Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. -Edward Abbey
We have this problem where every year we consume and produce more and more energy. This need for perpetual growth in production has led to the problem of Peak Oil(which might spell the peaking of everything, including food). Historically, since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, energy consumption in the United States has grown at a rate of 2.9%. To a layperson not familiar with exponential growth, this might appear to be a manageable figure; 2.9% might not sound that bad. Unfortunately, even at this seemingly modest growth rate, this means energy consumption will double in a short 24 years. That is, if the trend since around 1650 or so continues, we will need to double our energy production in the next 24 years in order to keep pace with expectations from historical data. As hard as it is for us to produce the energy we produce now, drilling, fracking, importing, tar sands production, war, etc…we will have to find a way to produce twice as much over the next 24 years just to continue the precedent.
Suppose we played around and projected this into the future to see how ridiculous it can become. Well we are in luck, because Tom Murphy on his blog Do the Math has done just that. He used a 2.3% rate for simplicity. He concludes:
No matter what the technology, a sustained 2.3% energy growth rate would require us to produce as much energy as the entire sun within 1400 years… In 2450 years, we use as much as all hundred-billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
As you can see, one thing is certain. Growth in energy consumption will end eventually. So why do we continually grow energy production? Why not just use the same constant amount of energy year in year out? The answer comes down mostly to two issues: economic growth and population growth.
Most economic activity requires energy. There are several different metrics economists use for economic activity. One of the main measurements used, especially in the United States, is Gross Domestic Product(GDP). Wikipedia defines GDP as- “the market value of all officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a year, or other given period of time.” A “negative growth” in GDP, as an economist would describe it, is one indicator of a contracting economy. A contracting economy is, by definition, an economy in Recession. In our economic system, a growing GDP is considered good, and a decreasing GDP is considered bad. Recession is considered bad, rightfully so due to the hardship it creates. Nevertheless, economic activity requires energy, and because economic activity must always increase to avoid recession, we have created an economic system inherently coupled to energy growth. To put it into perspective:
Even at only 3 percent, that means finding more than $2tn worth of new investments every year. Consider the sheer scale of the production and consumption that this requires. Each year we have to add the equivalent of the size of the entire global economy of 1970 just to be able to say that we’re “progressing”. (source)
As we discovered earlier, perpetual growth in energy consumption will eventually end. Because physical economic activity requires energy, this means growth of the physical economy will also eventually end.
Another issue that drives growth in energy consumption is population growth. Here is a graph of human population growth over time:
As you look at that graph, you should be asking “is this sustainable?” You’ll notice most of this population explosion has occurred within the last few hundred years, during the Industrial Revolution, first beginning with the extraction of Coal as fuel, which paved the way for the discovery/production of oil 125 years ago. The discovery of oil led to the Green Revolution, which has made this recent tremendous growth possible. A cycle has developed: we use energy to create food and then we use food to create people. Because we then have more people, we need more energy and more food. Now if there is a big enough drop in food production, it translates to famine, riots, and a food crisis. There are other factors that contribute to rising population other than food of course, such as medicine raising life expectancy, but modern medicine is also very highly energy intensive.
Humans discovered a glut of energy which they have used to fuel a population explosion. This leads me to ask: will energy depletion lead to a Malthusian Catastrophy in which the surplus of human population created by the exploitation of hydrocarbon energy suffers a population collapse? For example, in wine production, yeast is added to grape juice to trigger fermentation. The yeast cells “eat” the sugar in the grape juice and turn it into ethanol. Because of the newfound food source, the yeast population explodes, growing and growing until most of the sugar is turned into alcohol. Eventually the yeast population grows so much they run out of sugar to eat and their population collapses. There is a die-off of yeast. In the same way, humans will eventually face a situation where energy production can no longer continue to grow. This will mean population will no longer continue to grow, and perhaps even decline in parallel with energy production as it grew in parallel with energy production. The population graph posted above might very well have an impeding mirror image on the right-hand side materializing in the future, as exponential population growth begets decline.
M. King Hubbert, the father of Peak Oil theory:
It’s an aberration. For most of human history, the population doubled once every 32,000 years. Now it’s down to 35 years. That is dangerous. No biologic population can double more than a few times without getting seriously out of bounds. I think the world is seriously overpopulated right now. There can be no solutions to the world’s problems that do not include the stabilization of the world’s population.
When I first began to understand the problem of growth, there was one video that blew my mind in particular. It was a lecture presentation by Dr. Al Bartlett titled Arithmetic, Population, and Energy. It is 74 minutes long, but I’m not asking you to watch the entire thing unless you are really interested. However, the first 25 minutes are, in my opinion, adequate to get you a rudimentary understanding of this problem. Here is the video:
Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth, wrote an article in 2012 called Fun With Trends. Here are a few of his projections:
If current trends continue…
- The population of the United States will increase to over 600 million by 2080, and in 2150 it will equal China’s present size.
- World population will achieve 14 billion by the year 2075 and 30 billion by 2150.
- By 2015 China will be importing more oil than the United States does that year.
- In just 8 years China will be burning as much coal as the entire world uses today.
- Officially assessed US natural gas reserves will be exhausted by 2025.
- China’s economy will be 8 times as big as it is today by 2040.
- China’s economy will surpass the size of the present global economy before 2050.
Further reading can be had here:
And today’s video: