Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dark Age America: The Population Implosion

The three environmental shifts discussed in earlier posts in this sequence—the ecological impacts of a sharply warmer and dryer climate, the flooding of coastal regions due to rising sea levels, and the long-term consequences of industrial America’s frankly brainless dumping of persistent radiological and chemical poisons—all involve changes to the North American continent that will endure straight through the deindustrial dark age ahead, and will help shape the history of the successor cultures that will rise amid our ruins. For millennia to come, the peoples of North America will have to contend with drastically expanded deserts, coastlines that in some regions will be many miles further inland than they are today, and the presence of dead zones where nuclear or chemical wastes in the soil and water make human settlement impossible.

All these factors mean, among other things, that deindustrial North America will support many fewer people than it did in 1880 or so, before new agricultural technologies dependent on fossil fuels launched the population boom that is peaking in our time. Now of course this also implies that deindustrial North America will support many, many fewer people than it does today. For obvious reasons, it’s worth talking about the processes by which today’s seriously overpopulated North America will become the sparsely populated continent of the coming dark age—but that’s going to involve a confrontation with a certain kind of petrified irrelevancy all too common in our time.

Every few weeks, the comments page of this blog fields something insisting that I’m ignoring the role of overpopulation in the crisis of our time, and demanding that I say or do something about that. In point of fact, I’ve said quite a bit about overpopulation on this blog over the years, dating back to this post from 2007. What I’ve said about it, though, doesn’t follow either one of the two officially sanctioned scripts into which discussions of overpopulation are inevitably shoehorned in today’s industrial world; the comments I get are thus basically objecting to the fact that I’m not toeing the party line.

Like most cultural phenomena in today’s industrial world, the scripts just mentioned hew closely to the faux-liberal and faux-conservative narratives that dominate so much of contemporary thought. (I insist on the prefix, as what passes for political thought these days has essentially nothing to do with either liberalism or conservatism as these were understood as little as a few decades ago.) The scripts differ along the usual lines: that is to say, the faux-liberal script is well-meaning and ineffectual, while the faux-conservative script is practicable and evil.

Thus the faux-liberal script insists that overpopulation is a terrible problem, and we ought to do something about it, and the things we should do about it are all things that don’t work, won’t work, and have been being tried over and over again for decades without having the slightest effect on the situation. The faux-conservative script insists that overpopulation is a terrible problem, but only because it’s people of, ahem, the wrong skin color who are overpopulating, ahem, our country: that is, overpopulation means immigration, and immigration means let’s throw buckets of gasoline onto the flames of ethnic conflict, so it can play its standard role in ripping apart a dying civilization with even more verve than usual.

Overpopulation and immigration policy are not the same thing; neither are depopulation and the mass migrations of whole peoples for which German historians of the post-Roman dark ages coined the neat term völkerwanderung, which are the corresponding phenomena in eras of decline and fall. For that reason, the faux-conservative side of the debate, along with the usually unmentioned realities of immigration policy in today’s America and the far greater and more troubling realities of mass migration and ethnogenesis that will follow in due time, will be left for next week’s post. For now I want to talk about overpopulation as such, and therefore about the faux-liberal side of the debate and the stark realities of depopulation that are waiting in the future.

All this needs to be put in its proper context. In 1962, the year I was born, there were about three and a half billion human beings on this planet. Today, there are more than seven billion of us. That staggering increase in human numbers has played an immense and disastrous role in backing today’s industrial world into the corner where it now finds itself. Among all the forces driving us toward an ugly future, the raw pressure of human overpopulation, with the huge and rising resource requirements it entails, is among the most important.

That much is clear. What to do about it is something else again. You’ll still hear people insisting that campaigns to convince people to limit their reproduction voluntarily ought to do the trick, but such campaigns have been ongoing since well before I was born, and human numbers more than doubled anyway. It bears repeating that if a strategy has failed every time it’s been tried, insisting that we ought to do it again isn’t a useful suggestion. That applies not only to the campaigns just noted, but to all the other proposals to slow or stop population growth that have been tried repeatedly and failed just as repeatedly over the decades just past.

These days, a great deal of the hopeful talk around the subject of limits to overpopulation has refocused on what’s called the demographic transition: the process, visible in the population history of most of today’s industrial nations, whereby people start voluntarily reducing their reproduction when their income and access to resources rise above a certain level. It’s a real effect, though its causes are far from clear. The problem here is simply that the resource base that would make it possible for enough of the world’s population to have the income and access to resources necessary to trigger a worldwide demographic transition simply don’t exist.

As fossil fuels and a galaxy of other nonrenewable resources slide down the slope of depletion at varying rates, for that matter, it’s becoming increasingly hard for people in the industrial nations to maintain their familiar standards of living. It may be worth noting that this hasn’t caused a sudden upward spike in population growth in those countries where downward mobility has become most visible. The demographic transition, in other words, doesn’t work in reverse, and this points to a crucial fact that hasn’t necessarily been given the weight it deserves in conversations about overpopulation.

The vast surge in human numbers that dominates the demographic history of modern times is wholly a phenomenon of the industrial age. Other historical periods have seen modest population increases, but nothing on the same scale, and those have reversed themselves promptly when ecological limits came into play. Whatever the specific factors and forces that drove the population boom, then, it’s a pretty safe bet that the underlying cause was the one factor present in industrial civilization that hasn’t played a significant role in any other human society: the exploitation of vast quantities of extrasomatic energy—that is, energy that doesn’t come into play by means of human or animal muscle. Place the curve of increasing energy per capita worldwide next to the curve of human population worldwide, and the two move very nearly in lockstep: thus it’s fair to say that human beings, like yeast, respond to increased access to energy with increased reproduction.

Does that mean that we’re going to have to deal with soaring population worldwide for the foreseeable future? No, and hard planetary limits to resource extraction are the reasons why. Without the huge energy subsidy to agriculture contributed by fossil fuels, producing enough food to support seven billion people won’t be possible. We saw a preview of the consequences in 2008 and 2009, when the spike in petroleum prices caused a corresponding spike in food prices and a great many people around the world found themselves scrambling to get enough to eat on any terms at all. The riots and revolutions that followed grabbed the headlines, but another shift that happened around the same time deserves more attention: birth rates in many Third World countries decreased noticeably, and have continued to trend downward since then.

The same phenomenon can be seen elsewhere. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the formerly Soviet republics have seen steep declines in rates of live birth, life expectancy, and most other measures of public health, while death rates have climbed well above birth rates and stayed there. For that matter, since 2008, birth rates in the United States have dropped even further below the rate of replacement than they were before that time; immigration is the only reason the population of the United States doesn’t register declines year after year.

This is the wave of the future.  As fossil fuel and other resources continue to deplete, and economies dependent on those resources become less and less able to provide people with the necessities of life, the population boom will turn into a population bust. The base scenario in 1972’s The Limits to Growth, still the most accurate (and thus inevitably the most vilified) model of the future into which we’re stumbling blindly just now, put the peak of global population somewhere around 2030: that is, sixteen years from now. Recent declines in birth rates in areas that were once hotbeds of population growth, such as Latin America and the Middle East, can be seen as the leveling off that always occurs in a population curve before decline sets in.

That decline is likely to go very far indeed. That’s partly a matter of straightforward logic: since global population has been artificially inflated by pouring extrasomatic energy into boosting the food supply and providing other necessary resources to human beings, the exhaustion of economically extractable reserves of the fossil fuels that made that process possible will knock the props out from under global population figures. Still, historical parallels also have quite a bit to offer here: extreme depopulation is a common feature of the decline and fall of civilizations, with up to 95% population loss over the one to three centuries that the fall of a civilization usually takes.

Suggest that to people nowadays and, once you get past the usual reactions of denial and disbelief, the standard assumption is that population declines so severe could only happen if there were catastrophes on a truly gargantuan scale. That’s an easy assumption to make, but it doesn’t happen to be true. Just as it didn’t take vast public orgies of copulation and childbirth to double the planet’s population over the last half-century, it wouldn’t take equivalent exercises in mass death to halve the planet’s population over the same time frame. The ordinary processes of demography can do the trick all by themselves.

Let’s explore that by way of a thought experiment. Between family, friends, coworkers, and the others that you meet in the course of your daily activities, you probably know something close to a hundred people. Every so often, in the ordinary course of events, one of them dies—depending on the age and social status of the people you know, that might happen once a year, once every two years, or what have you. Take a moment to recall the most recent death in your social circle, and the one before that, to help put the rest of the thought experiment in context.

Now imagine that from this day onward, among the hundred people you know, one additional person—one person more than you would otherwise expect to die—dies every year, while the rate of birth remains the same as it is now. Imagine that modest increase in the death rate affecting the people you know. One year, an elderly relative of yours doesn’t wake up one morning; the next, a barista at the place where you get coffee on the way to work dies of cancer; the year after that, a coworker’s child comes down with an infection the doctors can’t treat, and so on.  A noticeable shift? Granted, but it’s not Armageddon; you attend a few more funerals than you’re used to, make friends with the new barista, and go about your life until one of those additional deaths is yours.

Now take that process and extrapolate it out. (Those of my readers who have the necessary math skills should take the time to crunch the numbers themselves.) Over the course of three centuries, an increase in the crude death rate of one per cent per annum, given an unchanged birth rate, is sufficient to reduce a population to five per cent of its original level. Vast catastrophes need not apply; of the traditional four horsemen, War, Famine, and Pestilence can sit around drinking beer and playing poker. The fourth horseman, in the shape of a modest change in crude death rates, can do the job all by himself.

Now imagine the same scenario, except that there are two additional deaths each year in your social circle, rather than one.  That would be considerably more noticeable, but it still doesn’t look like the end of the world—at least until you do the math. An increase in the crude death rate of two per cent per annum, given an unchanged birth rate, is enough to reduce a population to five per cent of its original level within a single century. In global terms, if world population peaks around 8 billion in 2030, a decline on that scale would leave four hundred million people on the planet by 2130.

In the real world, of course, things are not as simple or smooth as they are in the thought experiment just offered. Birth rates are subject to complex pressures and vary up and down depending on the specific pressures a population faces, and even small increases in infant and child mortality have a disproportionate effect by removing potential breeding pairs from the population before they can reproduce. Meanwhile, population declines are rarely anything like so even as  the thought experiment suggests; those other three horsemen, in particular, tend to get bored of their poker game at intervals and go riding out to give the guy with the scythe some help with the harvest. War, famine, and pestilence are common events in the decline and fall of a civilization, and the twilight of the industrial world is likely to get its fair share of them.

Thus it probably won’t be a matter of two more deaths a year, every year. Instead, one year, war breaks out, most of the young men in town get drafted, and half of them come back in body bags.  Another year, after a string of bad harvests, the flu comes through, and a lot of people who would have shaken it off under better conditions are just that little bit too malnourished to survive.  Yet another year, a virus shaken out of its tropical home by climate change and ecosystem disruption goes through town, and fifteen per cent of the population dies in eight ghastly months. That’s the way population declines happen in history.

In the twilight years of the Roman world, for example, a steady demographic contraction was overlaid by civil wars, barbarian invasions, economic crises, famines, and epidemics; the total population decline varied significantly from one region to another, but even the relatively stable parts of the Eastern Empire seem to have had around a 50% loss of population, while some areas of the Western Empire suffered far more drastic losses; Britain in particular was transformed from a rich, populous, and largely urbanized province to a land of silent urban ruins and small, scattered villages of subsistence farmers where even so simple a technology as wheel-thrown pottery became a lost art.

The classic lowland Maya are another good example along the same lines.  Hammered by climate change and topsoil loss, the Maya heartland went through a rolling collapse a century and a half in length that ended with population levels maybe five per cent of what they’d been at the start of the Terminal Classic period, and most of the great Maya cities became empty ruins rapidly covered by the encroaching jungle. Those of my readers who have seen pictures of tropical foliage burying the pyramids of Tikal and Copan might want to imagine scenes of the same kind in the ruins of Atlanta and Austin a few centuries from now. That’s the kind of thing that happens when an urbanized society suffers severe population loss during the decline and fall of a civilization.

That, in turn, is what has to be factored into any realistic forecast of dark age America: there will be many, many fewer people inhabiting North America a few centuries from now than there are today.  Between the depletion of the fossil fuel resources necessary to maintain today’s hugely inflated numbers and the degradation of North America’s human carrying capacity by climate change, sea level rise, and persistent radiological and chemical pollution, the continent simply won’t be able to support that many people. The current total is about 470 million—35 million in Canada, 314 million in the US, and 121 million in Mexico, according to the latest figures I was able to find—and something close to five per cent of that—say, 20 to 25 million—might be a reasonable midrange estimate for the human population of the North American continent when the population implosion finally bottoms out a few centuries from now.

Now of course those 20 to 25 million people won’t be scattered evenly across the continent. There will be very large regions—for example, the nearly lifeless, sun-blasted wastelands that climate change will make of the southern Great Plains and the Sonoran desert—where human settlement will be as sparse as it is today in the bleakest parts of the Sahara or the Rub’al Khali of central Arabia. There will be other areas—for example, the Great Lakes region and the southern half of Mexico’s great central valley—where population will be relatively dense by Dark Age standards, and towns of modest size may even thrive if they happen to be in defensible locations.

The nomadic herding folk of the midwestern prairies, the villages of the Gulf Coast jungles, and the other human ecologies that will spring up in the varying ecosystems of deindustrial North America will all gradually settle into a more or less stable population level, at which births and deaths balance each other and the consumption of resources stays at or below sustainable levels of production. That’s what happens in human societies that don’t have the dubious advantage of a torrent of nonrenewable energy reserves to distract them temporarily from the hard necessities of survival.

It’s getting to that level that’s going to be a bear. The mechanisms of population contraction are simple enough, and as suggested above, they can have a dramatic impact on historical time scales without cataclysmic impact on the scale of individual lives. No, the difficult part of population contraction is its impact on economic patterns geared to continuous population growth. That’s part of a more general pattern, of course—the brutal impact of the end of growth on an economy that depends on growth to function at all—which has been discussed on this blog several times already, and will require close study in the present sequence of posts.

That examination will begin after we’ve considered the second half of the demography of dark age America: the role of mass migration and ethnogenesis in the birth of the cultures that will emerge on this continent when industrial civilization is a fading memory. That very challenging discussion will occupy next week’s post.


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Tom Bannister said...

Hmm yes I've long wondered about the cause of population growth, but i find your yeast metaphor more plausible than anything else I've ever heard. It was interesting how a recent pop fiction book I read (Dan Browns- Inferno) spent a whole book on the topic without once mentioning fossil fuels. the elephant under the carpet I guess.

Over here in New Zealand (and over in the US too from what i hear) gratuitous amounts of student debt will i suspect stop most of my generation from ever being able to support children. Being one of the lucky people without any student debt (no I didn't work harder and/or are more deserving than anyone else, I just have a supportive wealthy family) and a reasonable grasp of the predicament we're in I'm still hoping I can have kids myself one day. But yes, like you say it will need to be at the very least without the affluent middle class expectation of a big suburban mansion/holiday home/ limitless supply of fossil fuels etc etc etc.

Anyway, thanks for the post! Cheers

ando said...

Thanks, JMG. Seems very reasonable and likely. I enjoy your well thought out and detailed prognoses.



Rashakor said...

There is a word, that was perverted from its original meaning that described the phenomenon you write about. The pervertion of that word made it sound like a whiff of apocalypse.
What is that word?

Decimation. Which is simply the redution or a population to a tenth of its original number.
It is time to restore it to its original meaning.

William Lucas said...


This post brings to mind an article I read recently. I might actually have found its link amongst last week's post's comments. It describes the 90% population fall over 50 years of Yubari, a city in Hokkaido, Japan. Used to be known as "the capital of coal", rather ironically.

Anyway, just wanted to say hi, as I haven't done that for a long while, though I never miss a post. Some weeks I even manage to get through all of the comments!
You do a great service, and I wish again to thank you and all the other wise heads.

DanielOney said...

Very good presentation. As you mentioned, you don't have to stretch the imagination too much to see dramatic demographic changes. Just look at depopulated industrial cities that took only a generation or two to see 50% reductions in population. That was of course mostly due to migration, but still it shows that real estate may be more of a buyers market, if it is worth inhabiting. Thanks.

William Knight said...

In the time that remains, what shall we strive to create that will endure as monuments to our colossal stupidity? I suggest creating a number of giant tar pits in suitable locations. We could fill them with a fine selection of material objects from our industrial age (cars, refrigerators, tv's, politicians, etc.). I throw it open to the audience for better suggestions.

John in Cape Charles Va said...

It is the death of the supply chain that troubles me. It could happen very quickly and bring very rapid collapse, starvation and death to the humans that are dependent on it. Possibly North America will be harder hit than most due to our utter dependence on others far away for just about every bit of everything.

Kyoto Motors said...

Hello Mr. Greer,
a fine entry this week. I take it that you expect population to take care of itself, only that as it does, it'll be a bumpy ride. I would say the bumps have already begun...
The observation about the extrasomatic
energy effect has been a recurring theme here, and, to my mind always bears repeating, as it seems to be the single most ignored and misunderstood issue of our time.

What appears to be new is the coining of faux- liberal and faux- conservative. Bravo! It's a well articulated notion that also bears repetition...

Over the years I have met a disturbing number of people who are prepared to accept nuclear weapons as a "solution" to our population problems. I suspect that's the kind of stuff you'll touch on next week...

As for a good example of a more theoretically acceptable approach, why not look at the failures of China's one child policy. They are not only faced with the legacy of widespread selective sexual discrimination, but also an enormous top heavy demographic imbalance that can be filed in the drawer marked "unintended consequences"

Thanks in advance to all the contributors; I look forward to a new week of discussion .

Good Night

Zachary Braverman said...

Very interesting. I live in Japan, and am trying to imagine similar events happening here. Of course, most of Japan is mountains and the current population inhabits a small strip of land between the ocean and the mountains. This strip will get even smaller as the ocean rises, and more radioactive as the numerous reactors they so intelligently build on faults near the ocean fall into disuse.

Combine that with souring relations with not-so-friendly neighbors such as Korea and China, and things look even more dire than for America.

Andy Brown said...

Thanks for this post. I think it's a very important topic to address - especially in that it directly responds to a prime source of apocalyptic anxiety among people who are just beginning to question the "infinite growth on a finite planet" paradigm -- and the mismatch between our current population and the carrying capacity of a post-oil world.

Andy Brown said...

