Saturday, August 16, 2008


17 April 2010

The world’s population went from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to 2.5 in 1950, to nearly 7 billion in 2010. It has been said that without fossil fuels the population must drop to about 2 or 3 billion. [Youngquist] In terms of post-petroleum agriculture alone we would be able to accommodate less than half the present number of people.

Another calculation about future population can be made by looking more closely at the rise and fall of oil production. The rapid increase in population over the last hundred years is not merely coincident with the rapid increase in oil production. It is the latter that has actually allowed (the word “caused” might be too strong) the former: that is to say, oil has been the main source of energy within industrial society. It is only with abundant oil that a large population is possible. It was industrialization, improved agriculture, improved medicine, the expansion of humanity into the Americas, and so on, that first created the modern rise in population, but it was oil in particular that made it possible for human population to grow as fast as it has been doing. [Catton] If oil production drops to half its peak amount, world population must also drop by half.

Of course, this calculation of population on the basis of oil is largely the converse of the calculation on the basis of arable land, since in industrial society the amount of farm production is mainly a reflection of the amount of available oil.

If we look further into the future, we see an even smaller number for human population, still using previous ratios of oil to population as the basis for our figures. But the world a hundred years from now might not be a mirror image of the world of a hundred years in the past. The general depletion of resources might cause such damage to the structure of society that government, education, and intricate division of labor will no longer exist. In a milieu of social chaos, what are the chances that the oil industry will be using extremely advanced technology to extract the last drops of oil? Even then we have not factored in war, epidemics, and other aspects of social breakdown. The figure of 2 to 3 billion may be wildly optimistic.

Overpopulation is the overwhelming ultimate cause of systemic collapse. All of the flash-in-the-pan ideas that are presented as solutions to the modern dilemma — solar power, ethanol, hybrid cars, desalination, permaculture — have value only as desperate attempts to solve an underlying problem that has never been addressed in a more direct manner. American foreign aid has always included only trivial amounts for family planning [Spiedel]; the most powerful country in the world has done very little to solve the biggest problem in the world.

The reasons for this evasion of responsibility are many, including the influence of certain religious groups with the misnomer of “pro-life”; the left-wing reluctance to point a finger at poor people, immigrants, or particular ethnic groups; the right-wing reluctance to lose an ever-expanding source of cheap labor (and a growing consumer market); and the politicians’ reluctance to lose votes in any direction. [Kolankiewicz]

Overpopulation can also be seen in terms of the distribution of resources: there is some validity to the argument that imposing family planning on poor countries is unfair if rich countries consume far more resources per capita. That argument, however, can be countered by the statement that overpopulation in one country leads to immigration, which in turn leads to overpopulation in another country; the onus of responsibility therefore lies on poor countries, not rich ones. It is also countered by the simple statement that people should not have children if they have no means of feeding them. And in any case, spreading the misery out universally can hardly be considered a solution, no matter how anyone tries to juggle the figures.

Overpopulation can always be passed off as somebody else’s problem. It is the fundamental case of what Garrett Hardin calls “the tragedy of the commons” [Hardin (a), (b)]: although every oversize family knows the world will suffer slightly from that fecundity, no family wants to lose out by being the first to back down. Without a central governing body that is both strong and honest, however, the evasion is perpetual, and it is that very lack of strength and honesty that makes traditional democracy an anachronism. For all that might be said against their politics and economics, it is the Chinese who have made the greatest effort at dealing with excess numbers, although even their efforts can hardly be considered a success.

Discussion of overpopulation is the Great Taboo. Politicians will rarely touch the issue, although we no longer hold our breaths waiting for such people to speak the truth about anything. Even the many documents of the United Nations merely sidestep the issue by discussing how to cater to large populations, in spite of the fact that such catering is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

To speak against overpopulation is an exercise in futility. How likely is it that the required massive change in human thinking will ever take place? For such a thing to happen, it would be necessary for a large percentage of the human race to become literate, to read books, and to understand difficult scientific abstractions, scholarly entanglements which are neither comic nor tragic but simply unpropitious. Yet that is precisely the opposite of how most people behave. To broach the topic of overpopulation is only to invite charges of racism and elitism. Instead of dreaming of ways to reduce a population of several billion to a reasonable number overnight, therefore, it might be more sensible to think in terms of the medical system of triage: let us save those who can be saved.

Like so many other species, humanity expands and consumes until its members starve and die. The two basic, reciprocal problems of human life have still never been solved: overpopulation and the over-consumption of resources. As a result, the competition for survival is intense, and for most people life is just a long stretch of drudgery followed by an ignoble death. There is still no intelligent life on earth.

In view of the general unpopularity of family-planning policies, it can only be said euphemistically that nature will decide the outcome. Even if his words owe as much to observation of the stages of collapse as to divine inspiration, it is St. John’s Four Horsemen of war, famine, plague, and death who will signify the future of the industrial world. Nor can we expect people to be overly concerned about good manners: although there are too many variables for civil strife to be entirely predictable, if we look at accounts of large-scale disasters of the past, ranging from the financial to the meteorological, we can see that there is a point at which the looting and lynching begin. The survivors of industrial society will have to distance themselves from the carnage.

The need for a successful community to be far removed from urban areas is also a matter of access to the natural resources that will remain. With primitive technology, it takes a great deal of land to support human life. What may look like a long stretch of empty wilderness is certainly not empty to the people who are out there picking blueberries or catching fish. That emptiness is not a prerogative or luxury of the summer vacationer. It is an essential ratio of the human world to the non-human.


Catton, William R., Jr. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Hardin, Garrett. (a) Living within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

-----. (b) The Tragedy of the Commons. Science. 13 December 1968.

Kolankiewicz, Leon, and Roy Beck. Forsaking Fundamentals: The U.S. Environmental Movement Abandons U.S. Population Stabilization.

Youngquist, Walter. Alternative Energy Sources. Oil Crisis. October 2000.