraded soils with mineral imbalances, you may very well need to make mineral amendments to your soil. If years of abuse have depleted the calcium, you may have to purchase calcium and add it. If you have the good fortune to inherit a healthy piece of soil, then you can just go into maintenance mode and you won’t have to buy much of anything if you recycle everything.

    It is also quite possible that extreme environments such as the wet side of the Cascades, which get an awful lot of rain in the winter when soil life is mostly dormant, may be particularly prone to the leaching of nutrients. It may be that these environments are simply not suitable for growing annual crops. Steve Solomon, who lived there, claims that if you dig down below the forest duff, you quickly run into nutrient depleted soils.

    Don Stewart

  4. Pingback: Véspera de nada » Blog Archive » O erro de Malthus

  5. jen vogh says:

    Gail, if you have not seen Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’, you might really enjoy it, as it depicts a future world where plants, fungi and insects are the dominant species, feeding on pollutants created by humans. You might appreciate a reference to a nice research paper a bit more than an anime film, but i think art can expand our minds a bit and perhaps help us prepare for the strange twists and turns the future may take.
    Thank you for this nice post, by the way. Every year i think that this just can’t go on, and it does, and i feel a bit Malthian. Anylysing where he went a little amiss is a good exercise.

  6. Bicycle Dave says:

    I find it troubling that some of the more scholarly comments here suggest that population levels are stabilizing or decreasing. This assertion is not borne out by any research that I’m familiar with. For starters, anyone making claims about population growth should understand the term:


    ” A positive growth ratio (or rate) indicates that the population is increasing ” i.e. this means anything over 0.0 states that the population is growing.

    I really don’t care about theories regarding fertility rates, women’s education, immigration, etc. All that counts is the fact that global population is increasing as well as the population of the US. Please don’t argue with me – direct your complaints to https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2002.html

    US growth rate = 0.9% (this is over 0.0 and the math over time shows the problem)
    World = 1.096%

    Maybe a little simple math is in order: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hM1x4RljmnE

    Perhaps subscribing to the right organizations would help: http://www.populationconnection.org/site/PageServer

    Or, maybe look at the UN predictions: http://esa.un.org/wpp/other-information/faq.htm#q1 (10B in 2083)

    Perhaps reading something by a guy who has studied this all his adult life: http://www.amazon.com/The-Dominant-Animal-Evolution-Environment/dp/1597260975/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1355716646&sr=8-1&keywords=dominant+animal

    Then we have the totally insane idea that finding new sources of energy justifies having more humans on the planet. Ultimately, humans need more than energy supplies to have a decent existence. Apparently, we are too delusional to understand what the current high rate of other species extinction means to us; or the soil problem; or desertification; or ocean acidification; etc. All this before we even bother to mention GW. Our collective delusions seem to have convinced us that the role of planet earth is to provide for the absolute maximum number of humans.

    I believe that a species that is capable of putting robots on Mars, can understand the simple math of “overshoot”. Also, large groups of people have done extraordinary things in the past when confronted with impending catastrophe. Clearly, in our current predicament, the central problem for human survival is our reproductive behavior; clearly we should have a goal of cutting our current population level in half over the next century by the most humane means possible; clearly, the solution is to only have one child per group of people (not one child per woman) – do the math. And yet, this line of thought is inconceivable in our current public discourse. Obviously, there are reasons why we can’t allow ourselves to think in this fashion.

    • You have no doubt seen my graph:

      World population by area

      The people who look at birth rates forget immigration. There are very few places that are net negative on population–mostly areas of the Former Soviet Union and Japan. If I remember correctly, Italy as well, because of tight immigration laws.

      We are not making much progress, because much of the world population is so young. Even if they have only 2.1 children per woman, the world’s population will continue to rise.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        I think you are right. And also, people tend to forget that just stopping immigration is not an automatic fix for a growing population. The US has lots of immigrants performing tasks that we seem to want performed. It is not clear that removing the immigrants will lead to population stabilization or decrease. Perhaps we will breed our own workers for those tasks – who knows? Very hard to predict what indirect factors will change population growth patterns without actually addressing the problem itself.

  7. Don Stewart says:

    You asked about tropical soils and nutrient retention. I am not even a real soil expert on North Carolina soils, much less tropical soils. But I may be able to give you a few clues.

    The plains states in the US have less rainfall than evaporation. Thus, other things being equal, rainfall would not tend to leach out water soluble nutrients. In contrast, places in the Pacific Northwest, Maine, and southern Florida have more rainfall than evaporation, and so rain water will tend to leach nutrients out of the soil. Many places in the tropics also have high rainfall with lower evaporation and will tend to leach out nutrients. Thus, we have the commonly accepted principle that many tropical soils are nutrient poor below the few inches at the top which are constantly replaced by leaf litter.

    Permaculture attempts to ‘garden’ the world rather than just accept it as it is, as a hunter-getherer would do. There are a few arrows in the Permaculture quiver. One arrow is to deliberately add all the organic matter available. Thus, organic matter may be taken from an adjacent ‘vacant lot’ to add to a cultivated patch. This doesn’t change the large area very much, but it does concentrate nutrients where they may do the most good for humans. Organic matter works through the Cation Exchange Capacity, which is a measure of the electrical attraction between nutrients and the organic matter in the soil. Briefly, the humus attracts the nutrients (but not nitrogen) and keeps them from leaching away. A second arrow is to plant what are called ‘dynamic accumulators’. For example, if you have ever examined a daikon radish, you know that it is a rather sturdy pointed object which can penetrate pretty deeply into the ground. So it can break up subsoil. If the radish is turned under rather than eaten, the nutrients it has accumulated will be available to subsequently planted crops. If you examine a Permaculture manual, you will find many suggestions of plants which are capable of bringing nutrients from deep in the subsoil up to the topsoil layer to make them available to plants most useful to humans.

    While the plants used in the tropics will be different from the plants used here in North Carolina, the principles are similar.

    Then there is the peculiar nature of bio-char, which was popularlized by Albert Bates in his book The Biochar Solution. Albert believes that biochar in the Amazon had the power to change global climate several hundred years ago. After the destruction of the native population wrought by European diseases, biochar was forgotten. Now it has been rediscovered and is the subject of scholarly study. Here, for example, is one such report:


    I have chatted in the hall at a meeting with Albert about biochar. But if you really want to know about it, I think you should give him a call. Better to have two rich and famous people talking to each other rather than have some obscure, poverty stricken and not very intelligent guy trying to explain.

    At any rate, it seems to me that biochar is particularly applicable to the problem of tropical productivity–and may very well play an important part in terms of carbon sequestration.

    Don Stewart

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “biochar… may very well play an important part in terms of carbon sequestration.”

      Particularly if the wood is being carbonized for some other purpose. We sift our wood stove ash, incorporating the charcoal into potting soil and other amendments, making a solution of the rest for use in fertigation. (Combined with urine and ~8 parts water, it makes a lovely organic 1:1:1 fertilizer that can easily be run through your irrigation system.)

    • It never occurred to me that you could have different evaporation than rainfall. I can understand less evaporation than rainfall, especially for the short term–some of the extra water would go into the underground aquifer, at least for a while, until it got overfull. Or perhaps rivers in the area would be effective in carrying the water out to the ocean.

      To have more evaporation than rainfall, is it necessary to have irrigation (either pumped or river)? Or does the water in the aquifer “wick up”? If it did, it seems like it would deplete pretty quickly.

      • Don Stewart says:

        I see the bait but I am a wily trout that will not rise to it.

        This was all worked out between a biologist named Transeau and William Abrecht at the University of Missouri. I think this link will take you to a page of a book which contains a map of the United States and the degree of leaching of soil minerals they experience. You can see that the Southeast is highly subject. My own understanding is that adding more organic matter to the soil increases the ability of the soil to use its electrical properties to attact and retain minerals. Measured by the Cation Exchange Capacity which is revealed by a soil test.

        But if there are any real soil scientists in the crowd, they may wish to explain it all to us…Don Stewart


        • Don Stewart says:

          Well, on second thought, I will send my trout cousin to rise to the bait.

          Steve Solomon, a well known garden writer, has just published The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food. He relates (page 49) a story about Albrecht.

          ‘When lecturing, Albrecht often told stories. ..you have to first consider what the evapotranspiration map says about the state of Missouri. It shows a considerable difference along an imaginary line drawn from the norwest corner of the state to the southeast corner. There is annual rainfall of about 30 inches at St. Joseph in the norwest corner; there is more than double that amount in the Ozarks, which are southeast. Prior to WWII, the great majority of foods eaten by a great majority of Americans came from farms fewer than 50 miles from their homes. Thus, health and disease statistics of the era show profound regional differences. In 1940, preparing for war, the American government instituted universal conscription….In the northwest of Missouri, 200 young men per 1,000 were deemed medically unfit for military service; in the southeast of Missouri, 400 per 1000 were found to be unfit, and from the middle of the state, where rainfall was about half of the extremes, 300 per 1000 were unfit.

          Similarly, the Army collected statistics on dental health; the number of cavities in inductees was directly related to the evapotranspiration map…These days, when most people eat from supermarkets that bring food from everywhere, such differences have largely evened out–for the worse. And since all industrial farming is done using much the same economically rational soil-fertility management approach, our average health these days more resembles that of people from the Ozarks in 1940 than the people living around St. Joe.’

          Solomon characterizes Albrecht’s career on page 46:
          ‘In Albrecht’s day official ag establishment farming guidelines, the universities, and the government all asserted that farming required only NPK and sometimes lime to adjust soil pH. Soil organic matter was of little concern, and, in any case, deeply indebted farmers could not afford to do what it takes to rebuild soil organic matter….Albrecht’s work supports the belief that disease and insect problems are rarely seen if due attention is paid to soil fertility.’

          Nutrient retention in soil is complex and I quickly get over my head. I tend to follow the arguments of my betters and then remember the rather simple minded takeaways. What I have taken away is the message to increase organic matter to increase the Cation Exchange Capacity (and do a host of other good things, besides) and to slow down water so that it can sink into the ground. Steve Solomon has raised the additional point that if local soils are deficient in some plant nutrient (calcium, for instance), then just making compost in calcium deficient soils and putting it on your garden isn’t going to be a complete solution. In a worst case scenario, we would find ourselves stranded in the Ozarks (or equivalent) with no fossil fuel powered industrial structure to help us out with minerals mined elsewhere and processed to an appropriate level of purity and transported to our doorstep. As Solomon also observes, normal is now equivalent to the poor Ozarks of 1940. So mineral depletion has continued apace during the last 70 years. Another take away for me is the urgent need to stop mineral depletion both with soil management and by assiduous recycling.

          Don Stewart

          • THanks! I think I remember reading the Missouri story before, which is part of the reason I made the comment in response to your earlier comment.

            Also, living in Georgia, I have the distinct impression that the compost I bought was as nutrient deficient as the soil was to begin with. I am not entirely sure the soil is good for growing much other than trees.

            I know that my (now grown) children had more health issues than I did growing up.

        • I wonder if the lower nutrients in the areas with high leaching don’t go with poorer health and education outcomes in those areas, at least historically. There is a big disparity in test scores between the North and the South, with the difference breaking about where soils differ.

  8. the ongoing general theme in this series of posts has reverted to the fantasy themes of food production among people of similar inclination
    I have no doubt that some on here are competent gardeners and food producers, and would freely give time help and advice to anyone who asked, but I fear you miss the crux of the matter, A cycle of harvest to harvest is one year, and we are discussing social collapse here, not a temporary closure of a supermarket.
    So can we get away from this bucolic bliss image of peaceful country dwellers and get real?
    At the start of any year, the vast majority might have a week of two of food in store. I have no doubt that Tverbergers are prudent souls with far more than that—much more, but we are not the average. Your Mr Average is the guy who quickly changes the subject if you try to touch on all this. Or as likely, someone without the means to acquire a lot of storable food. (and other stuff) 44 million on food aid right now think of a week’s worth of food as a survival horizon. Try to imagine that, if you can.
    that means that after a month at most, people are going to be hungry. Even with sufficient land, most would die of starvation between planting and harvest. I certainly would. As to storage–forget it.
    People kill for food, given the means. They are driven to do that by forces beyond their control.
    Those with the means to produce and protect food (energy) will control the lives of those who do not.
    With all the fantasies about home food production, this is the reality we face.

    • GermanStacker says:

      Exactly my opinion. This is the very most likely scenario. The countryside stuff is naive. It comes perhaps from positive personal experience which is a good thing, but without looking at the urban masses. And right, they will kill for food.
      My grandfather had an organic farm in northern Germany where they worked with young people (supported by the state), and I was often there. It’s unbelievable how much work goes into just some animals, some vegetables and some fruit trees. They had enough grass land to even sell hay for horses, just the right amount of rain, dozens of people working, but mainly without machines. They wanted to be as self sufficient as possible, but at the end of winter I guess they had to buy 80-90% of the food for all these people. And of course being just a little island in a FF world, using it’s support where necessary.

      I just watched the wonderful movie series “The count of Monte Christo” with Gerard Depardieu (around the 1830’s) – it all looks so coherent and natural with their sailships and horse carriages and french villages. But even this apparent genuine wealth (just at the beginning of the fossil fuel revolution) wasn’t sustainable in itself. It was levered up by new inventions scaled up by exploitation of the periphery.