By the way, in my comment, I said "post-oil world", but what I wanted to say was something like a post-oil energy economy, but I don't mean economy, because I'm trying to reference a system of energy sources/strategies and thermodynamics, not material goods and exchanges. What is the term for that? Is there a good term? and if not, is that part of the reason why peak oil, EROEI, and related concepts are so hard for people to grasp? Sorry if the question is off-topic.

Pinku-Sensei said...

"[T]he faux-liberal script insists that overpopulation is a terrible problem, and we ought to do something about it, and the things we should do about it are all things that don’t work, won’t work, and have been being tried over and over again for decades without having the slightest effect on the situation."

I disagree with you that they *don't* work and haven't had *any* effect. As you noted about the Demographic Transition, birth rates have dropped in the industrialized countries as people voluntarily decided to have fewer children and population growth rates have followed suit. The incentives and techniques for reducing population growth have worked in those countries, including the U.S. to a lesser extent than, say, Japan. I list those methods for my students: lowering childhood death rates so that people don't have to have extra children to ensure that enough survive to support them in their old age (my estimate is four children on average for one "retirement plan"--two of them will likely die before the parents and one will be the wrong sex and be married off to become part of another family, leaving just one); getting the population off farms and into cities, where children become a lot less economically useful (a five year old can feed the chickens, while a child has to be about eight to ten to be economically useful in a city, even without child labor laws); widespread pensions to not rely on one's own children at all financially; increasing access to contraception; and the most effective, increasing the requirements for education, especially educating women and allowing them to work outside the home. Those all seem to work in reducing the birth rate where they have been tried, even places like Iran. Oh, I forgot one--television. Watching TV really seems to make the birth rate go down, as India is finding out.

Then there is the example of China, which imposed a one-child policy for ethnic Han (the Chinese in China) in cities in 1979 and a two-child policy for everyone else. That worked in reducing births by 200 million to 400 million over the past 35 years. China did all of the above plus fining families for extra births, reducing benefits for families that violate the law, and imposing sterilizations on women who have more children. Added to all of the incentives and policies above, that has reduced China's population growth at a very high cost. China's efforts seem to have had an effect on the world population, too. When I first started teaching about population, the textbook I was using projected the world population would reach 7 billion by 2000. The reduced birth rate in China and other countries delayed that to 2011. That may be too little, too late, but it did work to slow down the increase and delay the inevitable. Of course, if one tried the one-child policy elsewhere, the population would revolt. I understand Indira Gandhi attempted something similar about 1975, but India is the world's most populous democracy and the citizens voted her out.

I do, however, agree with you that they likely *won't* work on a global scale because they requires too much in the way of resources to happen. The important factor is environmental impact, not population per se, and impact is the result of population times affluence times technology (I = P * A * T). All of the "faux-liberal" ideas involve increasing affluence and as you correctly noted, there aren't enough resources available to support the current population, let along eight to nine billion people, at the level of prosperity required. Right now, if all seven billion of us lived at the average Chinese standard of living, let alone the U.S. one, we would exceed the planet's carrying capacity.

Yupped said...

So I suppose the insistence that radical population decline flows only from Big Bad Events is linked to the progress-forever or apocalypse-now binary. I mean, how could the decline of such a great society be quite so hum drum? Mind you, for the poor people caught up in a local famine or disease epidemic it doesn't really matter.

When I think of this process I somehow assume that I'll be one of those who bear witness to it, that I'll need to help those who are suffering, in some way. My mind doesn't want to touch the truth that I'll probably one of the victims. If the reaper starts a slow and steady swing towards the middle of the century then I will probably be a casualty, as I'll be in my final years anyway. And I guess that same reaper won't look at my organic gardening and herbalism credentials and give me a pass.

So that's good then. This is really not a very jolly topic is it :-)

John Gossett said...

You've mentioned several natural mechanisms (demographics, disease, famine and war, if you include wars as natural) of the depopulation of the world during the descent driven by the downhill slide of resource depletion. However, I've always feared that at some point someone (or some group), recognizing the impending decline and wishing to preserve or prolong their ownership and style of living, would take advantage of technology to unleash an engineered disease to accelerate the depopulation. Given human history's proclivity towards genocide, what do you think the likelihood is that someone deliberately engineers a population decline? What kind of events can you imagine that would induce someone to take such an action?

Pinku-Sensei said...

As for your comment that the Demographic Transition doesn't work in reverse, I think in a weird way it will. One of the key aspects of the process, and the one that led to rapid increases in the populations of the industrialized countries and has caused the massive population increase you described during your lifespan for the entire planet is the lag between death rates and birth rates. In Europe, North America, and Japan, it took at least two or three generations for people to get used to the idea that most of their children would survive, so that they wouldn't need to have so many of them (the Chinese tried to short-circuit the process and do it in one). During that time, lots more people were born than died. Now Americans expect that up to 95% of their children will live to adulthood. As conditions get worse, I think that expectations game will work in reverse. People in advanced countries will still behave as if the current regime will return and restrict births waiting for good times to return. It's already happened in the U.S. Between 2007 and 2011, birthrates fell by 300,000 a year as women delayed childbirth because of the recession. That's a million fewer babies born.

It may take decades for people to grow up in a high death rate environment to change their attitudes and have more children, speeding the process of depopulation along.

On another note, immigration isn't the only reason why the population of the U.S. isn't already in decline; all of the people born before 1971, when fertility rates dropped below replacement rate are still alive. We'll have to wait for more of us, as that group includes both you and me, to die off before birth rates and death rates equalize in the U.S. so that immigration is the only way that the U.S. grows, much like immigration is the only reason Canada's population has increased for several decades.

Finally, your figure of 20 to 25 million people in North America during the depth of the coming Dark Age looks familiar. It turns out that's just above the high estimate of the pre-European contact population of North America, 18 million people. Hey, look, confirmation of your projection from history!

jean-vivien said...

hi John, this time you are dealing with truly uncomfortable territory. It is one thing to mention an elegant solar-based ecotechnic (just added that phrase to my Android word list by the way) society which knows how to take it slow with the good stuff life has to offer.
No, this is quite another thing to ponder what the real world will do when it stops asking for your permission. You might make readers REALly uncomfortable this time !

In France, it is interesting to note that countryside areas and rural peasant villages seventy years back would have featured maybe twice the population density as they have done during our rural exodus in the eighties.
The term Exodus is not just geographical in kind : in terms of lifestyle, those who have returned could as well belong to another entirely distinct species of mammals.

Darren Urquhart said...


When reading your Dark Ages in America series of posts I need to do some translation to how these forces may effect us in Australia.

Dead zones play a big part in Stars Reach and you mention them again in this post.

We are lucky to have only 1 reactor in Australia but I happen to leave a couple of valleys away from it.

Can you share your understanding of what a reactor like this might do in a meltdown and the extent of the subsequent dead zone?

From their website: "Australia’s Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor is a state-of-the-art 20 Megawatt reactor that uses low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel to achieve a range of nuclear medicine, research, scientific, industrial and production goals."

Cherokee Organics said...


Yeah, the demographic transition often gets touted here as: "a rising tide lifts all boats". What a lot of rubbish as that rising tide could also just as easily drown low lying coastal areas.

People seem to be fixated on believing that the underlying problem is some sort of error in the distribution process. I reckon that is what feed the 1% meme which incidentally I see referred to less and less as time goes on. However, from my perspective it feels more like eagles circling around carrion waiting to take on all the others who may also wish to sup at their dinner. Incidentally, we just posted the highest youth unemployment figures here in 15 years and interestingly the current government blamed rising population eclipsing the available jobs. Mind you, the incumbent government are also reasonably responsible for the body blows to manufacturing sector here. As you quite correctly point out, there is simply not enough resources and energy to "lift all boats" and so I see that people are fighting over the shrinking pie. It is a big pie still, but I feel that it is not large enough to feed all the demands.

The fixation may also be an extension of the very long shadow of supply side economics which gripped the developed world in the 1980's? Perhaps also the fixation on demographic transition is simply a way around addressing the future by instead focusing on a delusion. Dunno, but it is sort of consistent with the cultural delusions.

Malnutrition, or even a lack of one or more of a broad variety of minerals in the human diet can have serious impacts on health. The soils that food in developed countries is grown in, certainly does not produce mineral dense food. To me it tastes lifeless and bland - which is probably why so much sugar and salt gets added to it.

People's ability to fight off and recover from infectious diseases is linked to their health which as you correctly point out is linked to nutrition. Just sayin...

It is worth mentioning that a decline in human numbers will be a boon to many birds, animals, microbes etc. both directly and indirectly. Our story is a circle after all and everything gets recycled in the end, only to become something new. It certainly isn't the end of the world.



PS: The European and native bees showed up again today for the first time since last autumn! If anyone is curious about the farm, check out my weekly blog with lots of cool photos: Break Through

David Rhodes said...

This is a strangely comforting post. In a way it's good that lower energy supplies just make us less lucky, and we may transition to a more benign population more by way of unhappy accidents than cataclysm.

Looking forward to your discussion of the collision with growth economics. But what happens to concentration of resources? The Elites (borrowing a metaphor from M. Piketty --- fully-transitioned demographic, we could say) will continue their arts of agglomeration, and possibly more effectively in a weakened society. Enter Feudalism and Big Man societies. This would be a much more radical restriction in per-commoner-capita resources than the straight population numbers suggest, and any cultural edifice won't have much to stand on. I do wonder how inevitable this is.


k-dog said...

I shall take 'a few centuries' to be 300 years.

For the population of North America to go from 470 million to 25 million smoothly I come up with this simple equation which gives the population where time (t) is years from the present.

population in millions = 470 * e ↑ (.009779 * t)

This is a simple exponential. The '*' character means multiplication. The ↑ means 'raise to the power of', and 'e' is the the natural' exponential base, which is 2.71828 to a reasonable approximation.

In 300 years the equation yields:

25 million.

In 200 years the equation yields:

66.5 million.

In 100 years the equation yields:

176.8 million.

In 10 years the equation yields:

426.2 million.

Paying attention to the ten year number the North American population will have declined by (470 - 426.2) → 43.8 million.

Some very aggressive tragedy or some extraordinary cooperation and planning would be needed to decline population by that much that fast. A smooth decline would be the best case scenario. In ten years would the North American Continent be able to support 426 million in the same comfort it now supports 470 million. I think not.

Bumpy times are ahead, there will be much pain as the nations of the world realize that population is a dependent and not an independent variable. The smarter plan would be to anticipate and not discover the world's new limits.

Thijs Goverde said...

@ Rashakor: Actually, what the word "decimation" originally meant was "executing one in every ten soldiers of a Roman legion". A reduction, therefore of a group of people to nine tenths of its original number. More or less the opposite of what you said.

In onther words: decimation is too small a word here.

Gwaiharad said...

@John Gosset:

The engineered-plague thing is an idea me and my friend, in our darker moments, have tossed around, half-wishing we could actually pull it off. Humanity's done enough damage already, it's time we stopped.

But, personally, I kind of doubt it'll happen. Who would deliberately engineer such a plague? Governments are unlikely to want to kill their own citizens, who after all pay taxes and keep politicians in power. Corporations wouldn't want to collapse the economy, which would be an immediate side effect of, say, a third of the population dying. A radical religious or environmental group might have the motivation, but wouldn't have the resources. Unless they get their hands on a fully-equipped lab and willing scientists, or the technology gets cheaper, or...

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, an elephant under the carpet? Here in the States, it's just an elephant in the living room. I gather that New Zealand carpets are unusually roomy. ;-)

Ando, thank you.

Rashakor, well, actually, decimation was a reduction by one tenth. In Roman times, if a legion mutinied or the like, the legionaries got to draw straws, and every tenth man was killed. There was also centimation, which was one in a hundred killed. Still, decimation in the strict sense of the word is likely to be a fairly common phenomenon as we proceed.

William, yes, I saw that! A fine example of deindustrial decline, though Japan's relative wealth makes it less uncomfortable than it might otherwise be.

Daniel, exactly. Now think about the economic impact of a time in which real estate becomes less valuable every year...

William, we may want to make a formal contest of that one of these days!

John, okay, now go do fifteen minutes of research about what happens when supply chains break down in times of war, revolution, natural disaster, or the like. If you do that, you'll discover that governments, communities, and individuals are perfectly capable of cobbling together jerry-rigged supply chains in a hurry -- as you would be, too, if your next meal depended on it.

Kyoto, yes, the bumps are already beginning, but they're going to be a lot worse. As for nuclear weapons, well, yes, those are America's phallic talismans of omnipotence, aren't they?

Zachary, those are among the reasons I expect Japanese refugees to scatter by boat across the North Pacific basin over the next century or so.

Andy, I don't know of a really good label. There's a real sense in which "post-oil world" works, though, because even if future societies have access to very small amounts of petroleum -- which is what we'll be leaving them -- there won't be anything like enough for oil to become as central to their society as it is to ours.

GuRan said...

Hey Cherokee Chris -

"People's ability to fight off and recover from infectious diseases is linked to their health which as you correctly point out is linked to nutrition. Just sayin..."

I think this will be a really big deal. It is already under-recognised as a major factor in much of our disease burden. Asthma, cancer, heart disease, diabetes... need I go on? The contribution of these to overall mortality rates will only increase as people can't afford to eat as well as they used to, as well as your point about the quality of the food not being great in the first place.


Marinhomelander said...

Changes in tax policy are probably going to help change the birthrate, that is as the government allegedly "runs short" of money (for all social and human services at least), I expect that we'll see a limit to the per child tax deduction.

Singapore gives a higher per child tax credit based on the higher education level of the parents, that is, the higher their level of education attained, the more per child in tax credits.
That sounds positive on the face of it.

Question, why should we taxpayers subsidize other peoples' children through the per child tax credit? It would seem fairer that the per child deduction be limited to the first two children and no more. Much of the willingness of immigrants to enroll in the tax system is the availability of the per child tax credit and refund for children who often live back home in Mexico and who are unverifiable. Low income levels and lots of alleged children mean an earned income tax payment from the IRS for everyone.
The end of this will help lower the birthrate. Still to revise the National Safety Council nostrum from the 1940s, "90 percent of people are caused by accidents".

John Michael Greer said...

Pinku-sensei, we don't know what would have happened to global population in the absence of the various campaigns. We do know that global population doubled right over the top of them. That's close enough to "didn't work" for me.

Yupped, no, it's not a cheerful topic. Still, think of it this way: you were always going to die someday anyway, right? So this isn't anything new, just a possible rescheduling and a variation in the likely cause of death.

John, I'll explain in an upcoming post why that sort of thing is actually the least likely option in the future we're actually facing. For now, I'd encourage you to ask yourself why they would bother with something that complex and risky, when massive population declines are on their way anyway?

Pinku-sensei, that's not the demographic transition in reverse -- "in reverse" would mean that people would start having lots of babies once they get poor. Downwardly mobile people tend to have fewer children, as you've noted. As for the pre-Columbian figure, I've seen numbers higher than that, but yes, there all in the same order of magnitude.

Jean-Vivien, yes, it's meant to make people uncomfortable -- precisely because, as you say, the future doesn't ask our permission.

Darren, I'd encourage you to talk to someone who's familiar with that reactor type and can compare the probable consequences of a meltdown to those of Chernobyl, Fukushima, etc. You'll also want to find out if there are spent fuel rods stored on site -- if there are enough of them, those are considerably more dangerous than the reactor itself. I'm not a nuclear physicist, and the estimates I'm using focus on general probabilities, not individual cases.

Cherokee, exactly -- a rising tide can also swamp all boats.

David, while we'll get feudalism, the current wealthy classes won't be the ones in charge. The only skills they have, remember, are those needed to manipulate and parasitize a global industrial-financial economy -- and those aren't worth two buckets of warm, er, fertilizer when the skills that count are those of warband chieftain and plunder-assessment specialist. I'm planning to devote an upcoming post to the consistent historical pattern by which the ruling elite of a dying civilization become crow food, and are replaced by a very different sort of elite; stay tuned.

John Michael Greer said...

K-dog, as my thought experiment pointed out, no, it wouldn't take some kind of catastrophe to drop the North American population by 43.8 million in ten years. A low birth rate and a solid but unspectacular rise in death rates would do the trick all by themselves. I'd encourage you to look for catastrophes in the ongoing population decline in the former Soviet Union, for example.

Marin, there are a range of perverse incentives fostering or even subsidizing increased birthrates. A great many of those will be going away one way or the other in the decades ahead -- and yes, that's one of the many factors to keep in mind here.

Breanna said...

I think my own life is a fairly good example. I grew up in an industrial area and both me and a cousin of mine had cancer in our teens. Thanks to modern medicine, we both lived.

I married at 21, in the boom years (2006). At the time, I hoped to have four children, preferably at ages 24, 27, 30, and 33. Instead, due to a combination of personal circumstances and financial hardship due to the economic collapse, I just had my firstborn last year, at age 28. I will count myself very fortunate to afford one more child.

My infant son will be 17 in 2030, a number I often see referenced as a likely date for resource conflict on a large scale. I pray I don't lose him to war.

So yes, population reduction on a steady but not apocalyptic scale makes a great deal of sense to me.

Derv said...


Er, I think you made a fairly substantial mistake in your thought experiment. If I know a hundred people, and say one per year were dying already, and I add another one per year, that would be doubling the mortality rate, not a one percent increase. A one percent increase would be for every hundred people who used to die before, now a hundred and one would die. Right?

Also, I think there may be more to be said about the faux-conservative response. First, I know very few who would admit that overpopulation is a problem at all; secondly, those who do would note (perhaps callously) that insofar as it is, it's a problem in the Third World, not in the US.

Thirdly, a good portion of it shouldn't in my opinion be connected to racism, but rather tribalism of a sort. We've seen the rather spectacular failure of multiculturalism throughout Europe over the last few decades, primarily on account of a lack of integration (itself a product of cultural self-doubt and self-loathing). Not only this, but the demographic situation, when extrapolated forward without any crash assumption, means that big changes are on the horizon. France will be a Muslim country a century from now based on these linear sorts of forecasts, for example. I'm not saying they're right or wrong (I believe we'll see some large declines as you do), just that they weigh on peoples' minds.

There is a fear, in some ways legitimate and based on the very forces you've identified that accompany civilization-wide collapse, that American culture (such as it is) and values will be erased by an influx of people who hold to totally different values. Many conservatives and faux-conservatives don't want to see that happen. And I think it's unfair to attribute that to racism.

