Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Peak Oil

From the "Coyote Broadsheet", April 17, 1870, via Coyote Blog:
As the US Population reaches toward the astronomical total of 40 million persons, we are reaching the limits of the number of people this earth can support. If one were to extrapolate current population growth rates, this country in a hundred years could have over 250 million people in it! Now of course, that figure is impossible - the farmland of this country couldn't possibly support even half this number. But it is interesting to consider the environmental consequences.

It's a crisis, I tell you.


Knucklehead said...


Thanks for the link to Coyoteblog. Some interesting stuff there.

I've recently finishing reading (in print form) Frederick Jackson Turner's series of essays, The Frontier In American History. I found it a very thought provoking collection of essays not least because they were published over the course of roughly a quarter century beginning over a century ago.

I remain curious about some of the speculations he made and will certainly investigate further but one of the amusements I found while reading the essays was his recurring questioning about how the US would develop moving into a future where population was outstripping growth in food supply, the resources used by our recently developed vast industries were facing exhaustion, and capital had been seemingly permanently accumulated into a relatively few hands.

I don't want to accuse Mr. Turner of being a pessimist (I don't think he was) but if one listens to the tone of whatever passes for media over the years it becomes amply clear that the sky is always falling, everyone should stop, drop, and roll immediately if not sooner, and we're all headed for doom.

We have some psychology pros among the Yarbians. Is roughly half the human race hopelessly pessimistic?

David Thomson said...

“Is roughly half the human race hopelessly pessimistic?”

I am not a psychology pro, but I will take a stab at it anyway. Academics like Paul Erhlich who scare the hell out of us are amply rewarded for their efforts. A number of lucrative careers have built upon the theme “The world is about to end.” On top of that, the citizenry may turn over political power to them if they are sufficiently frightened. I’m sure this is what’s behind much of the global warming hysteria.

Fresh Air said...


Malthus is widely credited as the author of the theory of starvation based upon population growing exponentially and production increasing only arithmetically.

When I was studying agriculture in the eighties the standard answer as to why his forecast hadn't come true was twofold: (1) population control and (2) scientific advances in crop production.

There is no doubt that both have played a role, but today's honest answer--which I doubt many people yet fully apprehend--is that our planetary population, ex the Islamic world, is shrinking.

I find it amusing to look over the bestseller lists from the seventies. You can see that liberalism really means just going with whatever's hot and trendy so long as it makes you feel good:

- Anti-nuclear power
- Global cooling
- Population explosion
- Pesticides are evil

Etc., etc.

Rick Ballard said...

"Is roughly half the human race hopelessly pessimistic?"

I can say with absolute conviction that roughly half have less than average intelligence. I can also state with a probability of certainty of 99.9999 that many who write about the various "problems" facing mankind have a very tenuous grasp of their subject matter.

terrye said...

Well people live in the moment. When they see gas prices triple in about 5 years, it makes them nervous.

The world did not end in the 70's, but it was no fun either.

So I really do not think it is about intelligence, it is about what people are dealing with today. And today oil is up up up.

Ed onWestSlope said...

terrye is generous and nice. rick ballard makes me smile and agree.
knucklehead's link is interesting, almost like a minor timewarp. Have we been here before?

I deal with 'natural hazards' exploring, analyzing and then designing foundations for the proposed buildings. Some hazards are significant but most are minor.

By my observations, People seem to be most worried about what is inconvenient to them or is in line with their perceived level of importance. By that I mean, The person who wants a house with a particular view willingly ignores a certain amount of risk, whether expansive soils, collapsible soils, minor debris flow, minor rockfall, unstable slopes. The view from the house is important, and so are they, up to a point. Different people have different levels of hazard acceptance. At least until the building is damaged and then this engineer was an obvious bum for not disclosing enough.

Now the one who's view will be 'impaired' by the new construction, or the PLANNER (who is the most important one of all) will use any hint of hazard to sandbag the project. No level of hazard is acceptable.

By my observations, It is often the point of view and the perceived level of importance which governs many opinions, private and public. We are running out of oil, food, land, wood, time, good manners, good vibes and patience.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the Earth could support 250 billion people.

But we'd better learn to sprout gills first or grow wings.

But then, why does the president want to reach Mars so badly?

terrye said...


I live in southern Indiana. We still have lots of coal and lumber. so far.

Rick Ballard said...

"But then, why does the president want to reach Mars so badly?"

I'd do just about anything to get away from Democrats too.

Doug said...

City life sucks for some!
Take me, for instance!
Those that argue for unlimited growth tend not to live in high density, average income environments.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Just because people have predicted the end of oil for over a century doesn't mean there will never be an end of oil. The implication of your post is logically false.

In the Seventies. prices went way up way fast and people adjusted by consuming less. This happened in every major developed country.

What's different now is the tremendous new demand coming online from China and India and a number of other lesser but very important countries such as South Korea which were not oil-dependent industrial powerhouses in the Seventies. It's a totally different world today and the price of oil is changing to reflect that new reality.

