Peak Oil and Population

Published on June 4th, 2008

By Leon Kolankiewicz

Soaring crude oil and gasoline prices are setting new records nearly every week and raising the specter of “peak oil.” Peak oil simply means that sooner or later world oil production will hit a peak, and then begin an inevitable and irreversible decline as exploitable stocks are drawn down. Oil will continue to be produced for decades, but at decreasing rates. Gushers will become trickles.

Prices will skyrocket as global demand exceeds supply, and no nation or consumer can get more oil unless another nation or consumer gets less, setting the stage for extreme economic instability and international turmoil. More blood will be spilt for less oil.

While maverick petroleum geologists, oil company suits, and government analysts debate when peak oil will occur – or whether it already has – nobody argues that this finite, non-renewable fossil fuel will last as long as the sun shines.

This implacable decline in output will set in regardless of human aspirations and expectations, and in spite of surging worldwide demand for oil – “the lifeblood of industrial civilization” – as economies and populations grow. And its ramifications will be profound, if not revolutionary.

Without a doubt the most ominous possible ramification concerns the number of people that Earth can support. The frightening possibility is that at 6.7 billion and counting, the world’s population may have already overshot Earth’s “carrying capacity.” This is the number of people that our biosphere’s renewable resources can support in perpetuity at a decent standard of living and with an acceptable if not extravagant quality of life.

Over the last two centuries, humanity has been busily squandering a one-time bequest of natural capital in the form of finite fossil fuels rather than relying on natural income in the form of solar, wind, wood, hydro, tidal, wave, and geothermal energy. In the U.S., fossil fuels provide a whopping 86% of our total energy consumption.

Modern agriculture has been defined as the process of using land to convert oil into food. The spectacular increases in crop yield of the so-called Green Revolution depend heavily on the availability of cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation. In America, running farm equipment and transporting food long distances to markets are very energy intensive. Each calorie of food produced requires ten calories of hydrocarbon energy. What will happen when this diminishing fossil energy is no longer available or is prohibitively expensive? Recent food price hikes and food riots in some countries may be but a taste of what is to come.

Studies indicate that without fossil fuel-based agriculture, the United States could sustain only about two-thirds of our present population, that is, 200 million. The maximum sustainable planetary population is estimated at two billion, well below current numbers.

Environmental optimists claim that clean renewable energy can replace dirty fossil fuels. Technological optimists claim that if environmentalist prejudice can be overcome, vastly expanded nuclear power will rescue us.

But both options are fraught with uncertainty. Renewable sources lack the energy density and quality of fossil fuels; whether they can provide the “heavy lifting” an industrial society needs is unclear. Nuclear energy is beset with unresolved problems, among them permanent disposal of radioactive wastes, nuclear proliferation, and finite stocks of uranium.

In the face of these daunting prospects, what are Californians and Americans to do? We should aggressively pursue enlightened yet realistic population, energy, and agricultural policies – now, not tomorrow. Among these are U.S. population stabilization (and the reduction in immigration it entails) and support for renewable energy, energy efficiency/conservation, and sustainable, localized agriculture.

These will improve our chances that peak oil represents a transition and not a calamity, going down a slope rather than over a cliff.

Leon Kolankiewicz, a wildlife ecologist and environmental planner, is a Senior Writing Fellow for Santa Barbara-based Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), www.capsweb.org. He can be reached at [email protected].

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