I don't consider the Japanese racist, for instance, for being an insular culture, nor would I consider it racist if for example Poland became restrictive on immigration to preserve its culture. I myself want to live among my own people and culture, and this is only loosely correlated to skin color, insofar as a northern European is more likely to hold to northern European social norms and mores. Skin color doesn't matter to me; preserving the life and culture I know does (though I want to cut the fat from it to be sure). I think most people feel this way, which is why immigrant populations that do not assimilate - or do so gradually over generations - tend to form enclaves among their countrymen. I'd do the same thing most likely if I moved to Bhutan, so I can't fault them for it. But if I hope to preserve my peoples culture, then I have good reason not to want to be overwhelmed by mass immigration. Humans are tribal, always have been and always will be. I don't want to harm other tribes, nor do I find them inferior. I just want mine to continue. Is that racism? I don't think so.

That being said, I live in North Dakota. It's not exactly a real worry; Canadians are so close to the same culture that one can hardly tell the difference. Just some food for thought. I seem to be making a habit of trying to explain the thinking behind conservative (and faux-conservative) positions on here, so I apologize, but I hope it's useful and informative to a few at least.

SDBoneyard said...

As a San Diegan, it is interesting to watch the End of Cheap Oil play out in my own life and those around me:

I am leaving a typical urban neighborhood of North Park, which was created in the 1920's when irrigated water and the beginnings of electricity made it possible. The middle and working class neighborhood browned in the 1960's when the white folks fled to the suburbs and then whitened when gays (moi), artists, then hipsters moved in over the last couple decades.

The hipsters who covet this neighborhood are mostly children of the Boomers ... burdened with student loans, over-educated for the job market, most will NEVER be able to afford a house and most cannot afford a car. So they turn to cheaper affordable pleasures: trendy haircuts, good coffee and great beer.

Meanwhile, the poor (white brown black tan yellow -- the many colors of God's children) are in process of moving out to the suburbs as predicted decades ago by the Peak Oil folks. And I, who can no longer afford to live alone, am now in deep middle age becoming someone's roomy!

What sounds like individual choices (and are) become -- at a distance -- simply artifacts of systemic decline as this civilization powers down.

Cali, which has 30,000,000 supported about 100,00 when the white folks came, seems to be heading in that direction again as the 3rd year of drought turns into the 4th ...

Another good post. Thank you, Michael!

(Off to re-read Chuang Tsu!)

Chris G said...

I am guessing that the population decline JMG speaks of begins in 2030 when the limits to growth study says population is expected to peak peak based on the available resources. So North America peaks at about 500 million and then begins to decline. Weather its gradual, or sudden, depends on the vagaries of the human response to the ecological imperative. It doesn't look very promising now, and many of the possible responses are likely to just worsen and exacerbate problems for the future; still, it could go relatively smoothly.

k-dog said...

My equation should have been:

population in millions = 470 * e ↑ ( -.009779 * t )

Forgot a minus sign.

"K-dog, as my thought experiment pointed out, no"

I respectfully direct you to your own words. Thought Experiment!

We have no collapse aware community of any appreciable size. The mainstream grows or tries to grow year by year and will not reverse direction voluntarily. The awareness needed to to generate intentional reversal in population growth will not happen unless a catastrophe causes social awareness for change to be spawned.

Meanwhile the gulf between living within limits and outside of them continues to grow.

Experience shows civilizations do not halt collapse. We with our awareness would be the first, it is possible. But not without game changing events. In other words, stimulating disasters.

The decrease in population under discussion consists of young girls who do not have children. A draft where 50% of young men return in body bags might have very little impact. The lack of men would mean a cultural shift to sister wives and thus there would be no decrease in population growth. Killing old people does not matter, they die without children by themselves. Only affecting the inner protected reproductive group of young women matters and to penetrate into that group requires tragedy.

Regardless, my simple equation and the first half of your article has the assumption of the smoothest of changes built into it. It ignores that as resources are depleted remaining ores and deposits become ever harder and more expensive to obtain and process.

A point is reached where suddenly needed resources become too expensive to obtain. Demand is destroyed. A hard collapse results and our society plunges off a Seneca cliff. Our economy becomes impossible to operate and those surviving into the future feed themselves from the bark of trees for a while. Most of the eventual 25 million wind up coming from somewhere else.

A smooth collapse is possible but with our unregulated highly energy dependent economy, unlikely. No other collapsing civilization had the technical complications of collapse which we do. Technology made us fly high; and we must fall far.

Pinku-Sensei said...

"Pinku-sensei, we don't know what would have happened to global population in the absence of the various campaigns. We do know that global population doubled right over the top of them. That's close enough to "didn't work" for me."

I'll agree to disagree with you about their effectiveness in the past. However, I will agree that the important thing is that they won't scale up to avert disaster in the future. The human population has been behaving for decades as if the carrying capacity is somewhere between nine and ten billion people. I've told my students that if we could continue using resources at the current rate for the rest of the century, that might work. I also tell them that I have my doubts that will be true. They've heard me say for years that if we're really lucky, world population will get to nine billion by 2050 and slowly decline. If we're not so lucky, we'll get to nine billion and then start to crash. If we are really unlucky, then we won't get to nine billion and crash after we hit eight billion. In other words, if you wish for a quick solution to overpopulation, be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

Chris G said...

My comment is not really about the population matter per se, but rather people's perceptions of the trend. I think what this post shows is that it's possible for a person to move through these historical cycles, living day to day, without really noticing that it's happening. You could call that a kind of magic - the ability to be unaware of change that takes a long time.

In fact, the magic really is the historical perspective, of which we can partake because of the change of consciousness that comes about with language, the ability to keep the story of an entire people as though the people was one individual, with a long memory.

But there's another kind of magic at play, this belief in the ability of humans to continuously progress in the unlimited control of their environment - the world in accordance with imagination. One of the consequences that magic is that people can go on living day to day without much thought to the long-term prospects of the lifestyle - and really full bellies, pretty good medicine, within the borders created by military Leviathan. To the extent that some people recognize there are problems, barbarians at the gates, real world limits to our unlimted imagination, it's not surprising that their responses more of the same: more magic in the form of making the outside world meet our expectations.

Gloucon X said...

John Michael Greer said...20 to 25 million—might be a reasonable midrange estimate for the human population of the North American continent when the population implosion finally bottoms out a few centuries from now.

Cherokee Organics said...It is worth mentioning that a decline in human numbers will be a boon to many birds, animals, microbes etc. both directly and indirectly. Our story is a circle after all and everything gets recycled in the end, only to become something new. It certainly isn't the end of the world.

David Rhodes said...This is a strangely comforting post.

I concur. Those of us who are organic gardeners will be far more likely than others to have our descendants be among the 5% that survives the massive decline. And as Chris says, the ecosystems could be in much better shape 300 years from now. And as JMG said in an earlier post, climate change is eminently survivable. So if your ancestors are lucky enough to own land near one of the new seaports created by melting ice, they could become quite wealthy. I wouldn’t say that it’s all good, but there are some positives.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Greetings JMG - I've just spent the past couple of weeks walking alone in the forests of Sweden, and I hope it doesn't sound too gratuitous or ironic to add that one of the first things I did on my return to modern 'civilisation' was to log onto the ADR.

After all that time alone with my thoughts (yes, I'm working on a book about 'reconnecting' with nature as a means of coping with the demise of our industrial world) it was, well, interesting to note that people around the world have been pouring buckets of ice water over their heads for reasons I can't quite fathom. So it goes.

Anyway, as for population, I have heard that in Russia these days you are paid hard cash for producing children, and people are lining up for the privilege. This is occurring elsewhere in the industrial world too, such as in Denmark, where one day a week parents are permitted to pick their children up from nursery a couple of hours late in the understanding that they spend the time, er, making some new ones.

Being a resident of the British isles, I sometimes wonder whether those four horsemen will have quite as much time to play poker, at least in the early days of any severe breakdown of the norm. With so many people relying on expensive drugs just to stay alive any disruption in their supply is likely to have serious consequences. Furthermore, many farmers are now unable to grow food without the artificial props of chemical fertiliser and oil-hungry machinery. Let's not even mention delicate supply lines and the corporatisation of the food chain.

Nevertheless, in time things will level out. I, for one, regard the recent wave of immigration of people from Eastern Europe as a possible lifeline: among their number are many who still have practical skills and know how to grow food. Whether they choose to stick around after our financial/housing/fracking bubble pops remains to be seen.

Tim Horan said...

Dear JMG,

Could the bloke with the scythe really clear the room during the bumpy decades ahead?

I am a fit, strong forty-one year old male who drinks a lot of filtered water, eats a variety of fresh citrus, chilies and three types of raw kale direct from my backyard and partakes of very little alcohol. I was happy to bask in the warm glow of my (obviously deserved) good health.

Well, I have just come to the end of a strange, long winter in the southern hemisphere and what I thought was my titanium immune system suffered shock after shock of malicious, flu-like ailments that left me bedridden and feverish for a large chunk of the season.

As we look towards the long night ahead of us, I have encountered an understated push back from those of us who understandably do not want to entertain the possibility of disease induced mortality. It is strange to be subjected to comments such as "You could have avoided getting sick by just doing this..." or "I take the following and never get sick, you need to do the same". I suspect that the healthy among us who suddenly get sick in our modern age are subtly accused of some kind of lack of virtue. If an 'oak of an individual' like myself crumbled in the face of one of the super-bugs now in circulation, what hope for the malnourished in our deindustrial future?

On another note, I do not envy you tackling next week's subject. You may have to gird yourself against Troll intrusion. When I suggest to my fellow Anglo-Saxon males down-under that the future demographics of our population will look very different to their ideal of white, lager drinking, sausage sizzling citizens I encounter a coarse push back that involves racial epithets and mutterings about the "Guvmint turning back the boats."


Tim (feeling better now)
Sydney, Australia

Random Man said...

If we do indeed face resource shortages in the future, one of the first things to go is industrial medicine.

Medicine itself won't disappear, it just won't be practiced at nearly the same scale and intensity it is now.

Unfortunately, that means many diseased and elderly people are going to die in the years ahead. Why should this be upsetting, just who exactly do you think is going to die, given the fact that our mortality rate is 100%?

I'm a physician, and it's painful to see so many in my profession oblivious to this.

Bottom line is that the young and healthy and anybody who still perceives that they have a future are going to do what it takes to live and feed themselves.

Still, I don't see much of an increase in birth rates coming up. Do not underestimate what loss of confidence can do. Also, birth control and condoms are pretty cheap. People in the past were clueless one way or the other, so their birth rates were more natural.

Once people appreciate decline, I expect birth rates to stay relatively low.

MawKernewek said...

Apparently the UK birth rate has been increasing over the past few years:

This can be seen both in fertility rate that has increased from 1.63 in 2001, to 1.92 in 2012, and the crude birth rate from 11.3 to 12.8 per 1000 in the same period. This was actually remarked on in the new recently because it has now filtered through to cause difficulties in primary school places in some areas.

I'm not sure why this would be, when the UK economy has not exactly been in great shape in recent years.

Also, to put things into perspective, the population density of North America is 24.5 people / km^2 , whereas the European union is 120.

True, if much of the SW of the USA becomes hyperarid desert like the Sahara that is a problem, but then could also happen to Spain.

Pierluigi Dipietro said...

From my point of view ,a "Seneca cliff" scenario is more plausible than a gentle downside slope


Mark Sebela said...

You either need to look closer or meet more Canadians. There are (still) some big differences in how we fell our fellow citizens should be treated. For example, the vast majority consider health care to be a basic human right and we don't think it's free. We knew from day one that it came from our taxes and still do. The only people I know who describe it as free are Americans. There are other differences too. I payed careful attention when I lived in the U.S. for 7 years as an adult when I was in my thirties.

The dark part of me can't wait to hear all about the former elites getting their comeuppance.

MawKernewek said...

@k-dog - I don't see much evidence that a cultural shift towards polygamy would happen after a war, did it happen after 1914-18 in Europe, or even in the USSR 1945, where I believe the death rate for those who had entered the Red Army in 1941 was over 90%?

Nathaniel Ott said...

JMG thanks for the great post again this week! I find your fomented about the faux liberal and faux conservative responses to overpopulation to be quite accurate. At least among those that admit there's a problem at all. The Techno fix and "there is no human carting capacity" croud is still quite large.

Also on your 95%(or about 20x) reduction in the population during decline, I have to admit when I first read this idea on your blog a while back I thought it was ridiculous. Until I actually did the research and found out it was quite accurate. Funny how that mythology that passes for history taught in schools nowadays tends to leave things like that(among many other things we don't like) out.

Also on the population subject I am curios as to what you personally think the ultimate carrying capicity of the earth could be in a sustainable echotechnic society? Obviously I'm aware you couldn't possibly KNOW the answer, but what would be your best realistic, educated guess? Again good post and very interested on seeing next weeks!


wiseman said...

I'd have to agree with Pinku Sensei on the effectiveness of Population Control. A few articles in Time magazine and Western newspapers don't constitute a 'campaign'.

Most of the developing world barring China was largely untouched by all those campaigns. Only in the last 20-30 years some efforts have been made in this regard and it has returned very encouraging results. Fertility rates have fallen sharply everywhere (even in poor and middle income countries like India and Iran).

The key to population control (other than providing cheap birth control) is educating women and absorbing them into the organized workforce. This formula has worked time and time again across countries and cultures.

Although your prediction is right on the money for different reasons, we are out of time with regards to population control, such measures require massive government investment, a luxury we won't have going forward. I'd really like to be proven wrong on this though.

streamfortyseven said...

@William Knight - "I suggest creating a number of giant tar pits in suitable locations. We could fill them with a fine selection of material objects from our industrial age" - No need for tar pits, we've got gigantic landfills outside of large metropolitan areas, and they will be the fertile hunting grounds for mining activity for maybe a century or two in the future... People will learn of the fatal consequences of playing with old TV sets when they come into contact with flyback coils.

As for depopulation, I notice that nearly all of my friend with IQs above 120 have no children - this holds in Catholic families as well; while the lower the IQ below 120, the more children are born, limited only by premature death of parents from suicide, alcohol, or drug abuse.

Kutamun said...

Taking a break from disappearing up my own arse, and pausing to reflect on the metaphysics of population , i found myself sitting on the bank of a little creek and swamp on my farm that i fenced off from the livestock a few ago . Hydrology and botany now firmly reinstated , it barely resembles the silent , barren place it had become for so many generations . Much of its now teeming life invisible to the naked eye , the place nonetheless has its own tangible feeling to it now , and is a place of reverence . I suppose by fencing it off i returned energy to the place that was previously being converted to beef and shipped to japan in frozen form ( via riverina feedlots ) ... That energy now chatters and hums and feels , and is all around me , a recharged and reinvigorated ecosystem that retains moisture and fosters life ( while there may be some slightly thinner japanese ) ..i suppose it is repopulating .

I have cut back my herd of cattle in response to climate change and my own growing environmental awareness in recent years and have noticed the remaining cows being happier , less diseased , less stressed , less pressure on fences , better calving rate . Small tree suckers are springing up spontaneously as we strive to find the right balance between animals and environment , creeks and streams rejuvenating , more birds and wildlife ( increased biodiversity ) . Soaks and springs spreading out laterally from fenced off areas as moisture is retained and begets more moisture , the farm is repopulating with life forms that are non human , with the increase in diversity all of us that live there are feeling better

My own people were thrown into cargo holds of clapped out square rigger freighters as a result of the overflowing rapidly industrialising urban impoverished masses of the British Empire at its zenith ... Ironically, after exterminating the locals we now like to drive around with bumper stickers of zen koans such as " f...k off w' re full " as well as some fairly sophisticated and institutionalised systems of bullying and intimidating any new arrivals ( the ones we dont throw in the gulags or send back to the tender mercies of the regimes they fled from ) ... Of course this tendency is encouraged by politicians of all stripes who like to manipulate this long running mind programming for their own ends , indeed many of the most enthusiastic anti-refugee proponents are from the last wave of arrivals

How many people can Australia hold ? ... Depends , though Air Vice Marshall Blackburn (ret) in his recent oil supply report noted that the country at any one time contains a maximum of three weeks fuel , food and medicine . Population 3 million in 1900 , 7 million in 1945, 15 million in 1983 , 22 million in 2014 .., though scientists there were only ever 500,000 Aboriginals living here continuously and sustainably at any one time

Phil Harris said...

Darren in Australia
Yes, follow JMG's advice and talk to knowledgeable people more locally. 'Your' reactor though is a relatively tiny research reactor, compared with a 1-3 GW power reactor. "HIFAR’s total fuel load was only 7 kilograms and OPAL's [HIFAR's successor] is also modest, while a power reactor may hold up to 190 tonnes of fuel."

You do not as yet it seems have a nuclear power programme in Australia. However, Australia is very important for uranium mining, and that deserves a great deal of attention.


Bill Blondeau said...

@Rashakor, @Thijs: I suppose the Germans have a noun that means "Discipline in exercising one's pedantry"; I don't know what it might be, but I have far too little of it. Accordingly:

Decimation was a military practice in Roman times. It was, as Thijs and JMG point out, a reduction in number by one tenth. To decimate a military unit was to kill every tenth soldier.

Sounds like a drastic punishment, but as I understand it, it was more interesting than that. The unlucky tenth of the unit was exactly that: unlucky. They were more or less randomly selected. Romans thought that battle fortune was a persistent attribute of the individual. The purpose of decimation was not primarily punitive: it was to improve the aggregate luckiness of the unit.

We, of course, have transcended the superstitions of the past. I'm sure it's pure coincidence that, in the US Navy in world War II, aspiring submarine captains were reportedly told "If you're not lucky, we can't use you".

...If there's a German word for "debasing one's own credentials as a hard-headed skeptic", I have to cop to that as well. As a former submarine sailor who's been deeper than most, I thoroughly endorse the subrational notion of having a lucky skipper.

Cherokee Organics said...


hehe! Too funny. The tide might just be strong enough to tip the boats over too!

Seems like this week is going to be one massive week for comments.

I don't really write much revealing about myself, but this topic interests me deeply, so here goes:

I trust this doesn't offend anyone's sensibilities, but: I never wanted to have children and neither do I feel any great sense of loss from their absence.

It was a decision that was made - jointly, mind you - that has real world consequences. It also annoys me greatly that it is a source of fascination for other people as I certainly don't begrudge them their choices.

What seems really obvious to me, but other people seem completely oblivious to, is that many people comment here that they have children as a retirement plan. This smells to me of the sort of magic that produces thought stoppers like: “they’ll think of something” as if somehow people were pushing problems off into the future. Just sayin people, it is sort of hard to justify when you look at it that way.

However in developed countries, so few people have skills growing and producing food without fossil fuel inputs as well as skills with restoring degraded land that you may well find that your retirement plan ends up as an apprentice here (just as an example). It is chilling when you think about it, but you may happily let your retirement plans go off into the sunset as you are unable to support them - as much as they will be unable to support you. There just isn't a large amount of surplus produce from a small holding - especially in degraded soils and especially in the early days.

In the distant future under such a plan there will eventually become a time where there is little for me to teach and I would probably be a burden, oh well, you have to die sometime, I guess. It is a fate which most of the animals in the forest here face daily and if they are brave enough to face it then so be it.

This is a real bummer of a topic.



Marc L Bernstein said...

Ugo Bardi did a short review of your book on UFOs. It's flattering and I agree with him.

I took note of your relatively optimistic projection of post-industrial life in the USA Great Lakes region. You might be aware that James Howard Kunstler said something similar. His optimism is based in part on the notion that freight can be moved up and down waterways more easily than it can be transported over land once liquid fuels are either unavailable or have become prohibitively expensive. It is also true that irrigation difficulties will be quite a bit less acute in the Great Lakes region than in many other regions in the USA.

I got tired of reading about the "4 horsemen of the apocalypse" (which seems crude to me) and extended it to 8.

As you mentioned here, a gradual but persistent increase in death rates is sufficient to cause a serious die off of around 95% within 100 to 300 years.

Of course local die-off episodes are going to be messy and can be catastrophic, but when averaged globally the die-off may be rather smooth. It will probably be much smoother in well organized societies with some resilience and social cohesion. I'm cautiously optimistic about the Scandinavian countries.

On a rather gossipy note, I have wondered whether Guy McPherson regrets having predicted human extinction so soon (2030). If he would have added a couple hundred years to that date it would have been more circumspect. As Dmitry Orlov recently mentioned in 1 of his Collapse Cafe interviews, McPherson has blundered and bungled his way into being a statistical outlier among those who purport to being well educated on climate change issues.

YJV said...

The bit where you talked about the death rates per 100 people we would know was striking. Knowing that organic population growth is an exponential, it made perfect sense that a small increase in the death rate compared to the birth rate could drastically affect populations. Just to be sure, however, I put it into equation form (just like some of your other users). I used the same rates you described so that people get a perspective on the scales involved when exponentials are in play.

In a very simple quick model (Mathematicians, please forgive me) we can take the rate of population births to be 'b' and rate of deaths to be 'd'. For example, a birth rate of 1% is b=1.01, while a death rate of the same amount is d=1.01 as well. To spare everyone the derivation, basically in exponential models the rate of change is proportional to the value itself at any time.

In this case:
N = N(0)*e^((b-d)t) where you can take t as years, N as final population and N(0) your starting population at any time.
When your birth rate and death rate is the same, b=d so N=N(0) (as e^0=1), and you have a stable population.

Imagining that the birth rate is 1%, and assuming the death rate is less than that, it means population growth. What if, however, over the long term the death rate increases to 2% as you suggested?

Putting that into the model, (to keep it short), how long would it take for the population to decline to 5% of the original N(0)?

299.6, i.e. 300 years. Augment that extremely simply model with the other things we're likely to see as you explained, and we're all guaranteed to hit that 5% figure far under the 300 years I calculated with my back-of-the envelope estimate.

I hope this helps those who are still struggling to understand exponential rates.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Adrian,

Thanks for the book tip. I'll check it out, I really enjoy reading about how other cultures interact with nature as they do such a better job of it.

Hi Deborah,

Many thanks for the explanation. I see the difference, but hadn’t understood that aspect before. Here the police are a state run organisation, with a federal body for the territories (eg. Canberra) and national and international activities. I'd imagine there'd be marked differences in quality, service delivery and culture between the forces in the different cities in the US? What happens when a city becomes bankrupt? Yikes!

Hi Cathy,

Exactly spot on! It is the available energy which drives the cultural response. When you know your neighbours and have to talk to them regularly, it is hard to be rude to them.

hehe! Very funny. Yeah, I'm a mostly vegetarian which means I eat vegetarian at home and don't make a fuss when I'm out. Friends always think that it is somehow amusing to serve me meat dishes, but I just go all honey badger on them and don’t give a...

Hi Roger,

Yeah it is complex. Youth unemployment is on the up here. Not good, especially when they're locked out of the housing market and their elders aren't. It's going to get ugly and it is hard to have a family on the street. Our rental market here is driven by investment issues and it is an unpleasant place to be in and has little long term tenure.

Still a wife and kids isn't the only solution. The military has always absorbed large numbers of youth just for one example and just because it looks like it does today, doesn't mean that's how it will continue to look tomorrow. During the depression large scale civil projects absorbed a lot of that energy here too, as did bush walking (true story).

Hi GuRan

It is a huge problem and the change has happened over such a long period of time that people don't seem to have noticed. Occasionally people complain about the food here because it tastes "too strongly". Rocket (arugula) is a good example as it has a rich mustard like flavour but when people serve me the purchased stuff it is paper thin (a dead giveaway) and tastes like cardboard. What's with that?

Hi Gloucon,

Exactly, in a world of skill shortages in that area, it should be a mostly privileged ride. Aren't farmers the highest remunerated people in Cuba? That point was not lost on me. Well done you and your descendants.

Cheers everyone and hope I haven't annoyed too many people with my previous comment...

PS: Someone wrote about the comment / view statistics on a blog and their observation is about right. For every comment there can be many hundreds of lurkers. You know who you are lurkers - show yourselves!!!! Har Har Har (Dr Evil chuckle)!!!!


YJV said...

Sorry everyone, I just made a small mistake in writing the equation rates! The rates are simply percentages as decimals, i.e. 1% birth rate means b=0.01 . The answer is still the same - a net change of -1% can result in 95% shrinkage within 300 years.

Adrian Skilling said...

Thanks for the excellent article. Indeed I see people getting annoyed that population isn't addressed quite regularly even in environmental magazine letters!

I see the issue of population density greatly influencing how things play out. In the UK the population density is 5 to 10 times higher than North America (on average). Given how we import almost everything these days, including quite a lot of gas and oil (North Sea oil having peaked 15 years ago - interestingly getting discussed a lot due to the Scottish independence referendum) I'm not optimistic about our future. The US certainly has more in the way of natural resources per capita - not that I'm saying it'll be easy for anyone!

Tony f. whelKs said...

There you go again, JMG, wading into people's fond fantasies with another big dose of common sense and realism :-) It's that disconcerting habit of yours which keeps me returning every Thursday morning, so more power to your pen.

Demographics does seem to be a hard one for people to grasp. A bit like history, big rapid changes can happen, but on the ground they can seem quotidian - like science, progressing funeral by funeral. Yet the big dramatic things from which apocalyptic tableaux are so vividly and casually painted really amount to little more than a hill of beans in the big scheme of things.

For example, take the big landmarks of the 20th century - WW1 and WW2. Without diminishing the human impact, their impression on population didn't really make any great shakes. Say the loss of a single low-to-middle ranking country of the day. Dramatic, horrendous, traumatic and fuelled by some genuine evil in places, but still really just a light snack for the equestrian quartet.

In the blue corner, though, are the regular demographic trends - say something obvious, such as referring to the fact that over the next century, around seven billion people will die, and phrases like 'die off', 'apocalypse' and 'armageddon' will surely be whispered all about. But that's just the march of time, all on its own. Said like that - seven billion people will die in the coming century - it sounds dramatic, and people will deny and bluster, yet the same people when asked 'How many people do you know who will live for another hundred years?' will probably give an answer very close to zero (maybe barring the Singularitarians and Jehovah's Witnesses - at least one of those groups still believe that 'millions living today will never die').

Of course, the number of deaths is only one side of the equation. The birth rate is just as significant to the analysis. The actual population arises from the interplay between the two. The marginal difference in rates is what drives the long-term prognosis, and at the margins it's very hard to see what's really happening on the grand scale.

Still, the political responses to population dynamics are probably more significant to our quality of life than the
dynamics themselves. I enjoyed the characterisation of the 'faux' ideologies - the useless vs. the evil, though I suspect there's a bit of uselessness and a bit of evil on both sides.

(Ooops, I have waffled too much and over-flowed the allowable post size.... to be continued)

Tony f. whelKs said...

I've always had a bit of uneasiness about the whole concept of the 'demographic transition' and I think I've pinned down where that uneasiness comes from. It's another bit of deniable faux-liberal racism in drag - a way of saying that the overpopulation problem is one of too many poor, dark-skinned people breeding, pointing to the massive resource use of rich, pale-skinned people as the solution by contrast. There's a certain internal dissonance in all that, in that it denies that resource consumption (especially extrasomatic energy) is what drives the population explosion initially. By and large it's NOT poor, resource constrained communities that have the higher growth rates. Sure, they may have higher birth rates, but birth isn't survival and it isn't the whole dynamic. The marginal birth-death rate is the determinant, and in the industrialised societies, we've used our extravagant resource use to tackle the death side rather (too) successfully, leaving us to mull over the birth side as the only option for keeping our own numbers in balance, and largely failing to do so. Still, we can always assuage our consumption guilt by exporting birth control to those former colonies where it's no longer politically expedient to export Bibles and smallpox.

Trying to address population issues as though they had some bearing on lines drawn on a map also strikes me as pointless in terms of population. That particular trope is all about culture, but as culture will inevitably change with declining civilisation it seems a wasted effort trying to control that aspect of things. Inappropriate adaptation seems just one of the many unintended consequences, and with a changing ecology of humanity, the cross-pollination of societies and cultures seems a better way forward than trying to maintain rigid boundaries. Equilibrium is always dynamic, and attempts at stasis always decay. I think the fact that linguitics never coincide neatly with ethnicity in the formation of nations gives us a big clue there.

ChemEng said...

Like William Lucas I have not posted any comments here recently. But I do read your blog each week and find it very useful and insightful.

I started on a blog of my own but decided that the last thing that the world needs is another blog on “Peak This and That”. So, instead, I am writing a book entitled Victory Gardens - Gardening in an Age of Limits. My goal is to publish something that is useful at 8 o’clock on Monday morning.

The final chapter of the book is called “Sources”. In it I list the books and blogs that have helped me the most. The Archdruid Report is first on the list.

mr_geronimo said...

As you said, the birthrate collapseis happening in the 3rd world too. My family is an example:

Grandma had 7 children that reached adult age. Those children had, on avarage, 3 children. My generation is around 30 and those that have children have only one. And fom anedoctal evidence, House Geronimo is not the only one. The birthrates have alredy crashed in middle class and urban lower class Brazil. No idea about how the peasant in the deep country are doing but since the rural exodus to the cities stopped, they too may have crashed.

Now if we mix in a civil war that is looming on the horizon(-20% population) and plagues (-50% based on the Plague of Marcus Aurelius and Justinian) the 200mi in Brazil go down quite fast.

And Brazil is more or less intact, unlike North America, won't be full of nuclear waste sites , chemical death zones and it's most populated area are highlands that won't be flooded.

I wonder how China, with it's insane march towards industrialization, trying to do in decades what the West needed 200 years will fare. It may be said by the future historians that the chinese survived invasions, hordes, collapses but found their final death in westernization, crashed together with the West but were never able to recover, being replaced by other tribes (mongolians? hope so, i'm fascinated by the hordes). Like the egyptians in the days of Rome.

Mean Mr Mustard said...


All this talk of population dynamics by region reminds me of, where one may play with expanding balloons on x&y axes on all manner of stats by nation, region and more. The man behind these interactive graphs, Hans Rosling, did a series of entertaining presentations on TED. Needless to say, I don't share his overall optimism, for the reasons you've outlined this week, and in many of your past commentaries and books. All the same, the interactive graphs are quite instructive and very absorbing.

Incidentally, in breaking news, have you heard about Peak Peak??



Jeffrey D. said...

As overpopulation corrects so does our culture. We move from the belief that we can dominate our planet and control our destiny toward a better understanding that external forces will define the boundaries of the playing field. Observing our resource base decline and our numbers accordingly will have a fundamental and profound affect on how we view ourselves on our planet. Parallel to the decline of our industrial civilization is an interesting emergence of a new cultural orientation. What role will the shifting cultural values play in the trajectory of decline moving forward? As physical limits and consequences increasingly define our declining industrial civilization and population the only real variable we humans will have any control over will be our own cultural response.

Is spite of the bumpy road and brutal consequences that may cause punctuated moments of immense suffering, there is a silver lining in all of this that gives one hope. I would argue that industrial civilization has increasingly been a degenerative force on our culture and that the silver lining in the "progress" of decline is that we will be given the opportunity to culturally evolve in new directions that inherently will bring our species back into balance with our biosphere and relationship with our fellow flora and fauna.

Looking back a few hundred years from now it will be obvious that we never would have been able to evolve culturally otherwise without the forces of decline?

gaiabaracetti said...

Hi everyone,
I too would like to politely protest the statement that policies intended to reduce overpopulation did not work. To say that something that clearly worked at a local level (China, Iran, but there are other examples) failed because it was not replicated at the global level seems a bit illogical to me. Hundreds of millions of people who were almost certain to be born had these policies not been implemented were not born: therefore, the policies worked. Had everyone implemented them, they could well have worked on a global scale too.
Many African and Asian governments are starting to try and provide easy access to contraception to whoever wants it, which to me proves that this kind of policy is considered effective (which of course doesn't necessarily mean that it is).
As someone who is supremely interested in the issue of population, I have read my fair share of articles proving that very often the reason women have many children is that they cannot choose how many to have. Of course, this is not the only reason, and of course we could simply ignore contraception and let children be born and starve instead (or tell people to never have sex), but I still think that a post about population should not fail to mention contraception. The main reason Europeans and North Americans, afterall, could decide to have less children, is because birth control was available and accessible.
Finally, how would you explain the fact that the population in Africa, which obviously is not capable of supporting the people it already has, keeps increasing? I would say it's a mixture of overexploitation of resources that cannot last for long, and foreign aid.

sgage said...


"plunder-assessment specialist"

I think I may have finally found my calling! I am going to print up some business cards right away...

Shane Wilson said...

I regard immigrants from Latin America in the U.S. the same way you regard Eastern European immigrants. I'm not sure how any credible response to the future we're facing here in North America doesn't include Latinos. I'm interested in next week's post regarding population movement.

latefall said...

@John Gossett and Gwaiharad
Now I am no expert, but I've noted that there are now two Ebola strains involved in the current situation. At first glance it strikes me as unlikely in a natural epidemic. I should do some more searching though. Also, a certain Monsieur Le Pen said a few words to that effect a little while back... search words are "Monsieur Ebola".

I am no fan of that approach. Not the least for the basis it selects on. Decimation sounds better.

"why they would bother with something that complex and risky, when massive population declines are on their way anyway"

Well, if they are under the assumption that if enough people die in Africa - we won't have to. I do not think they frame this question in a "locally sustainable footprint" sort of way.

Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks for putting big numbers in perspective! That's one thing I run up against with the deniers around me - for example, they look around and say "we have enough trees - plenty enough!" and I try to tell them "we" have grown from about 3 million to about 7 million just in my lifetime! But it's difficult if not impossible to wrap your brain around numbers that big - all we can do is 'scale down' mentally and make analogies.

And it's clear that the decline will be as irregular as it is today - when I check out the news and see the various places around the world that suddenly lost population to disasters, disease and war, I realize it could be my community one of these days - that part is gonna feel a lot more like a roulette wheel than it does today.

And this post is just another example of how the decline/ collapse is already happening - we just can't see it, because we're too close and it's too big.

I'm scheduled to do a small presentation on preparation (for any kind of sudden crisis)in my community next month - a small contribution, I hope.

Also working on a story about adapting to a sudden crisis - was a short story, has grown at least to novella size... hoping it doesn't get to novel because they are so much harder to sell. :-}

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I think you are missing a data point with: "The scripts differ along the usual lines: that is to say, the faux-liberal script is well-meaning and ineffectual, while the faux-conservative script is practicable and evil." There is also a happy marriage between the Christian "go forth and multiply" and the cult of progress "technology with make everything better forever" that insists that the only real problem gumming up the works is heathen Luddites such as your and me. Essentially insisting that the pyramid/ponzi scheme of exponential growth in population will match up with the unrelenting march of science and technology onward and upward to infinity and beyond.

Which segues nicely to "the difficult part of population contraction is its impact on economic patterns geared to continuous population growth... ...the brutal impact of the end of growth on an economy that depends on growth to function at all" Adam Smith and James Watts were born less than 10 years apart and less than 100 miles away. Watts increased the efficiency of the steam engine from 1% to 4% and made it more economic than horses and Smith told us that specialization of labour gave us returns to scale.

And we built on that. For the last 300 years we have had improvements in thermodynamic efficiency, population growth, and increases to economy's of scale. We've come to depend on it. But the early gains can't be repeated. A 400% increase in efficiency can only be repeated so many times. Thermodynamic efficiency can't be increased beyond 100%, and for all practical purposes it is much lower than that. And economies of scale are constricted by energetic gradients as elaborated by Ilya Prigogine and his dissipative systems.

Everything we know is predicated on a continuous expansion, modern economics takes continuous growth as foundational, and all of our systems and structures and plans are built upon it. But the world will not abide. The energetics of our present predicament constrain us and population and complexity will be going down. Much like it has in other civilizations and populations in overshoot. Whether it is a cataclysmic crash or a slow decline depends on one's perspective. If looked at in thousands of years since agriculture this is a flash in the pan, but if looked at from a day to day perspective this train wreck is going very, very slowly.


Eric S. said...

I remember in my college ecology classes, discussion of human population always treated it like for some mysterious reason, the laws of ecology don’t apply. In some of the classes I took on human ecology we’d talke about resource limits, read things like Limits to Growth and Collapse (my first exposure to those books), but when we actually talked about human carrying capacity we just kind of hit a blind spot. The familiar models and logistic equations didn’t work anymore and we went to discussing the usual solutions. Some students would talk about Education or widely available birth control. Others would talk about spreading their political system of choice or terraforming mars. We stopped using the language of ecology.

Could some of that blindness towards obvious patterns be cognitive dissonance from a system of inquiry hitting up against walls it can’t cross? When discussing human ecology, climate change, etc. you have to step beyond yeast cultures or fenced off nature reserves in the Serengeti and deal with complex global systems. And while science is great at working out cause and effect relationships in controlled environments it seems to have trouble when it faces the irreducible complexity of the real world. Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory, for instance, tells you a lot more about Dawkins than evolution. And the entire field of psychology focuses on human behavior and neurology but can’t even address the complexities of consciousness they arise from. Perhaps the most important questions of our time are questions we haven’t yet invented the methodology to even address properly, and that element of uncertainty itself drives people away from thinking about it.

Joe Roberts said...

