Vol. 11, No. 2,646 - The American Reporter - May 16, 2005

On Media

by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif

LOS ANGELES -- As the world faces the decline and fall of cheap petroleum, another factor looms. The exponential growth curve of human population, once a popular subject, has become one of the more underreported stories of the current era. The problem is largely misunderstood by mathematically illiterate editorial writers, ignored by the political classes, and avoided by political activists of both the right and the left. It creates further threats to our standard of living even as it exacerbates the rate of oil depletion.

In searching for a way to illustrate the issue, I came across the web site http://www.worldpopulationbalance.org. The graph of human population growth shown there tells an important story: For most of recorded history, human population was under a billion. Counting from the start of the 19th century, it grew from one billion to two billion over the course of the next 125 years or so. In the following half-century, population doubled again to 4 billion. At the moment, human population is estimated to be greater than 6 billion. If the growth continues on its extrapolated curve, we will be hitting something like 9 billion over the next 4 to 5 decades.

The problem is that this growth is not sustainable in any sense. Even maintaining the current standard of living without any further population increase is probably not sustainable: for reasons we have discussed previously, world oil production is going to start falling in some near-future year, and it is oil that carries our civilization - the factories, the trucks and the ships, and most ominously, provides the ability to grow lots of food on declining acreage. In a future of declining living standards, every additional body adds its new demands on declining supplies of bread, gasoline and hamburger.

In a way, increasing population combines with the aging of oil fields to create a vicious spiral - the population boom makes the “oil peak” phenomenon come sooner. If population had not grown so fast already, the demand for oil would be lower, and world supplies would last longer. "Peak oil" would be delayed. Instead, continued population growth continues to add consumers of oil.

The peak oil phenomenon is beginning to be noticed. It’s a historical curiosity that the financial press, particularly the sector that follows the oil markets, is among the first to notice. Environmental visionaries such as Garrett Hardin voiced warnings, Cassandra-like, that were largely ignored even a decade ago.

The resources we use - land, water, oil - are not in infinite supply on the planetary surface. At some point along the human growth curve, any resource hits its effective limit. We are already suffering from limiting conditions on several even now. Agricultural land, fresh water and oil supplies are only some of the things that are starting to come up short.

Economists like to point out how adaptive we can be in replacing scarce items with available items. Not enough potatoes this year? Try wheat or rye. Not enough rain this year? Avoid wasting water or build pipelines. For lots of things this works, at least in the short run. Syndicated talk-radio host Larry Elder invokes this argument whenever the problem of declining energy supplies is raised. He manages to sound truly patronizing in referring to those who fail to buy into this argument. For some reason, listeners who might call in and refute the argument don’t seem to make it past the screener.

The problem is that when it comes to declining oil supplies, it is not all that obvious that there is any alternative that can work half so well. Oil is uniquely useful in terms of its energy density, safety, ability to deliver up its energy and critically important, its cost. In trying to replace it, we have few options. If oil becomes scarce, the problems will hit all across the board.

Economists have grown up in a century where cheap oil provided the fuel to run new industries and the raw materials for many critical industrial products. It is easy for chemically-naive economists and conservative talk-show hosts to wax eloquently about the genius of the marketplace and our ability to invent replacement technologies, but there is no sure way of knowing that any such replacement technology can be invented that would work as well as petroleum.

Economic theory can be structurally elegant, but it cannot revise the laws of thermodynamics. Economics predicts accurately that in the face of energy shortages, there will be strong incentives for inventors and entrepreneurs to find alternatives. It cannot predict whether there are any alternatives to be found (this is, after all, the realm of chemistry and physics), or what unintended consequences any such alternative would have.

We can try to be optimistic, but we have no way of knowing for sure if the future will be lucky or unlucky.

Meanwhile, we have that runaway freight train known as population increase to make the situation worse.

Back in the 1960s, Paul Ehrlich described the dangers of population growth in his book "The Population Bomb." The effect of his book was multiplied through Ehrlich's appearances on "The Tonight Show" (starring Johnny Carson). The dangers of overpopulation became the subject of public discussion.

The basic theory is simple. Living organisms such as ourselves, or deer, or even bacteria tend to multiply about as fast as they can unless subject to outside interference. In the case of the bacteria and the deer, the outside interference comes from eating up every available morsel of available food. In our case, it can be lack of food, or it can be the effects of civilization and education. In this one regard, we are unique. Even if we don’t always constrain our reproduction, we at least have the capability for restraining ourselves chemically or socially or behaviorally.

The problem for germs, deer and humans alike is that we tend to grow our numbers in that way that is described in math by the exponential curve. We double our numbers every few minutes, or every couple of years, or every 35 years, depending on whether we are germs, deer, or people, respectively. At least that is our biological capability.

The human race has now increased its numbers to where it is damaging all other forms of life by paving over, logging, or fishing - that is to say, the damage to whole ecologies by habitat destruction. To some people, this is not a problem. To others with a different ethical sense, it is a terrible tragedy.

The destruction of habitats and the mining of resources due to the expanding human population has a more perverse result. As we expand, we use up the environment and the resource base to such an extent that we endanger our own standard of living. Carried far enough, we endanger our own existence. That is what the Ehrlich model and common sense tell us.

What should be of concern is the failure by our mass media to lead our people into a public discussion about how the rising population curve may intersect the descending oil production curve with disastrous consequences.

It should be noted that not everyone accepts the Ehrlich model; in particular, when put to a public challenge, Ehrlich was proved wrong in his predictions about short term trends in the prices of raw materials. It is fair enough to admit that Ehrlich’s work lacks economic savvy. The problem is that the world’s population is continuing to grow.

The Bush administration and its allies in the Congress have displayed an irresponsibility that may go down in some future history of the next dark age. In their obsession with the abortion question, Congressional Republicans have damaged our ability to support family planning efforts overseas. Family planning is the one thing short of war that promises to be useful, and our country is on the wrong side of the battle.

Interest in the population explosion has more or less fallen off the public radar screen. The inability of the mass media to "connect the dots” of declining oil resources and the growth in human population is ominous and damaging. Simple extrapolations predict a population increase over the next half century equal to the entire world’s population in the year 1960. We should be reading about this on the front page, instead of the latest celebrity trial.

Meanwhile, the mathematical illiteracy of the editorial class comes through loud and clear. Here's just one example: Syndicated columnist Tom Elias writes knowledgeably and well about politics and government. In a recent column on campaign finance, he wrote, "But the potential means are now present to level the playing field - and cut political spending exponentially."

Mathematically, this is meaningless. The problem is that neither the author nor the editor had any idea of how silly the statement was. Imagine how hard it is for them to provide leadership on things that actually require some technical knowledge.

Copyright 2005 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.