Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

Population. None of the problems this blog is about exist without rapidly expanding population. Global Warming?
"Stabilize CO2 emissions!"
OK, let's get the population rate down to 1:1. There. Done.

"Reduce fossil fuel consumption!"
OK, let's get population growth rate down to 1:1, reduce, reuse, re-localize. There. Done.
Simple, eh? Not quite. According to Dr. Albert Bartlett, even if you go to zero population growth as a policy and actually do it, the population doesn't actually stabilize until all the people who were alive when the policy took hold have passed away. So, that's 70 more years of population growth. 70 more years of increased consumption.

But, what if we become more efficient?
We already did. After the two oil crises of '73-5 and '80-81 the US dropped consumption from around 19 mb/d in '73 and over 21mb/d in '79 to less than 15mb/d in '83. Since then we have only become even more efficient. In fact, one reason given for $95 oil not driving us into recession already (don't worry, it actually is) is increased efficiency. Well, if efficiency is improving, why do we use more than 20,000,000 barrels a day today? Could it be population?

Population trumps all. US population was around 210,000,000 in '73. It's around 310,000,000 now. That's a 50% increase. No matter how efficient we get, if population keeps rising we will eventually erase any gains in efficiency.

Jared Diamond on population and consumption:
...Per capita consumption rates in China are still about 11 times below ours, but let’s suppose they rise to our level. Let’s also make things easy by imagining that nothing else happens to increase world consumption — that is, no other country increases its consumption, all national populations (including China’s) remain unchanged and immigration ceases. China’s catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent.

If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase eleven fold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates)...

I haven’t met anyone crazy enough to claim that we could support 72 billion. Yet we often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies — for example, institute honest government and a free-market economy — they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax: we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even now for only one billion people...
Does this strike you as sustainable? Neither does Dr. Bartlett. Dr. Bartlett is fond of asking if we are dumber than yeast. I'll let him explain.

...Bacteria grow by doubling. One bacterium divides to become two, the two divide to become 4, the 4 become 8, 16 and so on. Suppose we had bacteria that doubled in number this way every minute. Suppose we put one of these bacteria into an empty bottle at 11:00 in the morning, and then observe that the bottle is full at 12:00 noon. There's our case of just ordinary steady growth: it has a doubling time of one minute, it’s in the finite environment of one bottle.

I want to ask you three questions. Number one: at what time was the bottle half full? Well, would you believe 11:59, one minute before 12:00? Because they double in number every minute.

And the second question: if you were an average bacterium in that bottle, at what time would you first realise you were running of space? Well, let’s just look at the last minutes in the bottle. At 12:00 noon, it’s full; one minute before, it’s half full; 2 minutes before, it’s a quarter full; then an 8th; then a 16th. Let me ask you, at 5 minutes before 12:00, when the bottle is only 3% full and is 97% open space just yearning for development, how many of you would realise there’s a problem?

...They now have four bottles, before their discovery, there was only one. Now surely this will give them a sustainable society, won’t it?

You know what the third question is: how long can the growth continue as a result of this magnificent discovery? Well, look at the score: at 12:00 noon, one bottle is filled, there are three to go; 12:01, two bottles are filled, there are two to go; and at 12:02, all four are filled and that’s the end of the line.

Get it now? Some math for you to play with on your own:

You just take the number 70, divide it by the percent growth per unit time and that gives you the doubling time. So our example of 5% per year, you divide the 5 into 70, you find that growing quantity will double in size every 14 years.

Well, you might ask, where did the 70 come from? The answer is that it's approximately 100 multiplied by the natural logarithm of two. If you wanted the time to triple, you'd use the natural logarithm of three. So it's all very logical. But you don't have to remember where it came from, just remember 70.

Let's practice. We are using 73,000,000 barrels of oil a day. Growth is at 1.7 - 2% a year. So, 70 / 1.7 = 41. In 41 years we'll need 146,000,000 a day of oil. For all oil liquids we are using 86,000,000 b/d, so we'd need 172,000,000b/d. The OECD countries are in decline. Most nations are. Everyone you read or hear will tell you the bulk of future oil production lies with OPEC. OPEC is going to produce an additional 73 - 86 mb/d? No way in hell. Saudi Arabia states their goal is a decades-long plateau of 12.5 mb/d. Well, there's 3mb/d!

As for population, there are now more than 6.5 billion people. The world growth rate is over around 1.14 according to wiki. 70/1.14=61. Thus, in 2067 world population will be 13+ billion. Hmmm... Per capita energy use is a strong indicator of standard of living. The image to the right shows what's happening to oil production per capita, from

You see, without addressing population, we cannot address any of the issues we face. How do we have that many people and produce LESS CO2 and other gases, even with strong conservation? Where does the energy come from? Since the poor want to live like we do (not that we don't have our own poor...), when do they just start trying to take it? Or what happens as we keep taking their energy? We took Iran's. Look what happened. We are taking Iraq's. Look what's happening.

Would the world as we know it exist without oil? The chart at the right suggests not. Found here.

Hang on, It's going to be a bumpy ride.

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