Peak Oil: Chapter 1
Evolutionary psychology and peak oil:
A Malthusian inspired "heads up" for humanity.
-- by Michael E. Mills, Ph.D.
Chapter 1: Ecological overshoot as a general problem in population biology.
"All species expand as much as resources allow and
predators, parasites, and physical conditions permit.
When a species is introduced into a new habitat with
abundant resources that accumulated before its arrival,
the population expands rapidly until all the resources
are used up."
- David Price, Energy and Human Evolution
Life scientists are aware of the concept of ecological "carrying capacity,"
and Malthus' application of these ideas to human populations. Malthus wrote:
"It is an obvious truth, which has been taken notice of by many writers, that population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence; but no writer that the Author recollects has inquired particularly into the means by which this level is effected..."
-- Thomas Malthus, 1798
An Essay on the Principle of Population
of predators and their prey. This keeps the populations of
both species in check.
This issue was addressed in a paper by David Klein,
"The Introduction, Increase and Crash of Reindeer
on St. Matthew Island."
Klein reported that in 1944, 29 reindeer were brought to
St. Matthew Island. Initially there were abundant food
sources, and the reindeer population increased dramatically.
There were no predators to cull the population.
About 20 years after they were first introduced, the reindeer
had overshot the food carrying capacity of the island, and
there was a sudden, massive die-off. About 99% of the
reindeer died of starvation.
As shown in the graph below, this is an example of a general
phenomenon. All species suffer population collapse or species
extinction if they overshoot and degrade the carrying capacity
of their ecology.
This is also the fate that awaits bacteria growing in a Petri dish,
as you might remember from your high school biology course.
Imagine a Petri dish with enough nutrients to support a growing
bacteria culture until the dish is completely full of them. One
bacterium is placed inside the dish at 11:00am, and the population
of bacteria doubles every minute -- such the Petri dish will
be full by noon.
At what time will the Petri dish be half full of bacteria?
Most people reply incorrectly that the Petri dish will be half full
at 11:30am, because we are more familiar with linear, rather
than with exponential, rates of growth.
The correct answer is 11:59am -- which seems rather unintuitive.
However, because the rate of growth is exponential (doubling every minute)
the time at which the Petri dish is half full is 11:59am. With just one
more doubling, in the next minute, Petri dish is completely full, at noon.
The last minutes in the petri dish.
1/64 full (1.5%)
1/32 full (3%)
1/16 full (6%)
1/8 full (12%)
1/4 full (25%)
1/2 full (50%)
Anyone who perceives a linear rate of growth, but who is actually up against
an exponential rate of growth, is likely to be very surprised at how the end
comes very quickly and seemly out of nowhere.
They will be completely blindsided.
Wine: Population Growth and Decline of Yeast Cells
in a 10% Sugar Solution
Below is another example of a population overshoot and collapse scenario.
This is the population graph of yeast cells in a 10% sugar solution.
Note that the yeast population first explodes exponentially, and is then
followed by population die-off as the finite nutrients are exhausted
and their own waste products pollute their environment.
Price, D. (1995). Energy and Human Evolution. Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary
Studies, 16, 301-19. Growth of yeast in a 10% sugar solution (After Dieter, 1962:45).
Note: The fall of the curve is slowed by cytolysis, which recycles
nutrients from dead cells.
This is how yeast turns grape juice into wine. The next time you
say "cheers" over a glass of wine, remember that you are drinking
the waste products (alcohol) of a collapsed yeast colony with poor
ecological management skills!
Recommended video (part 1) about exponential growth:
Arithmetic, Population and Energy, by Prof. Albert Bartlett.
The second part of the eight part video can be seen here.
The key point to remember about Professor Bartlett's lecture:
"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand
the exponential function."
Above, rates of growth -- linear (red), cubic (blue), and exponential (green).
We tend to misperceive linear rates of growth, when the actual growth rates are
exponential. We are blindsided at the end. Can we overcome this shortcoming?
( Source )
The primary question is this:
Are humans smarter than yeast?
(credit: Bob Shaw)
That is, as a species, can we avoid population overshoot and environmental
pollution on our finite planet by recognizing exponential rates of growth,
and dealing effectively with the situation before we are blindsided at the end?
The fate of humans on Easter Island suggests, well, perhaps not.
When the first humans arrived on the island, there were abundant
resources to support the small population. The human population increased
dramatically. There were no predators to cull the population. The
population continued to grow until it eventually overshot
the island carrying capacity.
After overshoot, most of the population starved. Apparently,
they even turned on each other, sometimes resorting to cannibalism.
For more information about carrying capacity and overshoot see:|
Below are some examples of collapsed human societies, and the
possible causative factors.
Of course, the entire earth can also be viewed as an "island" with
some resources that are finite and that are being rapidly
depleted by a human population explosion.
The human population explosion.
( Source )
The graphs above suggests that humans, like the reindeer, yeast, and
Easter Islanders, will eventually overshoot our planetary carrying
capacity, and suffer the Malthusian consequences.
Imagine the world as a Petri dish.
But... won't scientific advances and technology save us from ecological overshoot?
"The world is involved in a monumental resource battle as the
irresistible force of an exploding global population smashes into the
immovable object of finite resources."
-- David McWilliams
Raymond Kurzweil has argued in his book The Singularity is Near, that
scientific knowledge, like populations, grows geometrically too.
He believes this will allow us solve problems of ecological carrying capacity, cure
disease and aging, and solve the problem of energy depletion.
He is optimistic that technology will help us overcome population overshoot and collapse.
For example, computers will become increasingly powerful, as noted in
graph below of the historical and projected exponential growth of computing power.
With respect to energy, Kurzweil predicts in his article Expect Exponential Progress
that "the power we are generating from solar is doubling every two years; at that
rate, it will be able to meet all energy needs within 20 years."
Malthus vs. Kurzweil: Countdown to the final human race of
the 21st Century.
It will be a race toward either paradise or oblivion,
right to the last moment.
-- Buckminster Fuller
Human history becomes more and more a race between education
-- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History
With this increased (scientific) knowledge and the power that it gives us,
we can destroy the world or we can participate in a future of
immeasurable dimensions. Into our hands has been given the power
of co-destruction or co-creation."
-- Barbara Marx Hubbard
So, we have two opposing, exponentially increasing trends.
One could lead to ecological overshoot and collapse; the other
could lead to scientific/technological solutions to these problems.
Malthus vs. Kurzweil
Which will arrive first? Ecological overshoot and collapse (Malthus), or
a "techno-fix" (Kurzweil)?
No one knows.
But, we probably won't have to wait long to find out. One of these two scenarios will likely
occur within the next several decades. But, which one?
Generally it is healthy to be optimistic.
But optimism can be deadly if it produces a Pollyannaish denial of real problems.
We should not ignore problems by assuming "someone else" will take care
of it, or that "the market" or "technological breakthroughs" will always come
to the rescue in time.
Solutions may not come in time, and we may get a quite rude Malthusian
smack down later. To avoid this, we must solve the transition from our finite,
depleting oil resources to renewable energy.
Technological civilization runs on energy.
Continue to Chapter 2: Peak oil as a an example of human ecological overshoot.