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Saturday, July 09, 2005

Oil and People

Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas, Ireland

ASPO Newsletters, Article Number 573 (July 2005)

The population of the World expanded six-fold in parallel with oil production during the First Half of the Age of Oil. William Stanton, author of The Rapid Growth of Human Population 1750-2000 (Multi-Science Publishing, 2003) contributes the following analysis of how population will have to return to pre-Oil Age levels. Let us hope that it does not come to this, but the options explained do have a certain chilling logic.

Reducing Population in Step with Oil Depletion

by William Stanton

Recent articles in the ASPO Newsletter have agreed that the explosion of world population from about 0.6 billion in 1750 to 6.4 billion today was initiated and sustained by the shift from renewable energy to fossil fuel energy in the Industrial Revolution. There is agreement that the progressive exhaustion of fossil fuel reserves will reverse the process, though there is uncertainty as to what a sustainable global population would be.

In this time of energy abundance, and the complacency it engenders, the vast majority of the general public assumes that what the future holds is "more of the same". They argue, if pushed, that the expertise inherited by post-fossil-fuel scientists and engineers will allow a smooth transition into a new kind of energy-rich world in which renewable generators will produce as much energy as fossil fuels do now. Such a view is untenable because it ignores the fact that almost all materials essential to modern civilization will be orders of magnitude more costly, and scarce, when they have to be produced using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.

In 2150, for example, a wind turbine constructed of steel, concrete and plastic may not be able to generate, during its lifetime, as much renewable energy as would have been used up in creating it. Imagine mining, refining and smelting the metal ores, quarrying and transporting the rock, growing the biomass; fabricating the component parts, and erecting and maintaining the structure, using only the trickle of electricity produced by another similar turbine. Vast engineering projects such as constructing the first Airbus A380 airliner (Bowie 2005), using only renewable energy from start to finish, would be unthinkable (to say nothing of flying the plane without oil!).

If, in this article, I discuss ways in which a global population reduction of some six billion people is likely to take place during the 21st Century, precedent suggests that nearly everyone will ignore me. "He must be mad", media reviewers concluded when they read my first probes into the subject two years ago and effectively blacklisted the book (Stanton 2003). After all, do the world's leading politicians and their scientific advisers, including highly paid demographers working for the United Nations and other international bodies, ever doubt that economic "business as usual" will continue for the foreseeable future?

But, given that ASPO is successfully challenging conventional wisdom on oil depletion (there were four anxious letters on the subject of peak oil in my local weekly newspaper in May), what are the options?

The first and most likely scenario is rejection. People in high places view an alleged need for population reduction with incredulity, scorn and denial. In consequence, the price of fossil fuels, especially oil, goes on rising without causing serious alarm in the West, except perhaps in the business world.

When, probably before 2010, the price is so high that construction of new airliners, airport terminals, Olympic villages and traffic reduction schemes judders to a halt, uncontrollable inflation and recession will spread round the world. The oil price may stabilise for a while, as manufacturing wilts, along with demand for its products.

In Third World nations, without oil, that can neither buy food nor grow it in adequate quantity without mechanised agriculture, a Darwinian struggle for shrinking resources of all kinds will be in full swing. Tribe against tribe, religion against religion, family against family, the imperative to survive will be driving strong groups to take what they want from weak ones. The concept of human rights will be irrelevant: "How can the weak have rights to food, when there is not enough even for the strong"?

It may well be that, in the West, the same argument will affect the thinking of militarily powerful nations. "If billions must die, and we have the technology to ensure that they are others, not us, why should we hold back"? Instantaneous nuclear elimination of population centres might even be considered merciful, compared to starvation and massacres prolonged over decades. Eventually, probably before 2150, world population will have fallen to a level that renewable energy, mainly biomass, can sustain. It is likely to be similar to the population before the Industrial Revolution.

That is the do-nothing, let Nature take its course, scenario, involving more than a century of immeasurable human suffering. What alternatives are there? They have to be scenarios in which enlightened governments and their peoples, with astonishing foresight and determination, take positive action to reverse population growth by new, draconian, laws. China has pioneered such an approach, by its one child per family policy.

ASPO's Oil Depletion Protocol (Campbell 2004) is a scenario that aims to persuade national governments to cope with declining oil production equitably and peacefully, on the world scale. An annual depletion rate (the percentage of remaining global oil reserves produced each year, currently about 2.5% per year) is calculated by experts, after which nations agree to reduce their consumption and/or production of oil year after year strictly in accordance with the depletion rate. How population reduction will be achieved in step with growing oil shortage is not spelt out. Some will see the Protocol as too idealistic for a Darwinian world, because it expects every nation to co-operate regardless of whether they are resource rich or poor, have a high or a low birth rate, or are responsibly or chaotically governed.

Probably the greatest obstacle to the scenario with the best chance of success (in my opinion) is the Western world's unintelligent devotion to political correctness, human rights and the sanctity of human life. In the Darwinian world that preceded and will follow the fossil fuel era, these concepts were and will be meaningless. Survival in a Darwinian resource-poor world depends on the ruthless elimination of rivals, not the acquisition of moral kudos by cherishing them when they are weak. In fact, human civilization in the fossil fuel era has been totally anomalous, fuelled by the unthinking exploitation and exhaustion of all the world's resources, not just fossil fuels. Sir Fred Hoyle pointed out, decades ago, that Western civilization was a "one-shot affair", for this reason (Duncan 1997).