      Today we are less fit, mentally as well as physically, to deal with a real downturn than any generation before. I would really like to know if many of us would be able to do things like sleeping in simple conditions over an extended time, without social chaos. But who knows – man has adapted many times.
      A great deal of the outcomes will be determined by how food production is organized and controlled. The government may not be providing many things in a long emergency, but this it will probably try to do. If not, they will be replaced. I don’t believe in the “elite” stories, that they plan to let everyone die but themselves. Serfdom is another story.
      But why forget storage? You can store concentrated staples for 10 year per capita demand in one little cellar?

    • I am afraid you are right. Water is likely to be a problem in a very short period as well. Russell 1200 provided some links to some books (including “Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World” and “Secular Cycles”) a couple of days ago, regarding reasons for modern wars. These analyses indicated that that it is population pressure that seems to be behind most modern wars. I would expect it is really the conflict between limited resources–food and energy–and rising population that is behind most modern wars.

      People who have access to the land, tools, and monetary resources needed to permaculture should not be discouraged from doing so. (In fact, I have planted a few things, borrowing some ideas from permaculture.) But my experience is that there is quite high personal energy input required, and the results usually fall far short of what a person would need to eat in a year. (Most gardens aren’t intended to provide all the food a person would need to eat, admittedly.) My impression is that in most cases, the gardens are just intended to provide supplements of the most perishable fruits and vegetables.

    • mikkel says:

      I am not really reading much of this in the comments on this post. There are “preppers” that certainly believe they can get by generating all their own food and protect it with guns, but the patterns that Don talks about could be implemented on the social level and mitigate most of the problems that will arise re: food, particularly when combined with longer rotations/grazing cycles of staple based land.

      Of course we’re about 20 years too late starting, but if there was a concerted effort on the scale of what the US puts into the military then who knows.

      I’m interested in these things not because I think I will be “saved” but in order to be in a position to help when/if the general populace is ready and also to have inner peace through action.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “Those with the means to produce and protect food (energy) will control the lives of those who do not.”

      Anyone want to put some money behind that?

      We’re struggling with trying to turn an exceptional piece of land in an exceptional location into a big food production system using Permaculture, but it’s getting old taking food out of the ground and giving it to the bank.

      We think we could support 50 people from our 43 acre site, but we need additional partners to do it debt-free.

      In the future, perhaps food will be king. But right now, servicing debt is king. When will the tipping point between the two happen?

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Jan
        All the prosperous small farmers I know bought their land 25 or 30 years ago when it was cheap. The editorial in the current issue of Mother Earth News talks about the insane run-up in land prices which mean real farmers can’t afford to buy it anymore. Land costs are the biggest barrier to becoming a farmer.

        And, of course, the Federal Reserve policies are aimed at keeping asset prices high–so that people who own them will feel wealthy and supposedly go out and buy lots of stuff at Wal-Mart.

        Don Stewart

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “All the prosperous small farmers I know bought their land 25 or 30 years ago when it was cheap.”

          … and many of them are losing their land because they “rode the wave” of the price run-up by mortgaging their land to buy equipment, etc.

          And of course, we jumped on an exceptional property right at the peak of the market, and are now paying for it.

          I don’t have an answer, except for the one that isn’t working for us: join in with others to buy land. But together with the run-up in land prices, our energy-rich culture has caused a run-up in independence, and most people can’t even agree on simple things, let alone how to run a shared farm.

          This too will change, as people find themselves forced by circumstances to collaborate. A well-known ecological principle is that energy-rich environments are dominated by Darwin’s competition, while energy-poor environments are dominated by cooperation. On the Origin of Species might have been a very different book had Darwin toured the arctic instead of the tropics. And our current competitive culture may begin to look very different as we settle down into energy decline, but probably too late for my venture.

          • Don Stewart says:

            I could have also added to my description of prosperous farmers that they
            squeeze that dollar till that old eagle grins…

            Don Stewart
            PS Friend of mine who has been farming successfully for 35 years says that his real job is building things and fixing things–growing things is just what he does in his spare time.

          • I expect it will take a little while to change behaviors, too. We have found what “works” for now. It is hard to “turn on a dime” to a new way.

  9. Don Stewart says:

    What is a Pattern Language? So far as I know, the architect Christopher Alexander coined the term and you can find extensive writings by him and numerous books. Briefly, humans are pattern recognition machines and we think in patterns. I don’t know how you define what a pattern is–but I recognize one when I see it. One key to success in a changing environment is to be conscious of the patterns which have colonized our brains and then determine whether those patterns are still optimal. We can think of building a life or a garden or a building as putting together into a functional design smaller patterns.

    Here is a Pattern Language for a Garden Farm as described in the book Bioshelter Market Garden. The location is northwest Pennsylvania on what had been degraded farmland which was subjected to the Green Revolution. I think you will recognize this as a clear pattern with sub-patterns (turtles all the way down!). It isn’t the only possible pattern, but it is working and makes sense for this couple:

    ‘The bioshelter is the center of farm activities. It is where seedlings are started for the garden, tools and equipment are stored, and produce is processed for sale. The bioshelter is built on the highest and most level part of the field, roughly centered on the property. Its central location allows for easy access to the main production gardens. Each year since 1988, we have expanded our gardens and our production…Today, the bioshelter is surrounded on three sides by gardens. Each garden is composed of raised beds laid out on contour. Pathways between beds collect rainwater or can be flooded with water pumped from the pond. Wide central paths allow access to the contour paths. As we develop gardens, we allow uncultivated areas of goldenrod and wildflowers within or near them. These biological islands, together with herbs and flowers and other insectary plants, provide a healthy balance of predatory creatures. Birdhouses, rock piles, and perennial plantings of fruits, nuts, berries, vines, shrubs, and flowers are added each year. Plants create windbreaks and shade zones….we are enjoying filberts, hazelnuts, currants, grapes, plums, apples, pears, Juneberries, rosehips, and more. Other fruits are wild-crafted from neighboring properties. Our ten-acre woodland, with three diverse forest systems, provides forest products for farm use and contains some of our plant collections.

    Much of the sunlight entering the bioshelter is absorbed–by plants, surfaces and materials (as thermal mass)–to provide our primary heat source. We also capture the sun’s energy by using a PV panel to power an irrigation pump. All our gardens receive full sun. Adding shade trees and shrubs to compost areas and some gardens is a continuing endeavor. Along the bioshelter’s north wall, we have established a 2 foot wide shade garden of native woodland wildflowers, ferns, vine, and other useful plants.’

    Then he describes the problem posed by wind on this northwestern slope of the Allegheny plateau, and how they use successive plantings to break the wind. This is an example of diffusing excess energy.

    ‘The pond provides irrigation for the gardens via pumps and sprinklers. The pond also provides fish, cattails, duckweed, algae, and other useful plants. We continue to add useful species. Snakes, toads, turtles, dragonflies and many wild birds make the pond their home or feeding ground, as do muskrats. Roof run-off is caught in swales and contour paths to recharge our well. The 60 foot deep well provides water for the bioshelter and our home.’

    First, ask yourself why he makes rock piles in his garden. If you can figure that one out, you are on your way to understanding this pattern. Note that the use of a solar powered water pump which doesn’t work after the sun goes down is just not an issue. Also note that, by gardening on contours, he is sinking water. This not only waters the roots of his crops, it also recharges his aquifer. And since he is not using commercial fertilizers, he is not increasing the salt concentration in his soil.

    Look at Albert Bates article on collecting roof run-off for household water (http://www.resilience.org/stories/2012-12-13/collecting-rainwater). Now compare the strategy of the Bioshelter people using a well with a solar powered pump. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Now you are thinking in patterns.

    The bioshelter pattern is one version of what recovery from the disastrous Green Revolution look like…Don Stewart

    • It seems to me that irrigation has three potential problems that we can handle with fossil fuels, but I am not sure that we will be able to handle without fossil fuels.

      1. It leaches nutrients out of the soil faster than otherwise, in the absence of irrigation. I thought excessive rainfall (and heat) was the reason why fertility was so low in the tropics, for example.

      2. If the water used in irrigation is even slightly salty, it can add that salt to the soil over time, especially if evaporation is an issue. This might be a problem in areas near oceans, where there is salt-water intrusion in the aquifer, for example.

      3. In areas where salts (sodium sulfate and sodium carbonate) are present in the base rock, irrigation can raise the water table, and lead to wicking up of these salts, and greater amounts of salt in the soil where farmers are trying to grow food.

      While we have ways of dealing with these issues today (gypsum for salinity in soil seems to be one; soil amendments for fertility), I am not sure that we do for the long-term, unless we have fossil fuel energy. It seems like it takes a lot of energy to mine and transport the appropriate soil amendments.

      • donsailorman says:

        Several civilizations have relied upon irrigation without fossil fuels for thousands of years, for example, Egypt and China. The classic work in this area is “Oriental Despotism” by Wittfogel, who points out that by controlling the irrigation system a despotism can continue indefinitely. Egypt today is a sad case: They built the Aswan Dam, which turned into an ecocatastrophe, because before the dam was built the Nile flooded each year and brought new and rich topsoil sediment to the Nile valley. Today, Egypt is a vastly overpopulated basket case, totally dependent on U.S. aid for both weapons and food.

        • I don’t think that irrigation using water that overflows naturally from a river is a problem. It is the pumping from the ground that is a big problem. Montgomery says that in Egypt, the water table rose in the early 19th century, when Egyptians tried to put in year-around irrigation so they could grow cotton, instead of just using the natural flooding. This led to salinization.

          Of course, they now have a whole new set of problems with the Aswan High Dam.

      • Don Stewart says:

        I am no PhD on irrigation and salinity. But I will tell you what I think.

        If the irrigation model, or pattern language as I call it, is the one described in Bioshelter, then I doubt there is any problem. The area gets about 45 inches of rain a year. So it is not at all like irrigating a desert where most of the water evaporates. Permaculture practioners usually sink water as their first choice. At Bioshelter, they are directing soft rainwater into swales where it sinks and moves downhill under gravity, thus providing water to the roots of their crops. They also pump water with a solar PV pump from a pond, which again is rainwater which has had some contact with the soil. It might pick up some salt, but I imagine that the 45 inches of rain a year makes that a minor consideration.

        There are several reasons why irrigation in the ‘well watered’ East has become indispensable. First, rainfall has become erratic. It used to rain every three days in the summer…now we have 6 weeks with no rain followed by 6 weeks with rain most days. Someone remarked to me that in the summer of 2011 he was in Iowa for the record flooding, and in 2012 he was just in time to see the record drought. Second, people are growing more crops under plastic. The plastic permits year round growing in North Carolina and as far as the ‘sun coast’ of Maine with no supplemental heat. With solar mass heating (water barrels, masonry, etc.) in the greenhouse, year round growing with no supplemental heat is practical in Milwaukee. But the crops under plastic need to be watered. Third, summers are getting hotter and plants are using more water. Fourth, competition between farmers has intensified. The Carrboro farmers market shut down after Thanksgiving 35 years ago and restarted about the first of April. It now runs all year. Several excellent farmers specialize in winter produce right through January and February. Out of season crops can pay much better than yet another bushel of tomatoes in July. So farmers are incented to farm with methods which require irrigation.

        When I studied soil science recently, my PhD instructor said that salt is a big problem in North Carolina, and it is overwhelmingly a result of commercial fertilizers. She explained why the big fertilizer companies add salt…but I have forgotten. Small organic fertilizers generally don’t have salt.

        People used to use glass instead of plastic, but glass is much more expensive and heavier so it requires a substantial frame to hold it up. If industrial civilization collapses completely, then there won’t be any plastic, of course. And after a time one’s PV panels will degrade and one’s pump will need parts which may be unavailable. Meanwhile, climate is getting more erratic and generally hotter and drier in the US (maybe wetter in India). So we will have to rely on heavy mulching, sinking water and irrigating from ponds with terraforming, and drought tolerant plant species. It’s hard to tell if agriculture will still be practical. A low input farm works best with the abundant biological life I described earlier. Whether that biological life can cope with this human induced collapse remains to be seen.

        Don Stewart

      • Don Stewart says:

        One more thought on the irrigation. A forest garden will be much more resilient in a drought. In the video from England the farmer explained that lack of rain immediately after planting can be disastrous for annual crops, but is only a minor concern for a forest. So anyone establishing a forest garden now is likely to be much better positioned in 20 years as rainfall dwindles and becomes even more erratic.

        Of course, if you are in eastern Kansas, you may be looking at becoming a grassland so a forest garden would not be a good idea.

        Don Stewart

      • Don Stewart says:

        Out of curiosity, I did some more research. I found this:

        ‘In the case of irrigation reuse of the same water causes it to travels further through soil, and the water dynamic dictates that it will as a consequence pick up more salt. Irrigation causes more salinity the more the same water is used.’

        So pumping water out of the Ogallala and putting it on cotton or corn and letting it soak back down into the same aquifer would increase the salinity of the water. Same would be true of any pesticides such as DDT (and we used to drink out the wells!). Taking water out of the Colorado River and irrigating the Salton Sea area in California will increase the salt because the river has flowed for a thousand miles and then the water will evaporate in California and deposit its salt.

        An ‘East Coast Permaculture’ style irrigation is more about redistributing rainwater (which doesn’t have any salt) over time or increasing the ability of the soil to retain water by adding organic matter to the soil. So small ponds may be built and used for irrigation. The water has probably traveled less than a mile in a rivulet to get to the pond. It is true that the pond will be subjected to evaporation and thus any salt it has picked up in that mile will be concentrated. Capturing rainwater and then putting it on crops when they need it doesn’t provide any salt at all. Adding carbon to the soil so that the soil can retain more water doesn’t add any salt at all.

