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15 January 2007 @ 01:40 pm
Why we are doomed, Part 3: Overshoot  
Previous Essays:
Why we are doomed, Part 1: Human Nature
Why we are doomed, Part 2: Civilization
Ecological overshoot happens when a population exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of its environment. This has happened before in various places (e.g., Ireland, Easter Island) but has never occurred on a global level until now. In addition to the geography of this incident of overshoot being unique, the factor that has allowed for such a dramatic degree of overshoot (we are at around 350% carrying capacity) is unique (i.e., fossil fuels).

In order for overshoot to occur, you need:
  1. a finite geographical region – it is much easier for overshoot to occur on an island or otherwise isolated region than it is for it to happen, for example, in one state of the continental US. For purposes of the current overshoot event, the Earth is an island.
  2. 1. a population that chooses to increase its population via means that are only temporarily effective (e.g., Irish Potato Famine) OR 2. to destroy the ecological capital of the area (e.g., Easter Island). In the current overshoot event, we have managed to do both.
A. Finite Geographical Region. The Earth is a finite geographical area, and is isolated from other potential sources of resources. Due to the huge amount of energy that is required to move even small amounts of energy or matter to and from other planets and moons, and because worldwide stores of the type of resources required to perform these activities (i.e., fossil fuels) are in decline, it is unreasonable to think that migration to another planet/moon and/or stripping of the resources of another planet/moon will save us. In order to be worthwhile, a resource-gathering space mission would have to be able to refuel at the destination, and return with more energy onboard than the outbound flight required.

B. 1. Temporarily Effective Means of Population Increase. In the Irish example, the people came to depend on a monoculture of potatoes for sufficient daily caloric intake, because other sources were not sufficient to support the population level they had achieved. (The Famine is actually much more complicated than this and I’m using it only as an illustration; for example, Ireland was not physically isolated. [Wikipedia Article]) Since a monoculture inevitably results in blight, this dependence on potatoes was a temporary solution. In our current overshoot, the culprit is fossil fuels. While there was nothing wrong with using fossil fuels for things like comfort and convenience, the mistake was the Green Revolution, which is when we started using fossil fuels to increase crop yields. Since then, we have essentially been eating fossil fuels, a temporary resource. The funny thing about increasing food supplies is that while the kind-hearted of the world hope it to be a means by which to eliminate hunger, it inevitably becomes a means by which the population is increased until the percent of those who are suffering is roughly equal to what it was before.

B. 2. Destruction of the Ecological Capital of the Area. In the case of Easter Island, the island was deforested, in part to aid the erection of the moai (those stone statues). Deforestation is damage in and of itself, but it tends to kill off animals (due to loss of habitat) and result in soil erosion, which reduces crop yields. In our current overshoot, we have deforestation as well as severe pollution on a global scale. We have even gone so far as to change the very climate of the entire planet. Even the isolated communities that have not taken part in the modern industrial way of life are being impacted severely by the destruction that overshoot is creating. EDIT: A great deal of the destruction we are seeing is due to toxic (including nuclear) waste and other pollution.

To look at overshoot from an even broader perspective, please see Albert Bartlett’s lecture on Arithmetic, Population and Energy. In Bartlett's bacteria-in-a-jar illustration, he focuses on how much physical space is in the jar, but keep in mind that "space" is a symbolic shorthand for both resources (e.g., food) and waste (e.g., poop).

Bartlett’s lecture hints at something which I find very fascinating, though it isn’t discussed much in the context of overshoot or the Olduvai Theory [The Olduvai Theory: Energy, Population, and Industrial Civilization], which is essentially a prediction of the pattern of overshoot for this unique global scenario that we are experiencing now. You may be familiar with the concept of substitution in economics. Economists, who tend to be very optimistic, often say that overshoot or resource depletion cannot occur because one resource can be substituted for another ad infinitum. Of course, this is ridiculous. Substitution is never perfect and only so many resources can be substituted for a given resource. Often, substitution can only be achieved with the expenditure of energy (i.e., fossil fuels) so, in essence, multiple resources must be substituted to replace the one resource in decline. The fun result of all this is that all valuable resources should be expected to decline simultaneously on an historical or, certainly, geological time scale.

This resource decline simultaneity can be seen with oil in the past few years. Oil is in decline (since May of 2005; according to Oil Drum and IEA data [reference]), and so we’ve begun using natural gas and fresh water to substitute tar sands for oil, but natural gas peaked in February of 2005, and there is a serious problem with fresh water supplies (though this isn’t quite as non-renewable as the other resources, there certainly isn’t enough). We’ve also substituted corn for oil, again with much energy input required, and now it looks like there will be a serious corn shortage. So, in summary, the very concept that economists say will save us, substitution, makes things much, much worse.

We are looking at the very serious possibility that this unique global overshoot event will result in the near total depletion of all important resources necessary not just for human civilization, but for human life, and in addition that the ecological capital of the planet will be very severely damaged. If this occurs as I describe (and this is the current default course) then we can expect the death of all of the more complex organisms on the planet, including, probably, all humans.


The above figure indicates energy income declining as energy capital declines because we are dependent on energy capital to convert energy income (sunlight) into a usable form.

I’m quite sure that if you challenge the dude who is frying up the last songbird using the remnants of the last tree, which he cut down earlier in the week, he’ll look at you incredulously and explain that he’s just trying to feed his family.

Anyway, you can start to see the pessimism inherent in the Olduvai Theory. In a world where most (if not all) of the trees have been cut down, and all the reachable fossil fuels burned, how can we expect to have anything resembling modern industrial society? How can we hope to repair our solar panels when they inevitably wear out (they are expected to have a 30 year lifespan, but produce less power as they age)? Or the brushes in the generators in our windmills (which may last two or three years)? I’m constantly encountering McGyver wannabe’s (you know who you are) who claim that they can construct a solar panel using a used stick of chewing gun, a wire coat hanger and some Tupperware, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, you’d need some polysilicon. Again, it is an issue of substitution.

Nevermind saving civilization... the human race will be lucky to get out of this alive.

 
 
Current Mood: depresseddoomed
Current Music: The Ninth Gate, end credits.
 
 
 
fried2stylesfried2styles on January 16th, 2007 05:00 am (UTC)
Hmmm...

1) How do you explain the zero population growth in the EU? Isn't that what we should be shooting for(no pun intended) in terms of a model civilization? When people talk about the "population explosion" they're referring to the growth of relatively uneducated populations in relatively poor countries.

2) what about nuclear power as a substitute or fossil fuels? Granted it would pretty much force us to give up our lovely iinteral-combustion engines, but it would keep the lights on.
eyelidlessness on January 16th, 2007 07:06 am (UTC)
How do you explain the zero population growth in the EU?
Is that even true? Certainly some countries are experiencing zero (or negative) population growth, while others are not. Anyway, it could very well be explained by reaching approximately the maximum population density given all the factors that contribute to that.

Isn't that what we should be shooting for(no pun intended) in terms of a model civilization?
Not when the population itself is far beyond carrying capacity. I don't know what an ideal civilization would look like, but I suspect it'd share few characteristics with civilization as we know it (and I suspect the most important difference would be a lack of its defining characteristic: cities).

When people talk about the "population explosion" they're referring to the growth of relatively uneducated populations in relatively poor countries.
Sure, if they're racist idiots. Look, population is too high in Europe. It's too high in Japan. It's too high in the US. It's too high in the Middle East. It's too high in southeast Asia. It's too high everywhere. There are not enough world resources to sustainably support the population of China (highest world population of any country), or India (second), or the US, Indonesia and Brazil combined (third, fourth and fifth respectively). Population increases in poorer areas now are simply lagging behind the increases of already-industrialized areas; this is because the material "benefits" of technological development reach them last. Industrial Revolution leaders saw tremendous population growth already, and they're leveling off naturally. Any population will, eventually.

what about nuclear power as a substitute or fossil fuels?
There is already enough toxic waste—sitting in open air, waiting to be blown away, and leaking into water tables of populated areas—from the production of nuclear fuel alone to kill the human population of the planet many times over. It's simply too dangerous and toxic to use.

Granted it would pretty much force us to give up our lovely iinteral-combustion engines, but it would keep the lights on.
We're going to lose both, for the most part, over the next few decades.
fried2stylesfried2styles on January 16th, 2007 07:51 pm (UTC)
The rascist idiot responds...
For the sake of brevity, I'll lumps some things together...

- Western Europe as a "model civilization"- Even if Western Europe isn't at zero population growth(though I think it is), my point is that those affluent, educated populations grow more slowly than poorer, uneducated populations. This is true both between populations and within them and has nothing to do with race(or racism) but sociology; the anti-civ claim that any and all populations grow like mad and then drown in their own waste is simply not true.

You can't just assume there are "other factors" that explain why your theory doesn't hold true. Under certain conditions, populations will simply stop growing EVEN IF they have sufficient resources to do so. In other words, if 30 million can fit in Mexico city, then why is england holding at 55 million?

- On "carrying capacity": That term gets thrown around a lot an causes much confusion. What is your standard exactly, that of a primeval forest for a group of hunter-gatherers or a pre-green revolution wheat field?

You offer us a false dichotomy: Of course, overpopulation is a problem, but claiming that the only other option is to "return to nature" is absurd. Indeed if we had to revert to a primitive lifestyle as you suggest, then perhaps extinction is a better option.

- The End will come in "the next few decades"- This may be true- my crystal ball is broken. I saw a speech recently about the oil industry in which the speaker attacked the commonly-held idea that oil companies make money by pumping more oil, which is completely false. they make money by keeping the supply unnaturally low and the prices therefore unnaturally high. My point is that I wouldn't be surprised if the REAL amount of oil left is significantly higher than claimed in order to maintain a "myth of shortage".
Sperm Production Unit 873peace873 on January 16th, 2007 08:28 pm (UTC)
Re: The rascist idiot responds...
"affluent, educated populations grow more slowly than poorer, uneducated populations"
OK, so this suggests the classic "solution" to overpopulation -- just make everyone affluent. Well, that doesn't work because there aren't enough resources for everyone to be affluent. The legal population of the US is not growing, for example, but it uses 25% of the energy resources produced by the entire planet. And the obvious problem with this is that every population that is affluent, educated and growing more slowly is using many times more than the sustainable amount of resources for its geographical area.

"carrying capacity" means that X people can live in a finite area without destroying it. The carrying capacity of the planet is fewer than 2 billion people, and it is dropping all the time due to climate change and other environmental damage. If you want to live like a Western European, the carrying capacity of the planet is much less than 2 billion, more like 500 million. If you want to live like an American, the figure drops even further, to more like 100 million.

I'm not particularly interested in this whole argument about whether it is possible for people to live sustainably in an industrial/technological civilization BECAUSE IT IS TOO LATE FOR THAT... unless you have some neat way of making 6 billion or so people just disappear.

People who claim there is a "myth of shortage" are just trying to justify not changing their lifestyle. OPEC is constantly denying that they are running out. The oil companies didn't start admitting that there was any possibility of shortage until they were forced to by the hard data independent people were collecting. But of course we know that oil is a finite resource, so it has to run out.

There is no "choice" in the matter anymore. I recently convinced a friend of mine and my mother to read "Powerdown" and their conclusion was, "So the answer to the problem is for everyone to live like the Amish." Um, no. Everyone is going to live like the Amish. Everyone who survives, that is. That is no longer an option.
eyelidlessness on January 16th, 2007 08:43 pm (UTC)
Re: The rascist idiot responds...
Even if Western Europe isn't at zero population growth(though I think it is), my point is that those affluent, educated populations grow more slowly than poorer, uneducated populations.
And, as I said, the reason poorer areas grow later (not more) is because they receive the technologies that allow their population to grow later.

This is true both between populations and within them and has nothing to do with race(or racism) but sociology;
No, it actually has mostly to do with technology, and secondarily to do with class (of which race is certainly an aspect in our world, but I digress); the comment about racism was about those who assume that populations experiencing growth today are "uneducated" and so on.

It's also racist because it assumes that the problem is the presence of bodies, rather than the consumption of resources. The US and other industrialized countries consume far more resources than non-industrial or industrializing countries with greater populations.

the anti-civ claim that any and all populations grow like mad and then drown in their own waste is simply not true.
Then why has every industrializing country followed literally that formula? It's not as if zero population growth at an unsustainable population level is sustainable.

You can't just assume there are "other factors" that explain why your theory doesn't hold true.
My theory? Everything I expressed about natural population growth is observable, especially in countries with zero or low population growth. I didn't "assume" there are "other factors", I alluded to other factors that exist: when a population reaches the combined limit of its available resources and available technology, its growth will slow or stop. These things break down in a variety of ways, including the artificial availability of resources (for instance, producing too much food causes soil erosion and other problems with future food production), which is why this is still unsustainable, even after populations peak. The peak is artificial, it's built on all sorts of temporary conditions that are being pushed far past their limit.
eyelidlessness on January 16th, 2007 08:44 pm (UTC)
Re: The rascist idiot responds...
Under certain conditions, populations will simply stop growing EVEN IF they have sufficient resources to do so. In other words, if 30 million can fit in Mexico city, then why is england holding at 55 million?
I don't understand your question. It seems to be a non-sequitir.