As for whether or not people grasp the events that will unfold, no, of course they don't, but at the same time commentators who think people are totally naive about it all are truly mistaken. I just read an article about a mainstream survey that found that "seventy percent of Americans are convinced the economy has undergone permanent changes for the worse since the recession, while just 1 in 6 believes job opportunities for the next generation will be better than for theirs. Five years ago, 4 in 10 respondents held that more positive view."

That's a huge, fundamental change in public opinion in a very short time.

As for generational shifts in babymaking, I anecdotally offer information about my own family (American, white from 19th-century immigrants, middle to upper middle class). Both of my parents each have three siblings. Those 8 people, now in their 60s and 70s, had 10 children between them all (below the replacement rate). Those 10 children, now all but one in their 20s through 40s, have a total of.... TWO children between them all.

I think this is a fairly common scenario for families of this type.

Chris G said...

I commented last night about the perception of this change: if one simply lives day to day one might not notice it. However, one may also take a historical perspective and begin to adapt early to changes that are anticipated.

I think, quite clearly, most people the vast majority are comfortable living day to day; that is, too much anxiety associated with "the future." Here's this song that captures a lot of this, I feel.

There is no political solution
to our troubled evolution.
Have no faith in Constitution.
There is no bloody revolution.

We are spirits in the material world.

Our so-called leaders speak.
With words they try to jail you.
They subjugate the meek
But it's the rhetoric of failure.

We are spirits in the material world.

Where does the answer lie?
Living from day to day.
If it's something we can't buy,
There must be another way.

We are spirits in the material world.

Not altogether ironically, given the recent events in the center of America, this song was performed by The police.

Richard Larson said...

Dopamine levels will crash while population levels adjust.

peacegarden said...

Thank you for this…”The scripts differ along the usual lines: that is to say, the faux-liberal script is well-meaning and ineffectual, while the faux-conservative script is practicable and evil.”

How bracing to read writing containing such clarity on a beautiful Thursday morning! Bravo!

I tend to fall into the faux-liberal camp, but, thanks to you and the commentariat here, I catch myself more frequently…oops! I appreciate your reminder that the faux-libs and conserves (not to malign fruit varieties!) and their rhetoric have only gotten to the above quoted place in the past few decades.

It seems that the more something is repeated, the more it seems “normal” or even “true”…keeping us all nicely divided and giving us faux-righteousness for having one or the other faux leaning.

Thank you for helping us see the game, and giving us thought provoking essays every week.


Scott Nance said...

Another excellent effort; I'm really enjoying this series. Your point -- that demographic decline need not be catastrophic -- is a good one. It may have one paradoxical effect, though, and that is the repopulation of areas that are currently being depopulated. You see it in the towns in West Virginia close to Cumberland -- everyone is old, because all the young people have moved to Washington and other, greener pastures. It's even more evident on the Great Plains. With the reduction in the energy available for raising food, it's inevitable that there will be a reverse migration, away from the big cities back into rural areas. It's quite possible that, 200 years from now, Washington is 10% (or less) of its current size, while places like the Shenandoah Valley are more densely populated than they've been since the early years of the 20th century.

Odin's Raven said...

How long will it be before people start to sharpen their scalping skills?

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

You should say 'Snap!' to Gene Logsdon, JM. He published a post on the same matter only yesterday. Might as well recycle here the post that I left there:-

We’re already in overshoot. The sober ecological evidence for that is copious. But it also makes clear that the global human population will decrease dramatically over the next few decades, and we don’t have to do a thing about it! It’s going to happen anyway, whatever we do, or fail to do.

The fact seems to be that, practically, we were unable to do anything to control it when it was on the upshoot, which is now coming to its peak; and we won’t be able to do anything about it now it’s about to turn down again. In fact, it may have begun to do so already, below the global statistical radar. Malthus was clearly correct; just a bit hazy in his timescales.

Since his time, our knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of ecology have grown mightily; and it’s become unmistakably clear that we can’t buck the multitude of natural negative feedback loops of the biosphere, which allow nothing at all to grow exponentially for long, before applying correctives.

The more we study it, the clearer it gets: that we insanely narcissistic humans are not at all exempted from those natural processes, despite out stunned awe at our own indescribable brilliance and mastery. It becomes clear too that we’re not even in control of these biogeophysical processes, and show no sign of ever being able to gain such control.


Myriad said...

The exponential decay function generated by a constant surplus death rate (death rate minus birth rate = c) is, as k-dog pointed out, steepest at the outset. Under such a scenario, any "reservoirs" of old and chronically sick people are exhausted within the first few years (unless society manages to continue its current practice of preferentially supporting the elderly to the detriment of young people, in which case the reaper must cut into the younger population all the sooner). One extra funeral per observer per year is a nice way of putting it, but the supply of elderly relatives to absorb the blows won't last long, and people will probably be aware that the barista and the child are each representative of millions of others outside their personal circles.

However, that model is probably not realistic for describing the near term or the early years after peak population anyhow. An S-shaped curve is more likely, with the steepest part some years in the future acting upon an already partially reduced population. This is a bit harder to model mathematically, but it can be represented as an exponential increase, following peak population, in the cumulative number of excess deaths, changing over (during the "steep part") to an exponential decay of the remaining population above the carrying capacity.

That scenario is in some ways much worse than the scenario of exponential decay from the outset, because it takes longer to relieve population pressure on the environment. Dr. Meadows at the Age of Limits '14 conference said that the most intense problems occur at the point where population levels off, because that's when the "negative pressure" required to arrest the still-strong pressure for growth is the greatest. But in the catabolic collapse model, the initial decreases in population don't ease conditions any, because the decrease in the immediate effective carrying capacity (toward a much lower long-term-sustainable carrying capacity) can continue to run ahead of the declining population, possibly for centuries. Conditions would become most abject just before and during the steep part of the S, while the environment is most in danger a few years in advance of that, when desperation could lead to many otherwise-renewable resources being over-exploited to extinction.

Conclusions regarding which types of scenario lead to the better long-term outcomes are clear enough, and morally paradoxical enough, for me to self-censor discussing them explicitly in public.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...


But our capacity for wilful blindness, and for believing any damnfool tosh we really want to believe, trundles on steadily; and will trundle us over the lemming cliff, probably without most of us even noticing that it’s happening.

As usual, Dmitry Orlov has a mordant observation about this: In the time when the Soviet Union was collapsing, and its population took a sharp downturn, mostly there was no particular sign that anyone apart from workers in hospitals and morgues could see that made it clear what was happening. It wasn’t at all apocalyptic. It was just, as Dmitry puts it, that one morning you woke up and realised that half the people in your high-school year photos were now dead. Not with a bang; not even with a whimper; just silently, invisibly.

There’ll be some spectaclar famines and epidemics, without doubt; much chaos, exceedingly lethal wars, and on. But what mainly happens is that the death-rate quietly, unobtrusively, switches places with the birth-rate – by just a few percentage points. And so it begins.

Interestingly, both ‘The Limits To Grow’ and ‘TLTG – The Thirty-Year Update’ show human population plunging quite sharply, beginning sometime around the late 2020s/early 2030s both the death-rate AND the birth rate rise sharply (sic! Dmitry has interesting observations on why the birth-rate does that when times get really hairy). But the key point is that the death-rate is well ahead the birth-rate, and stays there; and the total world human population comes down drastically to a much lower level than the overshoot where we are now – as populations do in all these corrections, whichever species is going through them.

It’s interesting too that, despite the near-universal trashings by the guardians of othodoxy which – supposedly – annihilated TLTG and buried it ‘permanently’ when it came out, The Thirty Year Update makes it unarguably clear that the original 1972 projections have proven to be remarkably accurate, in the upshot. And the Update can now add much greater computing power, and a much more refined model – both of which point to the same conclusion of close accuracy again, for the near future.

And of course there are now masses more studies and statistics sequences which make it clear in many disciplines that these are big, natural, ungovernable process, which will play out to their ancient, usual ends; correcting the deviations of Mam Gaia’s self-sustaining, planetwide ecosystem; what Ted Hughes calls, in ‘October Salmon': “…Earth’s beauty dress/ Her life-robe…”

And we too, like the spent salmon, are caught, inexorably, in what Ted calls, in the last line:

“the machinery of heaven.”

donalfagan said...

It occurs to me that you are giving the Al Bartlett speech in reverse. Instead of seemingly small rates of growth, you are talking about seemingly small rates of decline.

Shawn Aune said...


The thought experiment doesn't claim to demonstrate what a 1% decline would look or feel like.

The point is that shifts to the death rate that could lead to huge population declines might be noticeable but don't necessarily resemble catastrophes.

thrig said...

Math, or just have a computer iterate things out. Let's say the birth rate is 1% and the death rate is 1.5%, over 100 years for a population of 70,000 (in C, modified to shoehorn into HTML for the include):

#include _stdio.h_

int main(void)
double population = 70000;
double birth_rate = 0.010;
double death_rate = 0.015;
unsigned int year = 2014;

double orig_pop = population;

printf("population in %d is %.0f\n", year, population);
for (; year < 2114; year++) {
population += population * birth_rate - population * death_rate;
printf("population in %d is %.0f (%.2f%% with %.2f%% delta)\n", year,
population, (population - orig_pop) / orig_pop * 100,
(birth_rate - death_rate) * 100);

return 0;

Running this results in:

population in 2014 is 70000
population in 2114 is 42404 (-39.42% with -0.50% delta)

A vast simplification, but one that should illustrate how a small difference between the birth and death rates over a few years can change a population.

Michael L said...

In the present, especially in the US where I live, we are enjoying a level of material comfort that is impossible to maintain without incurring a deep debt to be paid by future generations. Exhausted fossil fuels, eroded soils, a deeply disrupted climate, persistent pollution... I was fortunate enough to realize this was happening back in 2001 when I was 19 years old. Even back then I think I realized that if I had children they would be born into a world in may ways diminished compared to the one I was lucky enough to grow up in. The biggest favor I have done my children was not to have them in the first place.

Moshe Braner said...

K-dog: in the long run what matters is the reproduction by young women, as you say, although young women are not generally free to reproduce (or, alas, free to not reproduce) as they please, in a society with limited resources to raise children with.

But in the short term, starting with a population heavily weighed towards older people ("boomers" like me), a large reduction in population (not births) can certainly be caused by a somewhat-larger death rate of post-reproductive people. Given the large rate at which first-world Boomers consume resources per capita - certainly larger than the average reproductive-age person - this population decline would definitely lessen the ecological impact, thus helping along the younger generation. (But no, I'm not volunteering to walk out on the iceberg ahead of my time.)

And like the archdruid said, this is visibly happening as we speak, in Russia, for example. Older men are dying at a rate somewhat faster than in the past, and the population as a whole is therefore declining. 40+ million fewer people in North America within a decade may sound like catastrophe to you, but that's the normal number of people dying in North America in about 7 years under the present circumstances. Thus a different balance (or lack of balance) between birth and death rates could easily reach the level of 40 million population reduction in a decade without any visible catastrophe.

That's ignoring immigration, which we'll talk about next week, but I wonder how long into our decline will the USA seem like a desirable destination for immigrants - there has reportedly already been a large dip in net immigration post-2008.

BoysMom said...

Nearly everyone I've known who died in the several years died from advanced old age. One thing I expect to see quite a lot of in the years to come is younger deaths--seventy instead of ninety, for the simple reason that people who chose not to have children, or who have become estranged from their children, are not going to have the sort of support that lets one live so long. Not medical support so much as day to day living support. More young people will be engaged in the production of necessities for survival, rather than in caring for older generations, and even if the older folks could afford to hire someone to come in and help, the workers will be in the fields and on the range.

Walter said...

Hey - You did read my first book after all!

Moshe Braner said...

Darren: a 20 MW nuclear reactor is relatively tiny, some 30 times smaller than a typical power-generation reactor. Luckily for you. I live near the opposite corner of the state of Vermont, but our one reactor is over 40 years old (and will be shut down at the end of this year, after a long fight), and the amount of "spent" fuel rods that are, and will remain, on site is many times larger than at the Fukushima site (where the reactors are the same GE design, with the storage pools up in the penthouse under a sheet metal roof).

LewisLucanBooks said...

Interesting post. I have often puzzled over "population trends" in my own family. Just to put things in context, I'm 65.

My paternal grandparents had 18 children (during the Depression. Imagine!) They were Volga-German Protestants. I have always found it interesting that most of my aunts and uncles had 2 or less children (except for one crazy brother who had 5.) Among the cousins I'm aware of (any other Hamburgs,out there?) , they've had two or, often, none.

I've often puzzled over my own lack of interest in replicating myself. Not the slightest urge.

On the other hand, I've got a neighbor who has three children by two different woman. A new girlfriend has appeared on the scene and there's talk of "one or two of our own."

My best friends have one adult daughter. I've never said it out loud, but have occasionally thought "all their eggs in one basket." Sometimes, I think there's a bit of wisdom in the old adage "An heir and a spare."

So, I think this posting is really interesting. It's hard to see overall demographic trends looking at the people around me. Lew

latefall said...

re "plunder-assessment specialist" thanks for that nugget!
There's half a chance I'll get in touch with some MIC people and discuss this over a coffee or beer with them. As it is the circles I move in do not yet seem to have enough potential co-workers in them for a convincing product DEMONSTRATION. I'd think a couple of selfies with "little brown people" in certain restricted areas would get the message across with less waste and destruction then conventionally. Maybe that can drive a reassessment...

Thanks for the comments, saved me a lot of writing. Sadly there seem to be only few family traditions from which one can draw from in this respect ;).
I assume rules & tax(breaks) for kids, inheritance, should really be changed.
The up-front cost versus bottom line cost/benefit of kids is a significant factor I believe. Next to social considerations that can vary a lot. Like you say it is very much dependent on your environment (also in time I guess, i.e. life experience) and your anticipation of change. This is where I think there is the most potential for reducing fertility rate, especially with regard to women. Weed/porn/xbox may be too resource intensive as a general solution (even though it is a start), and may need some tweaks to push it onto women successfully :). Also, I expect men to be far more easy to manipulate than women in matters of fertility. On the other hand my impression is we never really tried until now. And even now, most of the time we just allow women "to be like men" in most respects (at least in the West). Would it be possible to design fulfilling, attractive, yet low footprint lifestyle that does NOT mix with kids for women?

There's a handful of points where I would beg to differ. Although, I believe given enough back an forth we would not see much qualitative difference. But there are one and a half exceptions:
"We've seen the rather spectacular failure of multiculturalism throughout Europe over the last few decades, primarily on account of a lack of integration (itself a product of cultural self-doubt and self-loathing)"
This is a rather complex issue, and in my opinion, not adequately addressed with a pass/fail metric. I am not so sure I share the mores with "the dominant tribe" the way things are going.
The other reason: There was a nice little video that showed a timeline of battles (granted not of violent deaths in general) superimposed on a map. Sobering with regard to Europe to say the least.
The other thing is whenever I hear sentences to the effect of "Humans are tribal, always have been and always will be." I need to stop yapping and turn of the flashing red light. Sure, we can argue about what tribal means in this or that context...
I just have to think of the Angles and the Vandals that at some point did not live very far from another (not sure how long the Angles go back though). These two should be enough to illustrate that results of large scale migrations are a very mixed bag and hard to predict for all parties involved. And "Germany" is a bit of a construct too from that perspective. I probably agree with you that one should take mores seriously. However, I don't want to stand in the way of an ongoing ethnogenesis on the grounds of vested short term interests peddled to me via mass media.

latefall said...

re migration
I wonder if there is some sense to categorize this into pull/push/rolling migration. Pull is what is going on most of the time, where there is an economic pull (more or less acknowledged) with subsequent family reunification. Push is refugees from mostly temporary hot-spots within a nation. And rolling would start when cultural entities of sufficient scale and inertia start moving into (or through) a place in such a scale that they are their own political (and military) representation. I don't see that happening today or tomorrow, but once a different narrative of the future catches on, who knows. Maybe just a couple of families in the beginning. But I could also imagine the Netherlands calling it a day and packing up once certain climate data is perceived as reliable and not nice.

rudyspeaks said...

In the referenced article from 2007 you made a point about Hubbert's Peak which seems incomplete, at least that was my impression (I HAVE been wrong, occasionally). You correctly note that Hubbert's Peak is bell-shaped, not saw=toothed. Yet, that deals only with extraction, not use. From Titusville to the first year of the Bush I presidency, was over130 years (1989). Yet in the ensuing 25 years we've burned through an equal amount of oil. Not surprising, given that no "oil-burning technology" existed in 1860, very little for decades to come, but, by 1989, a voracious oil-hungry infrastructure was ready to gobble up any available petroleum, using technologies undreamed of even in the 1940's (I thinking here of oil-based textiles, but I'm sure there are at least dozens of others). So wouldn't that make the down slope of H.P. more of a sawtooth? PS: Love this site!

jonathan said...

may i direct your attention to a book that you may find of interest? title: The Knowledge: how to rebuild our world from scratch. author; lewis darnell, research fellow, university of leicester. he cites one of your articles in his bibliography btw.

i have no connection with the author, the publisher, the university of leicester or any bookseller.

Joe Roberts said...

What do you think of the recent UNICEF projections that the population of Africa will soar to 4 billion in 2100, up from 1.2 billion today? I assume these are wildly inaccurate projections for the reasons you've described, and I know you normally prefer to keep your prognostications to North America, but I thought I'd ask anyway. This UNICEF report had a small swirl of press a few weeks ago.

Derv said...


I'm not saying there aren't differences between Americans in the Northern Plains and Canadians. There very clearly are. It's just that the difference is, in the grand scheme of mass migrations and cultures, quite minute. If my children and grandchildren were culturally thoroughly Canadian, I wouldn't find that much different than if they were thoroughly North Dakotan. It'd be quite different if they were thoroughly Japanese (which, once again, is not at all an insult to the Japanese or any other culture).

@Shawn...well, I'll wait for JMG's response, but I think you're incorrect. He says immediately after the thought experiment:

"Now take that process and extrapolate it out. (Those of my readers who have the necessary math skills should take the time to crunch the numbers themselves.) Over the course of three centuries, an increase in the crude death rate of one per cent per annum, given an unchanged birth rate, is sufficient to reduce a population to five per cent of its original level."

And then he says:

"Now imagine the same scenario, except that there are two additional deaths each year in your social circle, rather than one. That would be considerably more noticeable, but it still doesn’t look like the end of the world—at least until you do the math. An increase in the crude death rate of two per cent per annum, given an unchanged birth rate, is enough to reduce a population to five per cent of its original level within a single century."