The shortage of the Seventies was artificially induced, Arab countries flexing their new muscles just to see how much they liked the power. The high prices today are of an entirely different nature--simply supply and demand. The demand from the emerging economies is never going to go away. As the price rises, admittedly, new resources will be found or discovered, but that will only happen if the price rises, which I see as inevitable.

cf said...

I believe in the 1800's bien pensants warned that population growth in NYC was so great that in a short time the city would be buried in horse dung from all those carriages..That's the problem with straight line projections,,

Doug said...

meaningless 4:17 PM,
Running on 100% refining capacity, and refusing to drill, represent security risks of the first order, also.

Knucklehead said...


Huh? Where did the number 250 billion people come from?

According to the US Census Bureau the rate of growth in world population stabilized through the 70's and started to decline through through the 80's. Projected through 2050 the world's population will reach a bit over 9.25 billion with a growth rate under 0.5%.

A 1998 UN report uses high, medium, and low growth scenarios to try and project world population out to 2150 and comes up with the interesting numbers of 24.8B, 9.7B, and 3.2B for the three scenarios. The population bomb has done its exploding. The growth rate for human population is trending toward zero.

The UN's 2004 revision downgraded the medium scenario by 700M to 9B.

The UN's "high" scenario seems ludicrous. It's medium scenario suggests near zero growth over a century beyond the 2050 US Census Bureau projection, and the low growth scenario must require some real nasties to afflict the planet.

Here's an extensive study of the various population projections and methodologies. It seems to suggest that projections generally over estimate - in 1996 the world hadn't lived up to the projections of 1980. (There some interesting graphs around page 66.)

And just for giggles here's yet another report from the Australians that says the UN is getting it wrong on the hight side yet again.

250 billion seems out of the question. I wouldn't mind the gills and wings though.

terrye said...


I hope that there will be some breakthrough or discovery that will help people meet energy needs in the future without such a reliance on fossil fuels.

And I do agree about China's increase in demand, but I think most people don't really feel that way. The rise has been so swift and has come about at a time of such turmoil that I think most feel the increase in price is either an aberration or a product of conspiracy.

The record high profits of oil companies only lend to this perception. I saw a poll online the other day, CNN I think. People were asked why prices were higher, the overwhelming winner by about 3 to 1 was big oil companies. They even beat out SUV's.

I know it was CNN, but I would say that is about right.

Charlie Martin said...

Just because people have predicted the end of oil for over a century doesn't mean there will never be an end of oil. The implication of your post is logically false.

Which is why there's no whale oil any more, and we spend out nights in the dark, impotently weeping for the days when spermaceti gave us its warm weak light.

Anonymous said...


I'll try to defend my attempt at humor.

So all those predictions will be correct in 135 years?

Isn't Pat Buchanan warning everyone that all that "European" people must start having more babies to prevent their societies from being torn apart? Why couldn't that start happening, thus ruining all predictions?

250 billion is a future number, to be reached around the time the sun burns out.

All that "extra mass" may have some effect. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, but things have been known to implode.

But no, you're not concerned about the children who inhabit that future. How selfish!

Between now and then, when do we switch to non-oil energy?

rick ballard,

Pretty good, but why didn't you say liberals or communists or nazis or feminazis or murderers or rapists or baby-killers or cannibals or hippies or pinkos or terrorists? Why would Democrats be his antithesis? Why would he be the embodiment of Republicanism?

What is Republicanism?

Who defines himself by his political party?

Morgan said...


I'm pretty sure you're overthinking it. Relax. Enjoy the company. Nobody bites.

'cept terrye.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean by overthinking? Do you mean it in the sense of how the theory of atoms began?

Like Rogan said, normal people don't have time to think, they're busy with their 40hr-5d jobs and schooling and children.

I work two or three days a week. Not only do I have time to think, I have time to over-think.

I wrote a comment on Coyote blog about the economics of oil, but as of the last time I checked, it hasn't yet or won't appear.

Essentially I wrote that the price of oil is determined by demand and supply. As more people want a commodity, like gold, the price of that commodity rises. What did people expect would happen when billions of people start to mimic the consumption habits of the West?

Another pressure is the perception of supply. Oil companies' profits may fall if people know that there is a 500-year supply of oil awaiting exploitation.

Keeping U.S. oil underground also limits the supply.

Knucklehead said...


Sorry about missing the humorous intent. I'm generally humorless, gimme some time to adjust.

Morgan said...


I was referring to your response:

"...but why didn't you say liberals or communists or nazis or feminazis or murderers or rapists or baby-killers or cannibals or hippies or pinkos or terrorists? Why would Democrats be his antithesis? Why would he be the embodiment of Republicanism?"

Carry on thinking, or overthinking, as is your wont. I'm sure I'll adjust.

Rick Ballard said...

"...but why didn't you say liberals or communists or nazis or feminazis or murderers or rapists or baby-killers or cannibals or hippies or pinkos or terrorists?

Economy of expression. Would you like to purchase a "Save the Pixels" bumpersticker?