Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Depopulation Explosion?

The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike. The meadows were green, and so was the rising wheat which had been sown, but neither had nor would receive any further care...

With this brilliant image, Richard Jefferies began the harrowing prologue to his 1885 novel After London, or Wild England, one of the first works in the modern genre of apocalypse fiction. In Jefferies’ backstory, some unremembered catastrophe erased nearly the entire population of Britain, leaving a few survivors to rebuild a medieval society amid the ruins. Jefferies is almost forgotten today but his novel was influential in its time; echoes of After London can be found straight through the next century of science fiction, showing up in writers as different as H.G. Wells and Edgar Pangborn, and Jefferies’ vision of a depopulated world in which the remains of civilization crumbled beneath spreading greenery hit a chord in the modern imagination.

It’s a vision that has seen quite a bit of play in recent discussions about the future of industrial society, especially among those who like to frame those in terms of one apocalyptic narrative or another. In some circles these days, global depopulation in the near future is treated as a given, and the only point of debate seems to be what mechanism will tip six billion superfluous lives into history’s dumpster. A certain amount of millennarian machismo seems to creep into these debates, as though believing in a catastrophe more dire and more imminent than anyone else’s is a sign of toughness. All this has a good deal to say about the way social narratives are shaped, but arguably much less about the shape of the future ahead of us.

Thus, for example, I was contacted not long ago by a reader of The Archdruid Report who announced he’d come up with a scenario that involved the immiment extermination of 95% of the world’s population in a matter of weeks. Did I want to read more? Well, no, in fact, I didn’t. I’m old enough to remember when Comet Kohoutek was supposed to cause global devastation and Anwar Sadat was widely identified as the Antichrist, and one thing I’ve learned is that it’s very easy to come up with a worst case scenario and back it up with a bunch of cherrypicked factoids. Another thing I’ve learned is that this sort of exercise is probably the least effective way there is of guessing the shape of the future. When such predictions leap into the pool of time, the reliable result is a thundering bellyflop.

Still, it’s important not to jump to the conclusion that this means current global population levels are sustainable. What William Catton, in his classic work Overshoot, called “ghost acreage” – the vast boost to the means of subsistence that comes from the unsustainable use of fossil fuels in growing, storing, and distributing food – has allowed the world’s human population in the last few centuries to balloon to between three and four times what the earth can support over the long term. As the industrial age winds down, the surpluses of food and other resources and the infrastructure of public health that made this expansion possible will wind down as well, with predictable impacts on the size of the human population.

So far, this supports the catastrophist model, but there’s a catch. The winding down of the industrial age isn’t a fast process. The peak of worldwide conventional oil production may well have already happened – the best figures I’ve seen show that production rates reached in the fall of 2005 have not been equalled since – and the overall peak, including nonconventional sources such as tar sands and natural gas liquids, probably isn’t far away. What too few people seem to have noticed, though, is that the Hubbert curve is shaped like a bell, not like a sawtooth.

That bell-shaped profile means, among other things, that about as much oil will be pumped out of the ground on the downside half of the curve as was pumped on the upside. It also means that production rates along the downside will be roughly commensurable with production rates at points on the upside the same distance from the peak. If peak production comes in 2010, in other words, the amount of oil produced in 2030 will likely not be far from what was produced in 1990; production in 2060 will be somewhere near production in 1960, and production in 2100 will be around production in 1920. Even after the peak comes and goes, in other words, there will still be a great deal of oil in circulation for many years to come. The same will likely be true of most other energy resources, and of energy as a whole.

This same lesson could have been learned from the growth of nonconventional oil sources like the Alberta tar sands, and the reopening of hundreds of formerly uneconomical stripper wells in pumped-out oil provinces like Pennsylvania. As oil production falters, market forces and political pressures alike guarantee that every possible replacement will be brought online. Right now, attempts to increase production are struggling to keep up with slumping yields at existing fields, and it’s a struggle that will only get harder as more fields reach the downside of their own Hubbert curves. Still, even though new fields and alternative sources can’t make up for the exhaustion of supergiant fields like Ghawar and Cantarell, they can stretch out the process much further than the raw figures on production declines from existing fields might suggest.

Does this mean peak oil is nothing to worry about? Not at all. The fact that the “ghost acreage” that supports our huge global population is going away gradually, rather than all at once, does not change the fact that it’s going away. Historically speaking, both a slow decline and a fast collapse produce population loss; the difference is that in a slow decline, depopulation tends to be a much more complex process, subject to major regional and temporal variations.

It actually doesn’t take that much to change an expanding population into a contracting one. Modest changes in birth and death rates will do the trick, and such changes are predictable consequences of the twilight of the industrial age. We’ve already had a preview in the former Soviet Union, where the implosion of Communism launched a classic cycle of catabolic collapse in the 1990s followed by partial recovery in this decade. Statistics I’ve seen put live births in Russia around 8 per thousand annually, and deaths around 14 per thousand; that alone is predicted to reduce the Russian population to half its present size by midcentury.

The factors that push population contraction in hard times are familiar enough to demographers. Malnutrition is a major factor; so are epidemic disease and child mortality driven by failing public health; so are social factors such as alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and suicide, driven by the psychological impacts of life in a failing society. There’s at least one additional factor to keep in mind, though, and the best way to explain it is to introduce a guest who will be appearing in this blog tolerably often in the future.

‘Abd-er-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami – ibn Khaldun for short – was a jurist, politician, and Sufi mystic who lived from 1332 to 1406. He was also one of the first known historians to make a serious attempt to get under the hood of history and figure out what makes it go. His major work, the Muqaddimah (Introduction to History), was a massive treatise – three thick volumes in English translation – setting out the patterns he saw at work behind historical events, and his conclusions hold up remarkably well in the light of history since his time.

