Category Archives: Peak oil

Sowing the seeds of a future society

Editor’s note: Articles on GIM typically reflect the assumption that we may be able to avert societal collapse or other catastrophic consequences of our ongoing violation of Earth’s limits. Admittedly, though, that assumption is just a guess and is increasingly strained as nations and the media continue with “business as usual” concerning such issues as population, energy, and economic growth.

In this guest essay, Ken Whitehead starts with a different assumption — that the magnitude of the challenge upon us and the history of our responses to similar challenges makes a collapse of today’s civilization inevitable. His wide-ranging essay focuses, therefore, not only on key elements pushing us today toward the brink, but on actions we might take to ensure some sustainable continuation of human society in a post-collapse future.

Ken is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary, currently studying the dynamics of arctic glaciers. He has a background in remote sensing and geography, but in recent years has become increasingly concerned about the societal and ecological factors he discusses below. My thanks to Ken for this thought provoking article. — JF
By Ken Whitehead:Sowing

Civilisation as we know it will no longer exist within 30 years. This bleak conclusion is not one I have arrived at lightly. However, wherever I look the evidence suggests that we are heading towards a major ecological breakdown which the majority of us are unlikely to survive. A number of critical environmental problems are coming to a head and the fall out from these will dwarf any attempts we can make to tackle them. If the pitiful attempts that have been made so far to tackle the environmental crisis are any guide, then major ecological breakdown is inevitable within a few years.

Once civilisation starts to unravel, it will happen quickly. Crop yields will fall considerably as the effects of climate change and peak oil really start to bite. It is likely that one of the first casualties will be the current banking and financial system, which is unlikely to be able to withstand the strain. Thus wealth will offer no protection.

Compounding this will be the fact that fossil fuels and other oil-based products will become increasingly hard to obtain, so the transportation infrastructure will grind to halt. From a practical point of view, food will be in very limited supply, no one will be able to pay for it, and there will be no transportation available to deliver it. As the crisis deepens, the electricity supply will be disrupted as will water supplies. Disease will almost certainly thrive in such an environment. Conflict over what limited resources remain will be almost inevitable. In short we will be transported back to the dark ages in a very short space of time and many people, used to living a comfortable western lifestyle, will be unlikely to survive this transition.
Continue reading . . .

Interviews: Bartlett and Ehrlich

Below are two interviews worth a listen. The first is with Al Bartlett. The second features Paul Ehrlich. Each is, of course, a leading thinker and writer on a variety of topics in sustainability. (Both, by the way, will appear in Dave Gardner’s film, Hooked On Growth.) You can find other interviews with each, but these are fairly recent as well as engaging. They range across topic including population, economic sustainability, politics, and energy. The Bartlett interview is 72 minutes long while Ehrlich’s is just 19 minutes:

Al Bartlett interview

Paul Ehrlich interview

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Grim worldview from the deck of the Titanic

Administrator’s note: Jim Lydecker’s essays have appeared previously on GIM. In this one, which first appeared as a guest commentary in the Napa Valley Register, Jim does an especially good job of tying together succinctly a number of the ecological, economic, and political crises we face. He raises, as well, a troubling question: If our elected leaders are fully aware of the challenges facing us, why are they doing next to nothing to address them?

My thanks to Jim for providing this article! — JF
By Jim Lydecker: Titanic

I have written before that America is like the Titanic making her way through an ocean of icebergs. The captain and his staff keep reassuring the passengers everything is OK.

Standing on the deck, we see the bergs getting bigger and closer. Looking up at the captain’s quarterdeck, I wonder if they know what the hell they are doing? Can they be so stupid to not see the impending crises in front of us? Are they focused only on those directly in our path hoping to navigate our way through, fingers crossed?
Or do they know there is no way out and we are doomed?

This allegory is more true than fictional. America faces a convergence of crises of such magnitude that no amount of financial or scientific commitment may be enough to keep them from ending industrial civilization. The future would be less problematic if our leaders had taken on the crises before they became so large and interconnected.
Continue Reading…

Humanity is the greatest challenge

The article quoted and linked to below came out of an idea I submitted to the BBC News’s Green Room. I was lucky enough to contact a wonderfully helpful and supportive editor (Thanks, MK!) and the piece was posted last night. It’s exciting to be able to present the ideas we discuss here and around the Web to the BBC’s worldwide audience! — JF

The growth in human population and rising consumption have exceeded the planet’s ability to support us, argues John Feeney. In this week’s Green Room, he says it is time to ring the alarm bells and take radical action in order to avert unspeakable consequences.