        In short, I suspect that small ponds, roof enabled capture, and sinking rainfall into carbon rich soil are all pretty benign. Irrigating from aquifers where significant amounts of the water end up back in the aquifer, irrigating out of long rivers, and irrigating in the desert with high evaporation rates are much more likely to be problems.

        As for the Mayans. I think that they irrigated because of seasonal dryness (like the Cubans). If they are irrigating from aquifers, then they will have a salt problem for the same reasons the farmers in Texas and Nebraska will have problems. If the Mayans had been farming under plastic, captured rainwater in big tanks, and then irrigated under the plastic–I can’t see why they would have had salt problems.

        Don Stewart

    • mikkel says:

      Don, is there a way I can email you or something?

      • Don Stewart says:

        I will give you a little used email address, so that I don’t get inundated with junk


        Don Stewart

        • A couple of alternative suggestions-

          1. If you post an e-mail address, use “at” for the at sign and dot for the period, with spaces in between. This makes the address harder to copy, and readers can still figure it out.

          2. If poster “A” wants to correspond with poster “B”, poster A can send me an e-mail at the address I have listed. I will then send Poster B, Poster A’s e-mail address. Poster B can choose to reply to Poster A, if he/she would like. I have done this in the past a fair amount on The Oil Drum, with reporters and others wanting to contact a particular poster.

  10. Don Stewart says:

    New reply to avoid indent problem.
    Dear Gail
    I first became aware of The Five Whys when my sister started working for Toyota about 30 years ago. You identify some problem and then ask why it happened and then you ask why that cause happened and then why the cause of the cause happened and so forth until you have drilled down at least 5 times. Then, perhaps, you have an idea what could be done differently. I have seen two recent examples in the discussion of this post which were very superficial. I’ll stick to gardening and food and nutrition because that is something I know a little bit about. The statements were made that the Green Revolution saved us and that it takes hundreds of years to create soil. Neither of those statements frame the questions appropriately, so neither offers us any help in answering the Five Whys and exploring ways to do something about our plight.

    Since I have covered all these points before, I will try to be as brief as possible–but not briefer.

    The Green Revolution DID increase outputs, but it extracted terrible costs. And it was NOT the only way to do things. In fact, the alternative way would have been a much better choice. The first article below is Jason Bradford’s take on the Iowa State study which shows that very much lower input agriculture yields more food than ‘green revolution’ type farming.

    The Many Benefits of Multi-Year Crop Rotations
    by Jason Bradford PhD

    ‘Mark Bittman in the New York Times called this report “the most important agricultural study this year,” saying, “It’s becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals.” In addition, the report has been covered by Wired, Grist, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. We summarized the work leading to this publication over two years ago, including how it relates to Farmland LP. The Union of Concerned Scientists blog has a good overview (copied portion below):

    More complex systems enhanced yields and profits.’

    Bradford spoke at the ASPO meeting in Denver in 2009. Here is the link to his presentation and a few excerpts. Following up on the ‘more complex systems enhanced yields and profits’ statement above, Jason explains just what a more complex system looks like. In short, it is using a whole army of solar powered critters to do the hard work. Microscopic bacteria to fix nitrogren, for example. Earthworms to build soil.
    The death and dying in the soil food web to mineralize nutrients so that plants can use them. And so on. You will also note that renewable energy makes sense on a farm. My little community garden group is preparing to use a solar powered water pump to move water from our cistern on the low point up to a second cistern at the high point so that we can use gravity (as opposed to humans hauling buckets) to water our gardens. Running grid electricity would be prohibitively expensive. Lesson: don’t dismiss off grid…and pay attention to what Vera says below.

    Also, unbeknownst to me, Jason came pretty close to my words ‘the economy of an ecology’. If we think of the soil food web as an economy, it may open the doors of perception.

    The Food System and Resilience
    Posted by Jason Bradford on January 26, 2010

    ‘Instead of buying mechanized services or fertility inputs, the farm integrates the functional diversity of life to create synergies.

    Inherent diversity means no single crop failure will ruin the farm, and soil imbalances are prevented. The focus is on soil health, with all fields going through periods of planting in perennial and deeply rooted species to build soil organic matter and mobilize minerals such as phosphorus from deep layers. Fungi associating with roots locate source rock and solubilize minerals that are trans-located to leaves. Topsoil fertility is therefore built from below.

    Landscape structure is created to provide habitat for native and naturalized species that participate positively in the farm food web, such as pollinators and predators. No need to buy pesticides when raptors have homes in the trees, predatory wasps have nectar sources, frogs can breed in clean water, and ground beetles have zones of refuge from tillage, for example.

    While the emphasis is on letting the biology do the work, renewable energy infrastructure also creates resilience. Farms are often ideal places for wind and solar technologies, and on-farm biofuels are likely to have positive energy returns.

    What will this new food system look like? It will be organized akin to an ecosystem, or food web.’

    Finally, let’s look at Vera Bradova’s excellent articles on visiting Eco-Villages. Note her perception that ever-more ease is not desirable and the subtle reasons why grid electricity and water pipes from the county make us less resilient people. Notice how, for all the good they have done, Vera detects an ignorance of Pattern Languages which could have prevented some less than optimum architectural choices. Also note that in this degraded (the after-effects of the Green Revolution) part of Missouri, rotational grazing is rapidly restoring the topsoil. The myth that it takes hundreds of years to make topsoil should be put to rest. If we choose not to make topsoil (as our government has done), then we have no one to blame but ourselves. Perhaps a little Five Whys exercise might be in order?

    Ecotown Dancing Rabbit
    by Vera Bradova,

    ‘When did Babylon switch from helping us past some drudgery to pushing us toward exertion-free life? The two are very different; one is helpful, the other… not so much.

    Rains are lost to runoff instead of soaking into the topsoil and staying there — because little topsoil is left. The USDA program pays farmers to keep the land fallow, but that only prevents further major degradation through plowing; it neither stops the erosion nor does it help the land regenerate

    There is concern among the Rabbits that now the community is on the grid, the former hard-wired limits — like having to attend to electricity usage — are disappearing, and there seems to be a slippery slope in the direction of more gadgetry, inching toward the mainstream. It occurs to me that the big problem with running water and electricity is not that we have it, but that the mode of delivery allows us — even encourages us — to be oblivious not only to wastage, but also to the overcomplex, hidden, vulnerable and damaging cycles that make such delivery possible, and to the subtle effects of all this on the community.

    I was told that the Red Earth people broke off from DR because they wanted to run homesteads without having to go to meetings all the time.

    He showed us an electric-fenced paddock where most of the animals were, clustered together with two dogs to protect them at all times. They were nibbling down a very overgrown and neglected area next to a wash; once they were done — the goats eating poison ivy and creepers, the pig rooting out weed roots, and the rest grazing down the overgrowth so that fresh grasses can grow — he would move them over to the next area to be regenerated. The undulating, green land was a pleasure to behold. The difference between carefully grazed land and ungrazed at Red Earth (or DR) stands in stark relief: green, lush grasses vs dead weeds with grass clumps trying to poke through.

    The community of Red Earth Farms was created next door by dissidents of this vision — they wanted to permaculture-farm according to personal initiative, without having to wait for endless meetings to ok every step. So they sliced the land up, American style, into several disjointed parcels. Each lessee presents a proposal to the community which is then attached to the lease, and after that, each family does its own thing.
    In contrast, the European villages I know begin not with the dream of a house, but with the commitment to make a living from the land. A village starts with the ‘homesteading mind’ — with commitment to soil and landbase and critters, integrating humans into the land’s ecology. The early settlers created adjacent homesteads with the houses very close together, while each holding stretches back in a narrow strip where the utility buildings, gardens and orchards are located. Small fields separated by hedges and grassy margins follow. There are two patterns that predominate in central Europe: the ribbon pattern, and the circular ray pattern. I wonder: if the settlers of Red Earth Farms had been aware of the radial pattern, would they have been interested in creating a hamlet centered roughly in the middle, with each homestead raying out? When we did the Red Earth tour, Jack was stumped by my question as to why they did not build close together. My impression was that they were simply unacquainted with the possibility, and so did what Americans do. One of my fellow visitors commented that perhaps they wanted more privacy from each other. I just don’t know, and see it as an opportunity missed: they could have had the neighborliness of a hamlet along with homestead independence. ‘

    • Don Stewart says:

      I just realized I left out something I need to mention. Vera remarks that the Dancing Rabbit people are trying to restore some of the tall grass prairie–without much success after a whole lot of human labor. Here is a prime example of failure to understand a Pattern Language. Alan Savory in Africa has shown us with very practical demonstrations that the original scientific work in France on the ecology of grasslands was exactly on target. Grasslands and large herbivores and predators evolved together with synergistic effects. You can’t build a prairie without all three–or some reasonable facsimile such as electric fences and humans serving the role of predator. It is quite unlikely that all the labor of the Dancing Rabbit people will succeed because they do not understand the appropriate pattern language. The neighboring village using rotational grazing DOES understand the pattern language and is succeeding.

      More generally, we need to identify the optimum pattern language to solve particular problems in particular places. History will mislead us as often as it guides us. For example, consider the issue of firewood depletion. There is little doubt that enough humans in a given geography using firewood for heat can burn more trees than Mother Nature can grow–history proves that. What history does not prove is that burning lots of firewood is the only way. A different pattern language would involve putting more people into smaller spaces so that body heat keeps the temperature reasonable. I know a pediatrician who lives that way–totally without heat (she does burn candles for light, which give off a very little bit of heat). Summers she spends outdoors in the shade during the day and exposed to the sky at night for radiative cooling. Inability to think in any pattern language other than the one we are currently immersed in is likely to be deadly during a time of rapid change.

      Don Stewart

      • You make some good points. In the long-run, prairies (and probably other ecologies) need a full spectrum of predators.

        In the past, humans have killed off these predators, thinking they were good for food. Also, they posed a risk to humans’ well being.

        If we have fossil fuels, we can try to simulate the effect of top predators. It is hard for me to see a way that without fossil fuels, we could go back to letting top predators “rule the roost”. We want to be top predator, after all, and that is what is getting us into trouble, in the long run.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Relative to prairies. It may be that we need to train dogs to herd the animals rather than confine them with electric fences. Border collies have herded sheep for centuries. To my knowledge, nobody has really looked into the matter. A herd boy with one or two dogs taking the animals out of an enclosure to a specifically chosen small area to graze in a dense herd may be the way we do it. It seems to me that this problem would be a really fine project for some bright college kid.

          Don Stewart

    • donsailorman says:

      A good example of an earlier green revolution is Ireland. In 1800 the population of Ireland was about four million. With the planting of more potatoes the population rose to about eight million in 1845. Then came the potato blight. Two million Irish starved to death and two million emigrated, and the population of Ireland went back to four million, and it is still about four million today.

    • With respect to the making of soil issue, I probably need to research the issue more. David Montgomery, in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, talks about the creation of dirt from the erosion of rocks being an extremely slow process. Typically only an inch of soil is added in 1,000 years. The big issue with erosion is that topsoil is removed. In some cases, bare rocks are exposed. The erosion of rocks adds fertile soil. A second issue he raises is that irrigation usually adds salinity and, over time, wrecks the soil from the point of producing the crops we want. He does not consider irrigation (except with natural river flooding, bringing in top soil from other areas) sustainable, as I read the book.

      You have raised the point that adding human and animal waste products can raise the fertility of soil. Carbon can be added to the top layers of the soil through the addition of organic matter of one type or another, raising the ability of the soil to hold water. You have also suggested that permaculture can use better methods for irrigation by changing topography.

      I am doubtful that your points completely negate his points. There is a need for topsoil (or at least subsoil) to begin with, in order for your techniques to work. If this soil is salty, it is a huge problem. Changing topography for better irrigation is not really very much of an option without fossil fuels. With dense populations, it is hard to have space for very many animals in the mix of humans and animals. (Think China without fossil fuels.)

      One issue that has been a problem throughout the ages, and I expect is a problem now, is the issue of “higher yields now” versus “higher yields in the long run”. It is pretty clear that forest gardens are better than traditional agriculture in terms of improved yields long run. I see two issues, though.

      (1) I would argue that the best yield, long-term, is really what nature provides because it optimally makes mutations to match changing climate. A forest garden has whatever species the gardener has supplied, which is more limited. It starts out at being close to optimal, but as climate changes, it will need continued updating to keep it in line with what is optimal. Without fossil fuels, and the benefit of research on what species might be moved and substituted, I am doubtful that forest gardeners could keep up with nature. A side issue is that in today’s world, food from a forest garden is very hard to harvest, and keeping predators (birds and squirrels, for example) from eating what is produced is a problem, if human population is to get a disproportionate share of what is produced.

      (2) Population pressure, and the need for current yield (for food, for income, etc.) exert a huge influence on what citizens are willing to do. No matter how much superior forest gardens are than other techniques over the long term, there aren’t too many that will wait 20 years for trees to grow, and for other crops as well. I know one video claimed that 4 or 5 people could be fed on the produce from one acre, but I would like to understand what assumptions go into this–how little birds and squirrels are expected to take, for example.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Gail
        You are correct that the weathering of rocks occurs over geologic time. What we mostly confront, however, is not bare rock but soil which is not suitable for supporting plant and small critter life. This is not an argument for encouraging soil erosion. It takes some years to restore soil. But it can be done if you begin with compacted soil from heavy agricultural equipment traffic, from plow pans due to years of plowing, eroded topsoil, or soil harmed by abuse. A recent review of a book in a Permaculture magazine was scathing because the author said that aspiring gardeners should look first for good soil. The point was to get soil you can afford and then build it up. Good topsoil is created by biological activity suitable to the specific location–temperate zone forest, temperate zone grassland, tropical seasonally dry grassland, etc. We now know how to encourage biological activity. It’s not about hauling in topsoil.