He spent much of his life in northwestern Africa, where the contrast between the ruins of Roman settlement and the deserts of his own time was hard to miss, and one of the many questions he set out to answer was why that happened. It’s popular nowadays to blame it on deforestation and the like, but ibn Khaldun saw a different cause at work – infrastructure failure caused by political dysfunction. In the examples he surveyed, agricultural societies were conquered by new ruling classes of nomad origin, who saw their subjects as cash cows but failed to realize that cows have to be fed. Revenues needed to maintain vital infrastructure were thus diverted into unproductive uses, sending societies into a downward spiral of economic collapse and depopulation from which they rarely recovered.

In the the twilight of the industrial age, ibn Khaldun’s insight is likely to be worth close attention. There aren’t a lot of nomads at the edges of today’s civilizations, but too many members of the political class in the modern world have no more sense of the importance of infrastructure to survival than the nomad rulers ibn Khaldun critiques, and the malign neglect so often visited on infrastructure in the US and elsewhere may be a foretaste of worse to come. Since a significant amount of North American infrastructure is locally managed and maintained, this represents a factor that could be powerfully shaped by community action on the local level.

Like every other aspect of our contemporary predicament, finally, these forces will also be shaped by geographic factors. Communities that are economically viable in a global economy awash in cheap fossil fuel energy, in many cases, are not places that will be economically viable in the deindustrial future. This cuts both ways. Sprawling Sun Belt cities with little water and no potential for agriculture will slowly shrivel and die as the energy that keeps them going sputters and goes out, and tourist communities across the continent will pop like bubbles and become ghost towns once travel becomes a luxury, while Rust Belt towns struggling for bare survival today will likely find a new lease on life when adequate rain, workable soil, and access to waterborne transport become the keys to prosperity, as they were in the 18th century.

One question not yet settled, though, is how many of the communities in areas that might prosper in the deindustrial age will be inhabited by descendants of the people who now live in those parts of North America, and how many will be populated by way of the second theme to be discussed in this series of essays – the theme of migration. We’ll turn to this theme in next week’s post.


Bill said...

Your example of oil production on the downside doesn't really capture the magnitude of the predicament that it would place us all in. Even if we have as much energy in 2030 as we had in 1990 we will have perhaps 2 or 3 billion more people. That represents a very large (20-30%?) energy/capita drop from today, implying a large drop in average standard of living (probably resulting from a catastrophic loss in standard of living in the undeveloped world) unless there is a very large(over a billion?)reduction in population.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, you're quite correct, but even so the impact of a 20-30% drop in energy per capita over the next 25 years or so is a good deal more gradual than the sort of sudden collapse scenario envisioned by many peak oil people. My guess, for what it's worth, is that the decline will primarily come from declining standards of living in the US; the political and economic arrangements that give Americans control over a quarter of the world's energy are, I think, much more fragile than most people suspect. But of course we'll see.

Jan Steinman said...

Bill, my thoughts exactly! A bell curve of energy availability as an amelioration of coming woes ignores the fact that, as Catton explains, we are in overshoot.

Another nit to pick: "unconventional oil." Many economists will tell you that as easy oil runs out, the price goes up to the point at which difficult oil becomes financially feasible.

But this ignores the fact that oil is priced in coloured bits of paper, rather than in energy units, as it should be. How else could the US be madly hell-bent on the course of turning grain into SUV food!

When it takes as much energy to extract energy as the extracted energy contains, it does not matter what the price in coloured rectangles of paper is.

Jerry Silberman said...

The energy cost of withdrawing the remaining accessible oil will (or other fossil fuel)will increase at least as steeply as the amount recovered declines. The Hubbert curve applies to the depletion of any natural resource, not simply oil, and a symmetric bell curve implies a constant amount of energy available to carry out the recovery of the resource. Since oil extraction using as portion of itself for the recovery job, the downside of the curve will be sharper than the upside. I agree with Mr. Greer's comments about the machismo of die-off prediction competition, and even more so with the idea that such prediction is a waste of time and energy because of the unknown variables, especially compared to energy productively applied to developing locally sustainable solutions

kjmclark said...

Nate Hagens posted an article at The Oil Drum in May titled "Peak Oil" - Why Smart Folks Disagree - Part II in which, among other things, he extrapolated EROEI information from Prof. Cutler Cleveland and concluded that net energy, that is the energy available after extraction energy costs, from US oil production would be zero around 2022. This is only for the US, but what do you make of the whole net energy argument?

I don't see population imploding either, and I would expect population declines to happen the standard old-fashioned ways you've laid out - disease, war, famine. If usable energy were to decline quickly, however, I would be concerned that conflict and famine would tend to concentrate people and enable disease to do its work. We already have HIV. Bird flu could pick up a few mutations at any point. An energy starved world would be much more vulnerable to a new pandemic, wouldn't it?

Asturchale y Chulo said...

There is one funny factor that no one seems to be taking into account: the decline in male fertility. Once and again, medical surveys are published which insist on the same: human sperm is growing poorer by the day. Shall we see an overwhelming and sudden decline in birthrates soon?

linda said...

Two comments:
- The reasons the political/power establishment is not interested in maintaining infrastructure is due to short-sightedness (lasting about the length of their lifetime). We have lost sight of caring for the generations behind us with the me first culture we live in.
- The thing that you haven't accounted for is the economic chaos that will occur when the price of oil truly reflects its demand once we go into decline. Matt Simmons thinks the price of oil NOW ought to be $300/barrel. If that happens in the next few years, we will have economic chaos on our hands and new terrorism actions started by the American have-nots against the American "haves" in urban areas all over the U.S.

San Jose

Bill Pulliam said...

(A plethora of Bills here...)

What are good sources for oil production data, both historical and current?

Mr Alfred said...

An excellent, easy to read, book on this subject is The Gardens of their dreams - Desertification and Culture in World History

John Michael Greer said...

Thank you all for your comments! Jan, Jerry, and Kjmclark, the net energy issue is crucial, but it's also devilishly difficult to quantify -- look at the way that proponents and critics of photovoltaics come up with net energy figures an order of magnitude different. I'd point out two things, though. First, in the decade after 1973 petroleum use worldwide dropped some 15% without causing any society I know of to collapse. Second, quantitative estimates of net energy don't always reflect differences in value between different forms of energy. It might well make sense, for example, to use windpower or solar heat engines to pump oil out of stripper wells even if the net energy is negative, because the fungibility, storability and transportability of oil is so much higher.

Kjmclark, good -- in fact, I expect to see a great deal of population concentration in coastal urban areas over the next few decades, because that's where the cash flow (and therefore the jobs) will be. With declines in public health services, higher rates of disease are pretty nearly a given.

Asturchale, a good point -- I'm not enough of a demographer to know when this will start affecting birth rates, but at some point it ought to.

Linda, I'm assuming economic chaos, and using historical examples such as the Great Depression and Germany in the 1920s as models. Those didn't cause mass dieoff, and neither will the approaching equivalent.

Bill, there are some excellent sources on The Oil Drum -- if anyone has other sources I'd be glad to see them posted.

Alfred, I've read it -- a very useful book, though I think ibn Khaldun's comments make a good addition. (Among other things, he was around in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of cultivation in Iraq.)

Marty said...

Thank you for some balance.

You do argue that the Peak Oil curve is (or will be) a symmetric bell-shaped curve. I doubt that will be true. It is likely that more modern extraction techniques and urgent needs will make the extraction faster on the back slope and thus make it appear steeper. Without facts unavailable to any of us, it is sufficient to say that you are largely correct and that while we have a finite time to react and prepare, it might be longer than the more strident voices would have us believe.

I, for one, am uncertain whether to buy an electric car and charge it via photovoltaic panels on the roof or a Hummer H2 while they are still available. The former is more responsible, the latter has a tendency to speed the process along in the face of general ignorance (only partly a joke.)

Loveandlight said...

The reason hardcore doomers say that there will be this huge traumatic die-off is that the complex and growth-dependent industrial systems that feed the world's people and provide for their needs, will sieze up and go into a high-speed catastrophic collapse once that which makes it complexity and growth possible is shrinking in supply. Whether or not that is so is another consideration; I just wanted to point out that it's something a little more complicated than mere [male genitalia]-waving that fuels such speculation.

What will happen on the downside of Hubbert's Peak is made a bit more problematic by the fact that certain techniques have been used to extract greater amounts of oil from many of the world's reserves. These techniques have had the effect of lenghtening Hubbert's Peak into a more-or-less plateau since about 2000, but this increased extraction will make the slide on the downside of the slope much steeper because there will be dramatically less oil to be further extracted as opposed to gradually less.

FARfetched said...

Ping-ponging between the article & other comments...

The developed nations have been in population decline for a while now, both in Europe & America. The decline has been masked, in the US and Western Europe at least, by immigration. A friend of mine tells me that Sweden(? maybe Denmark) has mandated that cable companies carry free porn channels, in an attempt to get the birth rate up.

But depopulation raises two questions: 1) What could we do to encourage Third World birth rates to decline as well? 2) Is it possible to achieve a soft landing by natural (i.e. pandemics & war don't count) population declines to match lower overall energy availability? Not to mention efficiency gains: we waste so much energy in the US that we could probably absorb a 20-30% drop in per-capita energy usage and not miss it much.

For some great examples of die-off prediction machismo, give Kunstler's blog a look-see. It stays pretty busy in the comments all week long.

Finally, if you're missing JMG's speculative fiction, I'm working on a series of three "visions" entitled "FAR Manor: 2058." Start at the introduction and follow the links. I have two of three stories up; the third is darkest and hardest to finish.

Simon said...

I think peak oil will make itself known first as en economic 'crisis': some lost jobs, less spending, nothing that we haven't seen before. People will expect it to pass after a few years.
When that doesn't happen, a political crisis will appear. All available political options will be tried, none will work. (Possibly this continues well into the militaristic end of the political spectrum).

Only then will a cultural crisis emerge; only then will the myth of inevitable progress through capitalism be discarded, and only then will large parts of the population be ready to accept other narratives. At that moment, radical movements can realize their ideas, for better or worse.

David said...


when you assume the decline half of the energy curve might mirror the rise are you taking into account that world production when viewed over the last 100 years looks more like the profile of a modern (post 1970s technology) production curve than that of the pre 50's land based curves of Hubberts time. So the curve already looks like a gentle rise accelerating steeply into the 70's with a rising plateau from 1970 to about now. If the world aggregate production "Hubbert curve" ultimately reflects the way we drill now as opposed to the way we used to drill 50 years ago. (I think a fair assumption given this is what we are actually doing) then history may show the ultimate curve to resemble more the steepness a 3rd generation injected offshore field profile rather than a gentle land based pre 70's bell curve.

In this case a very steep deline may be much more likely than a gentle one. Note its really easy to manage the land based fields into a cheap and gentle decline. You know the ones with pumps rocking for years but much of our best fields, and especially our newest cannot economically be managed like this. Its forced fast production or nothing. Ghawar is the worst example of a significant field which could have given us gentle US style decline but we forced it into steep upside with almost ineviatble steep downside.

I think aggregate gentle decline is highly unlikely as we have already committed the production profiles of too many fields.


Jim said...

There is a reasonable argument that the decline in fossil fuel production will actually be slower that the rise. The logistic equation incorporates an assumption that extraction capabilities just keep intensifying as fuels are consumed. But once we start hitting resource limits that impact our technical capabilities, then we just won't have the resources we'd need to squeeze out that hard-to-reach fuel.

If we ramp up enough nuclear power that peak fossil fuel is not a limit to growth but just a shift to an alternative technology, then the fossil fuel production curve will probably be symmetric. So the other possibility, a slower decline, won't be much to take comfort in. It will be a symptom of a general decline in extraction capability.

One can always use a crisis as a spur to spiritual growth. Given a crisis, it's probably the best way to cope. To wait, or hope, for that crisis to arrive, so it can provide that spur, that is not so clever. Though at this point, it is sure unclear how much leeway we might have left to steer through the catastrophe in a way to minimize the damage.

I like to reflect on the perspective that the catastrophe is already well underway. Date it back to 1973 if you like, or 1914. Waiting and hoping are ways to avoid acting.

Thanks for helping us all work through what's happening, John.

Danby said...

One of the things people tend to forget in trying to predict the future is that people will react to adverse changes. When the price of oil goes up, the demand goes down. When food becomes more expensive and harder to obtain in urban areas, truck farmers come out of the woodwork. When the cost of inputs to farming goes beyond the profitability, farmers will go organic. When it's more profitable to farm with a horse than a tractor, horse farmers will take over, and plenty of farmers will retire their tractors. When fuel costs price jet travel out of reach, trains become the preferred travel method. When urban population densities become unsustainable, people will leave, and reduce the density.

That is why civilizational collapses don't include a sharp die-off (barring plague). The end of Rome took a century. All of the various civilizational collapses in China and India were a devolution into warring camps, not the sudden death of millions.

In fact, the two civilizational collapses correlated to die-offs that I can think of (the destruction of Native North American societies due to European disease in the 16th-19th centuries, and the collapse of the meso-american agicultural societies) were caused by the die-off.

Also note that the largest human die-offs in known history, the 1st and 2nd pandemics, were not associated with any kind of civilizational collapse.

As I said in comments to the last article, one has a propensity to project not only one's hopes, but also one's fears onto such a large mystery as the looming spectre of civilizational collapse. Both propensities should be avoided assiduously if you want to see things as they are.

John Michael Greer said...

As the comments show very nicely, the arguments for a steeper slope on the downhill side of Hubbert's peak are more or less equally balanced with the arguments for a more gradual slope. Of course it could vary some distance either way; I promise you that being an archdruid is no guarantee of prophetic powers. Still, I'd encourage all of you -- especially those who believe in a fast collapse -- to explore what the idea of a slower transition to the deindustrial age would do to the narratives you use to think about the future.

Geoff said...

I think in all previous collapses things weren't so inflated, that is, we didn't have so far to fall back to a sustainable level.

For a start, if, as Danby indicated, farmers turn to horses when it is no longer economic to run tractors, the question then becomes,where do the horses come from?

We can immediately see a bottleneck whilst we wait for draught horses to breed up in numbers to the stage where they can begin to make some kind of impression as a replacement of tractors.

Previous cultures that have collapsed have never been so far removed from the sustainable base of production as we are today. Roman methods of producing food were probably just as labour intensive at the beginning as they were at the end, so collapse would have had little impact on the day to day basis of providing food, as well as the technology for it's distribution.

On the other hand, all it takes in our culture is for a few dozen big tractors to be idle and we can lose the production of thousands of acres of land. We cannot just go out and round up some horses and break them to the plough, nor can we effectively mobilise the population and get them out to harvest crops without a lead time to produce hand tools that we no longer have.

All cultures considered in the various collapse studies to date have always been close enough to the practice of manual management of the land that there were the humans (with skills) and tools to get the job done no matter what was happening in the wider society. Such is not the case today.

Vashti said...

All this talk about natural population decrease mostly neglects to mention the bloody stupid perpetual-growth-driven mentality of western governments.

Here in the UK, whenever I see the falling birthrate mentioned by the mainstream media it's always in the context of "holy crap, who's going to pay all our pensions? Women, have more babies!"

A sane perspective would take into account that a lower, stable population would be a good idea even if the collapse never happened; we're a hideously overpopulated island.

If we do see a mass dieoff in our lifetimes, the attitudes of governments will be more to blame than anything else.

John Michael Greer said...

Geoff, you're still thinking in terms of oil suddenly running out, not the slow dwindling of production Hubbert's curve actually predicts. It's not a question of replacing tractors with horses overnight, but of a decades-long transition driven by rising diesel prices.

As for where the horses will come from, a growing number of family farms in the US are converting back to draft horses right now - you might check some of the links here for details. Just as organic farming has expanded from a few hippie farms in the 1970s to a multibillion dollar a year industry today, largely because it's more economically viable than chemical farming, horse farming will move back into the mainstream as diesel-powered tractors price themselves out of the market. As Danby commented, it's a fallacy to assume that people won't respond to adverse changes, and as I've been suggesting for some time now, the notion that our civilization will end in a sudden collapse is a piece of Christian mythology with the serial numbers filed off, not a plausible model for how the process of fossil fuel depletion will impact industrial society.

Vashti, you're certainly right that governments and media have their heads someplace biologically improbable when it comes to growth. The mythology of progress is the flipside of the mythology of apocalypse, and just as unhelpful. That's one of the reasons I've been trying to refocus attention on the narratives that shape our thinking, so we can look at a wider range of possibilities.

John Michael Greer said...

The Oil Drum has just released a useful article summarizing current data on oil production and averaging out estimates of the downside of Hubbert's peak. It seems worth noting in the context of our current discussion that July 2006 appears to be the all-time peak of oil production, though it might be exceeded any time in the next few years, and best estimates have production by 2020 dropping to around the same level as in 1995. Since the midpoint between 1995 and 2020 is right about now, that does seem to support the suggestion that Hubbert's curve will follow a similar profile on the downside as on the upside.

Danby said...

the notion that our civilization will end in a sudden collapse is a piece of Christian mythology with the serial numbers filed off
Heh, nice turn of phrase...

As John says, The fate of conventional framing won't be "WE'RE OUT OF FUEL OMG, WE'LL ALL STARVE!!!!" It'll be some guy named Randy in the kitchen going over his books saying "y'know, Cathy, I just don't see how we can make this work if diesel doesn't get back below $20 a gallon. Old Mr. Harkins up the hill called it quits last year, I saw him in town last week. He said it saved him $50,000 not to try to farm this year, even with the subsidies. Said he's busting up the place and selling it to some Amish folk down from New York. Whole tribe of them, like 20 families. Thing is, they don't want 1500 acres, too big. So he was at the county clerk's office, busting his place out into 40 acre parcels."

So what are Randy's options? He could break the farm out into smaller parcels and sell them off. He could sell off most of the farm and take up horse-powered farming on the remainder. He could hire out the work, bring in 20 or 50 people and twice that many horses to take the place of himself and his tractor. Or, if truly irrational, he could keep driving the tractor till he can't afford fuel, his credit is permanently busted, and he is forced to sell the place off to someone who can make a profit on it.

Notice also that all of the options include rational people doing rational (or irrational) things that wind up in the same place, smaller farms, horse powered, and a marked increase in the rural population (and conversely, a probable decrease in the urban population) All of this without any government program, no concerted effort by any foundation, etc.

When the economy collapses, (which is the likeliest dire effect of Peak Oil) people will do what it takes to feed themselves and their families. Some will hurt, badly. Some will fail. There will likely be riots and maybe even a civil war, but by and large people will get through it, like they always do

Simon said...

There is a lot of talk about horses, but running a few tractors doesn't require all that much energy. The huge amount of energy embodied in fertilizer, that will be the first problem. I expect crop rotation to be back sooner than horse-drawn plows.

FARfetched said...

Geoff: Roman methods of producing food were probably just as labour intensive at the beginning as they were at the end, so collapse would have had little impact on the day to day basis of providing food, as well as the technology for it's distribution.

Are you sure about that? Rome was a slave culture. Major disruptions in a slave culture tend to result in a bunch of slaves either dying or disappearing. Slave labor or fuel, if you're missing what your system is based on, you're not going to get much of a crop in. (The pre-Civil War southern US was also a slave economy, but civilization didn't collapse there so it probably isn't a valid comparison.)

On the other hand, many of my relatives have been farmers, and my immediate in-laws raise poultry (factory-style) and cattle (probably could get certified organic w/o much effort). I can tell you: they will do & learn what they have to do & learn to keep things going (and I expect that the "hired hand" will make a comeback). I also expect that when it comes down to rationing, food production and transport will (after some political bumbling) get first dibs. I doubt that factory-style meat farming will survive rationing, even with first dibs (you want to see die-off, knock out the electricity to a chicken house for a couple hours during the summer) but the backyard chicken ranch would make a comeback.

How does this address depopulation? It doesn't, and I guess that's the point. Farmers know how to grow food, and that's what they'll do until they're pushed off their land or planted under it.

Dwig said...

It's interesting how this discussion focused pretty quickly on the symmetry of the Hubbert curve, and whether it will apply in this case. My own feeling is that some or all of the factors mention could possibly accelerate the downside. Of course, we're no longer talking apocalypse vs. gentle decline here, but a range of scenarios, and the possibility that many or all of them could happen at once, in different places.

The tack I was starting to take in Humanity's Final Exam was not so much to try to predict the shape of the decline, as to try to get a collaborative effort started to investigate the factors themselves, and to use scenarios (narratives) to gain insight into them (much like the scenario planning technique that Arie de Geus introduced to Shell). The Oil Drum is turning into a good resource of this kind focusing specifically on energy issues. (One problem there is that all to often a good post and relevant critiques are drowned out by a lot of crosstalk and meanderings. I really think there's a need there to supplement the blog format with something like a wiki, using the technology behind Wikipedia, to encourage true collaborative authorship of a set of high-value living documents. BTW, I think this applies here as well; JMG, any chance of starting a wiki for this community of interest?)

What I'd hoped would emerge from HFE is a core of responses at the individual-to-regional scale that will work reasonably well no matter how things play out. (My "rules" for community are in that vein.) I also thought, and think, that many of them can be found, at least in early form, in today's world. There's a lot more variety and complexity in U.S. society than the simplistic narratives allow for.

Danby said...

Simon said...

There is a lot of talk about horses, but running a few tractors doesn't require all that much energy. The huge amount of energy embodied in fertilizer, that will be the first problem. I expect crop rotation to be back sooner than horse-drawn plows.

It's true that a few tractors doesn't use all that much energy. The problem is that it's a major part of the cost of commercial farming in the US. As the price of fuel goes up, it changes the competitive nature of the farming technology market place. There are people farming and logging with horses right now. There are companies providing products and implements to that market.

What I actually expect to happen is that a great many people now farming commercially will go out of business because they won't be able to adjust to the changing market. There will be a hue and cry, programs will be launched, subsidies will be handed out and eventually, it won't make a difference. The American commercial farmer is a specialized species. He is extremely successful in his niche, but the ecosystem that supports that niche is disappearing.

Expect a few to be kept alive in zoos and refuges, but most will not be able to survive. eventually, he will be replaced by a species that can fill an equivalent ecological niche, but is much less specialized to a rare and disappearing ecosystem.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, exactly -- the thing that most often gets left out of analyses of peak oil, or for that matter any other dimension of the predicament of industrial society, is that ultimately it all boils down to ordinary people making decisions in the course of their daily lives.

Simon, a few tractors? According to the 2002 census of agriculture, there were 4,592,545 tractors operating in the United States that year, and farms spent no less than $6,675,419,000 on fuel for these and other agricultural machinery. As the dollar figure suggests, the cost of running tractors and other motorized agricultural machines is one of the largest expenses farmers face -- another factor that's driving the expansion of horse-powered farming in a lot of small farms these days.

Farfetched, you're quite right to be skeptical. Over the course of Roman civilization, farming shifted gradually from small proprietors to huge slave-worked farms; by the last centuries of the empire, most of the grain eaten by the 1 million-plus population of the city of Rome was imported from North Africa, which at that time - largely due to a wetter climate - was a major grain growing region. Of course that fell apart when the empire did, with drastic economic consequences.

Dwig, wikis are way past my level of technological competence, and my current commitments are as much as I have time to handle right now, so somebody else will have to pursue your eminently sensible suggestion.

Simon said...

-A few tractors-

It's true that the cost of tractors is important to the farmer, but food is just about the last thing people can cut back on. They will cut back on other expenses before stopping to buy food (via the market or via subsidies), and that's why agriculture will persist in its current form for a while, especially when the food supply gets tight.

I do have to add that my perspective on farming is a bit different, as I look out on a patchwork of small (even after they were "rationalized" and patched together in the 70's) fields in a country the size of a large American farm, requiring much smaller tractors. Granted, a lot of impressive machinery exists mainly to cultivate the farmer's ego rather than his land, and that is more prone to be abandoned. Likewise the part of the produce that is converted to taste rather than nutrition.

Geoff said...

My comment on Roman agriculture was actually aimed at the method of production. The point is that the newly "released" slaves could readily shift to collectively farming the land using the same methods and expecting relatively similar yields. Sure this is not good for the city folk, but... In our situation we cannot expect anywhere near the same yields as the new methods that will need to be used just don't offer them. I guess the point I'm aiming at is that the higher you are, the further you fall.

As for the horse based agriculture, two factors, here in Aus. we probably wont be moving across to this form of agriculture as rapidly as over there, it takes time to breed these beasts up (approx 3 years from birth to be able to give birth), and (guessing) we are starting with a much lower population base.

The second is that given our population level, and the decline in production that will be experienced due to the necessary change of method, on top of that there will be the new demand on produced food to feed the beasts producing that food. All in all there will be a lot less food per capita than there was at the time of the Roman decline.

I should point out that I'm not an overnight collapse kind of a guy, but rather the "every region will be different" kind. Some areas will experience rapid depopulation over the course of a season or two, other areas may continue on for many seasons.

Danby said...

Geoff said:
In our situation we cannot expect anywhere near the same yields as the new methods that will need to be used just don't offer them.

Actually, although widely believed, this is not true. A typical truck farmer with 5 acres can outproduce, by an order of magnitude, a commercial vegetable farmer with 500 acres on a per acre basis. The large scale farming operations are successful because the reduce the overhead, primarily through the use of fossil fuels and near-slave labor, not because they produce more food. They are efficient of labor, not land, fertility or even capital.

We are starting with a much lower population base.

I don't know about Aus, but the US horse population is over 5 million. Given my contention above that we're looking at an economic slide over a period of decades, that's really not likely to be much of an issue. The price of horses will go up (currently it is VERY low). People will breed more horses. When the economic sweet spot for profitability lands on horse farming, horse farming will be taken up.

Even now, there are organic farmers in the US (I know one) who make their living on small acreage with a 5hp rototiller, shovels, rakes hoes, and mostly manual labor. As the price of fuel goes up, the comparative profitability of that sort of operation increases. Same with horse farming. At least in the US, there's already a population out there doing it. When they start making significantly more money than their neighbors, they will be copied. That's how people work.

awlknottedup said...

One thing overlooked about horse farming is not the horse but the teamster. It takes almost as much training for the teamster as it does the team. Horse era writings are filled with stories of the mistreatment of horses and at the dawn of the automobile many heralded its arrival as it would reduce mistreatment of horses.

Another point is that horse farming requires more land for food for the horse. One reason for the quick demise of horse farming during and after WWI was the need to feed many more people. Tractor farming freed up land for people food. Another point about that era, many more horses and mules were killed during WWI that were people. Missouri became known as the mule state because so many were shipped from there to the meat grinding killing fields of Europe.

There may be more horses in the US now than 100 years ago but most are saddle horses, ill suited for draft work. Anther factor is the lack of horse sized field implements. Even the Amish use gasoline powered hydraulic lifts to adopt modern implements to horse farming.

This is not to say that horse farming is not in out future but the route from here to there is not quick nor easy.

John Michael Greer said...

Simon, am I guessing right that you're in Britain? As a much smaller and more compact country with a rail network that still works, the UK faces a very different set of challenges and possibilities than we do here in North America, and you're right that it'll be a lot easier to do without tractors -- my guess is that intensive organic horticulture using hand tools is the wave of the future there.

Geoff, Australia again is in a very different situation, and in many ways it's a grim one. You've got some of the world's most crowded nations too close to your northern shores; at the same time, global climate change seems to be handing out brand new desert climates in your latitudes. But I agree with your suggestion that decline will happen at different rates and in different ways in different corners of the world.

