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CRISIS: Population



Human population began to spike during and since the Industrial Revolution which was when oil became “unlimited”. Right before this massive spike there was a minor deviation which was during the black plague.

Once humans recovered from the black plague the population went from just under one billion around 1800 to almost seven billion to date.

As Michael Ruppert said in Collapse “All of these people exist on this planet only because of oil, that’s it, so it’s axiomatic that if you take the oil away the human population must go away also”. Evolution has always followed a bell curve which is when a species accelerates to a certain point, called the tipping point and then tips and starts to descend. This is covered by one of the many laws of physics in which our planet is governed. Oil is used for everyday objects such as all plastics, toothpaste, tires, and most commonly known for fuel to run machines. According to the International Energy Agency in 2008 the world uses eighty-five million barrels of oil per day which is putting oil on a nine percent decline from the top of the bell curve. The top of the bell curve of oil also known as the peak was announced in 1970. Iraq has about ninety billion barrels left in its reserve which seems like a lot, but only one billion barrels will last for about eleven days and oil cannot be replaced. 

All living organisms must eat to survive and most humans rely on grocery stores and markets to buy the food they need to eat. Soil must maintain a certain balance in order to produce the nutrients it needs for the crops being grown on it. This balance can be kept by crop rotation which allows the left over crop material to decay which returns nutrients to the soil. Since crop production is at such a high demand due to the almost seven billion people on the planet crop rotation is a thing of the past. Chemicals and artificial hormones are used in place of crop rotation to deliver the “nutrients” back to the soil so a field never has to be unoccupied. Unfortunately without these chemicals and artificial hormones the soil is worthless for any kind of use. 

The more people consume the more waste is a result and the more waste there is the more stress the environment endures. Waste is dumped in designated areas called landfills that are supposed to be contained but in reality are not because the land absorbs chemicals and hazardous materials that are dumped in these landfills. Water supplies are being contaminated because of the mass amounts of waste and all living beings need water to survive. Hazardous waste is also causing major health problems which are contributing to the many diseases and illnesses affecting humans.

After 40 years of beating the drum of overpopulation, I have stopped. 

I no longer think that overpopulation or the ecological devastation that comes from overconsumption are going to be problems for much longer. I now expect world population to peak between 7.5 and 8 billion people by 2025 or 2030, and then start declining. I also think that the human activity that is currently damaging the natural world is going to start diminishing at the same time.


But I haven’t changed my mind for the reasons you might think.  It’s not that I believe that after all this time, after all this human growth and planetary mutilation, we are finally getting a handle on our behaviour.  Instead, the reason I believe this “good news” is about to unfold is that we are already in the throes of a collision between climate change and world oil supply limits (aka Peak Oil) that from this moment on is going to progressively destabilize the global food supply.


As our food and energy supplies tighten and then begin to shrink, the engine of population growth will shudder to a halt and our ability to wreak havoc on the world will be drastically curtailed.  Whether this will be a good or bad thing is entirely a question of your perspective.



Climate Change


We’ve all seen the reports of extreme weather events hitting the world’s grain crops – especially the floods in Australia and Pakistan and the droughts in Russia, Northern China and Thailand. This instability in rainfall patterns is one of the two impacts of rising atmospheric CO2 that will keep getting more pronounced as the decades go by. Disruptions in rainfall will, on balance, reduce the total amount of grain that the world’s great growing regions can produce.


The other effect of rising atmospheric CO2 is the gradual acidification of the oceans. That process is showing signs of reducing the food available at the bottom of the food chain (plankton) even as humans have pretty well fished out the top of the chain. 90% of the large fish in the oceans are already gone – we’ve eaten them.



Peak Oil


The other unfolding story that will impact the world’s food supply and human activity in general is Peak Oil.  We are now at Peak Oil.  For the last six and a half years – since the middle of 2004 – the world’s oil production has been on the “bumpy plateau” long predicted by peak oil analysts. Despite monthly average prices gyrating between $40 and $135, during  that time oil production has varied from the average of 73 million barrels per day by only 2%:



The real story is probably a bit worse than that though, because the amount of oil available on the world market seems to be declining.  Producing countries are keeping more of their oil for their own use even as their production rates go into decline, leaving less and less surplus oil to export.


The following graph shows the actual volume of the international oil market for the past 45 years, and a couple of projections for the next 20 based on some fairly conservative assumptions. The mechanisms behind this behaviour are well understood. The main unknown quantities at this time are how fast the underlying production will decline, and how much influence rising prices will play in modifying our use of oil. I suggest you think of these projections as “well founded speculation” for now, and use them to try and frame your thoughts about what this kind of event could mean to the world.



Why is this an issue for the world’s food supply? After all we only use on average between 2% and 3% of our energy for agriculture. Obviously we should be able to work around a problem like this with no trouble.


Well, the problem is that it’s not just the planting, growing and harvesting of food that’s important. As I described in another article, the global food system as a whole (which includes all processes and infrastructure involved in feeding our population: the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food and food-related items) probably consumes between 20% and 25% of the world’s oil – largely for transportation.


As people are fond of pointing out whenever the potential for problems with global food production is raised, what we have is not so much a food production problem as a food distribution problem. So anything that makes food distribution more problematic (e.g. by raising the cost of distribution) is going to impact food availability and prices. And anything that raises food prices hits the world’s poor the hardest, driving them out of the marketplace. And that is a fancy way of saying “regional famines”.