        As for salt. There has been reclamation in the Dead Sea valley in Jordan using biological activity. Geoff Lawton was involved, and made a YouTube. Quite amazing. But, again, this is not an argument for salting your land just so you can demonstrate how clever you are using heroic methods to reclaim it.

        As for terraforming. I agree that fossil fuels make it a lot easier. But it pays dividends even when it is done with human labor. There are many hilly regions around the world which were terraced long before we used fossil fuels. I hope we never have to do it by hand again. So I am in favor of doing it now while we still have fossil fuels.

        As for competition from birds, animals, and insects. A highly diverse garden farm (such as the Bioshelter Farm) is considerably less exposed to predation. The complex web of life keeps individual species under better control. You will note that the Bioshelter people build birdhouses so that birds settle in their gardens and eat the insects. Insects have higher calorie density than plants, and so are more attractive to birds. Birds do like seeds, but Mother Nature also makes seeds in very large numbers. Seed savers learn physical methods for keeping birds away from prized seeds. For a small diversified farm, a proliferation of life is a plus. For a monocrop, very large farm, the ideal is frequently sterility. Insects, for example, can multiply very rapidly in the absence of predators. The advantages of small and diversified as opposed to large and monocropped are one of the reasons I favor Garden Farming.

        Squirrels are a big problem for somebody like a pecan farmer with a hundred trees. For somebody with one pecan tree, squirrel stew is the solution. If you are in town and can’t shoot them with a squirrel gun, use a pellet gun.

        Deer are a huge problem anywhere east of the Mississippi. The ultimate solution is for everyone to get hungrier and go deer hunting. A local church asked deer hunters to kill and donate a deer. They can include one deer in 400 meals. In the meantime, most of us have to build deer fences.

        As for the long delay in getting a forest garden (or perennial garden in general) up to full production. I frankly don’t worry too much about that. Those who are capable of seeing that old Pattern Languages are failing and that new Pattern Languages must be adopted will get busy and do it. They will increase their likelihood of surviving. Thos who continue to pursue dead ends probably won’t survive. I guess we will find out how many people sustainable agriculture can feed. But it is pretty clear to me that what most people are doing now is a dead end.

        Wringing our hands about the inability to feed X billion people is not a very productive use of energy. Studying the ability of a political majority to form around the notion of sustainable agriculture is a useful thing to do–and probably leads one to decide that it’s going to have to be done by individuals and small groups. So…while nobody in DC will admit that the climate is changing, I will be attending a workshop on ‘adapting to climate change’ at the local community college in February. The idea is to get farmers and researchers together to test ideas. If there is to be progress, this is most likely where it will come from.

        Don Stewart

  11. mikkel says:

    I have read the population essay from one (not sure which) edition and I fail to see how the substance is wrong. [I would also say he didn’t make a ‘prediction’ as the language is very couched in ‘this is what we know about how things work until now’ caveats]

    As Wikipedia says,
    Despite use of the term “Malthusian catastrophe” by detractors such as economist Julian Simon (1932–1998), Malthus himself did not write that mankind faced an inevitable future catastrophe. Rather, he offered an evolutionary social theory of population dynamics as it had acted steadily throughout all previous history.[71] Eight major points regarding population dynamics appear in the 1798 Essay:

    subsistence severely limits population-level

    when the means of subsistence increases, population increases

    population-pressures stimulate increases in productivity

    increases in productivity stimulate further population-growth

    because productivity increases cannot maintain the potential rate of population growth, population requires strong checks to keep parity with the carrying-capacity

    individual cost/benefit decisions regarding sex, work, and children determine the expansion or contraction of population and production

    checks will come into operation as population exceeds subsistence-level

    the nature of these checks will have significant effect on the larger sociocultural system—Malthus points specifically to misery, vice, and poverty

    Seems pretty accurate to me! He was most “wrong” about the type of productivity growth in farming and I entirely agree that is due to fossil fuels.

    That said, I “love” the Limits to Growth model that shows how the S-curve of population growth saturates at a level higher than the “intrinsic” carrying capacity, wherein productivity generates pollution at a rate sufficient to increasingly lower the carrying capacity and what looks “sustainable” on the surface is really not.

    • I am sure Malthus’ theory was pretty close to right, without fossil fuels.

      People associate Malthus with population collapse due to lack of food, whether or not this is precisely what he predicted for that timeframe. It is hard to make that distinction fully enough.

  12. Mike says:

    You’ve completely ignored the correlation of human population and carbon output, the cause of Global Warming. You’ve also seemed to have missed the Global Drought. There’s a high correlation of population to carbon output, as humans make and burn it all. The effects of this massive carbon output are a key factor in what will destroy our population. These effects are growing exponentially, with multiplier effects being Underestimated by the Scientific models.

    Malthus, if we do nothing about carbon, will soon be right, and it’s happening This Very Moment, not in 100 years.

    • Ikonoclast says:

      I don’t think Gail has ignored or forgetten AGW. She just hasn’t put it in that particular article. I am a critic of Gail’s reflex rejection of renewable energy viability. Other than that, I think she get’s everything pretty much right.

    • Sorry, not room for everything in one post.

  13. Ikonoclast says:

    Malthus did not get it wrong. The “end game” has not played out yet. The “doom cake” is not baked yet. The “stew of troubles” is not fully brewed yet. Soon we hit the limits to growth and then Malthus is proved correct.

    We must limit our population and growth in some way or natural forces will do it for us.

  14. Very well posted. You’ve done an excellent job like you always do. I’m going to gve you my biggest compliment, “today you’ve taught me something new.” The ideas on debt help round out a picture of our problems. If we hadn’t borrowed from the future we might hve been able to give ourselves more time to solve our problems.

    The big picture requires a lot of standing outside of your present thoughts and trying to learn something new. This why they use phrases such as ‘it’s hard to wrap your head around it.” It takes time to explain big ideas with mere words. Analogies, examples, history, and other formats have to be used to communicate the ideas properly. This time, here now, you’ve done that. Thanks. Keep Blogging. Keep Writing

    • Thanks! I actually started writing about something else (broader), then looked up the date of Malthus and a bell went off. I decided that rather than list a bunch of different authors and how things turned out, I should stick with Malthus. I have a very hard time planning what I will write for this reason. Once I discover a connection I hadn’t quite noticed before, I end up changing direction.

  15. robert wilson says:

    Norman Borlaug on population 1970 (from Wiki)
    “In his Nobel Lecture of 1970, Borlaug stated, “Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the ‘Population Monster’ …”

  16. GermanStacker says:

    I’m glad that once again you put debt at the center of this story. From this and some earlier of your posts, I understand that after WW2 debt was rather being used as a tool to get growth, while more recently, it was more a reaction to the recessionary effects of high oil prices? It would be interesting to see a chart with the price of oil, US debt and some other numbers, maybe including development in the BRICS and some US income figures, indexed at 100 in a certain year (like 1973 or 1987) to see how they compare until today. I’m sure what would jump at your eyes is an exponential runup, with oil price and debt leading the pack considerably.
    I think it’s also fascinating to imagine what these mind-boggling rising levels of debt are really hiding from us. I don’t consider it worth much discussion that Malthus didn’t include industrialization into his forecast and therefore got the timing wrong. But imagine we wouldn’t have come up with exponential debt in the 20th century (yes I know, already ancient cultures had debt, but certainly not on this scale): we might be long into his forecast already.
    Also, we mustn’t forget that very high inflation as a result of dollar printing might not be showing up in the US yet, but it certainly is being exported to all countries that have a dollar peg (Argentina with 30% right now as one example). And inflation is one outcome that brings borrowing to an end.
    Then there is this endless repetition of the proposal of a “debt jubilee” to get rid of the problem. Good luck with all the pension funds etc. going bust – what do you do? Restart borrowing immediately? Let people starve? Yes, societies in the past had debt jubilees, but they didn’t have a financial system that implodes (taking the economy with it) the moment you take out government bonds.

    • Thanks for your ideas. Debt is part of our problem. GDP growth is “gross”, so there is no deduction for debt growth that gives rise to rising GDP.

      Part of the debt is “financial debt”. I am not quite certain whether it should be treated differently than mortgage debt or government debt. Extra financial debt would tend to bid up the price of whatever it is buying as well. I will have to think about these things some more, and perhaps do a little more reading.

      • GermanStacker says:

        A part of the problem now – and, as someone else said, really just a symptom. But as with an illness, the symptoms might really be what kills someone. Of course it’s not enough to think about the symptoms. But it may have the biggest impact on our life in the short and medium term. Others would say it will be social unrest or climate change – therefore it’s good to have an open discussion.

        It certainly is for a reason that everything related to debt is meeting so much controversy. Most people even don’t care or have a hard time grasping something like the concept of “selling debt”, i.e. passing on debt to a third party. Now we have a financial system where this is happening many many times over with huge leverage, derivatives, swaps etc. It’s a black hole. So anyway, you end up looking at big macro aggregates and correlations, trying to make sense.
        Economists think and talk about what will “happen” when we reach the limits of borrowing, like in Greece and Spain. Or, Heaven forbid, we even pay something back. Well nothing happens, the mask drops, reality sets in.

  17. Ric says:

    Overshoot in a nutshell (Malthus was an optimist)

    Pithy 8-paragraph piece from 2005.

  18. Don Stewart says:

    In order to look at what Malthus accomplished, and what he perhaps missed, I think we have to think in terms of the economy of an ecology.

    Malthus was living during that happy period of time when Earth had achieved a large measure of stability. After several catastrophic overshoot events in the previous few billion years, climate had stabilized with just the right amount of greenhouse gases to foster human civilization. A robust soil food web produced an abundance of biological activity with waste but no pollution because Mother Nature had thoughtfully provided some creature which used the waste as input. Work on the surface of Earth was overwhelmingly powered by the current budget of sunshine. There were, of course, stresses and strains. Humans had imaginations which led them to believe various fantasies such as that they could command large empires, and crowd into cities with no sanitation, and enslave each other

    It is, of course, impossible to state with any certainty what would have happened had humans developed a distaste for fossil fuels during Malthus’ time. Would the Europeans have discovered and adopted the Asian methods for dealing with urban sanitation? Would plant breeding have progressed rapidly toward higher yielding crops? Would efficient methods of water management been discovered? Would women have gained control over their reproduction? Would agricultural practices have wrought havoc with the natural world? Would clean water have been made available to city dwellers? It is hard, or impossible, for us to disentangle those questions from what we know happened–the explosion in the availability of fossil fuels.

    So we can all agree that Malthus had a cloudy crystal ball. Is our crystal ball today any clearer? Not a lot clearer, I suspect.
    (1) We can sense the end of the fossil fuel age, but some will doubtless argue that various methods of harnessing atomic energy will provide abundant energy essentially forever.
    (2) The Mechanical Engineers will argue that the Constructal Law governs evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization: ‘the constructal law dictates that flow systems should evolve over time, acquiring better and better configurations to provide more access for the currents that flow through them.’ Perhaps the most notable example of the Constructal Law operating in the last hundred years has been the flow of information.
    (3) Humans have demonstrated a willingness to poison the processes which feed them if, by doing so, they can gain short term advantage.
    (4) Human societies have not demonstrated an ability to decline gracefully, as a general rule. Failure of the American Empire might kill most of us.
    I am sure you can add your own uncertainties.

    Since I know something about gardening, I want to elaborate a little on the uncertainties surrounding that activity. There are so many uncertainties that it is hard to know where to begin, beginning with the potential for severe droughts due to climate change. Let me take a more limited subject to try to illustrate the unknowns.

    In BioShelter Market Garden, Darrel Frey outlines the alternatives in terms of raising plant crops using tillage and no-till methods.

    ‘Permaculture places a lot of emphasis on no-till methods such as mulch gardening, perennial food gardens, and the creation of no-dig gardens built up with layers of cardboard, mulch and organic matter laid on the soil surface. Each of these reduces or eliminates tillage, therefore conserving time, energy, and effort. These methods rely on earthworms and other soil fauna and decomposers to process compost and mulch and distribute nutrients through the soil. Fungi become the dominant component of nutrient processing and delivery, trading minerals and other compounds with plants for sugars and other things they need.

    Tillage breaks up the soil structure and adds air to the soil, which increases respiration of soil microorganisms. Aerobic bacteria break down organic matter, making more nutrients available to promote plant growth, and release carbon dioxide in the process. In nature, this happens when trees uproot. Plants attuned to disturbed soils, many of which are annuals and biennials, capture this rush of nutrients. When they die, they return their nutrients to the soil surface and begin the process of succession that leads to perennial cover…Many of our vegetable crops probably originated in such disturbed soils.’

    Frey goes on to describe the demonstrated success with John Jeavons’ biointensive methods which use cultivation and lots of organic matter worked into the soil. Frey reports problems with slugs in his mulched beds.

    ‘When and where and how, then, do we till the soil? The answer is not straightforward. Use of tillage is a matter of scale and is site specific…Our current strategy is to rotate mulched crops with tilled crops.’