That seems to pretty obviously associate "two more deaths" with "two percent increase," which is incorrect. It might be a simple phrasing issue, but an increase in deaths by 2 people per year does not at all equate to a 2% increase.

I suspect that you're right, in that we'd mostly agree after a back-and-forth. It is a complex issue, and certainly overly simplistic to simply say "failure" or "success" to multiculturalism, but I don't think it's unfair that the vision once held of a unified European set of values combined with myriad diverse cultures living in harmony hasn't turned out as hoped. Rather we are seeing fracturing, "balkanization," resurgent fascism, far-right reactionary movements, and a lack of adoption of European values by many immigrant populations even after two generations. I don't quite get what the flashing red light comment means, but understand that my comments aren't meant to make a value judgment on these things. I'm simply observing them. Humans have always been tribal, and something that was not tribal would in many significant ways not be human as we currently understand it. Any expectations we have of human activity needs to account for it. And if we categorize it as racism, well, then humanity is itself inherently racist (which I don't agree with).

FLwolverine said...

JMG – quite a sobering post, but (as others have said) also oddly comforting. Thoughtful, informed speculation on the long road down is preferable to simplistic WAGs or weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I think human extinction is possible but not probable, but I’ve also been wondering if it would be such a bad thing. We are looking at a long, hard road down, with many deep and dangerous valleys before our descendants finally start a gradual climb up again (if they ever do). Commenters here say that a good and satisfying life is possible with a very much reduced lifestyle (and I know they’re not talking about just giving up cars and ipads and supermarkets!). Yes, that’s true, but there will come a point in our descent where even that lifestyle, with whatever happiness and satisfaction it has, will be available to very few (if any), and our descendants will then have to struggle through the misery, deprivation, and death of those dark valleys before they have any possibility of attaining anything like that “reduced” lifestyle on the other side.

So my question is: why? It may be for the good of the species to survive the morass to come, but it’s going to be tough on the people. To borrow an example from the instructor in a Coursera class I’m taking (great class; more about it later), the child dying of starvation and malnutrition in first century China did not say to herself, “I’m dying, but it’s ok, because my death is justified - redeemed? – by all the benefits the agricultural revolution will give to people 2000 years from now.” Will our many-greats granddaughters say to themselves, as they watch their children starve, “It’s ok, their deaths are justified – redeemed? – because the human race will eventually have a better future”? Somehow, I don’t think so.

And it’s not like homo sapiens is exactly necessary for the earth to function. More like the opposite, I would say.

Regardless of what the answer is to my question, I know that the “life force” will go on, people will continue to have children, the species will continue to try to survive. I myself already have a grown son and two grandchildren committed to the effort. Given that, I think the best response to the situation is the one that you, Mr. Archdruid sir, propose: to figure out as much about the possible futures as we can, to face those futures, and to try to preserve “needful things”, in hopes that the knowledge we preserve can ease the long road down for our descendants and that some of it will still be available to those who climb out the other side of the morass.

And yes, before you ask, I am working on it.

This has been on my mind for awhile. Thank you for the opportunity to say it.

John Michael Greer said...

Breanna, that's something I've seen in a lot of families of late. It's standard for a civilization in the early stages of decline.

Derv, I see the confusion. Let's say the death rate was one per cent per annum. It increases to two per cent. That's an increase of one per cent per annum -- not a one per cent increase in the sense you mean! As for the faux-conservative viewpoint, well, we'll be discussing that next week.

Boneyard, of all the states in the Union, California's the one I'd least want to be caught in over the decades immediately ahead -- so many of the converging crises are focusing there!

Chris, exactly.

K-dog, you're missing the point -- which is admittedly easy. Very few people have any intuitive sense of how incremental change adds up to exponential growth or decline!

Pinku-sensei, given that they didn't scale up effectively to prevent us from getting boxed into the current mess, I think that's probably a very safe assumption!

Chris, well, except that that's not magic -- it's very nearly the opposite of effective magic!

Gloucon, don't get too optimistic too soon. Your skills at organic gardening are one asset, but the mess ahead of us is going to require more than that.

Jason, welcome back to civilization -- for what it's worth. Yes, we'll be talking about the feedback loops between economic and demographic contraction as things proceed.

Tim, I could see Pestilence giving him a helping hand in the next couple of decades. We'll talk about what declining public health and population immunity is going to do to major population concentrations down the road a bit.

Random, historical parallels support that claim -- in extreme crisis, people tend to make babies more enthusiastically than usual, but in the slow grinding poverty and hunger sort of decline, the birth rate usually drops and stays down.

MawKernewek, with the population density you've got on that side of the pond, things are likely to get ugly, no question.

SLClaire said...

I am wondering about the different effects that population reduction might have depending on who the increased death rate falls on. Imagine, for instance, something that anecdotal evidence suggests may be happening in the US: the increase in death rate kills older people preferentially over younger people. Of the last four people who died among my circle, three of them were in their 60s; two of them died of cancer, one of a progressive lung disease. Repeated over a whole society, this would shift median age downward over time. Now imagine, instead, that it preferentially affects children to young adults: the median age would shift upward. It seems to me that this would have noticeably different effects on the human ecology of the two societies even if other factors are the same. Is there any consistent trend along this line among civilizations in decline? If there is, what is its effect?

From the birth end of things, about ten years ago, in his book Radical Simplicity, Jim Merkel wrote that his calculations indicated that if everyone has only one descendent who in turn has only one descendent and so on, it would only take 100 years to drop the world population from 6 billion (about what it was then) to 1 billion. This assumed no change in death rate. Similar to some other readers, my birth family has seen something close to this. My parents had four children. My siblings and I have six among us (two sons each per sibling, no children for me). Of those children, who range in age from 9 to 30, not one has had a child to date. True, the two youngest, at 9 and 11, have lots of years to have children. But my 30 year old nephew has been married two years with no children so far.

On the other end of things, my father, who died two years ago at age 86, might be the last person in our family who dies of old age. He had medical insurance so he could have medicines and surgeries in his 60s that prolonged his life (and quality of life) and another surgery and nursing home care during the last several weeks of his life that increased the GDP even though they did nothing for him. I don't expect to have any of these; I can't afford medical insurance and don't have a personal physician as a result. I have not been in an MD's office in 13 years. I do my best to stay healthy and useful, but the stress of living in an age of declining economic output will, I expect, kill me earlier than I would have died if the resources my parents and grandparents had available in middle and old age were available to me. So be it. I'd still rather have my life than theirs, for my own reasons. At least that's what I think now. Ask me again in 10 or 20 years, if I'm still around.

John Michael Greer said...

Pierluigi, okay, you've stated your opinion. So?

Mark, stay tuned. It's one of the most consistent features of decline and fall.

Nate, my guess is that the optimal number of human beings on this planet in a future ecotechnic civilization will be somewhere between half a billion and one billion. That's large enough to allow for ample diversity, small enough not to put too much pressure on the biosphere.

Wiseman, okay, now take it the next step. Why was there no effective birth control program, despite all those initiatives on the part of all those liberals in the industrial world? The faux-liberal answer I was discussing, please note, was that we ought to keep on doing all the things that didn't get any effective programs going while the planet's population doubled.

Kutamun, I don't know Australian ecology, demography, and the like anything like as well as I would need to make a suggestion, but I do know that it's more barren than any other continent but Antarctica. Not a promising place for its current population...

Cherokee, understood. One of the things nobody wants to think about is the likelihood that choosing to have children now simply means that your biological lineage becomes extinct a generation later than it would otherwise.

Marc, thank you! I saw Ugo's post, and am looking forward to his more detailed discussion. As for McPherson, I remain baffled that somebody who has been trained as a scientist could fall into the sort of selective attention to the evidence that he uses to back his claims.

YJV, thank you! I suppose it won't surprise anybody if I mentioned that I worked all this out on a slide rule...

Adrian, no question, it may get very ugly in parts of the world as overcrowded as Britain. It's worth noting, though, that significant parts of the US are equally crowded -- we just balance that out with vast tracts of territory that have next to nobody living on them, usually for very good reasons.

Derv said...

Ah, ok. I think I get you now: you mean a one per one hundred (per "cent", not a percentage increase) per year. Apologies.

I look forward to next week's post. Perhaps it'll be my chance to finally earn that gold star!

Maria said...

In my own circle, the last two deaths were a friend who died of a stroke caused by a long battle with alcoholism and an acquaintance who had tachycardia that kept getting worse but (as I understand it) she refused to have it treated due to some kind of mental illness.

Two years ago, my sister had a fairly uneventful pregnancy and then was suddenly hospitalized with preeclampsia. Her daughter was delivered 6 weeks premature. They both received state of the art medical care and are thriving. In developing countries, the ending to that story is often very different.

These causes of death, are, of course, only 4 among the many that will probably see an uptick (each for different reasons). Melancholy thoughts on a balmy summer evening.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Bill Blondeau--Thank you for your explanation of the thinking behind the Roman practice of decimation. Since the soldiers and their officers shared the same views about luck, decimation as a last-ditch measure may actually have improved morale in the unit. Got rid of the Jonahs, even if some of them were your buddies.

Also goes to show that the superstitious practices of the ignorant natives sometimes are practical and effective.

Darren Urquhart said...

Hi Phil & Moshe

Thanks for your replies.

Yes, I will seek out someone who could help answer my question.

I guess my real question is what is the likely radius of the no-go zone. It is a very small reactor but then again I am probably only 10kms from it.

Not a problem for today, maybe something for my kids to worry about. Hopefully not.

Ray Wharton said...

You view on population decline reminds me very much of the analysis on future climate. Specifically that a relatively smooth transition on a global scale can be very very turbulent on a local and regional scale.

I suspect that North American decline in population might be a couple steps ahead of a global decline, considering that the United States is facing a major decline in wealth well on this side of 2030. In addition to that the baby boomer demographic bump is nearing a point where its mortality rate will start to increase rapidly.

Maybe being able to perform a good impromptu funeral will be a good skill for the coming era. I recall vividly that the funeral system in Greece was especially stressed by the crisis there a few years ago.

I am looking forward to next weeks post very much, more perspective on how people move around as 'Status quo res erant anti bellum' goes away into the rotting history books.

John Michael Greer said...

Tony, well, yes, there's uselessness and evil on all sides in any human phenomenon. As a quick summary of the way things tend to fall out in today's America, though, I think the dichotomy I sketched out works tolerably well.

ChemEng, excellent. That kind of practical blog is much needed.

Geronimo, thanks for the data point. What will happen to China -- well, that's one of the very large questions of the next few centuries, of course.

Mustard, and if peak peak becomes a common theme for the chattering classes, at what point do we get peak peak peak?

Jeffrey, since evolution is simply adaptation to changing circumstances, either way, Darwin wins. ;-)

Gaiabaracetti, they didn't keep the world's population from doubling. That's a tolerably good meaning for "failed," as far as I can see.

Sgage, sounds like a plan. Start marketing your skills to prospective warband chieftains right away!

Cathy, if it gets to novel size, talk to Shaun Kilgore at Founders House Publishing -- I know he's looking for good manuscripts.

Tim, well, yes -- I was talking about those viewpoints that admit that overpopulation is an issue. There's an entirely different, though equally meretricious, set of viewpoints that start by denying that it's any kind of problem at all.

Eric, I think that's part of it, but there's also the pervasive power of the mythology of progress at work in modern culture. Most people these days are unable, on a visceral level, to believe in real limits that humanity can't somehow bluster or wheedle its way past. Thus they never get around to applying what they know about the rest of the cosmos to themselves.

Joe, changes in expectations are something I watch closely. Once the majority of people in this country become convinced that it's not going to get better, ever, I suspect that things will blow sky high very fast.

Chris, now there's a blast from the past. I used to dance to that song when I was in college the first time.

Richard, alternatively, population levels may crash while dopamine levels adjust!

John Michael Greer said...

Gail, you're most welcome. Just one of the services I offer...

Scott, 200 years from now, Washington DC will be mostly under water, so its population will be fairly low! Still, your broader point applies: the places that are good to live in a declining deindustrial society are not the same as the places that are good to live in an expanding industrial society.

Raven, you might want to get working on that.

Rhisiart, exactly! It's "the machinery of heaven," the ordinary not-quite-balance of births and deaths, that do the thing. A first-rate poem, by the way.

Myriad, to my mind an S-shaped curve is relevant only on a global scale, and then only in a smoothed sense. I expect to see different regions, nations, and social strata take demographic hits at different rates, with steep dieoff in one place balanced by relative stability in others. Thus where the misery is worst will vary drastically depending on where you are, and a galaxy of other variables.

That said, I've noted several times already in these essays that I expect the next four or five decades to witness a crisis on the scale of the one that slammed Europe between 1914 and 1954. That on top of the downward demographic pressures already coming into play may cause some very steep declines for a while in North America, among other places: not just among the old, but spikes in child mortality, not to mention young men of draft age! More on this as we proceed.

Donal, exactly! You get tonight's gold star for noticing that.

Thrig, I'll take your word for it -- I don't speak C. ;-)

Michael, that's a valid choice, and one that a lot of people are making these days.

BoysMom, the canary in the coal mine I'm watching is childhood and infant mortality -- that's already very high in the US compared to other industrial nations. When it starts to spike -- when you suddenly realize that a lot of the families you know have lost a child -- then the population implosion is on in earnest.

Walter, I did indeed!

Lewis, thanks for the data point. As a matter of statistical certainty, of course, due to population contraction, most of us are going to have no descendants at all in 500 years.

John Michael Greer said...

Latefall, do you think they'd make good warband chieftains? ;-) As for migration, exactly -- and it's the rolling-migration effect that really throws things into the blender in a dark age. Much more on this as we proceed.

Rudyspeaks, a lot of the oil-burning technology we have could be left rusting with empty fuel tanks without causing any particular loss to the rest of industrial society. Go look up, for example, just how much fuel could be saved if the global tourism industry were to be shut down, the way it was during the Second World War! That's among the reasons why I continue to find the shark-fin scenario unconvincing.

Jonathan, thank you -- I've got a copy.

Joe, any linear process extended far enough ends in absurdity. The estimate you've quoted is a great example.

Wolverine, as I see it, nothing I will or won't do will have any impact on how soon humanity goes extinct. Whether or not humanity should survive is thus not something I worry about. On the other hand, what I do now may have a real impact on the next few centuries, so that's what gets my attention. Of course your mileage may vary!

SLClaire, and of course that's a massive issue. When times are hard, the old and the young tend to die more often; the old don't have much of an impact on the overall population, but a spike in infant and childhood mortality -- since it removes people from the population before they can breed -- has a disproportionate effect.

Derv, not a problem. I wasn't as clear as I could have been.

Maria, exactly. It's not an easy subject, but it has to be taken into account.

Ray, I think you're right -- add on the impact of a collapsing empire to the other downward pressures on US demographics, and a very steep early decline rate is a real possibility.

Michael McG said...

What to do about it is something else again. Thanks again for action inspiring post. For my part passing on skills to a large batch of preschool grand kids is in the cards. They love to play cards, through these games they are acquiring good basic math, statistical analysis and social skills with each other. Some of the older ones (5) are learning to bluff.

k-dog said...

K-dog, you're missing the point -- which is admittedly easy. Very few people have any intuitive sense of how incremental change adds up to exponential growth or decline!

Now that's insulting telling me I'm missing an easy point when you are all missing mine. And please don't tell me I don't understand when I'm appreciating a nuance which is being overlooked. I get exponential growth very well. I learned about it when learning calculus as a pup and also when I learned physics. I have been using exponentials for years.

What I don't see being appreciated is that it would take a cultural shift to produce the inflection point to even begin a decline. Because fellow readers, WE ARE STILL GROWING! The change in cultural values needed to begin a planned decline would be huge and nothing on the radar says it is even in the pike.

Beyond which, this is beginning to be nonsensical. The world is not going to cooperate with any 'barely noticeable' population decline planned or otherwise. We could easily be out of resources to maintain half our present population within fifty years. Very easily. Kiss slow collapse goodbye, no hardly noticeable drop in population per year is going to cut the population in half within fifty years.

The odds of the world cooperating with or producing on its own a population exponential with the time constant we are discussing is nil. That what the -.009779 in my equation is called by the way. It has a name. The time constant.

Change and collapse will become exponential in the years to come as interconnected systems fail and not our response too it. We are a civilization in severe overshoot and we will fall long before an 'extra death or so a year' can possibly save us.

However it happens, the world in 300 years will have far fewer people in it. On that we can all agree. Provided none of you are cornicopians.

k-dog said...


It is I who border on rudeness, sorry.

I misunderstood you but re-read your response and my tail is between my legs.

K-dog, you're missing the point -- which is admittedly easy.

You were merely saying that it is an easy point to miss and I thought you were slamming me on my first reading.

I do understand exponentials very well. A smooth decline over centuries requires the resource base and environment to decline in exactly the same way and it won't. Expect discontinuities.

As it crashes so shall we, if we have no wiggle room (slack in the chain) when it does. For we are the dependent variable. A function of the environment and not the other way around.

Increasing wiggle room would be a good idea, if it were possible.

nuku said...

JMG...Has anyone here brought up the issue of euthanasia?
For some historical cultures facing real in-your-face limits, voluntary euthanasia was a culturally approved choice that some (mostly old/infirm) people made in the interests of group survival. I’m thinking obviously of American Indian and Inuit people, but I would imagine there are many others.
Aside from the religious objections, which I won’t address because they are not relevant to the discussion, it seems to me that strong non-religious objections spring in part from the myth-of-progress/denial of limits mind-set.
Perhaps in the de-industrial future, when environmental carrying limits of population are more widely accepted, voluntary euthanasia will become more acceptable, with appropriate rites.

Mark Luterra said...

"I think human extinction is possible but not probable, but I’ve also been wondering if it would be such a bad thing. We are looking at a long, hard road down, with many deep and dangerous valleys before our descendants finally start a gradual climb up again (if they ever do). Commenters here say that a good and satisfying life is possible with a very much reduced lifestyle (and I know they’re not talking about just giving up cars and ipads and supermarkets!). Yes, that’s true, but there will come a point in our descent where even that lifestyle, with whatever happiness and satisfaction it has, will be available to very few (if any), and our descendants will then have to struggle through the misery, deprivation, and death of those dark valleys before they have any possibility of attaining anything like that “reduced” lifestyle on the other side."

I have a somewhat different perspective here. Rates of depression (a pretty good index of "misery") are higher in the developed world now than they have probably ever been. The problem, as I see it, is that the human psyche did not evolve in a safe environment, and that absent real risk, pain, and threat there is little that truly matters. When nothing really matters in a life-or-death way we attach great meaning to things like sports, prized possessions, TV shows, and celebrity relationships. Our never-used fight-or-flight response morphs into a continuous low-level anxiety about our jobs, our security, our children, etc.