The World Food System Under Pressure


We now have a world food supply system that is under pressure from both ends. Climate Change is already reducing harvests and will continue to do so into the future, while Peak Oil is making the distribution of the food that is grown steadily more expensive.  We are seeing these effects already, in both the field and the marketplace.


On the demand side we are still adding 80 million people per year to the world, the equivalent of adding another Egypt every year. That growth brings with it an irreducible requirement for new food production and distribution – 80 million new people require that we grow and distribute an additional 30 million tonnes of grain every year. While the percentage growth rate of our population is in fact declining, the absolute number we are adding each year is remaining constant at 80 million, a level it has stubbornly maintained since 1980.


This is a picture of a global life support system under enormous strain, attacked on both the supply and demand sides by inexorable forces.  Will this situation result in a Malthusian crisis? Well, if I had to lay a bet, I wouldn’t bet against it. Here’s why.


Let me say at the outset that we have indeed learned a lot since the days of Thomas Malthus in the 18th century. The Green Revolution based on Norman Borlaug’s incredible research has given the world much respite from hunger for the last 60 years. However, science has also progressed in other areas. For example we have become much better at efficiently using up the world’s resources, especially fossil fuel – oil and natural-gas derived fertilizer – that was one linchpin of Borlaug’s Green Revolution.


We can think of the Green Revolution as a stable tripod, with one leg composed of fossil fuel, oneof water and one of high-yield crops.

  • Due to Peak Oil and the net oil export crisis the first leg of our food-production tripod, fossil fuel,  is showing signs of getting shorter.

  • The second leg of the tripod, water, is now under pressure both from climate change and from the depletion of aquifers world-wide.

  • The third leg, intrinsic crop yields (related to the plant itself and not to operational factors like fertilizer, water and pesticides) have not increased significantly in the last 20 years or more, despite Herculean efforts with hybridization and even genetic engineering. The increased crop yields we have seen over the last 30 years are instead related to operational factors like mechanization, fertilizer and water – the very factors that are now threatened by peak oil and climate change.


The Limits to Population Growth


Because of its growing impact on the global food system, the convergence of climate change and peak oil has enormous implications for population growth. I think it’s entirely probable that we are near the upper limit of human population growth even now. I would expect that as the converging crisis begins to bite harder over the next (few?) years, food production will plateau and may even begin to fall. Some time soon afterward (perhaps within 5 years of the crisis fully manifesting) the global population growth rate will begin to drop precipitously, reaching zero perhaps 5 to 10 years later. At that point our population will begin to fall.



The Work Continues


Despite our best intentions around family planning, educating and empowering women and raising the material circumstances of the poorest among us, these efforts are already being overtaken by the circumstances I describe here. We must continue these ameliorating efforts with the utmost urgency, however, because the more successful we are the more people we will be able to protect against the worst effects of the coming food storm.


The storm is coming upon us faster than most of us realize.  The time to act is now.

From Bill Gates, January 2012

One amazing thing is that parents’ desire to bring every good thing to their children can have a huge impact on national economies. Melinda spoke at the World Bank about how developing countries have a chance to benefit from something called the “demographic dividend.” The idea is that as parents bring their family size down, countries can invest more in educating young people. When those young people reach working age, they boost productivity and economic growth. South Korea and Thailand are two recent examples of how countries that understand and capitalize on these principles can rapidly transform their economies.

Over the next 40 years, the global population is projected to grow at just .8 percent per year. It just passed 7 billion and will reach 9.3 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations’ medium estimate. However, the populations of most poor countries, which have the hardest time feeding and educating their citizens, will more than double between now and 2050. If we compare population by continent now and in 2050, we see that Africa will more than double in population (from 1 billion to 2.2 billion) while Asia and the Americas will grow by 25 percent and Europe will hardly grow at all!


Gates Foundation Infographic





Nine countries with high population growth rates

Looking at the numbers at the country level gives an even starker picture. To take just one example, Nigeria, which has the biggest population in Africa, will grow from 163 million to 392 million—an increase of 140 percent. This will likely make the lives of people in that very poor country even more difficult.

Melinda and I believe, though, that if the right steps are taken—not just helping women plan their families but also investing in reducing child mortality and increasing nutrition—populations in countries like Nigeria will grow significantly less than projected. Almost all the foundation’s global programs focus on goals that will help with this.

Globally, more than 200 million women say they don’t want to have a child within the next two years but aren’t using contraceptives. If families that wanted to wait a longer period between births or have fewer children had access to the right tools, two things would happen. First, those families would have an easier time facing the challenges of poverty. Second, as national population growth rates came down gradually, governments would be able to better meet the needs of all their people.

A significant number of women indicate that they would use modern family planning tools if they were available. Unfortunately, the funding to buy these tools, to make them cheaper, and to provide high-quality information to poor families has been lacking.

The tools that are likely to have the highest adoption rates in sub-Saharan Africa are implants or injectables, not the oral contraceptives that are popular in the United States. Indonesia has made implants broadly available, and more than 1.7 million women are using implants today. The foundation has helped fund quality assurance for a lower-cost implant, Sinoplant II, which is registered today in more than 17 countries and costs 60 percent less than the alternatives. We also think that injections can be made cheaper and longer lasting and put into a format that women can administer themselves. There are a large number of steps required to get new tools not only approved and manufactured but also understood so that women can make informed choices about contraception. Our goal is that every woman should have the ability to choose when she wants to have children. The result will be healthier mothers and children and more prosperous nations.


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