We humans face two problems of desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.

Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we’ve created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over.

Read the rest…

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Six steps to “getting” the global ecological crisis

By John Feeney:

[Original version published at The Oil Drum; Revised here for clarity – 11/12/07, 11/17/07, 5/31/08, 8/12/08]


Some of us who examine and discuss environmental matters are constantly puzzled and frustrated by the seeming inability of elected officials, environmental organizations, and environmental and political writers to “get” the nature of our ecological plight. Could it be they’re simply unaware of the ecological principles which enable one to understand it?

Since some undoubtedly are, and in light of the warnings in the UN’s latest report on the state of the global environment, here is a brief list of axioms and observations from population ecology with which everyone should be familiar. Most are taught in introductory level ecology and environmental science classes. They appear sequentially, so the reader can step logically through a progression which should make clear some of the fundamental elements of the global ecological challenge before us: (more…)

WEAP model on The Oil Drum

[Note update below. Paul’s updated model is here.]

There’s a lengthy discussion on The Oil Drum of Paul Chefurka’s World Energy and Population: Trends to 2100. I mentioned Paul’s paper in the introduction to the previous post here, and recommend it to anyone interested in an excellent, readable analysis of the relationship between peak energy and global population. It goes a long way toward bringing into focus much of the essence of our global ecological crisis.

I haven’t read all the comments on The Oil Drum, but there’s clearly enough material there to keep an interested reader busy for days. Good stuff.
[10/21/07] Update: See Paul’s newer World Energy to 2050. Given Paul’s reassessment of his WEAP model (see this link, but also Paul’s comments below), a few more words are in order. It seems the key conclusion resulting from over 400 comments on the paper on The Oil Drum was that it did not successfully establish a causal link between energy decline and population decline.

That said, I believe the paper has had real value. First, it does contain excellent examinations of some important issues. Second, getting it in front of large numbers of people who could discuss and critique it has moved the discussion of this hugely important topic. We now have some new indication of how difficult it is to demonstrate beyond doubt a link between energy decline and population decline. It remains, of course, a problem of tremendous importance.

This is all very speculative, of course, but if true, it may in time help clarify the role of peak energy in the looming convergence of major ecological problems.[1] It could turn out to provide a smidgen more hope for the human future. Unfortunately, with a number of key ecological crises underway, some form of population crash remains a clear concern. See the comments for more.
[1] Converging ecological problems include climate change, mass extinction, deforestation, aquifer depletion, soil erosion, depletion of fish stocks, and more, all in the context of increasing population overshoot and consequent decreasing carrying capacity.

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Weighing the benefits and the deficits of advancements

Administrator’s note: For this post, I’m glad to be able to feature a guest article by Emily Spence. Emily’s essays on a variety of social and ecological topics appear regularly on progressive websites such as, Information Clearing House, and Thomas Paine’s Corner.

This article relates closely to a question we’ve discussed recently on GIM: Would solving energy be enough, in itself, to end our ecological woes, or would such a technological advance bring with it a new set of unsustainable environmental challenges? Emily’s article provides insights which help considerably to clarify this and related issues. Many thanks to Emily for making it available. — JF

By Emily Spence:

During a hot breezy day one summer, my great-grandfather sat on a shady hill alongside of a river that runs through Syracuse, NY. Happy to enjoy such a beautiful moment, he watched young children plunge into the cool refreshing waters and, then, come out to dry themselves in the sunlight and wind. Thus, the idea of the electric hand dryer was conceived.

He developed the first generation prototype and sold the patent for ~ $100 K., a tremendous sum around the turn of the century, so that it could go into production for the good of humankind by removing the need for the same dirty hand-towels being repeatedly employed by different people. In addition, he was happy as he could now afford, due to his lavish fiscal gain, to take Apama, his daughter crippled from Polio, to visit top specialists in many faraway locations.

Suffice it to say that I sometimes look at dryers in public restrooms and wonder whether it is better to use electricity (most of which derives from fossil and nuclear fuels) to dry one’s hands or paper towels (that destroy trees). It is like asking whether one wants paper or plastic bags at the grocery store, as we know that both harm the environment. (more…)

We are so very distracted

DistractedBy John Feeney:

This screenshot is from a talk I’ll be giving at A Renaissance of Local in Lyons, Colorado. It concerns the media’s consistent failure to recognize the most important news story in human history.

The stories making headlines are mostly important. They do need good coverage. There’s no question about that. But their importance pales in comparison with that of our ecological plight. No question about that either.