    And so you can see that a very careful, learned, garden farmer sees no clear, one size fits all, solution. And he is not considering forest gardens, which rely mostly on perennials, and about which I have written recently. Forest gardens are favorites of those who believe that fossil fuels are going to be in very short supply and that sequestering carbon in the soil is extraordinarily important and that being resilient to weather extremes may mean the difference between survival and starvation. Traditionalists will tend to favor tillage–but with the important modifications developed by Jeavons in terms of organic matter. In the middle are the mulching crowd who grow traditional vegetables but just do it differently–perhaps using ducks to control the slugs.

    And, of course, what industry wants us to do is some combination of NPK fertilizers in sterile planting mediums with industrial irrigation, or high-rise, high tech structures with artificial lighting, or chemically synthesized substances called ‘food’. I doubt that any of us can confidently predict how this will turn out. Yet agriculture is frequently maligned as ‘the most destructive invention of humans’. If we can’t foresee the future of garden farming, how can we foresee the larger question of growing food and how that interacts with the environment and what it means in terms of human labor, or the ability to feed billions of people?

    Don Stewart

    • Don Stewart says:

      You might like to check Ugo Bardi’s current reflections on the connection between Peak Oil and Climate Change:

      Assume, for the sake of argument that Bardi is correct and that Climate Change is the gorilla and Peak Oil is the mouse. Does that change anything? Well…it sure changes the nature of the discussion. The story becomes ‘we have more than enough hydrocarbons to fry ourselves, and we simply have to stop using them now’.

      So the discussion on gardening remains relevant. The methods involving mulching and forest gardening use little in the way of fossil fuels (in production–distribution is another matter). Even the biointensive methods don’t use much fossil fuels. I think all of the industrial proposals are going to be fossil fuel intensive.

      So, whether you believe in Peak Oil or you believe in Climate Change, gardening methods are relevant. And what Bardi is describing in terms of how the planet achieved stability and what we are doing to move the planet out of the stable zone are exactly what I was referring to early in my post.

      Don Stewart

    • Thanks for your thoughts. There are a lot of ideas that may work to some extent, if there is a long enough transition time, and land ownership is changed in a way that enables the transition. I don’t think we can count on a smooth transition, though.

  19. Malthus appears to have been on the right track; but he did not understand human population dynamics as well as we do today. For the best available science on human population dynamics, go to . Comments from one and all are welcome.

    PS: Gail, glad to see that your attention is directed to the ‘mother’ of all human-induced global challenges. Thanks. I do not see how anyone can perceive ‘the big picture’ without taking account of the way increasing absolute global human population numbers are impacting Earth and life as we know it.

  20. Michael Lloyd says:

    Interesting study here on the impacts of the Mongol Empire and the Conquest of the Americas.


    War and disease for a couple of centuries is required to reduce human impact. Not a happy thought!

    • Bubble Malthus says:

      It will be much, much faster this time around, since a population bubble bursting has different social (if what will happen can be called that, a new name should be invented for these unprecedented events) cascading effects than the common agricultural pressures mentioned in the article.
      Looking on the bright side: the food-exporting core can then re-colonize the rapidly depopulated recovering territories and put food under lock, or monopolize food production (for slave production purposes) all over again.

      • With the exception of the privileged and aristocratic classes , until the energy in fossil fuel was released on a massive scale we were all slaves, serfs, bonded servants–call it what you will. Until my grandparent’s time, maybe later, everyone was in some form of service. the fact that they got paid was an irrelevance, they were paid just enough to eat and find a place to sleep. they were free to leave (unlike slaves) but that meant cutting the ties to their only means of sustenance, and they could be arrested for vagrancy.
        Paid or not, they were still slaves
        Servants were the 16 hour day energy sources for those with the money to afford them, when they were worn out, they were discarded just like we dump our energy saving gadgets today—we look around for a new stronger model and use that till it’s worn out.
        As energy availability goes into decline, it is inevitable that we will return to this situation

        • BC says:

          @MF, I regrettably agree. Rapid acceleration of automation of labor (robotics, smart systems, biometrics, nano-electronic sensors, constant monitoring and surveillance, etc.) and loss of purchasing power will exacerbate the conditions you describe, even to the extent of slave labor being displaced by automation at increasing scale, at lower cost/unit, but also at a much larger share of the net energy supply to which most of us won’t have access.

          Labor will become increasingly “free”, including free of income and purchasing power to subsist. Intelligent-systems society will not require the labor and consumption of the overwhelming majority of us, whereas the top 0.1-1% will be able to live in self-contained, high-tech, intelligent-systems-based enclaves of untold affluence and security.

          Already, half the US population subsists directly or indirectly on gov’t transfers from public and private labor and profits, whereas many millions more rely upon gov’t taxing to pay for public wage and salary labor, benefits, and pension payouts. The intelligent-systems will render unavailable the income and transfers of this kind after jobs disappear and tax revenues decline and then collapse.

          The zombie apocalypse is more likely than most of us dare imagine is possible.

          • ultimately, the top 1% will collapse too, because their high tech world still needs energy input.
            I think the reversion will be to a medieval type existence, where the haves are only marginally better off than the have nots. automation can only offset labor if there’s something to drive it. As Ive pointed out before, the steam engine was starting to open up the USA just as slavery was ending….. roughly when the first oilwells came on stream
            the Grand Seigneur in a preindustrial world could afford to have hundreds of servants running around to fetch and carry, we just use oil.
            Those enclaves you speak of will be no more secure than the palaces of the Tsars or Louis of France.
            Police and armies protect the wealthy only so long as they get a share of the wealth. Stop paying the police and they will change sides overnight

          • I am not convinced as you are that the top tier will be able to live in affluence. Perhaps for a while, there can be a two tier approach, but then the systems that hold up the better tier will start to break down. If won’t be possible to repair roads and electrical transmission lines, for example, and the rich won’t be able to bear the cost themselves. The spread of illnesses will become a problem, and the rich won’t be able to avoid contagion as well.

        • Hunter-gatherers seem to have had it a lot better than farmers, even later farmers. Hunter-gatherers were 6 inches taller than the farmers who followed them. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t until fairly recently that humans made up the height difference.

        • Unlikely we return to this model. The EROEI is negative for Slave Labor. It costs more to feed, cloth and shelter a slave than you can get in return. Slave Labor can only function in a world of aggregate surplus where one class of people has hegemony over the surplus. If there IS no surplus, you can’t maintain a slave labor force any more than you can maintain tractors in the absence of Oil.

          Any Neo-Feudal model has a very limited lifespan once the fossil fuel inputs disappear. The “Asset” of a Human Slave is less than the “Liability” of his existence on Earth. Dead People are more valuable than Living Ones, because they consume no resources and fertilize the soil. Dead People are “less negative” than Living People. Therein lies the economic driver for Mass Die Off.

          It only stops once the population drops low enough that a Surplus returns. This may happen all at once, or it may happen in stages, but happen it will regardless. It is a thermodynamic certainty.


          • I am still trying to understand why the EROEI is negative for slave labor. Do you have references? The practice was so widespread, it must have had positive benefits, for the slave if nothing else–steady work, food, clothing, and a place to stay.

            I understand grinding grain was one of the reasons for its use long ago. Without this missing piece of the chain, no one would be able to eat. There have been other uses for slave labor as well, such as helping with agricultural work.

            There are many poor in India, with monetary income of $1 a day or less. It seems like they are in some ways similar. If they have access to land so they can grow food, and can get water for essentially $0, and can gather dung and sticks for fuel, and make bricks of clay for their homes, they can come out OK financially, but that is because the $1 day doesn’t count their real work or income.

            In a way, I think your statement about EROEI being negative for slave labor may be closely related to my statement, “Humans require external energy.” If the slave couldn’t gather wood or dung for external energy, or if the economy couldn’t provide eternal energy in some other way, the slave couldn’t survive, and neither could anyone else. Even survivalists depend on embedded energy in tools, clothing, and in the skills they have learned from books.

            • Don Stewart says:

              As a point of interest, Steve Solomon’s book (which I refer to elsewhere) says that in the middle ages the manure was gathered off any peasant land and carted to the private gardens of the nobility.

              Don Stewart

          • Eric Thurston says:

            If one accepts the thesis in the book “Time on the Cross” by Fogel & Engerman (ca. 1972) American slavery was profitable right up to the Civil War. Theirs was a controversial book at the time.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “American slavery was profitable right up to the Civil War.”

            Profitability is not the question, energy extraction efficiency is. There are people who are making profits putting grain ethanol into SUVs, and yet the ERoEI of grain ethanol is below unity, at about 0.85:1, according to David Pimentel.

            That said, I have to disagree that slave labour is a net loss. A slave consuming 3,000 kcal per day can easily plant/grow/harvest ten times that much food energy. Otherwise, it would make no sense for any of us to have a garden, no?

            • Everything I can see says that even the slaves were “supported” by external energy of some sort–sticks they gathered to cook their food with, for example, and occasional metal tools made with charcoal. The techniques used back then (using soil until it was depleted of necessary minerals, then moving on to another location), were effectively robbing the soil of what was close to a one-time endowment. Perhaps over several thousand years, it would build up again. Alternatively, fossil fuels might be used to transfer amendments from other areas. The energy cost of putting back into its original state would have been huge. As a practical matter, much of the soil damaged during the days of slave use is still severely depleted.

              Draft animals and horses played at least somewhat of a role, in transporting whatever was produced to market, if nothing else. These animals added external energy to the system.

              Also, the major crops I associate slaves with are tobacco, cotton, and sugar. In order to have markets for these crops, there needed to be surpluses built up through energy concentrations. As an example, peat moss was being burned in the Netherlands as early as the 12th and 13th centuries. Later, European countries figured out ways to drain colonies of whatever they could produce, depleting their stores. The money used by the wealthy to buy sugar, tobacco, and cotton, effectively transferred some of the energy benefit to the slave-owners, to keep up the cycle.

              I think we are kidding ourselves if we think that any of us can really be fully “energy-independent”. Chimpanzees and gorillas in their native habitat can be pretty much energy independent, because they do not have to expend energy for shelter, clothing, cooking, water purification, transportation, or defense, beyond what they can managed with their own built-in capabilities. They also don’t simultaneously degrade the environment. Humans have a very hard time meeting this standard. Perhaps a handful of people in some particularly good location can live without clothing, cooking food, and transportation, etc., but the vast majority will need biomass, animal labor, peat moss, or water power to assist.

              I don’t think the proper comparison for humans is “humans energy in” vs “food produced”. It is whether the sum of (1) our own energy, plus (2) embedded energy that we can appropriate (perhaps as knives and solar panels, and as embedded energy required for changing contours of land or using hoses to move water from one area to another), plus (3) current energy we can appropriate (such as biomass burning, draft animals, dogs used in hunting, water and wind power) is sufficient to provide food, clothing, shelter, transportation, cooking fuel, etc that we require. I think item (2) is key in most people’s preparations. Item (2) really isn’t a permanent solution, unless we can figure out ways to keep producing the embedded energy, or figure out ways to do without.

        • gazon says:

          I know many Polish and Spanish people already working 15 hours a day, in hotels in the UK, many living almost in 19th Century conditions.

    • hard to say how long the war over the last of the resources wil be, but man has always fought wars until the means to do so has run out.
      That used to be men carrying swords and spears, now it’s missiles, but the arithmetic is the same.
      wars will prevent our medical infrastructure functioning, so that will make up the full set of horsemen

    • Human impact certainly started before fossil fuels. Deforestation was documented to be a problem in quite a number of places 6,000 years ago, according to Sing Chew in The Recurring Dark Ages. In Joshua 17: 16-18, Joshua instructs the descendants of Joseph to clear as land in the hill country, so that they will have sufficient land to live (about 1,400 BC8). So even when the Israelites settled the promised land, there was not enough land available without clearing forests. Clearing forests in the hill country would lead to erosion of top soil as well.

  21. Pingback: Why Malthus got his Forecast Wrong | Doomstead Diner

  22. Tom Crowley says:

    Read all your excellent posts only since June I started to wake up to Abrupt Climate Change decided to contact you when I heard 20% increase in price of bread in supermarket. Hocome people have refuse to be concerned.

    http://arctic-news.blogspot.ie/ Tom Crowley

  23. Tony says:

    Interesting. For some years, I’d thought that the per-capita energy use had actually decreased since the 80s. From your graph, Gail, it appears that that trend reversed around 2000. But, as far as I can tell, coal use pretty much accounts for all the the increase in per-capita energy use since 2000. I presume that this is due entirely to China and (to a lesser extent) India development. I wonder how a split between The World Except Chindia and Chindia would look on a graph of per-capita energy use.

    • I did a post called The Growing Part of the World in Charts a while back. My growing part of the world is the “Remainder” category. The FSU is the Former Soviet Union. This is world population, by area:

      Population by area

      This is coal consumption by area.

      Coal consumption by area

      China joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001. Can you pick out the date on the graph?

      This is energy consumption per capita. The Former Soviet Union is what held world energy consumption down. The growing part of the world started from such a low base, that it doesn’t look like much.

      Energy Consumption per Person Per Year

      There are a number of other good graphs in that post, as well. The “Remainder” group pretty much escaped the 2008-2009 recession.

      • Tony says:

        Thanks, Gail. That makes it quite clear. The developed world has pretty much been in decline as regards direct energy consumption per capita, since the 80s (helped by the collapse of the FSU) but China and India have caused the overall per capita energy use to grow, since China joined the WTO, and primarily in coal – nasty.

