By Aspen ApGaia
In the late 1960’s, an international think tank observed the growing population and increase in per capita resource utilization and realized that in a fixed system, like the planet there must be limits to what the system could provide. Working with researchers from MIT in what became some of the early use of computer modeling and forecasting. The resulting study, published in 1972 as the book, The Limits to Growth, predicted that if the trends continued, the earth’s resources would be unable to continue supporting our global economy by approximately 2030. In 2008, a follow up study titled “A Comparison of ‘The Limits to Growth’ with Thirty Years of Reality” evaluated the available data over the past thirty years to see how the predictions in the original study corresponded with now historical data. They determined that the existing data was in line with the predictions and that there was no reason to change the 2030 date for global economic collapse.
In the graph, you can see the predicted trend lines for available resources, births, deaths, food consumption per capita, overall population, electrical consumption per capita, industrial output and greenhouse gas emissions. The dotted lines represent the actual data over the past thirty years in each of these areas. There are places where the actual data differs from the predictions.
One of the greatest achievements of the 20th century that few of us are aware of was the application of chemical technology in the agricultural industry. Known as the ‘Green Revolution’ it allowed us to take advantage of petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides to increase the per acre yield of our industrial food production. Similarly, petroleum fueled machines improved the efficiency of our production and harvesting systems. Plus we deliver food over great distances in a distribution system made possible because of our access to relatively cheap petroleum based fuels. The end result of all this is that we have, effectively, found ways of turning cheap oil into additional people.
Any given species in any given ecosystem has a maximum population that can be sustained indefinitely given the resources available in that ecosystem. While there is a smaller population than what the ecosystem can provide for, the population tends to grow. When the population temporarily exceeds that number, they consume more resources than the ecosystem can provide and necessity forces the population to adjust to exist within the limits of the ecosystem.
This maximum sustainable population for a given ecosystem and species is referred to as the carrying capacity.
We can attempt to calculate the carrying capacity of humans for the whole earth. In doing so though, we have to take into account the use of technology to augment the carrying capacity. For example, the Neolithic era, through the use of high intensity agriculture allowed for an increase in the carrying capacity of humans on the earth. More recently, the green revolution represented a similar increase in carrying capacity. Unfortunately, it is dependent on access to a non-renewable resource, specifically, relatively cheap oil. As that resource becomes more expensive to secure, it will become increasingly expensive to sustain our population levels.
In the mid-2000’s the global extraction of light sweet crude oil peaked. That’s not to say that there’s no oil left, there is, but it will always be more expensive, economically and environmentally to access. As a result, more environmentally damaging technologies, such as tar sands, deep sea oil wells, and hydraulic fracturing have become economically viable. Due to our population and economy depending on the access to relatively cheap energy, exploiting these more environmentally dangerous resources has become an economic necessity regardless of the long term consequences. This is not about how much it costs to fuel up our cars. Oil is the foundation of the ‘green revolution’ that feeds our temporary population overshoot, and it’s the very foundation of our economy. Energy drives all economic activity. With our current economic structure, we must grow to avoid collapse and the cheap energy that makes growth possible is no longer available.
Though we face some very real challenges, and there will be loss, acknowledging these challenges doesn’t have to be a source of distress. By acknowledging them, we have time to develop important skills, collaborate with others and prepare, not for the end of this way of life, but for the beginning of a more sustainable and life affirming future.
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