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Jan 3 2009 / Aaron

The coming clash of exponential growth curves

There is a great battle afoot, both fueled by the same exponential expansion and growth of human population and development. The expansion and consumption is unsustainable. We’ve already mined the best ores, drained the easiest oil reserves, burned the best coal, farmed the richest soils, and fished the most fecund stocks to the brink of extinction. To continue extracting resources requires continually greater energy expenditure.

It is estimated that the human population currently grows by more than 70 million people each year. That’s like adding more than the population of the United Kingdom to the planet each year. All those extra mouths to feed, all those extra cars and homes and consumer goods to produce. Burn, baby, burn.

At the same time technology marches forth at a blistering pace, largely because of population growth. With 70 million plus people each year there are correspondingly more universities and research labs and engineers and scientists. There is more demand for high technology, greater societal complexity, and better scales of economy.

Technology is a positive feedback loop and the writing is on the wall — if these trends continue we are heading for a technological singularity. The rapture of the nerds.

The question is, will this great experiment collapse before some form of techno-magic can save the day?

This world is a very complex system. Too complex for our puny little monkey-brains to understand. We just don’t know how it is going to play out, but we can project many plausible scenarios. As a lurking member of the lifeboat foundation, I’ve been exposed to a lot of ideas — both scenarios for doom and potential solutions.

Scenario 1: The fast-crash / die-off

This is the classic doomer scenario. Our civilization is far more specialized and fragile than we think. Most of us in the modern world have no useful skills outside the context of modern civilization. We are far overextended in population and sustaining that population requires massive amounts of energy. We are nearing peak-everything, but notably peak-oil, and when demand outstrips supply, food production and distribution will plummet. Economies driven by constant growth and energy will collapse. When the power goes out and the grocery store shelves are empty, the urban centers will plunge into chaos. Billions will die of starvation and fighting over table scraps. There are many that suspect that oil production has already peaked and that production will decline from here on out. A fast-crash will be most likely if development of alternative energy infrastructure comes late to do any good, or a combination of financial collapse, numerous wars, a pandemic, and peak oil clobber us all at once.

Scenario 2: The long emergency

In a nutshell, we avoid much of the chaos of a fast and sudden collapse, but instead enter a massive global depression that never ends (at least in our lifetimes). Globalization will end as nations will adopt protectionist stances, and wars over dwindling resource stocks will become commonplace. Population growth stalls and starts to contract. Civilization winds down and scales far back from where it is today. We live much simpler, local lives. We still have a lot of slack in the system to avoid collapse. I think that the average first world citizen can slash their resource consumption in half without any threat to their survival. Just eating less meat would have a major effect on energy consumption (meat production uses far more energy than crop production). A great deal of energy is used in luxury, and we can do just fine without.

Scenario 3: The Turn-around

After a lengthy decade-long depression, we manage to turn things around with creative solutions in social, political, and technology systems. We manage to become far more efficient and less resource intensive as a species, but maintain a high living standard and high social complexity. We will shift from a fiat money system to currencies backed by energy production. Money will directly equate to Kilo-joules, instead of promises.

Scenario 4: The Status Quo

Bah, peak-oil is a myth. Resources will last us hundreds or thousands of years. We can easily support a 12 billion population, everything is going to be fine! Don’t be so paranoid.

What to do?

How one acts today depends greatly on what you believe is the most likely scenario. If you’re into the status quo, then meh, whatever man.

If you are certain we are in for the fast-crash, then you need to either (a) live it up wild now, while you still can. Go for broke — jet set around the world, take on a huge debt and party, because soon the party will be over! or (b) Move to the country and start off-grid subsistence farming or join a survivalist commune. Stock up on guns and ammo and toilet paper, and hunker down.

If you think the long emergency is inevitable, then you need to scale down your lifestyle, get out of debt, and make sure you’ll have secure employment and useful skills, and buy a bicycle.

Unlike most doomers, I still have some hope in the markets and technology to deliver some clever solutions to our energy problems. The markets and technology can move very quickly when given the right motivation.  The best way to generate that motivation now is to raise awareness of these problems and to adjust our lifestyles, which will shift market pressures.

A lot of the discussion in the lifeboat foundation is about what we can do to turn a fast-crash into a long emergency, or a long emergency into a turn-around. So what proactive steps can realistically be taken to turn things around? Well, if you are an average citizen, there isn’t much you can do besides lifestyle changes, education, and political pressure. But there is power in numbers, so spread the word and act. If you are wealthy, you can invest in solutions to the world’s problems — always a good investment. If you are a clever engineer, you can invest your brainpower directly into working on solutions.

Should I harvest clock-cycles or grain? Should I help to engineer a turn-around, or abandon hope and flee into the country to build my doomstead? For now, I think I shall stay the optimist, because frankly, life is more pleasant when optimistic.

Further Reading

Chris Martenson: The Crash Course

James Howard Kunstler: Forecast for 2009

Three Types of Doomers and Fantasy Collapse


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  1. Chris Hubick / Jan 3 2009

    The average citizen just needs to ensure they are only ever parent to at most a single child. Whatever the problem with that is (?), is the real problem.

    I will add that, if we are to start shrinking the population drastically, it would obviously be nice to apply some engineering to ensure the people we do produce are smart enough to maintain (or increase) our rate of technological advancement.

  2. bill / Jan 4 2009

    Expand into a larger reality? There are hints that this one is a mere subset of a larger reality-set.

  3. david / Jan 6 2009

    Longtime lurker on this blog but haven’t checked in a while – glad to see this post.

    Great line “if these trends continue we are heading for a technological singularity. The rapture of the nerds.”

    I anticipate a slight return to Kunstler-esque principles but hope our scientific/capitalistic prowess can lead to better energy production/conservation, leading away from a “long emergency” type to a “Golden Age of Globalization” era, espoused by the likes of Todd Harrrison on . I don’t need a “singularity” (Terminator 4) or a “Rapture,” (Go Jesus!) just people to work together, get their head out of their asses, and respect and help one another, and maximize their intelligence and productive output.

    So I guess I just want world peace and humanity to come together as one, spiritually and intellectually – Can’t be too hard, right?

  4. Reality Check / Feb 15 2009

    A single child or we are all killers!
    How about this little factoid? The population of the west is undergoing collapse. Women are not even having 2 children on average.

    Have you ever asked where is all this immense population growth coming from?
    While in the west the above envro-panic-nut’s call every one a envro-killer for having a kid, and an immense property bubble has wrought disaster for ordinary young people planning a family, the muslim world has baby factories in full production mode – women have 5 kids – 5 kids! – on average each, and are permitted nothing else in life under veils, punishment, stoning etc… The UN predicts nearly all the population growth towards 12 billion from the muslim world.

    I don’t see anybody raising the treatment of women in the muslim world which is having world population consequences. I guess raising and changing cultural mores is non-PC, not embracing multi-cultural society, or verging on ‘racial’.

    Peak oil and disaster? Q: Have you checked how much Natural Gas there is in Years for the US? A: 100 Years at least. How much Coal? 2000 years. If oil disappears then people switch to other forms of energy for locomotion and adapt.

    Greenhouse warming is the only real thing out there to worry about.

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