Awlknottedup, those are valid points. One implication is that getting training as a teamster, or better still as a teacher of teamsters, might be a very profitable career path for somebody coming out of high school right now.

awlknottedup said...

Yes, that is something I did not think of. I do say to people to use the remaining time and cheap energy to be prepared. For a younger person training such as schooling for veterinary, learning draft horse breeding, farrier, teaching team handling all may be a good long run career path.

Another point in regards to organic farming methods. Figures are tossed about to prove just about anything. It is true that for food per unit of labor, modern industrial farming methods excel but in terms of food per unit of land, organic intensive methods excel. The long term problem is going to be getting people to move from urban sloth to rural labor. Forced methods have not worked in the past and during whatever decline we have, for a long while people will be waiting for "things to get better."

I do not believe in a sudden collapse but a more controlled crash. Think about it for a while. The decline in oil will not be a sawtooth and it will not be a bell curve. The down slope will be much steeper than the upslope. As I see it what will happen is that day to day energy costs will rise dramatically, the first and most obvious will be ever increasing prices of motor fuel, followed by the price of food then hard goods.

The grid will not collapse overnight, coal will still be available and the push for more nuclear plants will continue and succeed. Costs will rise significantly while wages will remain stagnant or decline in real terms. Economic collapse will happen first as our spread out urban centers cannot provide jobs that pay wages to allow one to live in those distributed centers. Collapse will be faster than the frog in boiling water but it will not happen some Thursday in July. Meanwhile many people will pretend it is not happening and many more will demand that "they" do something when there is nothing the magical they can to to fix it. As I have said, we made this mess and there is no god to make things better, we have to do it.

John Michael Greer said...

Awlknottedup, all these are good points -- and while I do believe in the existence of gods, I'm pretty much convinced that rescuing us from the practical consequences of our own stupidity is not their job. We have to do that.

Jon said...

I'm sure you all are familiar with Dmitry Orlov. I find his writings present the clearest picture of the USA in the next 5-15 years. Agree/disagree?


Mauricio Babilonia said...

With regard to the extra land required to feed draft animals, I can guarantee that we will hear arguments along the lines of: "it's a waste of land to feed horses when that land could be used to produce food for people," or, "it's a waste of land to feed horses when that land could be used to produce biofuels for transportation."

Wendell Berry has pointed out (in either the Unsettling of America or What Are People For?) that people who have a moral issue with using land to feed draft animals don't take issue with using land to produce biofuels. I wonder whether it's just a matter of having the infrastructure in place for horse farming—consensus might have something to do with it too...

Bill Pulliam said...

The long term problem is going to be getting people to move from urban sloth to rural labor.

No problem. The threat of looming hunger and bankruptcy can motivate great changes. And remember it won't likely appen in just one generation.

Our society has been through a moderate economic collapse just last Century: the Great Depression. Large changes in values, beliefs, and lifestyles happened pretty quickly.

David S said...

As someone who was trained in engineering, it seems to me that the question of whether our descent will be gradual or apocalyptic depends mainly on the balance between negative and positive feedback mechanisms. Negative feedback mechanisms tend to slow a change (for instance, as the price of a scare resource rises, people seek alternatives, thus reducing demand for the scarce resource, and slowing its rise in price). Positive feedback mechanisms accelerate a change (for instance, the potential of food scarcity causes people to increase their food purchases (despite price rises), clearing supermarket shelves and accelerating the food shortage, or as civil order collapses, people tend to arm themselves and form vigilante groups, accelerating the collapse of civil order).

The system that supports our huge human population is now so massively complex and non-linear that it is virtually impossible to predict how it will fail. However, I am haunted by the knowledge that the more complex the system, the more it tends to fail catastrophically. Consider the electric grid. It is so interconnected that a local failure of a power generation resource can result in a progressive failure, as other generators overload and trip out while attempting to take up the slack. This scenario has happened several times, the most major being a crash that took out much of the northeastern US and central Canada, from a single generator failure in New York State.

Is this a model for how our civilization might collapse suddenly? We have had no serious problem repairing such failures when the rest of the system was in place and functioning, but what if civilizational failure modes propagated, so that it was like Katrina hitting New Orleans across the whole of North America, and there was nowhere that remained functional from where a rescue could be mounted? What if positive feedback mechanisms predominated, driven primarily by loss of civil order, so that we fell so far so fast that recovery wasn't an option, and our systems were in chaos around us? While I much prefer the slow descent scenario that JMG anticipates, I worry that the doomers might be right after all.

sofistek said...

JMG, I'm not sure if you get notified of comments to very old posts but I tried to introduce a Cafe topic on the Green Wizards web site, though it appears to have been pulled, so I thought I'd try here, as it's a little like what I'm reading now in The Long Descent.

I notice you ask others to try to visualise other narratives, like a slow collapse but you don't, yourself, seem to consider other narratives than the smooth Hubbert curve on the downside. Others have hinted at this, though it doesn't seem to have moved you much.

I think Hubbert's curve is a very good fit when one is dealing with individual wells, fields or regions, because oil can be brought in from other places to allow "business as usual" to continue, where oil companies explore and develop fields. But on the downside of the global production curve, I think we are much more likely to get discontinuities. We've already seen how a sudden drop in demand (due to recession) can cause the oil price to plummet and projects to be cancelled. You're right that one of the past oil shocks did not cause collapse but that was not geologically induced and did not last forever. When oil production starts its decline, worldwide, the adjustments will have to continue forever. No-one can know what strains that will put on a world reliant on increasing amounts of high EROEI energy, and on economies that have to grow, to work.