  24. BC says:

    Good readers, ladies and gentlemen, fellow Americans, Great Apes, distinguished chimps, intelligent-systems NSA bots, others, please consider the following:

    Prior to the end of the Maunder Minimum and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, human ape population grew at approximately 0% to 0.4%, the latter resulting in a compounding doubling time of population growth of 170 years or a bit more than two lifetimes in the US today. This rate of growth of human population permitted the replenishing of forests, arable land, fisheries, and successive generations to adapt and develop immunities to multiple generations of pathogens.

    However, since the end of the Maunder Minimum and the onset of the Industrial Revolution and Fossil Fuel Age, human population has accelerated to a rate of 0.7%, a doubling time of 100 years, whereas the rate has accelerated further since 1950 to a doubling time of just 40 years, which is about a working lifetime.

    There is a zero probability that we can increase energy and food production at a doubling time of a working lifetime or sooner (unless we resort to producing and consuming Soylent Green).

    Moreover, natural systems cannot replenish themselves within 40 years at the constant rate and at the current high level of human consumption per capita of forests, arable land, fossil fuels, freshwater, and fisheries.

    Central banks cannot print crude oil, tar sands, tight oil, topsoil, forests, and freshwater. Gov’ts cannot borrow from banks with free printed reserves to spend into existence these vital resources at necessary supplies and at affordable prices.

    • You and I know that we can’t print energy, but you’d be amazed at the rants I see (maybe you read them too) asserting that spending money makes everyone wealthy, absolutely convinced that energy availability is merely a minor detail in the looming problems we face.
      It’s terrifying to realise that this is the opinion of the majority of people, and no matter how carefully you spell it out, that energy input underlies everything, there is a mental rejection of anything to do with energy depletion, and a childlike belief that ‘technology’ will sort the problem

      • BC says:

        Precisely. We are walking energy sinks and don’t know it (not socialized or educated to realize it, for obvious reasons). We can’t possibly in multiple lifetimes return in work in net energy terms to the system the energy transfer we receive per capita.

        It is as if evolution provided the human species with an inheritance in net energy work and consumption per capita equivalent to 100-150 times our ability to produce individually equivalent work in a year’s time, and we pi@@ed it away like some third-generation wealthy trust fund frat boy in a swimming pool of Dom Perignon, eating caviar from the bellybuttons of bottle blonde bimbos during a seemingly never-ending spring break Bacchanalia.

        I’m just young enough to be around for the hangover and to witness those well-proportioned bottle blond bimbos sag noticeably and their skin whither and wrinkle as the champagne disappears, the caviar dries up and turns fishy, the sun goes down, and there’s no money left to pay the pool guy.

  25. You might want to check out the new Food Article by Diner Monsta666 Gail. I think you’ll find some of the graphs useful.



    • Thanks! That is a good article, and you are right, it includes some good graphs. Agriculture in most forms is not very sustainable. It is most sustainable when it looks most like hunter-gathereing: large numbers of perennials in natural settings, with people and animals coming in and taking their share. Water is a particular issue, one point the author makes.

  26. Bubble Malthus says:

    Malthus never dreamed of how “Malthusian” the die-off will really be. He was talking more of a garden variety grinding agricultural population pressure. This time around, the empire actually exports food to the periphery, and controls the money which is required for trade, and the population is actually IN A BUBBLE almost everywhere. Malthus did not account for a bubble.
    This is a completely different ball game than the empires of the past which got their food from the periphery, so look for biblical-mega-epic bubble-dynamic-type (not your regular run of the mill agricultural-pressure wars) die-offs, in relatively short periods of time in the periphery and most countries which import large quantities of food from the core or are in a bubble relative to their local carrying capacity.
    Your eyes will not believe what you’re about to witness in some places, starting pretty soon.

    • BC says:

      Yes, forget stock and unreal estate bubbles, the greatest bubble in world history is the super-exponential acceleration of human ape population growth since the 17th and 18th centuries (after the Maunder Minimum). All super-exponential bubbles burst and return to the point at which the super-exponential bubble trajectory commenced, which implies a human ape population of fewer than 1 billion sometime later in the century, with the projected mass die-off commencing no later than the 2040s.

      • Bubble Malthus says:

        2040 is most optimistic, IMHO.
        Some examples just from the top of my head:
        Japan food self sufficiency stands at 39%, and unless someone lives in cave, their debt and energy/nuclear problems are widely known. 2040 is very optimistic for this island. UK stands next in line to re-enact Easter Island II: the sequel. Then there’s all of MENA, with Dubai an extreme example of carrying capacity of 1000 Bedouins, while sporting a vigorous 2-3 millions mall shoppers and builders.

        • yup, Saudi supported 1 billion arabs in 1900, now 30 million live there, most of them trying to out-do Ozymandias
          right now Saudi consumes a quarter of the oil it produces, selling gas at 10c a litre to drive their SUV’s in the desert, and insisting they can arm wrestle the sun with unlimited aircon.
          They are betting their lives on continued energy availability
          by 2030 Saudi will have no oil left to export, and expects to become a net oil importer
          One might laugh, if it wasn’t so terrifying, that there could be such naivety in imagining that there will be oil somewhere they can buy, or that they will have anything to buy it with.

      • This is the base case scenario of the 1972 Limits to Growth book.

        Limits to Growth Base Forecast from Hall and Day article

    • Maybe it is fortunate that we don’t know how this will play out.

      • We can see how it’s going to play out. Watch Syria, Egypt Iran Iraq and Libya, and the rest of the Gulf states, then try to imagine all of them in one colossal battle with Saudi’s starving young men screaming god is great–or whatever–in the face of dry oilwells
        Already they are rioting again in Tunisia because there’s still no jobs and food prices are still going up.
        It’s playing out right now, King Abdullah has paid his unemployed youth with $37 Bn protection money
        they will be back for more.
        The day they show up and there’s no cash left, they’re going to burn down Saudi Inc. with the last of the oil
        then it’s back to goat herding and camel trading

        • BC says:

          Yes, and the Saudis are big (low-profile) supporters of “The State of Israel”, the post-WW II garrison state for Anglo-American oil empire to keep Arab nationalism in check, keep the former Soviets from taking the oil fields from the imperial Brits after WW II, encourage radicalism among Arab populations, and to prevent populist democratic representation of Arab populations in the ME. (The M_slim B__otherh__d was infiltrated and co-opted by the C_A, Mo__ad, and Bri_ish Inte__ig_nce long ago.)

          Saudi oil exports (with global oil exports) will eventually collapse as production peaks and domestic production continues to rise, setting up conditions for the Saudi leadership and decamillionaire oil emirate playboys to exit to Switzerland, the Caymans, Bermuda, Palm Beach, and Morocco.

          When the Saudis and UAE Arabs bolt from the peninsula, the Israelis and Wall St. can take over with trillions in US military aid and loan guarantees to turn the desert into solar arrays, desalination plants, resorts, and more concentration camps for Arabs.

          • Somehow I missed the point that Israel was a base for US troops after WWII. That would help explain the US’ huge support for Israel – by both Republicans and Democrats. I had assumed the reason was all religious: Jews would of course vote for parties that supported Israel, and so would the Religious Right.

            More liberal Christians tend to point out that quite a few Palestinians are Christians, and that the Jews are treating the Palestinians terribly.

          • donsailorman says:

            At no time has the U.S. ever stationed troops in Israel. The British occupied the territories of the former Ottoman Empire that were called Palestine and Transjordan. The French occupied Syria.

      • Eric Thurston says:

        I’m somewhat skeptical of the birth/death trajectories in this model. I believe there is some evidence that a radical downturn in resource availability and a concomitant downturn in economic activity will cause people to have fewer children, not more. I know that birthrates went down during the great depression. Also, after the fall of the Roman Empire Italy became somewhat depopulated. I haven’t done the research to support this thesis and I’d be interested if anyone else has studied the issue in depth.

        • I haven’t looked into birth/death rate trajectories in these models. (While I am an actuary, I worked as a “casualty” actuary on insurance lines such as medical malpractices, workers compensation, and automobile insurance, rather than on life insurance issues.) Turning points are hard to model well, because of long life expectancies. The issue becomes as much how many women are reaching childbearing age as how many children each woman has, and how long all of the elderly people live. There is also the question of government changes to reflect energy usage.

          I expect that in economic depressions, people realize that the “energy” available to them in the future is decreasing, and do what they can to offset it–namely have fewer children, as you say. In the 1930s, Social Security was enacted, saying that the government would effectively take care of seniors over 65. This would give an extra reason not to have children. Also, jobs were in short supply, so children brought into the world would likely have a hard time in the job market.

          As the amount of world resources decreases, though, I think what will happen is social security benefits will erode, or even disappear (especially if there is a government collapse, and the new government decides it can’t fund the benefits). There will be more people dying of illnesses of all sorts, because of poorer sanitation and perhaps more wars. People will again realize that if they want a child to take care of them in their old age, they will need several, in order to have a reasonable chance that with the economic capacity to help will survive to maturity. Birth control and safe abortions may also decline in availability, making “accidental” births more of the norm.

          • donsailorman says:

            As forecasters, demographers make economists and weatherpeople look good by comparison. Not one demographer predicted the crash in U.S. birth rates that happened during the Great Depression. Not a single demographer (or science fiction writer) predicted the 1946-64 Baby Boom in the U.S. To the best of my recollection, few (if any) demographers predicted an end to the Baby Boom and the Baby Bust that followed during the 1970-2012 time period.

            Present trends will continue until they change. Except in thermodynamics, no trend goes on forever. My WAG is that birth rates will continue to fall in developed countries for much the same reasons that they fell during the Great Depression.

            Though we have no reliable statistics, it seems that the Roman population of the Roman empire fell by roughly half between 165 A.C.E. and the fifth century. Athens lost its wars against Sparta mainly because its population fell drastically between the time of Socrates’s birth and Aristotle’s death. Athens did not have enough men of military age to both man its navel galleys (always rowed by free Athenian citizens) and also its long walls. Thus you are correct: Decline of population is strongly correlated with decline and fall of civilizations. The causation links are sometimes obvious, sometimes not so obvious. When death rates abruptly go up (plague, defeat in total war, mass famine), that is usually sufficient to cause collapse. However, both ancient Athens and ancient Rome also had large (50%? Nobody knows.) declines in crude fertility rates.

          • Bicycle Dave says:

            Hi Sailor Don,

            My WAG is that birth rates will continue to fall in developed countries for much the same reasons that they fell during the Great Depression

            Did you see my comment about population (need to click the “newer comments” tag at the bottom)? I don’t see birth rates in any particular country as being the issue that will drive overall global population growth. I look at the actual growth rate and the trend line – which is for continued growth. Of course, the Four Horsemen could change this in a hurry. But, if we are talking about the trend without any type of major collapse, then I don’t put much stock in any kind of indirect factor – such as US birth rate, women’s education, recession/depression, etc. Of course a severe depression caused by our friends on horseback is another story. It seems to me that only direct factors such as the China policy can make a real difference. I know there are flaws in the China policy, but I think their claim of preventing 300M births should be looked at seriously – which is not to say that this is my favored approach (a longer discussion).

            The Population Connection provides some very useful global data – for example:

            1804 – 1B – Life Exp – 30
            1927 – 2B – lapsed time: 123 years – Life Exp – 39
            1960 – 3B – lapsed time: 33 years – Life Exp – 52
            1974 – 4B – lapsed time: 14 years – Life Exp – 61
            1987 – 5B – lapsed time: 12 years – Life Exp – 64
            1999 – 6B – lapsed time: 12 years – Life Exp – 67
            2011 – 7B – lapsed time: 12 years – Life Exp – 69

            Since the 1800s, no world event has ever changed the overall population growth trajectory – not wars, not depression, not plague – nothing – it’s relentlessly up. We can see that the lapsed time is leveling off and it will probably get a bit longer as we reach a limit or decrease in life expectancy. But, these dynamics don’t indicate much hope for significant stabilization/decrease due to any indirect factors. IMO, only by directly addressing the population issue (or by collapse) can we expect meaningful population reduction. Of course, the real danger in having the population trend continue on its present course is the severity of the inevitable collapse if we add another couple of billion people to the planet – I suspect we’ll agree on this point.

            • donsailorman says:

              Take a good hard look at the numbers you presented: They show that the exponential rate of growth in world population has declined from roughly 2% per year during the 1945-1970 period to roughly 1% per year in recent decades. There have been spectacular drops in fertility, even in some poor countries. For example, Mexico cut its average family size in half in only about twenty-five years. True, Mexico’s population growth rate remains fairly high (but much much lower than fifty years ago), but this is mainly due to the young age-distribution of the population.

              You are correct that the biggest determinant of future trends is going to be changing death rates. I think death rates will go up drastically, but where, exactly when, and for what reasons I do not know. Were I a betting man, I’d put my money on a plague, probably viral in nature, to be the first cause of reducing world population by several billion.

              With demography it is necessary to look behind the headline numbers. For example, all demographers know to use age-adjusted birth and death rates in making computations and projections. For example, because we know that Japan has a very old population, their potential for rapid population growth is approximately nil. Because Pakistan has such a young population, its potential for rapid population growth is large.

              Note the humongous difference between the developed and the poor world. WITHOUT EXCEPTION, every single developed country has achieved a position of what demographers call “incipient population decline.” In other words, on the average, women are having less than 2.1 babies in each and every developed country, because they have gone through the demographic transition. The only reasons the U.S. population continues to increase are immigration and longer life expectancies. My guess is that future increases in life expectancies will be small. What will happen with immigration is entirely a political question.