On "carrying capacity": That term gets thrown around a lot an causes much confusion. What is your standard exactly, that of a primeval forest for a group of hunter-gatherers or a pre-green revolution wheat field?
I don't have a "standard". Land and its resources can support exactly as many people (and other creatures) as it can sustain indefinitely. This can be circumvented, temporarily, by using resources beyond the point where they can regenerate (such as the aforementioned soil erosion).

You offer us a false dichotomy: Of course, overpopulation is a problem, but claiming that the only other option is to "return to nature" is absurd. Indeed if we had to revert to a primitive lifestyle as you suggest, then perhaps extinction is a better option.
Huh? Are you talking to me? It's extremely dishonest to falsely attribute quotes and arguments to someone, and I can't really imagine what your intentions are. Maybe you could show me where I advocated such an option, or where I offered any such dichotomy.

Frankly I don't think there are any real options available to us: we will, as a species, outstrip the world of the resources we depend upon, and we will either adapt to using fewer resources or go extinct. Such is the nature of living in a finite world.

The End will come in "the next few decades"- This may be true- my crystal ball is broken. I saw a speech recently about the oil industry in which the speaker attacked the commonly-held idea that oil companies make money by pumping more oil, which is completely false. they make money by keeping the supply unnaturally low and the prices therefore unnaturally high. My point is that I wouldn't be surprised if the REAL amount of oil left is significantly higher than claimed in order to maintain a "myth of shortage".
Well, that may be true in a sense, but it's kind of irrelevant. Whether the shortage is artificial or not, there is a finite quantity of oil, and ever-increasing demand for oil is unsustainable—there will someday come a time when oil consumption is impossible or demands too much sacrifice for even the most invested to continue its use. It may (and probably will) come sooner, because the growing pressure to find less expensive energy sources will have long since forced a switch before the oil even runs out (this might be what some people refer to as a "soft landing" as opposed to a "crash").
Sperm Production Unit 873peace873 on January 16th, 2007 08:46 pm (UTC)
Re: The rascist idiot responds...
I'm also a bit frustrated with the way people, like you, keep defending civilization by pointing out what is/was theoretically possible. Who cares? If your theory doesn't have our global industrial/technological civilization destroying the world, then something is wrong with your theory.
Sperm Production Unit 873peace873 on January 16th, 2007 08:49 pm (UTC)
Re: The rascist idiot responds...
It's like defending the Nazis by saying, "Oh, but theoretically, their ideology could have been very beneficial and helpful to Jews/gypsies/gays."
buymorestuff on January 16th, 2007 07:06 am (UTC)
>what about nuclear power

Nuclear power will undoubtedly become an alternative to cheap oil, as will coal.

Unfortunately it requires uranium to produce nuclear power, another finite resource. Last time I checked, we have about 20 years left of the "cheap uranium" based on current levels. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil

If we started to substitute (i think we've started?!) uranium/nukes for cheap oil, I'm sure we'd run out MUCH faster.

As far as population growth, before we industrialized the world seemed to have a carrying capacity of about $1B humans. So we've already overshot by 5.5B. Even if we could get the population message to China, India, etc., it looks like we may be too late...
Sperm Production Unit 873peace873 on January 16th, 2007 03:19 pm (UTC)
To what others have said, I would add:
1) Our civilization is really a global one now. It doesn't matter if the population is dropping in the EU any more than it matters if the population is dropping in Buckner, Missouri.
(Anonymous) on January 17th, 2007 07:34 am (UTC)
I'd like to point out that zero or near-zero population growth in developed countries is due to the complexity of said societies. Most people choose not to have children because of the cost of raising children, not because they have a better education. In fact, most people get the better education so they can have children. For example, in order to raise a child in our society you pretty much require two working parents with a college education. Because of this most people don't have children until their late 20s or early 30s, slowing population growth.

On the other hand, because of the way our economy takes advantage of third world countries it benefits them to have more children. As we throw people off their land and force them into sweatshops or into farming cash crops, it benefits them to have more children, and thus more labor. Considering most of these countries are in debt to the World Bank the governments themselves probably try to encourage population growth.