Ecological issues should be the headlines everyday. Ironically, the stories which do make the front page often have ecological bases which go unrecognized.

Many will disagree with my assessment. Understandably, they feel passionately about issues like the Iraq war. They can’t imagine any other story is as relevant as long as people in Iraq are dying. Yet I believe this reflects a simple lack of ecological awareness. Once one grasps the numbers of lives at risk as a result of looming ecological crises, one’s perspective shifts. Consideration of the potential impacts on global food supplies of climate change as well as the depletion of oil, natural gas, and aquifers is enough to make this clear. Factor in additional problems such as the mass extinction of species now playing out, and it’s impossible to retain any doubt about the media’s ecological blindness. (more…)

Is it enough to “solve” energy?

Some comments under Kent Welton’s Growthism essay raise a subject of profound importance. There’s a widespread notion that if we could just make the transition to completely clean and renewable energy – which we certainly need to do – our ecological problems would be over. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.Historically, there’s been a striking correlation between increases in energy consumption and population growth. It seems increasing access to energy has actually been a major driver of population growth, perhaps in large part because of the associated increase in food production. William Catton shows this so clearly in his book, Overshoot, that it knocks you over the head with new awareness.
Read the rest…

Global population reduction: confronting the inevitable

Update (6/22/08): Since posting Ken’s article, I’ve noticed in site stats that it’s been linked to by a couple of people offering it as evidence of some nefarious conspiracy to exterminate much of humanity. With the array of benign, voluntary, humane approaches to lowering fertility rates discussed and promoted on this site and elsewhere, such an assumption is mind boggling. I won’t speculate on what such a fantasy suggests about the psyches of its adherents. But it definitely indicates an incredible unwillingness to do the slightest research into ways of addressing population. Let us hope those readers of this essay who have jumped to such wildly erroneous conclusions are few in number. It would be difficult otherwise to hold out much hope for our species. — JF

Administrator’s note: It’s my pleasure to feature on GIM a guest article from Dr. J. Kenneth Smail, Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, at Kenyon College. Ken Smail’s articles on population have appeared in a variety of professional journals including American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Politics and the Life Sciences; Environment, Development and Sustainability; and World Watch Magazine. This article appeared originally in World Watch Magazine. Many thanks to Ken for his permission to reprint it here.

In introducing the article, it’s worth noting, with permission, a comment from Ken’s cover letter to me:

Let me just mention at the outset that I have recently been giving a lot of thought to the “temporal problem” I elaborate on [in the letter] — at least two or more centuries needed for global population stabilization and subsequent reduction vs. only a few decades remaining for dealing effectively with the troubling issues (or rapidly emerging “truths”) of post-peak oil and global climate change.

We do indeed face a serious dilemma. I’m glad there are a few thinkers, like Ken Smail, who are willing to grapple openly with it. — JF


By J. Kenneth Smail (2004):
Numbers and consumption

Looking past the near-term concerns that have plagued population policy at the political level, it is increasingly apparent that the long-term sustainability of civilization will require not just a leveling-off of human numbers as projected over the coming half-century, but a colossal reduction in both population and consumption.


It has become increasingly apparent over the past half-century that there is a growing tension between two seemingly irreconcilable trends. On one hand, moderate to conservative demographic projections indicate that global human numbers will almost certainly reach 9 billion, perhaps more, by mid-21st century. On the other, prudent and increasingly reliable scientific estimates suggest that the Earth’s long-term sustainable human carrying capacity, at what might be defined as an “adequate” to “moderately comfortable” developed-world standard of living, may not be much greater than 2 to 3 billion. It may be considerably less, particularly if the normative lifestyle (level of consumption) aspired to is anywhere close to that of the United States.

As a consequence of this modern-day “Malthusian dilemma,” it is past time to think boldly about the midrange future and to consider alternatives that go beyond merely slowing or stopping the growth of global population. The human species must develop and quickly implement a well-conceived, clearly articulated, flexible, equitable, and internationally coordinated program focused on bringing about a very significant reduction in human numbers over the next two or more centuries. This effort will likely require a global population shrinkage of at least two-thirds to threefourths, from a probable mid-to-late 21st century peak in the 9 to 10 billion range to a future (23rd century and beyond) “population optimum” of not more than 2 to 3 billion. (more…)

Note on peak oil and population

As as follow-up to Jim Lydecker’s essay, My World Without Oil, I wanted to remind readers of an essay by occasional GIM commenter, Paul Chefurka. Titled Peak Oil, Carrying Capacity and Overshoot: Population, the Elephant in the Room, it makes the case that our use of oil dramatically increased the earth’s carrying capacity for humans. Paul argues that therefore, post-peak-oil, we will be in serious overshoot of that carrying capacity: “The decline in oil supply will reduce the planet’s carrying capacity, thus forcing humanity into overshoot with the inevitable consequence of a population decline.”