So the population reduction scenario with the best chance of success has to be Darwinian in all its aspects, with none of the sentimentality that shrouded the second half of the 20th Century in a dense fog of political correctness (Stanton 2003 page 193). It is best examined at the nation-state scale. The United Kingdom will serve as the model.

To those sentimentalists who cannot understand the need to reduce UK population from sixty million to about two million over 150 years, and who are outraged at the proposed replacement of human rights by cold logic, I would say "You have had your day, in which your woolly thinking has messed up not just the Western world but the whole planet, which could, if Homo sapiens had been truly intelligent, have supported a small population enjoying a wonderful quality of life almost for ever. You have thrown away that opportunity."

The Darwinian approach, in this planned population reduction scenario, is to maximise the well-being of the UK as a nation-state. Individual citizens, and aliens, must expect to be seriously inconvenienced by the single-minded drive to reduce population ahead of resource shortage. The consolation is that the alternative, letting Nature take its course, would be so much worse.

The scenario is: Immigration is banned. Unauthorised arrives are treated as criminals. Every woman is entitled to raise one healthy child. No religious or cultural exceptions can be made, but entitlements can be traded. Abortion or infanticide is compulsory if the fetus or baby proves to be handicapped (Darwinian selection weeds out the unfit). When, through old age, accident or disease, an individual becomes more of a burden than a benefit to society, his or her life is humanely ended. Voluntary euthanasia is legal and made easy. Imprisonment is rare, replaced by corporal punishment for lesser offences and painless capital punishment for greater.

A rough calculation suggests that by following these Draconian but simple rules UK population could be reduced by five to ten million during the first ten years, without excessive pain (compared to the alternatives). If this was thought too fast or too slow, there would be scope for modifying the child entitlements. The punishment regime would improve social cohesiveness by weeding out criminal elements.

UK military forces should be maintained strong and alert, given that other nations working to different scenarios, or to none, would certainly attempt Darwinian piracy on UK trade routes, or mount mass immigration invasions of UK coasts. Collaboration with other nations practising the same population reduction scenario would be of great mutual advantage.

Initially the greatest threats to UK security would come from rogue nations unwilling to curb traditionally high birth rates but lacking the means to feed the ever-growing numbers of new mouths. In the past, these were the poverty-stricken nations that repeatedly received humanitarian aid and famine relief, which did nothing to reduce the birth rate. In a Darwinian world, Nature would take its course. In consequence, their populations would reduce particularly fast and their threat would fade away.

After four or five decades the populations of the UK and other nations following the same scenario would probably be halved. In the rest of the world, where Nature was doing the reduction in an ambience of massacres and destruction, the proportionate fall would be greater and the pain would have been terrible. In the UK, in contrast, where orderly population shrinkage would have outpaced resource shrinkage, a relatively comfortable quality of life would have been enjoyed throughout the period. There would have been no loss of technological expertise, but it would no longer be employed in grandiose energy-wasteful projects. Instead, there would be intensive research into cost-effective methods of renewable energy recovery.

A particular problem could arise from the fact that the world's greatest oil reserves are controlled by the nations surrounding the Gulf. They have dizzyingly high birth rates which, for cultural reasons, they might not want to lower. Their populations exploded following the discovery of oil, and if the explosion continues, even a very high oil price will not provide enough national income to prevent general poverty. Indeed, the demand for Gulf oil might occasionally fall, if for example alternative sources were still available to nations practising orderly population reduction, and there was minimal demand from the chaotic rest of the world. After a decade or two of unrestricted population growth, with limited income from oil and terrible shortages, especially of water, Nature will begin to reverse population growth around the Gulf.

Of course, in a Darwinian world, a militarily powerful nation might try to take oil by force anywhere on the planet. World War Two provided recent examples: oil supply being critical to Germany and Japan.

Another problem is likely to be the residual opposition to population reduction from sentimentalists and/or religious extremists unable to understand that the days of plenty, when criminals and the weak could be cherished at public expense, are over. Acts of violent protest, such as are carried out today by animal rights activists and anti-abortionists, would, in the Darwinian world, attract capital punishment. Population reduction must be single-minded to succeed.


Bowie, B. 2005. Building the A380. New Scientist, 11 June 2005 pages 34-41.

Campbell, C J. 1997. The Coming Oil Crisis. Multi-Science Publishing, Brentwood.

Campbell, C J. 2004. The Truth about Oil and the Looming Energy Crisis. Eagle Print Ireland.

Duncan, R C. 1997. The Olduvai Theory. In Campbell 1997, pages 106-107.

Stanton, W. 2003. The Rapid Growth of Human Populations 1750-2000; Histories, Consequences, Issues, Nation by Nation. Multi-Science Publishing, Brentwood.

Stanton, W. 2005. Living fairly comfortably without fossil fuels.

ASPO Newsletter No 52 (April 2005). Item 524.

ASPO Ireland is kindly sponsored by Post Carbon Institute and other individuals.

ASPO Ireland is a member of the ASPO group.

Bill Totten


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