            • As long as resources are available to any species, it will use them to fill available space. This is basically what H. T. Odum said, with the Maximum Power Principle.

              Humans are no different. We are “programmed” to reproduce in excess of the need to replace ourselves. Nature’s plan is that survival of the fittest will weed out the extras. Fossil fuels are a resource available to humans. As long as they are available, we will use them to defeat survival of the fittest, and population will increase (or at least will not decline, until there is some interruption of the ability to get more fossil fuels).

              Even if one portion of the population reduces its population, immigration seems to attract others from elsewhere.

              It seems like it is a hard pattern to change.

          • Bicycle Dave says:

            Hi Sailor Don,

            I still stand by my contention that the global population growth rate is on a trend line that indicates there will be more than the current 7B in the years to come unless there is some kind of collapse – like you suggest with a really potent plague. Hopefully, you looked at my other post and the wiki explanation of population growth. Immigration can easily overcome a decline in one country’s birth rate – it really does not matter how the global population grows. Growth is growth. The fact that the growth rate is decreasing is minor comfort because the base is so large. If you do a spread sheet for 50 years using the US growth rate of nearly 1% we get to 500M sometime in mid century or so (I did this a while back so now quoting from memory). One needs to keep in mind that this is the magic of compounding numbers. Only a negative global growth rate indicates a truly declining population – the rest just doesn’t matter. Of course this will eventually happen one way or the other.

            Actually, I don’t think we will actually see the 9-10B global population figures posted in places like the UN because I suspect that some nasty events (like your plague) will shortcut that prediction. My concern is that hopeful thinking about indirect influences will distract from facing the issue head-on and taking positive action (totally free birth control, abortion, sex ed, no tax breaks, etc) – combined with some actual national and global goals for a sustainable population number. Folks here often talk about what such a number might look like. Without a positive approach, I suspect that mother nature is going to teach us a very harsh lesson. I’m not at all optimistic.

  27. I am amazed the a post could be put here ‘that Malthus was wrong” Material on here is normally lucid and well balanced, on this occasion it’s way off the mark.
    If Malthus was wrong, then by definition we can have the opposite of the Malthusian conclusion: the economics of the cornucopia.
    Malthus said that population would always grow beyond its means of sustenance, and then die back. He wasn’t wrong, his conclusions were skewed by something he could not possibly foresee, the power of the steam engine, then the oil engine that allowed food production to rise exponentially, and the population to rise in lockstep with it, Man’s two great preoccupations are eating and sex, (in survival terms that is all we are required to do) fossil fuel energy simply created opportunities to have more of both.
    Malthus’ forecast was just 200 years adrift, but please…he wasn’t wrong.

    • donsailorman says:

      Malthus’s famous book was published in several editions; if memory serves, the final edition was the eight and it appeared quite a while after `1798. Guess what? The later editions are much less gloomy than the first one was.

      However, though I hate to repeat myself, Malthus was flat out wrong. He did not know that a simple way to stabilize population was to
      1. educate women and
      2. get them into the labor force.

      Note the great success of the “Asian Tiger” nations: South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. In each and every one of these case population has stabilized or is declining, and of course Japan has a very significant drop in population. Each and every one of these Asian Tigers did the same thing: They educated their women and got them into the labor force.

      • Bandits says:

        It’s childishly naive to simply proclaim educating women lowers birth rates.

        No amount of education will prevent a couple from having another child if one dies. The exploitation of fossil fuels has enabled humans to lower infant mortality. Couples can plan because they are 95% assured the child will survive into adulthood. Woman are educated because there are jobs, due to greater economic opportunity. Globalisation has been nice for most countries but has also meant faster resource depletion.

        Much has contributed to lowering infant mortality including vaccination, better water quality, treatment for and elimination of parasites, rise of the middle class making good health care affordable and better nutrition due to the green revolution amongst other things.

        “They educated their woman and got them into the labor force” so does that mean if disaster strikes and they turn into a Haiti or Somalia that “educated” woman will not have more than two children? Or is an educated woman in the labor force different to one that
        is not.

        We no longer have children working in cotton mills and coal mines, as cabin boys on sailing ships, woman no longer die in childbirth or get married at fourteen years of age.

        The last human population doubling occurred as a direct result of the greater exploitation of fossil fuels. The increased population can be fed. Google famines in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Africa and South East Asia over the last one hundred years and notice when they declined or were eliminated. Educating woman will not put more food on the table when the consequences of resource depletion begins to hit home.

        • donsailorman says:

          There is overwhelming and compelling data to refute your position.

        • Michael Lloyd says:

          I’m inclined to agree with you. If there is a single cause underpinning improvements in education, public health, standard of living etc, it is the rate of supply of available energy, currently fossil fuel driven.

          We may well face choices in future to direct resources towards maintaining a low infant mortality and fewer resources towards extending life expectancy. Not sure how, as that would imply favouring non-voters.

        • Julie Cosgrove says:

          It’s not so much that its childishly naive to proclaim that as it is just a part of the modern “progressive” BS cult religion of how things should be done. The modern “progressive” is like dealing with a hardcore religious right Republican from the 1950s. Same stubborn, arrogant, wrong-headed smugness and hatred for anyone who pokes holes in their BS.

      • davekimble2 says:

        Imagine if education, work opportunities and health services were provided to all people in the world – instead of capitalist greed, worker exploitation and health services only for the wealthy. The population collapse that we face due to the end of cheap fossil fuels wouldn’t be half as bad, and maybe could be confronted with reason and sensible planning. As it is, we have a paradigm that says that even now, as we go off the cliff, we must consume more !

      • Also more energy helps. It is hard to be able to afford to educate very many women, without fossil fuels.

    • Perhaps I should say “temporarily wrong”. We can learn from what happened to prevent the fate he predicted.

  28. davekimble2 says:

    It is important realise how vague Malthus’ reasoning was, and how focussed he was on Britain:
    “If I allow that by the best possible policy, by breaking up more land and by great encouragements to agriculture, the produce of this Island [Britain] may be doubled in the first 25 years, I think it will be allowing as much as any person can well demand.

    In the next 25 years, it is impossible to suppose that the produce could be quadrupled. It would be contrary to all our knowledge of the qualities of land. The very utmost that we can conceive is that the increase in the second 25 years might equal the present produce.

    Let us then take this for our rule, though certainly far beyond the truth, and allow that, by great exertion, the whole produce of the island might be increased every 25 years by a quantity of subsistence equal to what it presently produces. The most enthusiastic speculator cannot suppose a greater increase than this.”

    It would be interesting to know how the agricultural production of Britain actually fared against Malthus’ prediction.

    • Les says:

      From 1750 to 1850 the population of Britain roughly tripled, and domestic agriculture continued to feed everyone, with increased yield largely due to land reclamation and improved crop varieties, plus a move towards wheat and rye replacing barley. But after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 imports became increasingly available, and after the American Civil War ended cheap grain became readily available. Canada and Australia also became major food commodity suppliers.

      The population has more than tripled again since 1850, and the country is still nearly 60% self-sufficient in food, so Malthus underestimated the possibilities for increased food production. Food imports now mainly come from other EC countries.

      • The rising food production per acre of course was made possible by fossil fuels. Also, fossil fuels helped make importing grain reliable and inexpensive, compared to using wind powered ships.

    • donsailorman says:

      Note the great importance of the Enclosure movement during the early nineteenth century in England. This drove a great many poor farmers into the cities to provide plenty of labor for the early stages of industrialization.

      1815 and the peace after the long Napoleanic wars drove many former sailors and soldiers into immediate and extreme poverty. Charles Dickens provides good descriptions of the extent of this widespread poverty; I especially recommend “Oliver Twist,” both the novel and the old movie version.

      Malthus identified two different checks to the growth of population–positive checks and preventive checks. Positive checks increase the death rate, and they include what Malthus called “great towns,” (i.e. London, Birmingham, etc.), disease, undernutrition, malnutrition, and also some other elements. Preventive checks include such things as postponing marriage, and in his sixth edition he held out some hope that this could make a big difference to control population growth.

      • Thanks for the information.

        Somehow, the “enclosure of common land” reminds me of the recent move to charge more than a nominal amount for water, in an effort to save fresh water. What used to be free (or almost) suddenly must be paid for. It is a huge tax on the common people.

        I am not sure that small individual plots really “work” without fossil fuels. Somehow, the system must include large tracts of land that include water sources. If there is grazing, it probably needs to be moved from area to area, to help promote soil fertility. Individual farmers aren’t usually rich enough to own many animals.

        Some other citations have pointed out the connection between wars and excess population. Clearly, wars provide jobs for young men who would otherwise be unemployed and unhappy. Bringing them home without jobs is a huge problem. Thus the magic of debt to fix a problem.

        I hadn’t realized that Malthus considered “great towns to be a check on population.

  29. So the 18th century Malthus got it wrong because he misjudged the future of technological advances. Looks like proof that sometimes the more things change the more they stay the same. Evolution essentially means change over time. Maybe the real problem isn’t the price of oil and debt, but the religious right fear, denial and political influence.

    • Julie Cosgrove says:

      Maybe the real issues is the “progressive’s “fear, denial and political influence.” If you haven’t noticed, they are now the mainstream culture, they control the media and they’ve controlled the pathetic, ineffective education system for decades now. The “religious right” has been irrelevant for a long time now. The people in opposition to the corruption of the “progressive’s” ideology led economics (Paul Krugman and Robert Reich), poor math of redistribution, and complete non-sustainability (unless we tax the middle class and poor a HUGE amount of their income) are largely fiscally conservative secularists.

      Perhaps its time for you to step outside of your politically ignorant bubble and see reality. We are headed towards fiscal disaster and your “progressive” leaders are making it worse while they pocket as much money they can and ship it to their corrupt supporters. You have ZERO moral superiority to stand on. You are a part of a cult.

  30. Leo Smith says:

    NIce one Gail, but I wonder personally if debt is the issue: to me its just a symptom.
    If you take economies as pure systems, then they have natural feedback and feedforward paths. Debt is a way – especially debt based on notional, rather than actual, security – of trading notional surplus today for increased prosperity tomorrow: That is, it is a hugely effective way of accelerating growth in a system that is not resource limited.

    IN a system that is resource limited, where no growth is physically possible, spiralling debt merely reflects an attempt to engender growth where none is available. Debt itself is not the problem, its merely a symptom of the problem, associated with the fact that governments financial institutions and so on, are desperately trying to create the growth they need to balance their books, when it cant be done.

    Debt is conceptually easy to solve. simply devalue it by 10 or so. All savers lose 90% of their savings, all borrowers lose 90% of their debt. Wealth gets transferred from lenders to debtors. That’s largely what debt ridden governments have done with QE et al.

    None of this solves the other issues of actual production of goods and services that people need, and the acquisition of which represents wealth. Here you are spot on that above all the brick wall we have run into is an energy one.

    Perhaps this is part of a necessary social transition from consumerism to permanent austerity. What matters then is overall energy footprint per capita, not overall level of consumption. If everything is priced, not as it is now, in terms of man hours in the distribution chain, but kilowatt hours of energy to get it to your door, then the dynamics of the market will rebalance the economy along different lines. Labour intensive good, capital intensive irrelevant, energy intensive bad.

    One thing that the above suggests is that since the actual energy intensivity of any given things is very very hard to establish as there are ways of making things, ways of running things, ways of delivering things, all of which have energy impact which then means the energy content is as much in the how of the thing as the thing itself, governments MUST keep their sticky fingers out of trying to second guess things. If they must, tax energy. But that’s all. Then the natural market forces can and will allow the optimal strategies to win. Right now in Socialist/Liberal land, the governments are bending the markets beyond breaking point.

    Second guessing technologies or products is extremely dangerous, as is trying to establish a uniformity of solutions across wide geographical areas.

    Sadly intelligence of a technocratic sort is almost completely absent from Western governments. They are to a man and woman, political ideologues or mere opportunists masquerading as such, carried along on a tide of marketing skills to present themselves in cartoon form as saviours of the nations they purport to represent.

    Ergo the solution can only finally be found when firstly people stop believing in magic silver bullets and face up to the reality of the situation, and elect someone who is fluent in the truth, and that in itself means things will have to get worse until the majority simply do not believe the shamans and witch doctors peddling their miserable answers and magic cures, and discover who ultimately can understand and react appropriately to the situation.

    Which will take time, and a worsening situation.

    • You make a lot of good points.

      You make a good point about debt being a good way of increasing resource consumption if it is not constrained (which is pretty much what I am saying). I don’t think governments have any idea that we are hitting resource constraints in oil, so they will try to encourage more debt, in a futile attempt to encourage growth. Also, we are working in a world context. Even if total world oil supply is constrained, a particular country’s debt acts to increase that country’s share of the total oil supply. To the extent that this oil helps keep the country out of recession, it helps keep demand high for other fossil fuels, and thus helps increase their extraction. Thus total energy consumption is raised, even if oil supply is not.

      I sometimes think that subsidies of energy products tend to work as another way to encourage resource consumption (unless there is an off balance in government revenue that offsets this). A country with oil subsidies will be able to obtain a disproportionate share of the world’s oil. If oil is a requirement to make other elements of the economy operate, it can have a leveraged impact on the economy as a whole, and ramp up demand for other unconstrained products (like coal) as well. This would seem to be especially the case in the industrial sector; probably not so in the consumer sector.