You may have noticed in Jim’s essay his comment, “But it is not going to be a pretty scene as hydrocarbons are depleted. We are talking social strife, mass migration, starvation, epidemics and worse.” Paul’s essay outlines carefully the population dynamics such a scene could involve. (more…)

My world without oil

For this post, I’m happy to feature another guest article by Jim Lydecker. I’ve been slow to cover peak oil here more than in passing, not because it isn’t terribly important (It is.) but because I’ve had my hands full researching and writing about population and economic issues. Jim’s essay begins to fill that void. Peak oil links closely with the main themes here, and this piece brings to life its potential impact on our day to day lives.

For a primer on peak oil, try this.

Thanks, Jim.

By Jim Lydecker:

Napa, California
June 19, 2007

Abandoned gas station I woke up this morning to the sound I fell asleep to last night: The whooshing of cars going north and south on Rt. 29.

Actually, the whooshing is being replaced by a huge sucking sound… It is the sound of crude oil being sucked out of the ground to allow those cars to go flying by.

In America, unlike the rest of the world, over 1/2 of the oil we use goes to the production of gasoline. Each day, the world uses over 80 million of barrels of oil. The United States, with 7% of the world’s population, uses over 25% of that 80+ million. That’ll happen when a nation of 320 million has almost as many cars and trucks as people.

I lay in bed thinking of all the other things oil and its cousin, natural gas, are used for and how today would go if they were non-existent. This little exercise has been done before and everyone should think about it.

Living in Northern California, we have a fair amount of electricity generated by hydro, but not enough to keep all of us out of the dark all the time. Since it is 6:30 and still dark, I roll over, turn on my light and hope my section of the grid is not blacked out.

The light, in a fixture circa 1890, lit. I noticed the wire from the light needed attention as the fabric covering it was coming frayed… remember, no oil means no rubber insulation.

Waking up to humanity’s most urgent challenge

One possible future. Another possible future?
The future: determined by ecological awareness or complacency and denial?

By John Feeney:

It is essential to see the profound peril in continued flagrant misperception of the very nature of the human situation.William R. Catton, Jr.

I write often about specific topics within the categories, “population growth” and “corporate economic growth” as they link to to environmental degradation. It seems, however, the larger message concerning the broad impacts of these kinds of growth has yet to gain much traction in the media. It’s time, therefore, to consider what’s at stake if we do not address forthrightly the growth of the human population and our unceasing push for corporate economic growth. I hope to make clear that humanity’s most urgent challenge has little to do with the topics currently making headlines. It is, instead, clearly ecological in nature. Of this we need much more awareness if we hope to achieve solutions.

Know this: Population growth and corporate economic growth, in conjunction with excessive and growing per capita consumption rates, are driving ecological deterioration of unprecedented proportions, pushing us ever closer to global ecological collapse. Remember that term. Barring decisive corrective action, you will be hearing more and more about ecological collapse in the coming years.

The most important issues receive little coverage

If you haven’t heard much about it previously, that’s understandable. It hovers in the background of the news, mentioned occasionally, but has so far received little of the attention it warrants. I’ve been critical of environmental writers’ avoidance of the subject of population growth, but it goes further than that. By and large, they seem squeamish about discussing the extent of global environmental decline the possibility of widespread ecological collapse. (more…)

Now that growth is killing us…

It really doesn't buy happiness. The article I discussed last time, by New Zealander Allen Cookson, was a brief gem with an emphasis on population growth and some mention of the flaws, as well, in our economic model of continual growth. The same day I came across it, occasional GIM commenter, Tim Delaney, sent me a link to an article in Mother Jones by Bill McKibben. Reversal of Fortune, drawn from McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy gives us a more thorough look at the problems with our growth-based economy. McKibben suggests that while a focus on growth did serve us well for some time, now “growth is bumping up against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that trying to keep expanding the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous.” It’s an important article. Here are the Cliff’s Notes plus a little commentary:

It wasn’t always this way

The growth which most of us have come to assume to be necessary and good has its earliest roots in the industrial revolution, but really got cranking in the middle of the 20th century, in the post war boom. Prior to that, Mckibben tells us, “even FDR routinely spoke of America’s economy as mature, with no further expansion anticipated.” (more…)