Category Archives: Peak oil

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…)