      It seems like it would be almost impossible to make a system which rewards human energy consumption but not fossil fuel energy consumption. It is the fossil fuel energy consumption which leverages up human energy. Without the leverage, what we can contribute is pretty small.

      If you had an absolute dictator who knew the truth, perhaps it would be possible to work in a theoretically desirable direction. (Emphasis on perhaps.) I don’t see the possibility of elected officials looking at anything other than short-term goals.

      • casdeiro says:

        If you had an absolute dictator who knew the truth, perhaps it would be possible to work in a theoretically desirable direction. (Emphasis on perhaps.) I don’t see the possibility of elected officials looking at anything other than short-term goals.

        You forget a third option: a direct democracy system, i.e. not elected officials nor dictators. Just people deciding what people needs. It may be a local direct democracy system in a relocalized world or maybe a digital direct democracy for wider territories like regions and states. Chances for that kind of government are quite few, I know, but it is a possibility.

        • I think you need groups lower than the “Dunbar number” of about 150, where everyone knows everyone else, for this to work. Or at least much poorer people than today.

  31. dashui says:

    I don’t think Malthus mentioned a date for the big famine.

  32. Malthus wasn’t wrong… Just early…

    • donsailorman says:

      I have read the famous book from cover to cover. It is a classic of economics based on the law of diminishing marginal returns. In other words you can keep adding labor or fertilizer or water to an acre of land, but eventually your marginal returns will approach zero. Then if you apply still more of the variable inputs, marginal returns go negative.

      However, Malthus most emphatically did get it wrong, because there was no way for him to foresee the Industrial Revolution and its consequences. The rate of natural increase in population in every single European country has turned negative. Japan has a declining population, mainly because of severe limits on immigration. The rate of natural increase in the U.S. was (if memory serves) zero around 1970, and it is well below zero now.

      There is an iron law of sociology: As women become more educated, birthrates fall drastically. The U.S. is a vivid example of this. Women who drop out of high school have high birth rates, well above replacement levels. Women with a BA degree in the U.S. reproduce at rates well below the replacement rate. On average, women in the U.S. with advanced post-graduate degrees are having roughly only half a child. You need roughly 2.1 babies per mother to achieve a zero rate of natural increase.

      • Debt Ridden says:

        Too little, much too late. It’s called “demographic momentum.”

        • donsailorman says:

          I think you are correct. But let me give you a specific example of how fast the demographic transition can work from my own family history. My father was born in 1896 into a very poor family of eleven children. Five of his brothers died ove the space of just a few months during the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic. He was five feet three inches tall. My mother was one of nine children on an extremely poor farm in North Dakota; her first language was Danish. Her family was so poor that at age eleven she was “sold” into indentured servitude for a period of seven years to work as a maid for a well-to-do family.

          I was born in 1940 and grew to a height of five-feet eight inches. I had four children. My son, born in 1978 is 6’4″ tall and is recently the father of twins. I am now the grandfather of five children and expect not to have any more. My eldest daughter has one child. My second daughter had two children. My third daughter has no children.

          The demographic transition came too late for many societies and may never come for some, e.g. Africa south of the Sahara. Nevertheless, insofar as I am optimistic at all for the future, my optimism is mainly based on the game-changing results of the demographic transition.

      • Education is closely tied in with wealth of a family, and thus energy consumption. Also, the fact that the person could stay in school reflects a relatively wealth society, in terms of energy availability. So I suspect that energy use and education are highly correlated. I also posted some charts from an ecology paper elsewhere.

        • Les says:

          In many cases education and wealth do not correlate very well. My grandfather was an agricultural laborer who was poor by almost any standard. He had six surviving children, born between 1898 and 1917. All but one of them graduated from a university. There were a total of 17 grandchildren, of whom 12 graduated. All were brought up in families much wealthier than the one their parents had. I’m not sure of what’s happened to all of the great-grandchildren, but for the ones I know about the graduation rate is about 25%. Most of these grew up in families as wealthy as their parents did.

          • To some extent, the number of children depends on custom. I am one of seven children. My parents very much wanted a boy, because that is the way my father had been raised (carry on family name, one who should inherit property, etc. My parents were of Norwegian background.). The first five children were all girls. The sixth one was finally a boy. The seventh one was an “accident” – another girl when my mother was 45.

            My mother (who has a master’s degree in medical technology, and ran a hospital lab up until I was born, concealing her pregnancy at the end) always said, “If I am going to stay at home with children, I can just as well stay home with several as with one or two.”

      • Jan Steinman says:

        The so-called “demographic transition” should really be called the “energy transition.”

        If a woman gets an electric pump in her village and no longer has to walk five miles for water, she doesn’t have to breed a worker to fetch water.

        The traditional way of staffing your farm and funding your retirement was breeding. When “energy slaves” serve that purpose, breeding goes down.

        It will be interesting to see what happens when the number of “energy slaves” begins to decline. The Club of Rome model predicts that fecundity will once again increase. If so, we’ve got a disaster on our hands coming up — the “perfect storm” of reduced access to energy, global climate disruption, and rapidly increasing population. Hope I’m dead by then.

        • donsailorman says:

          Over the past fifty years there have been very few increases in the age-adjusted fertility rate. One such case was Kenya, where antipolygyny pressures caused an increase in the birthrate. When polygyny was the usual case, a woman with a baby would nurse the child until the age of four–or even longer. Lactation suppresses fertility. In traditional Kenyan society it is taboo for a man to have sex with his lactating wife.

          The huge single cause of the population explosion has been due to the drastic decline in infant and child mortality. For example, the spraying of DDT after the Second Word War added roughly a billion people to the world’s population by nearly wiping out malaria and other mosquito or fly-borne diseases. Of course, malaria is now making a big comeback.

          Speaking as a sociologist, I do not expect age-adjusted fertility rates to increase anywhere until and unless education and work-force participation of women decrease. With a few exceptions such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan–which deny education to women–birth rates are falling and continue to fall. Some of the sub-Saharan countries in Africa still have fairly high birth rates, but even there rates are falling. The prospect of owning a cell-phone (which costs money) is a major incentive not to have another child. In India it is the prospect of owning an automobile that is quickly causing urban families to regard the two child family as ideal. The consumer culture discourages large families as does urbanization.

          The population explosion did not happen because people started breeding like rabbits; it happened because people stopped dying like flies.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “The population explosion did not happen because people started breeding like rabbits; it happened because people stopped dying like flies.”

            But the major premise still holds: people stopped dying like flies because excess energy enabled an industrial medical system to reduce the infant death rate.

            • donsailorman says:

              Modern medicine does help to cut the death rate, but the single biggest factor was public health measures such as the ancient Romans had–abundant clean water and good sewers. Of all the deaths of all the humanoid species over the past million years or so, probably (and by far) the single highest cause of mortality was drinking bad water. Note that civilizations are built either on boiling water for tea (China and India), wine or beer (Greece, Rome, Vikings). Until quite recently, it was not safe to drink the water in most places. Even in 19th century rural and urban U.S. the death rate from contaminated water was quite high. Farm water was especially bad, because frequently shallow wells would be contaminated from waste from outhouses or from manure runoff.

            • I would not be surprised if even now, drinking water without boiling or alcohol added is not very safe for the majority of the world’s population. I have visited China, Russia, and India in the past year and a half, and found unsafe water in all of those countries. Russia apparently has gone downhill since 1991 in this regard.

              I expect this will be an issue in the future, and will lead to the need for more wood or similar product to burn, to heat water to boiling.

        • I think you are right about the demographic transition being pretty much an energy transition. If an economy is rich enough in energy resources, it can fund both education benefits and retirement benefits, plus build infrastructure so there is no need to send children miles to fetch water. It will have the energy resources so that women can have jobs outside of subsistence agriculture, if they are not staying at home with 5 or 6 children (today’s jobs require energy as well).

          I think the Club of Rome is right about fecundity rising in the future. If the government doesn’t take care of you, and you have no access to birth control, people will have more kids.

      • Robert Firth says:

        You say: “Women who drop out of high school have high birth rates, well above replacement levels. Women with a BA degree in the U.S. reproduce at rates well below the replacement rate. On average, women in the U.S. with advanced post-graduate degrees are having roughly only half a child.”

        I wonder: if that pattern is sustained, what will happen to the average intelligence of the human species? Much of the US underclass has already shifted from an R to a k reproductive strategy, supported essentially by the welfare state. If that does not terrify you, it should.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          Correlation is not causation!

          I think in this example, “education” should be considered synonymous with “having access to energy.”

          It’s not clear to me that, in a negative growth scenario, neither education nor access to energy will ensure low birth rates. In past periods of static growth, people with greater access to energy (feudal lords and other nobility) did not necessarily procreate less, as they had to produce heirs and nobles to keep the rabble in check.

          Once again, folks, look at the Club of Rome model plots. Smithsonian reports that we are essentially on-track with the worst-case scenario, which shows that births accelerate even as deaths do, with a net result that population continues to climb.

          • donsailorman says:

            You are, of course, correct: Correlation does not imply causation. However, in the case of the education of women causing lower birthrates, there is a humongous heap of sociological evidence to the effect that educating women does in fact drastically lower birth rates.

    • “Malthus wasn’t wrong… Just early…”-TU

      Like most Doomers, Malthus had the concept right, just the Timeline issue is problematic.

      However, barring Zero Point Energy or the Cold Fusion Cavalry riding over the Hill to the rescue in the Nick of time here, a massive population crash is as close to a statistical certainty as you can get inside the next century. I’d bet on it in Vegas, except there is no payoff for being right on this. LOL.


    • donsailorman says:

      Wikipedia has a good article on “Essay on the Principle of Population.” It was the sixth edition of this book that heavily influenced Charles Darwin.

      BTW, did you know that Malthus was an ordained minister. He classified contraception under the general heading of “vice,’ which of course also included masturbation and homosexuality.

  33. Michael Lloyd says:

    Gail, just a thought. Have you read The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter?

    I’m currently working my way through this. If you haven’t read it, I’m sure you would find it of interest.

    • I have the book, but haven’t read all of it, just parts of it. I have also heard him speak several times.

      • Michael Lloyd says:

        Yes, a book that requires study. I read a couple of pages or so, then I pause to ponder!

      • russell1200 says:

        Jack Goldstones’ book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World is a much more useful work as it gives you much more specific mechanisms to work with. Peter Turchin’s work on Cliodynamics is an interesting take on modern Malthusian cycle is also interesting.

        • Thanks for the suggestions!

          Regarding Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, it sounds like Goldstone’s take on the situation was that the problems were mostly driven by rising population. One reviewer says:

          Rather than taking on the whole issue of revolution, Goldstone begins by restricting himself largely to a smaller but crucial question; what was responsible for state failure in the early modern world? Goldstone introduces a multifactorial model with 3 key components; inability of the state to raise sufficient revenues to finance itself, fissured elites, and disaffected marginal popular groups that could be mobilized for violence. This sounds fairly vague but Goldstone introduces a single driving force that generates the 3 key components; demographic expansion. In Goldstone’s model, population growth in these pre-industrial economies leads to inflation with subsequent erosion of state (and individual) purchasing power. Coupled with the increasing real costs of important state activities like the costs of warfare, this leads to fiscal crises for the state. Population growth, often accompanied by considerable turnover of the upper classes, leads to increased competition among elites for privileged positions, especially state patronage which the financially strapped states cannot accomodate. The resulting insecurity among and competition among elites often leads to an adversarial relationship to the state at it seeks to improve its revenue base. Finally, demographic growth leads to a reservoir of groups, displaced peasants, marginalized urban workers, who can form popular shock troops for any violent actions.

          From Google reviews, it sounds like Peter Turchin takes Goldstone’s ideas and extends them mathematically. One reviewer describes his books as follows:

          Turchin has three books developing his approach. “War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations” is the popular introduction. It describes the approach without any math or equations, and applies it to a range of historical empires. This is the place to start for a general introduction, particularly if you are not mathematically inclined. However, it is not formally rigorous and will not convince you if you are sceptical. “Secular Cycles” (with Sergey Nefedov) supports the theory with quantitative empirical data. It applies the model to two cycles in each of England, France, Rome and Russia. This is the book to read if you are comfortable with numbers and need to be convinced by empirical evidence. “Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall” provides the theoretical framework, discussing, for example, why an explanation of cyclical dynamics requires a feedback loop. It is quite mathematical, and while you don’t have to work your way through all the equations, you should be comfortable with mathematical models generally. Turchin’s model was inspired by Jack A Goldstone, “Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World.” This is also an excellent book. It is written in a more traditional historical style; the model is informal, rather than formal, and the argument is supported by historical analysis of particular revolutions, rather than by quantitative data. In these respects it is similar to “War and Peace and War,” though it is substantially longer. If you are looking for an extended analysis in a more traditional style of social history, this a great book.

      • Manoel says:

        I strongly recommend it. If read with peakoil-aware eyes it would make a lot of things clear.

  34. donsailorman says:

    Another thing Malthus did not anticipate was the Demographic Transition that comes along with industrialization.

  35. bert hielema says:

    I trust your well-reasoned commentaries. Keep it up.

    Bert Hielema.

    • This has a number of interesting thoughts. How to reconcile individual freedoms with tendency toward overpopulation. Anti-Malthusian idea that humans are exempt from laws of nature, because God /Nature/Science will provide. (I would add technology.) Tertullian 3rd Century AD quote, “The scourges of pestilence, famine, wars, and earthquakes have come to be regarded as a blessing to overcrowded nations, since they serve to prune away the luxuriant growth of the human race.”

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