Just as the up slope of oil production has not been smooth, I think there is a high chance that the down slope will be characterised by sharp declines. There might also be some sharp increases (in a downward trend) but I think there is a strong likelihood that one of the sharp decreases could precipitate a rapid collapse. Remember that this is a world that has grown rapidly in all sorts of ways and one in which expectations are way out of kilter with what is possible. I think people's reaction to knowledge of a very different future will be a critical factor in how this plays out.

So, total collapse may take a while but I think we could well see periods, during that time, where collapse is proceeding at a rapid pace - almost apocalyptic pace.


sofistek said...

Is there a better place to discuss this? I think its important to come to a position on fast crash or slow crash, because that can impact how one prepares. The argument for a slow crash seems to be weak. The argument for a fast crash seems to deny historical collapses. But I don't think there is a strong reason to believe that the downslope of oil production will be fairly benign, because the assumption for that smooth bell curve seems unsupportable.

I've had a post on this pulled from the green wizards cafe forum, without comment. At least my last comment here got posted but I doubt it will be seen by anyone but JMG. But where is the response, and how do we discuss this further?

John Michael Greer said...

Tony, this topic has been hashed to death on every forum in the peak oil internet, and it usually turns into people talking past one another, which is why the forum moderators and I have decided to rule it off topic there. I'd point out, by the way, that you've misstated my views pretty spectacularly above -- I've been saying all along that the Long Descent is going to involve some very rough patches, in which entire regions may go through the equivalent of total collapse, and a great deal (including many lives) may be lost very quickly.

That is to say, I've been arguing the same thing that you've just suggested, thinking that you're disagreeing with me!

sofistek said...

Thanks for responding, John. Interesting.

Yes, I certainly know you think there will be rough patches. But, in terms of collapse, you seem to rule out an apocalypse scenario, largely because of the assumption that Hubbert's curve shows a world having a relatively smooth decline in oil production after peak. I also rule out a mad max scenario (though that's an emotional belief, rather than a well rationalised position) but it may feel like such a scenario, from time to time, and complete collapse is also a possibility in less than a couple of centuries purely because I don't expect global oil production to approach an idealised curve at all. In fact, it must be quite possible that there will be feedback effects that could drastically reduce oil production, on the downslope, and it may even fall off a cliff (at least globally available oil production). Consequently, I feel that that bit of your argument is weak.

I have a bad memory but I don't recall this aspect (the downslope not fitting a Hubbert curve, globally) being discussed to death in peak oil forums, and I've been participating in them for years.

By the way, a couple of times you mentioned, in your book, that oil production has exceeded oil discovery since 1964. That is not correct. The date is something like 1982/3/4. 1964 was actually the year of peak discovery, not quite the same thing.

Thanks for your great posts and have a good vacation!

John Michael Greer said...

Tony, no, I haven't said in my books that discovery of oil reserves has passed production at any point since 1964. Please provide a page citation if you want to disagree with that. I have to say this sounds uncomfortably like trying to pick a fight by claiming that somebody said things they didn't, which is setting off my troll alarm.

sofistek said...

Hi John,

Please turn off your troll alarm. I'm certainly not one of those creatures. Let's get that citation out of the way, first.

On page 10 of The Long Descent, you say, "Those who took the time to put the numbers together discovered that the volume of oil pumped out of the ground overshot the volume of new oil discovered in every year since 1964". The mistake was repeated on page 64 in the list of "driving forces behind peak oil", which includes, "Every year since 1964 we've pumped more oil than we've discovered.".

I realised that the date was peak discovery and so I took it as a simple mistake but repeating that mistake made me wonder if it was a typographical mistake or a mistake of understanding.

Since my first post above, I've read more of The Long Descent and realised that much of what you envisage is what I'd think of as collapse; declining population, deteriorating health care, deteriorating infrastructure, increasing disparity between the haves and the have-nots - it will certainly feel like the end of civilization as many people had known it, even if the cycles in the downward trend pull up a few (less) people each time.

I'm certainly not a troll but am struggling to come to terms with how various people see what is happening. I'm right there with you in how you see things but it's a lonely existence, but all I can do is keep looking at the situation rationally. This rationality makes me question positions, until I've gone through the various angles and occasional poor reasoning (as I sometimes see it at the start but much of the time come to agree). So please don't take my arguing as a trollish position, merely a position of trying to understand what's going on, trying to bolster my own arguments against those who believe in the magic elixir, and trying to get my family to see the situation clearly (which would make me feel less alone).

Thanks for engaging.


John Michael Greer said...

Tony, my mistake -- shouldn't have answered late at night. Your claim that production didn't pass discovery until the early 1980s, though, differs from pretty much everything I've read. As for the issue of what's been hashed to death, please reread what I wrote; of course the particular wrinkle you want to discuss hasn't been discussed yet, but the whole question of fast crash vs. slow crash, even vs. episodic, etc., etc., has been a central theme of debate since I got back into the scene in the late 1990s.

sofistek said...


I wonder if we're talking at crossed purposes here. I was under the impression that it was common knowledge that oil production exceeded discovery in the early 80s (actually, I checked, and it was 1984), as the usual graph is from the ASPO people. The EnergyBulletin has the graph in full colour, in its peak oil primer. So I'm a bit confused; which year are you thinking of?

I agree that fast crash or slow crash debates are common but I'd only seen the argument include the right side of Hubbert's curve from your blog and book. That is the only reason I raised it. However, I think it's clear that even if complete collapse may take decades or centuries, for many people it will feel like collapse long before that.


Thomas Mazanec said...

Agreed, JMG. Rome did not fall in a day either.