Wars come and go, and battles last only days to weeks. Plagues pass, and for any one person the sickness strikes only once, resulting in either death or survival and recovery. Droughts and crop failures create famines, but ensuing good years will bring periods of plenty, at least to those who are growing the food.

I cannot say I look forward to a world where physical suffering becomes more common, but I long for a return to an existence where real things matter. Where a good harvest brings joy and celebration. Where good farm planning is important not just for satisfaction but for health and survival. Where the cycles of weather and seasons cease to be mere curiosities through the windows of our climate-controlled spaces but instead become realities in which we are enmeshed. There is a certain spark of life in those people who have come close to death and survived. There is a certain joy that is inextricably intertwined with a inevitability of change and loss. If JMG's vision of the future comes to pass, I have a feeling that life will become both more difficult and more meaningful for the creatures we call humans.

Kutamun said...

think in Australia we have an analogous situation to your "abandon the southwest and retreat behind the appalachian redoubt " model ....
Northern Australia to be battered by wild cyclones and vast numbers of people fleeing asia looking for succor ..northern australia / u.s southwest .
Here we have the great dividing range , which is cooler , moister , though beset by wildfires .
Mega cities along coastline to be the bad lands , seas ( rising) of unrest , crime disease and poverty ..Already , waves of second generation migrants have been pinged recently for travelling to the middle east to fight against the west as jihadists ..passports cancelled , though plenty of willing recruits remain .
Fortunately , most people in ozland think god is a footy team or a second investment property , and a gun is someone that can change channels on their massive plasma without spilling their beer . This secular lack of firearms combined with patrician authoritarian streak on the part of the authorities should ensure order is maintained , though most of the western districts of the south east will also have to be abandoned as we retreat to a thin strip of mountains with vast deserts on one side and watery hotbeds of decaying jihadist mega cities on the other ..
We will be scratching around like hobbits dodging huge bushfires ..
I still think Tasmania will be a good place to be , huge hydrolelectric scheme , fertile soil , forests and water , an island , though i am staying on the mainland at present .
We presently feed the equivalent of 60 million people with our agricultural exports , though a lot of land is underutilised in my own district through being owned by inactive property speculators , unable to compete with still operating big centralised international chains ( most of the fruit / olive/ wine/ dairy) ..or through being dedicated to large scale production of beef / wool fibre for export ..
On the resources front , percapita energy supplies better than most , though we will be burning lots of coal/ uranium ( the u.s owns much of west australias lng gas ) ....
The wheels will keep turning here a lot longer than most places , though i expect the public will be kept on a very short leash ....

Agent Provocateur said...


I note a few people have taken a stab at the math behind your thought experiment. I'm not sure its as complicated as some have presented. The implied assumption is that the before the increase in deaths, the birth rate and death rate are equal. After the start point you just decrease the population by 1% every year by increasing the death rate by that amount but keeping the birth rate constant. Thus after t years you will have (0.99)^t of the original population. If your end point is 5% (or 0.05) then:

(0.99)^t = 0.05

Take the log of both sides of the equation and solve for t and you have (recalling log (x^y) = y log(x))

t = log(0.05)/log(0.99) = 298 years

Similarly for a 2% decrease per year

t = log(0.05)/log(0.98) = 148 years

You were close enough for a net 1% per year decrease in population. You were a little off for the 2% per year decrease. I expect you relied on somebody else's math.

Just for completeness sake; a decrease to 5% in 100 year can be determined as follows:

r^100 = 0.05

Again take the log of both sides and divide both sides of the equation by 100 and you get

log (r) = log (0.05)/100

Now raise 10 to the quantity on both sides of the equation (recalling 10^log(x) = x for base 10 logarithms)

r = 10^[log(0.05)/100] = 0.97

This implies a 3% decrease per year (not 2%)

None of this affects your basic point which is well made regardless.

beneaththesurface said...

Thank you for writing a post about population; it helps me better articulate the issue to others. It's refreshing to read something that fully admits the reality of overpopulation but doesn't fall into predictable thought camps on the issue.

I find that people around me tend to fall into two categories. The 1st: Quite a few believe that overpopulation is not a problem. "Malthus was wrong," they say, and treat any mention of overpopulation as automatically racist. These folks have no concept of carrying capacity (maybe for other species, but not for us) nor of the phantom carrying capacity that has been temporarily enabled by fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, I tend to find myself at odds with those of the 2nd category, who do grasp that the world is overpopulated. They often view population as an independent variable not as a dependent one, looking at it in isolation from other factors. "People should stop having children," they seem to say. Statements about choices people "should" make tend to annoy me, for they usually indicate what's not going to happen. I think what also bothers me is the tone of judgement, the lack of understanding of the reasons why people do have children, and that such statements tend to come from older overprivileged white males. I say this as someone who has chosen not to have children for multiple reasons, one being overpopulation. For me though, it's a personal decision, not a directive of what choices others should make. Nor do I believe that it makes much difference in the scheme of things. For myself, passing myself down genetically to future generations is unimportant to me, but passing myself down through cultural means (in whatever small way) is something I hope I accomplish.

One other point: While I think it's impossible to prevent a deep drop in human population over the coming century or two, I don't think that's an excuse to sit back view all increased deaths as just "nature taking its course" and not to work to avoid the most evil kinds of deaths, to the extent we can. Even though an increase of suffering is unavoidable these next few centuries, I think some kinds of suffering are more abhorrent than others. I would rather that genocide not be a major depopulation force, and less traumatic processes contributing more to lower life expectancy. For one small example, the end of energy/resource-intensive modern medicine that has prolonged the dying process for the elderly will increase the death rate some, but in my mind, that's not entirely a tragedy.

It's paradoxical the amount of attention we place on death in our society. In some ways, death is all around us: in violent movies and video games, in the daily news media, yet so few of us deeply and fully contemplate our own deaths and thus never fully live. In the process of become more collapse-aware, I have started to contemplate my death more (which would have been good to do regardless of the future trajectory). I recently went to the memorial for my grandmother, who died at age 100. I was thinking how I'll likely die earlier than all my grandparents (all who lived to at least 86), but to me the quantity of years is not what I strive for. I want to die having lived fully, regardless of whether I die at 41, 73, or 100...

Tom Bannister said...

"Tom, an elephant under the carpet? Here in the States, it's just an elephant in the living room. I gather that New Zealand carpets are unusually roomy. ;-)"

Hahaha! nope but good point. :-)
Just had a thought, perhaps the book/film children of men might me a not indecent guide to what the next few decades might look like? humans won't physically lose the ability to reproduce of course, but if so many children don't survive we might as well have large swaths of the populace infertile.

Just on another note, regarding expectations of the future, I'm just wondering if you're familiar with New Zealander singer/ songwriter Lorde? She was very popular in the US (and around the world) world for a song called Royals (released last year). the lyrics in particular might be of interest to you:


[Verse 1]
I've never seen a diamond in the flesh
I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies
And I'm not proud of my address,
In a torn-up town, no postcode envy

But every song's like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin' in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin' the hotel room,
We don't care, we're driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody's like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don't care, we aren't caught up in your love affair.

And we'll never be royals (royals).
It don't run in our blood,
That kind of luxe just ain't for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz.
Let me be your ruler (ruler),
You can call me queen Bee
And baby I'll rule, I'll rule, I'll rule, I'll rule.
Let me live that fantasy.

[Verse 2]
My friends and I—we've cracked the code.
We count our dollars on the train to the party.
And everyone who knows us knows that we're fine with this,
We didn't come from money.

But every song's like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin' in the bathroom.
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin' the hotel room,
We don't care, we're driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody's like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don't care, we aren't caught up in your love affair

Sorry if that's too long a comment btw

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, excellent -- it also means they're not sitting in front of the TV having their brains turned to jello, which is certainly a good thing.

K-dog, I certainly didn't mean to single you out. I'm startled, though, that you think I'm talking about planned population decrease. I'm not -- I'm talking about war, famine, pestilence, the collapse of public health, death rates soaring as the economy grinds to a halt and some semblance of a replacement has to be jury-rigged, etc., etc. Because there's a great deal of waste and unnecessary expenditure of energy and resources in the current industrial system -- again, consider the energy and resources that could be saved almost at once by shutting down the global tourism industry! -- I think there's a lot more wiggle room than you do; more wiggle room will become available as war, famine, pestilence, etc. hammer the human population and free up resources for the survivors. That will likely spread out the demographic decline, as I see it.

One of the reasons why the thought experiment may actually turn out to be closer to the reality than, say, an S-shaped curve is that it's entirely possible we could get a really sharp dieoff in the next few decades: say, a global pandemic, or a civil war here in the US that shreds what's left of the economy and public health infrastructure, with all sides doing their best to deny food and other resources to the others. I think you can see how that could take out a fairly large fraction of the North American population in a hurry, and leave the following decades to proceed at a slower pace. Still, all this is in the realm of incident, which can't be predicted in advance.

Nuku, well, I've mentioned here several times that I've long suspected that the Baby Boomers may manage one more mediagenic fad on their way out: suicide parties, where they get together with their aging friends for one last fun evening, then down the pills and booze and help each other tie plastic bags over their heads.

Kutamun, that seems plausible enough. Underground dwellings, like those hobbits prefer, might indeed be worth exploring with an eye toward brushfire season.

Agent, fair enough. No, I worked this up on my slide rule -- clearly I got something messed up partway through the second calculation.

Beneath, excellent. The whole issue of what I like to call "yotta language" -- "yotta do this, yotta do that" -- and the corruption of morality by the word "should" is one that needs a discussion here one of these days. As for making sure that the causes of death shift toward the less hideous, yes, that's something that deserves attention: Nature will certainly take her course, but that doesn't imply any particular route to get there.

Kutamun said...

I suppose i cant finish talking about Australia without considering W.A , East Harare or Perth- fontein as it has come to be known , being the repository of fleeing white zimbabweans and south africans with their accompanying horde of wealth , as well as many Poms fleeing the debacle that UK has become , along with those that dont like dark skinned migrants , seeking some sort of recreation of an 1850s white anglo utopia deep in the southern ocean , which australia undoubtedly has been for many years .
Population 2.5 million in an area which would be the second largest country in the world ,
W.A is also the treasure trove of huge American energy mega corporations , with 200 billion $$ in the pilbara region alone . It is undoubtedly this Gas which Murrican politicians refer to when they speak of exporting LNG to Europe ..
Environmentally speaking , apart from a sliver of elevated coastal range around the old whaling port of Albany in the south , W.A is a disaster, destined to become largely desert as the indian ocean heats ..
Politics there has lurched alarmingly to the neo con right , to the point where the imported German car driving populace emphatically resists any attempt by federal government to tax resources being extracted by foreign investment .. The tiny population with huge energy and ore per capita will undoubtedly keep the wheels turning for quite some time, though water is already being supplied to the capital by desalination as the rains routinely fail , temps soaring into the high forties ( celsius) several months of the year ..
Seccession has almost occurred a number of times in the past , and is never far from the surface , antipathy the predominant feeling toward other parts of Australia . Protected militarily by the u,s who own it , who knows what might happen if the fleets are recalled , Australia having no credible air defences sans the JSF lemon , our tiny military being almost wholly integrated into the U.S under the banner of "interoperability " ..

Gloucon X said...

Rhisiart Gwilym said...As usual, Dmitry Orlov has a mordant observation about this: In the time when the Soviet Union was collapsing, and its population took a sharp downturn... It wasn't at all apocalyptic. It was just, as Dmitry puts it, that one morning you woke up and realized that half the people in your high-school year photos were now dead. Not with a bang; not even with a whimper; just silently, invisibly.

By not producing any actual numbers Dimitry gives the impression here that the population decline was something like 50%. This has led to an exaggeration of what happened in Soviet Russia. So let us define “sharp downturn” using some real data, shall we?

Russia lost: 4% of pop, or about 6.8 million over a 20 year period beginning in the early 1990’s (And how much of that was emigration?). To get to the 10% per decade loss we are proposing for the US, Russia would have needed to lose 29.7 million during that two decade period. So to get our 10% decrease in US population per decade, we need something 4 times worse than what happened to Soviet Russia. So the question is: What would have to happen to produce conditions in the US that are 4 times worse than the collapse of Soviet Russia? (And to follow up on K-dogs point we are growing much faster that Russia was before its collapse). By my estimates the US needs an extra 4.7 million deaths a year to decline by 1% per year if the number of births stays the same. That won’t be easy or unnoticed. Come on secret Monsanto plague labs, work your magic!

JMG said Gaiabaracetti, they didn't keep the world's population from doubling. That's a tolerably good meaning for "failed," as far as I can see.

This seems a bit harsh. Something cut global birth rates in half since the 1950’s. What was it? Maybe it wasn’t “liberals”, but if they did contribute towards keeping the population from being 14 billion instead of 7 billion, I’d have to give them at least a C rather than an F. Did you really think that it was possible to stop population cold in the 1960’s?

Pierluigi Dipietro said...

"Pierluigi, okay, you've stated your opinion. So? "

Nothing really different from your conclusions,at the end, except one: the time frame of events is shortened, this should have an impact on our collective behavior.

You suggested something like a "downward BAU" , which it seems unlikely to me.

The Seneca cliff could impact severely one single particular generation, and this will lead to some strong cultural changes, in my opinion. Changes that could impact the rest of the story,

Bottom line: it will not be a doomsday, but for sure not a gentle downward slide of several decades.

Losing 20-30% of world population in as little as 10 years, how could be described? Do we have historical examples?

Odin's Raven said...

Do you suppose that there may be a re-growth of the forests of huge trees that were portrayed in 18th c. America, or might there be sufficient demand for timber to prevent this?

The Great Lakes as a freshwater 'Mare Nostrum' surrounded by a new but smaller American empire is an interesting idea. If warbands of cattle or bison or sheep herding nomads prowl it's hinterland and pillage it's settlements, might pirates prey upon it's commerce? Might a new Pompey arise leading fleets of sailing ships galleys or canoes to sweep them from it's waters?

donalfagan said...

@beneaththesurface, IMO Malthus was right, but people insist on getting him wrong:

RPC said...

Regarding the effectiveness of population control measures: I think we need to establish a criterion for "success." JMG's criterion is somewhere below a doubling of population in the last quarter century, but we don't know how far below. We also don't have a control case; without the population control measures that were implemented, would population have e.g. tripled?
(As an analogy, I recall reading an article in which the author was wringing her hands about how despite decades of activism the pollution levels in Seattle hadn't changed. One of the commenters pointed out that in those same decades population had doubled, so keeping the pollution constant could be regarded as a resounding victory.)

St. Roy said...

This post reminded me of Paul Chefurka's "World Energy and Population" or WEAP model that he published in 2007. The readers of this post may find it interesting. He projects world population decline during the 21 Century from from declining net energy. Of course, this will be accelerated by the three environmental reasons you speak of here.

Luckymortal said...

Apocalypse is as apocalypse does and collapse is in the eye of the beholder.

A well off Russian during population decline might look up from an engrossing day of work and wonder "My, where has the time gone? And with it all the people?"

But was it so humdrum from the perspective of those who didn't make it?

Take two of my family members, Al and Mel.

Al works in Tech, believes in the coming singularity and a future of infinite nano-tech fueled population growth expanding into an infinite cosmos. In his world of the well-to-do poitical class, he experiences a generally rising standard of living (but for the blunderings of this or that politician) and rising life expectancy. Things getting better all the time.

Mel's an anarchist activist empowering living and working among the homeless. Death and decline surround her, a generation of drifters with prospects so low they've given up trying. Her friends die left and right from train-hopping accidents, disease, overdose, police beatings... or they just disappear. Of course, the losses are replaced by an ever-growing stream of new folks dropping out, or pushed out, of the system....

Mel speaks as though a Biblical apocalypse is already at hand, a cruel dystopian government rules the land, and the horsemen ride through the streets in broad daylight, mowing down the innocent in front of us, though we dare not speak of it.

Al Frequently says: "people have been saying the world's going to end for a looooong time and it never does."

Mel always answers, "The world ends all the time, and the people left don't even notice."

On paper, decline don't look so bad. Some people gotta live it though....

progress4what said...

JMG - This week's comments manifest a subset of thought that says roughly,"No need to have children, because your individual genetic line will be extinct in two generations."

This is unfortunate for several reasons - the most overriding of which is that it fails to acknowledge that survival of progeny into the future will be, most definitely, a differential affair.

And one thing that one can see unfolding on this comment thread this week, is that some of us humans who have the most to offer to the future, being reflective, peaceloving, intelligent planners and doers - are deliberately taking *our?* genes out of the game by not having children; as a deliberate choice. I don't know where this urge of the "best" toward non-procreation comes from - but it is altogether a fracking shame, IMO.

On another note, I look forward to next week's post and what it has to say about the topic of differential survival. Let me make reference to the words of Tim Horan:

"When I suggest to my fellow Anglo-Saxon males down-under that the future demographics of our population will look very different to their ideal of white, lager drinking, sausage sizzling citizens I encounter a coarse push back that involves racial epithets and mutterings about the "Guvmint turning back the boats."

Tim, I wouldn't be too hard on your mates - and I certainly wouldn't make fun of them. They are expressing the very basic human drive to see THEIR genetic heritage survive into the far future. Given sufficient luck, drive, and intelligence, some of them may well succeed. You might want to get behind them or stay well clear of them, if things go down, Down Under.

Of course the sausage of the future may be rabbit or insect based (y'all have a lot of those down under, right?) and the lager may turn into a (locally sourced, of course) marijuana product - but some of the folks you describe are gonna' get some of their progeny into the far future, if anybody does.

Eric S. said...

I think that’s definitely part of it, but there seems to be something else at stake. Most ecologists are pretty aware of the things behind the issue of human population growth, and also pretty aware that the networks that make it possible are pretty rickety. The problem is that once the opportunity for people to start testing the theories and models about how, when, and where these changes will start hitting hard come, those theories and models will be the last things on anybody’s mind. When you turn the things we know about nature onto the lived experience of the whole of the human species today, there’s not a way to step out of the mess and make sense of it. Our society’s entire approach to knowledge requires that you be able to study things from the outside. When an anthropologist starts experiencing the culture they’re studying internally, the research is corrupted. Psychologists study behavior and neurology of others without reflecting internally on the workings of our own minds, and ecologists study ecosystems and population dynamics very well, even those that include humans. It feels like there’s another myth at work in the failings of science to capture the workings of global systems of which happen to be a part. Perhaps it could be called the myth of the detached observer. How do you study a process when you, yourself are a participant in that process?

