Tuesday, June 07, 2005

"Oil Storm" part 2: the population problem

Our addiction to oil is really a symptom of a much more serious problem: our system has been working under the delusion that we aren't subject to the same ecological rules that all other lifeforms are, so not enough people are thinking about what running out of oil will do to our population if we don't have a sufficiently strong energy source to replace it.

Given the short time frame we may have, it's not too surprising that many people see major problems as inevitable and often appeal to an outside savior (including deities, aliens, and technology) for escape. Such apocalyptic thought may in itself be a subconscious recognition that humanity's numbers are well beyond Earth's carrying capacity and are in practice violating natural rules that constrain population. Rule violations are often portrayed in religious terms as "sin," but what the religions define as sins are not the actual problems... they are in fact symptoms of the problem. This problem.

Sociologist William Catton explains the crucial concept of carrying capacity this way (emphasis added):

... For any use of any environment by any population, there is a volume and intensity of use that can be exceed(ed) only by degrading that environment's future suitability for that use. Carrying capacity, the word for maximal sustainable use level, can be exceeded--but only temporarily. Ecologically, Malthus's main error was supposing that it was not possible for a population to increase beyond the level of available sustenance. It can and does happen, but always the overshoot will be temporary.

The comparably tragic error of Malthus's latter-day critics has been to mistake serial traps for progress, i.e., to construe technological change that facilitates temporary evasion of carrying capacity limits as permanent elevation (or repeal) of those limits. When load comes to exceed carrying capacity, the overload inexorably causes environmental damage; then the reduced carrying capacity leads to load reduction (i.e., a crash).

I'd add that many people fail to note that Earth's timeframe for "temporary" can be vastly longer than any one human lifetime. Global human population has been growing for millennia, but really took off in the past two centuries largely due to the use of oil-based fuel and fertilizers and improved medicine (which is often dependent on oil), which prolonged lifetimes and with them the childbearing years. If we hadn't found such fuels, I imagine our population would've stabilized already; if we had an infinite supply of fuels (which the same site never mentions at all as a factor), future population might look like one of these.#

That crash will come when the decline in oil availability begins to really hit home because, as Oil Storm and other sources have noted, oil fuels modern agriculture and without it the big farms are history. Without the big farms, we can't support our society at the level of complexity we've come to take for granted, and, more importantly, can't support the skyrocketing global population we have. For years, we've prided ourselves on being industrial and able to conquer anything, solve any problem, but when it comes right down to it, we are as dependent on agriculture as was ancient Egypt or any other dead civilization of history. Maybe more so.

We all need to realize that the film's "No Harvest in '06" protests are not just hyperbole... eventually, they'll be reality. Violent reality -- not just protests, but revolutions of desperate people seeking food. Maybe not next year, but in the not too distant future, if oil peak predictions are correct. The film showed some people freezing to death, but that would be a tiny number compared to those who starve.

As an example of what could happen, Wolf at the Door notes the following (emphasis added):

The example of North Korea shows us what happens to agriculture when oil products are removed. After the Korean war, it had developed a modern farming system depending on machinery and oil-based fertilisers. After the Soviet Union fell, Communist aid to the country stopped and they were unable to purchase oil and supplies. Without oil, farm machinery was sitting idle (80% of its capacity by 1998) and large proportions of the people had to return to the agriculture. Unfortunately the soil had been drained of nutrients over the years and, without fertilisers, it was unable to produce the same output as before. Crop yields fell by 60% over the period 1989-1998. Unless it can get access to oil and fertilisers again, the population will decline until it reaches a sustainable level.

We've all seen coverage of just how desperate that country is, and eventually we could follow suit. I don't know if we have a way out of that, or if we have one we can implement in time. One thing that will help is to encourage local farming, gardening, etc. by buying locally, but many places don't have enough nearby arable land to support their existing population (esp. cities). Maybe it's time to pressure state legislatures to fund more grants for greenhouses, hydroponics, community farms, apartment-rooftop gardens, better education in horticulture, etc., and take the money from the billions we spend on roads (which simply means oil) as a true investment in the future.


#-The charts linked here obviously don't take into account the population decline that almost certainly will happen when the crutch of oil is gone. In fact, the site says, "In the 20th century the human race began at last to declare victory over both famine-related and infant mortality, at the same time that significant advances in public health and medicine were applied." This "victory" may well prove to be as illusory as Hitler's 1000 Year Reich, and it's blatantly untrue as far as famine goes already.

The world presently grows enough food to feed the starving (in fact, almost certainly more food, as evidenced by our global population growth), but it very often doesn't get to them, and we're already seeing widespread declines in the fertility of farmland due to the repetitious use of a handful of crops. Such declines were being reported in the early 1900s in some places such as Kansas, but fertility was temporarily propped up by the development of petrochemical fertilizers, which, combined with booming profitability, promoted practices (especially monoculture) that have depleted key soil nutrients even more rapidly than was already occurring:

Call and Throckmorton {two U. of Kansas scientists in 1918} credited the declining productivity of Kansas soils to five factors: depletion of soil organic matter, failure to grow enough acres of leguminous crops for nitrogen fixation, depletion of mineral nutrients, the lack of proper crop rotations, and the erosion of fertile topsoil. These five factors are the subject of nearly every soils publication prior to the advent of inexpensive nitrogen fertilizers in the mid-1900's. They continue to be the basis of soil health for every farming system regardless of the use of commercial fertilizers.


(Note: This entry has been edited over the last few days (6/7-9/05). Hopefully, it's more focused now... -- JD)

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