The Reasoned Review

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It is a strange fact, not often discussed in polite circles, that the world population has doubled in the past 40 years. This means that when my father was born, in 1958, there existed only half as many people as do now. The implications are mind-boggling – so much so, in fact, that most people would rather not consider them. If we are able to add three thousand million new persons in the span of only 35 years, what does that betoken for the future?

From Wikipedia, a small graph detailing successive population doubling periods.

Doubling time for World Population

Doubling time for World Population

As one can see, the time it takes for our population to double has decreased roughly by half for each iteration. It took 204 years to get from 500 million to 1 Billion, roughly 100 years to go from 1 to 2 Billion, 50 years to go from 2 to 4 Billion, and now, thirty-five years later, we stand at nearly 7 billion, with many more to come. As America fought its civil war it had a population of 30 million. 150 years later its population is more than ten times that (300 million +)

Most are familiar with the ideas of Thomas Malthus, who famously predicted imminent overpopulation in the 18th century. As his prophecies did not bear out, many were content to assume his ideas were invalid. But though he failed to predict precisely when a world-wide famine or somesuch would occur, that it should occur, given a sufficient time period, seems a foregone conclusion.

Though our numbers increase, the physical space we occupy remains constant in size. Malthus took that observation one step further to say that since our world is not growing, the maximum amount of food it can produce must also be a constant: a specific point after which, given exponential population growth, famine would ensue.  Malthus could not foresee industrial agriculture; he assumed the techniques used in his day (many of which had not changed in centuries) would continue indefinitely.

Oil entered the picture only fifty years after Malthus’s death, and with it came a new agriculture:  mechanized, energy-intensive, offering multiplied crop yields and divided labor. In 1918 the Haber-Bosch Process was discovered, allowing infinite production of fertilizer (assuming, of course, infinite oil and coal). By the 21st century, 10 oil or coal calories went into every calorie of agrarian energy produced. The ratio is nearly 100:1 for meat energy. (Hamburgers and so forth). We entered the 20th century with 2 billion people and a very little in the way of “modern agriculture”. As we enter the 21st we have 7 billion people, and extensive mechanization. It is not hard to see the cause and effect.

Almost the whole of world food production depends critically upon oil – to power tractors, to run combines, to create fertilizer, to inject it into the ground, to transport the finished product, and for a hundred smaller tasks.

Then the implication is not that Malthus’s ideas were wrong – only that their timing was. He did not foresee that we could make food out of oil. But the central analysis – that once consumption outstrips supply we are all in a lot of trouble – remains true.

It is impossible to digest current population and consumption statistics without a feeling of dread. The production of food from oil has made our numbers explode, and now it looks as though oil is running out.

The fact that our doubling time has reduced to 40 years should come as an enormous shock to anyone who was yet unaware of it. The extent of our dependence on oil for food should shock one doubly so. It is not hyperbole to suggest that we are all made of oil, the black liquid which creates the fertilizer which grows our food which comprises our biomass.

Most people, however, when confronted with these facts, usually respond with a shrug. It is a fact that people would rather discuss almost anything than overpopulation. I would like to end this article by enumerating a few arguments I have heard as to why a 40 year doubling period should not horrify.

1) “New Technology”

I have heard boundless faith in the idea that “we’ll think of something”, some “new technology” to replace oil and allow us to keep growing. Essentially the idea is that technology will keep up with population. Some go so far as to believe that once the earth becomes overpopulated we will have perfected interstellar travel and begun to colonize other worlds. Needless to say this explanation does nothing to solve current problems – (One-sixth of our population is chronically hungry) – and it displays an unseemly optimism in the face of very grim facts.

2) Low-fertility rates in “developed” nations

This argument supposes that since the US and Europe have low, relatively stable (though still growing) birthrates, once the rest of the world “catches up to the west”, they’ll presumably also decide against having more than two kids. Ignored is the fact that our prosperity is directly connected to the fearful poverty of the oppressed nations. We can enjoy a high standard of living only because we have the power to steal other countries’  resources. Even taking that aside, our low-fertility societies imply an enormous consumption of oil, coal and natural gas. Hydrocarbons literally do all of our work: they transport us around, run our factories, grow our food, and deliver it to us. Without such consumption, our way of life collapses. And we expect everyone else to adopt such methods? There do not appear to be enough resources for every family to own a house, have two cars, and eat 2500 refined calories per day. Such conditions are a large reason we enjoy such low birthrates.

3) “So you’re a eugenicist?”

Frequently when discussing these issues, I have been accused of subscribing to eugenics, or once, even Nazism. Such personal attacks are meaningless, and belie a deep anxiety and unwillingness to discuss this issue.

Nobody is offering any iron-clad solutions, but the very lest one can do is admit it’s a problem and take individual responsibility for it. “Social solutions” are dubious by nature, but individual solutions are not. I expect everyone who understands this issue to do what they can to alleviate it: consume a minimum of resources and have one or no children. It is callous and unseemly to remain silent, to regard it as “someone else’s problem” and to use one’s privileged status to gorge themselves on resources. Not talking about the issue, praying that it will just go away – that solves nothing.

Written by pavanvan

August 21, 2009 at 7:36 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Totally agree with you. I’ve had very much the same thoughts myself, if not so clearly reasoned, and it frightens me that people don’t see the major catastrophe coming, be it famine, a pandemic, a war over scarce resources, etc. I won’t say that the end is nigh, but at this rate it’ll be nigh much faster than would otherwise be the case.


    August 21, 2009 at 7:50 pm

  2. This article takes a fearless look at a problem that is broadcasting itself at us from nearly every angle that is not clouded by falsely comfortable optimism or heated tribalism. Your lucid little metaphor of us all being made of oil (by the chains of our consumption) really made me reflect on my choices as a member of our current society/world. I especially like your shift towards individual responsibility near the end of the article, as it’s one of those deceptively simple ideas that is easily passed over without being internalized or understood: the idea that “society”, the larger mindset, the messed-up “world” out there, is the collection of individual minds, individual “me’s”, playing off each other. As you’ve urged, facing the problem and taking individual steps towards changing your place in it, your mindset towards it and your behaviors (as a result of that mindset change) are, I would suggest, not the least that someone can do. I see those steps as the only way towards a less wasteful and happier planet, and leading towards a more wholesome, enjoyable lifestyle too. Thanks for the article.


    August 25, 2009 at 3:15 pm

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