Ed-M said...

Well that was certainly an interesting post; and all those comments, it took me a couple hours reading them all (with some interruptions -- then I had to go back and reread the post I was interrupted in.

However, I'm not sure the population decline will level off at 5%. Remember, the pre-contact native population of North America was about 18 million souls. This, mind you, was in a healthy environment tended by the natives for the optimum of maximum output with maximum biodiversity. And the land wasn't poisoned in many, many areas, either (the worst and most widespread areas being the regions being fracked for oil and gas).

Well now that I'm on a fossil fuel roll, I would like you all to go over to Robertscribbler's blog ( and review the latest Methane Monster article and scroll down into the comments where the commentariat are talking of fossil fuel companies and execs are looking at the methane clathrates as yet another "fossil fuel" resource to be exploited. If they manage to pull that off, it will be business as usual until 2100 when the remaining clathrates begin to really let go, then humanity becomes extinct, and the planet will become like Venus (over the course of several centuries -- for both, of course).

Michael McG said...

RE Hobbit houses: I remember my grandfather Ed Harrigan fought in WW1. At 23 his unit mates called him the old man. By 23 he had already homesteaded in Montana and Canada. In the early 1900s a load of Irish Minnesotans went to Montana and built sod huts on the Prairie. The called them castles e.g. Harrigains castle. My cousin has a picture book of such castles. It amazes me how adaptive and opportunistic people can be. Anyway when homesteading opened in Canada, Ed moved there and left his Montana place to his cousin Pete Owens. All was going well until WW1 broke out and the authorities attempted to conscript him into the then Queens Army of Canada to fight the Hun. The story goes, he hightailed it to Mpls where his father lived, the Mounties on his tail. In Mpls he joined the US army thereby gaining his citizenship thus avoiding the humiliation of having to serve the despised crown. Or so the story goes minus much embellishment. Have a great week

Mark Rice said...

Off of this weeks topic:
An opinion piece in the San Jose Mercury News criticising Obama for believing in the civic religion of progress!

"He also believes history follows some predetermined course, as if things always get better on their own."
"In Obama's hazy sense of the end of history, things always must get better in the manner that updated models of iPhones and iPads are glitzier than the last."

Wow. Someone in the mainstream media not buying into the myth of perpetual progress.

St. Roy said...

@Agent Provocateur

Check out Paul Chefurka's mathematical model for die-off leading to NTHE in 2030 based on Guy McPherson's work.

Paul Chefurka NBL August 6, 2014

This is a purely mathematical exercise, with no theoretical underpinning.
The technique:
I kept the crude birth rate constant at the current rate of 2%.
The crude death rate starts off at the current rate of about .8%.
Each year the rate increases by 40%.
The multiplier of 40% is chosen empirically to give a world population of 0 at the end of 2030. 
All numbers are in millions.
Year Deaths Pop.
2015 58 7,200
2016 82 7,286
2017 117 7,350
2018 167 7,379
2019 235 7,360
2020 328 7,273
2021 451 7,091
2022 610 6,781
2023 802 6,307
2024 1,011 5,631
2025 1,201 4,732
2026 1,300 3,626
2027 1,215 2,398
2028 881 1,231
2029 378 374
2030. Four years have more than a billion deaths per year (over 100 times the WWII death rate), but they come near the end of the die-off.
There is no way to predict the shape of the curve. It all depends on what kind of shit hits the fan and when.
To provide some context, my article on sustainability from last year estimates that a truly sustainable global population is around 35 million. You can see from the numbers just how close that is to zero given our current population. But it’s more people than existed on the planet until about 3000 BCE – 5,000 years into the agricultural revolution.
To be absolutely clear, I do not think that 100% extinction within 15 years has more than a 1% or 2% probabilit Also note that even under these draconian assumptions the population doesn’t drop back below today’s value until the sixth year.
Here, I’ll see if this makes the chart more readable:
Year | Deaths| Population
2015 |||| 58 | 7,200
2016 |||| 82 | 7,286
2017 ||| 117 | 7,350
2018 ||| 167 | 7,379
2019 ||| 235 | 7,360
2020 ||| 328 | 7,273
2021 ||| 451 | 7,091
2022 ||| 610 | 6,781
2023 ||| 802 | 6,307
2024 | 1,011 | 5,631
2025 | 1,201 | 4,732
2026 | 1,300 | 3,626
2027 | 1,215 | 2,398
2028 ||| 881 | 1,231
2029 ||| 378 | 374
2030. Oh, as to causes – my top candidate is infectious disease, followed in descending order by starvation, dehydration and violence. There may well be massive wars in that period, but I don’t think even a thermonuclear war has the ability to kill this number of people directly. Starvation caused by a prolonged nuclear winter would definitely help things along, though.

/Users/GHS1/Desktop/The 3Es/NTHE_zps0b270100 copy.png

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Ray Wharton wrote, "Maybe being able to perform a good impromptu funeral will be a good skill for the coming era."

You could talk to older gay men about that. The death rate of city-dwelling male homosexuals in the U.S. during the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic was like WWI trench warfare and the 1919 Spanish influenza epidemic combined.

Moshe Braner said...

Yes population is a dependent variable, but the little we can do to slow down its increase means less suffering later. And that is the goal, as it is in all the other collapse preparation topics mentioned here.

Regarding the exponential math, there are so many ways to do it. The easiest, for quick "in your head" approximation, is the concept of doubling time. Or in this case, halving time. Divide 70 by the percent-per-unit-time rate to get the doubling time. E.g., in the 1% per year thought experiment, that is 70/1 = 70 years for a halving. I.e., 70x4 = 280 years for 4 halvings, meaning a division of the population by 2x2x2x2 = 16 fold. That's to 100%/16 or about 7% of the original number. A bit further by 300 years (280 + another 20), as seen in other's calculations above.

Double the rate (to 2% per year) and you halve the doubling time, so it'll take 150 rather than 300 years. No fancier math needed!

Yes this is the late Albert Bartlett's logic in reverse. Once in a while, when I can grab an audience, I give talks with the essential points from his famous lecture that he repeated thousands of times. Others need to take up that torch now that he's passed on. As he said, "the greatest shortcoming of the human race is the inability to understand exponential growth". Any cracks we can make in that "inability" may help reduce suffering.

Rebecca Brown said...

Great post, JMG. One thing I would like to mention that I feel will greatly contribute to population decline in North America is the increase in the percent of people who are infertile or have fertility problems.

I am in my early 30s and have had significant issues with my reproductive system for several years, as has my wife. A few times a year I go to visit a reproductive specialist who, ahem, helps keep my biological cycles in working order.

I've talked with him several times about his clientele, and while his bread and butter are the upper middle class clients who pay for IVF, he treats many women for the same problems I have and the number of younger women (under 25) who come in with serious issues has, in his words, "exploded" in the past 10 years alone. He sees a lot of women between 16 and 21 who come in with NO ovarian reserves (and therefore no chance of ever having children naturally) and who have no risk factors for this condition. Granted he sees only the extreme cases, but how many less extreme ones are being treated by their OB/GYNs?

Sorry to make the men on here uncomfortable, but I think it's a significant problem. The quantity and quality of male sperm in the U.S. is also declining.

Finally, I have one more relocation question for you JMG. Where do you think an aquatic biologist would do well in the future? I happen to be married to one, and we're trying to find some place more hospitable to same-sex couples, be more sustainable in the long run, and will also offer her likely job prospects. I'm an organic gardener and writer. I can work anywhere. Thanks!

ww said...

The whole issue of what I like to call "yotta language" -- "yotta do this, yotta do that" -- and the corruption of morality by the word "should" is one that needs a discussion here one of these days.

That's a pet peeve of mine as well. "Ought implies can" as one of my Philosophy professors put it. That is to say, in order for something to be morally obligatory, it must also be possible.

k-dog said...

No, I don't think you are talking about planned decrease. We both no better than that.

But as we have been discussing a smooth exponential decrease it is somewhat implied for the world would certainly then be behaving 'as if'. And my language has reflected that fact. Last vestiges of idealism perhaps, but it would be the best way to preserve cultural continuity, or what I'll call anti-collapse here.

Leaving that fairy tale behind your answer of a fairly large fraction of the North American population being taken out in a hurry, with following decades declining at a slower pace makes sense. An initial rapid decline would result from civilization falling apart. Survivors would find themselves in a damaged world but in a stable though far more uncomfortable environment than we experience. Numbers now would be determined by the earth's natural carrying capacity.

The world in a sense stabilizes as it adjusts to the loss of our phantom carrying capacity which resulted from having resources, and from being civilized. (Thank you beneaththesurface) However stability in this stage is only relative to the circumstances lived through when civilization unwound. Survivors would continue to decline as the earth’s surface becomes more adverse. Decline is at a slower rate with natural carrying capacity being the driver. Radiation hot zones expand and climate change brings new deserts. Life is generally difficult brutish and short. Part of the decline at this stage would result from not having skills needed for survival in the new world environment. Development of these skills would be one of the factors that would finally arrest population decline. Evolution of new culture.

Two kinds of carrying capacity come into play, but at the end of it all, in 300 years. There could be 20 million in North America and a stranger might be able to walk into a village without being eaten. A stranger might even be welcome in town.

Imagine yourself a stranger walking into this village, a hundred and fifty miles from where you have lived and grown. You have never been there before. Whom do you see? Are the villagers diverse in appearance or do they all look the same, like brother and sister? Hopefully, you see diversity in the village which would represent the cosmopolitan constitution of our present population.

If all you see is brothers and sisters it could mean we passed through a time very close to Guy Mcpherson's near term extinction; a bottleneck between then and now where only a remnant remained. A measure of diversity shows how difficult the struggle has been.

Contemplating the realm of the incident, which can't be predicted in advance, a myriad of paths to twenty million in a future world temporarily living within limits are possible. While not everything we can imagine is possible an infinity of possibilities still remains.

John Michael Greer said...

Kutamun, fascinating. I was unaware of that.

Gloucon, I figured that war, famine, and pestilence had something to do with it. The years from 1960 to now have seen quite a few of those, you know.

Pierluigi, there are a few historical parallels -- the Black Death comes to mind, and might be worth research. Still, if you think I'm talking about a BAU decline, I'd like to suggest that you haven't been paying attention. I'm talking about the collapse of a civilization, drastic depopulation, wars, famines, pestilences, etc., spun out -- as it's usually spun out in the real world -- over one to three centuries of chaos. A 10% or 20% drop in population during one of the decades in the middle there is entirely plausible.

Raven, good. You're asking the right questions.

RPC, my take is that population rose following its usual curve, and is now peaking for biological rather than political/social/etc. reasons. Certainly the grand projects for controlling population didn't do what their proponents claimed they would do.

St. Roy, White's Law pretty much requires that, so Chefurka's on solid ground.

Mortal, true enough.

Progress4what, given that assumption, shouldn't you be delighted that other people are removing their genes from the game, since that makes yours that much more likely to be propagated?

Eric, oh, granted -- and it's when people are too deeply involved in something to think clearly about it that they fall back most automatically on the mythic narratives that structure their thinking.

Ed-M, the precontact people of the Americas didn't have most of our current range of livestock, which are extremely efficient at turning biomass to human food, and they lacked a range of other relatively simple technologies that boost human carrying capacity. That's the basis of my estimate. As for clathrates, I expect to see those being hawked one of these days as the basis for another fracking-style boom. As with all the other "extreme hydrocarbon" projects, the fossil fuel industry is being very careful not to talk about the cost or the net energy...

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, that kind of resilience is a very good thing to cultivate just now!

Mark, that's amazing. If we start seeing more of that -- well, in that case I'm going to have to revise some expectations of mine, as I didn't expect a general collapse of faith in the Great God Progress to happen anything like this soon.

Moshe, fair enough.

Rebecca, yes, that's also an issue -- dump toxic chemicals into the ecosystem with that kind of abandon, and you're going to get problems like that. As for relocation, have you looked into the Great Lakes basin? That and the Ohio and upper Mississippi watersheds ought to be fairly tolerant, as well as having jobs for an aquatic biologist -- I hope she knows her way around freshwater as well as saltwater ecosystems.

WW, that's one crucial point. Another is that "ought" implies an objective standard of values, and a very strong case can be made that values are irreducibly personal and perspectival. As Nietzsche pointed out, unless you've got a divine legislator handing out "Thou Shalt Nots" to all and sundry, the entire notion of moral exhortation and condemnation becomes very difficult to justify.

K-dog, the point of the thought experiment was simply to show that huge losses can happen while people just go about their lives. I suspect there will be a fair bit of that -- just as the standard of living for most Americans has dropped sharply since the 1970s, and yet very few people have made a big fuss about it. I also expect a flurry of crises, fast and slow, that also hammer down population, but it's crucial not to miss the underlying demographic tide.

As for the village 300 years from now, if it's like most villages, it's used to strangers -- tinkers, traders, religious pilgrims, perhaps a mobile caste of blacksmiths or horse thieves, all part of the normal texture of village life. More on this as we proceed.

Eric S. said...

Reflecting more on the topic of population decline, and on the theme of this series of posts in general… I’m young enough that much of what you’re talking about will be part of my future. I’ll probably to see some of those horsemen ride through town a few times, and one of them will probably be offering me a ride before I’m even middle aged… Any achievements I make toward my life dreams will be short-lived, and any work that I put towards the earth or the future will be absorbed and lost in the static of the time. The young children I know will be facing much the same future I will, crushed dreams, grinding poverty, and early death. Even the religious tradition I find truth and fulfillment in, as you’ve pointed out in the past, is unlikely to link to a lineage that touches the future in any lasting way. One of the themes of this series of posts is that the future, like the stars, does not belong to us. It comes back down to those questions of meaning and purpose that you raised early on in this series. My motivation has often been my place in a greater whole and the hope my actions may echo beyond me in some shape or form, now I’m realizing I may not have a place in that thread. Where do you turn when you find you no longer have a place in that whole, and that even what few positive actions you make will be silenced in the chaos of the times? Where do you find the strength to do what needs to be done when it means ridicule and alienation even from people you care about? Hmm… perhaps I’m more bound by unexamined narratives than I thought… I wonder which one’s getting jostled loose now and where I need to look to find the new one to fill the hole it leaves.

Brian Weber said...

Mr Greer, a very nice article, as always. But I believe you may be understating things, maybe dramatically, and I want to make a case. True, (.99)^300=~.05 and (.98)^100=~.13, so indeed the 4 horsemen need not show up for serious population contraction. And I completely understand your stairstep view: young men not returning from war, common diseases carrying weakened people off in bad times, exotic diseases indiscriminately carrying people off at other times.

Like many here I like history and do a lot of reading.... What I've read suggests that in most collapses there occur almost unimaginable episodes that go far beyond even the disasters you've described. Also, maybe more importantly, I believe you've left out two basically universal aspects of collapse. The first is a general uptick in the violence in society (and not just due to warfare), and the second is that warfare does not confine itself to "elsewhere" (borderlands, foreign adventurism, young men going off and not returning), but eventually makes it *everywhere*, though not all at once.

I'd love to illustrate with examples ('cause that's what history nerds do), but don't want to monopolize space.

As for decimation, I understand there is some dispute as to how common it actually was. Maybe someone can correct me on this, but apparently we have no clear record if its being used, only threatened, though we have clear records of its being outlawed or being considered old-fashioned if not ancient in certain eras. Anyone know more about this?

Morgenfrue said...

It seems like people expect that contraception will continue to be widely available. I doubt it, at some point people won't be able to afford artificial contraceptives, and they may not be available reliably or even at all. Obviously methods vary, but I would expect to see a rise in unexpected pregnancies, abortions, abandoned infants (or worse) and unparented children in general, at least until people re-learn that sex=babies. It might be worth studying methods for avoiding pregnancy based on observation of cycles, especially if one is interested in midwifery or primary care.

The National Geographic website has an article about water shutoffs in Detroit.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Hopefully on topic, since people's finances and expectations affect the birth rate: a column by Andrew S. Ross which appeared with partly different content yesterday in his blog

and today in print on the front page of the financial section of the San Francisco Chronicle. The gist: "Seven in 10 [Americans] believe the U. S. economy has changed permanently--for the worse" and labor statistics support them.

The blog entry covers a survey released yesterday from Rutgers University, which Ross sums up as, "the vast majority don't believe the economy has gotten any better . . . They believe their children are going to have it even harder--and think there's nothing the federal government can do about it."

The print version also cites 1) similar results from Gallup's latest Economic Confidence Index; 2) statistics showing that hourly wages have fallen in real terms since this time last year "even for those with a bachelor's or advanced degree," and 3) a report that new post-recession jobs pay an average 23 percent less than the jobs lost during the recession.

If the Rutgers and Gallup surveys were taken by phone, they probably underestimate the degree of dissatisfaction and pessimism. Over the past five years or so, I have noticed a sharp rise in the number of phone calls from strangers trying to survey my opinion about something. My demographics markers have changed a bit, but I think the real reason for the increase in these nuisance calls is that fewer and fewer people have a land line. Those who still subscribe to one are older, more settled and wealthier than the average. All these phone survey organizations are setting themselves up for a Dewey Beats Truman moment.

k-dog said...

Al Bartlett speeches have been twice mentioned. I have a link to his web page on my own. My tabbed menu, third row down second tab over from the left.


I totally agree that huge losses can happen while people just go about their lives. Populations can be lost, cultural values can be lost, freedom can be lost, religious values can be lost. Slow deaths, hardly noticed. The last three we have some control over but the first, population depends on one thing more than anything else. Available food.

Available food will not decline in any exponential way and that somewhat obscures your thought experiment. Means to transport and preserve food must exist or their is a crash. Lack of oil to keep people fed by moving and growing it could create huge dead zones later to be repopulated with people capable of working land. A thought experiment it is, yes we need that caveat.

A normal village used to strangers. Tinkers, traders, blacksmiths perhaps and some thieves, normal mediaeval village life. Nobody is eaten in this village. When that last happened people spoke English.

Kyoto Motors said...

Hello Mr. Greer,
[if this is a double, please discard the previous comment of mine? this one is edited ;-) ]

It’s interesting to think about contraction. It’s the new “new frontier.” Because it’s so antithetical to dominant ideology and the industrial agenda, it’s a concept that gets far too little attention. Once you scratch the surface, it appears to be a very complex matter. Psychologically, given the prospect of contraction and all it represents when defined by the established growth paradigm, we are faced with a collective sense of failure. An increased death rate can only add to the substantial shift in the collective psyche of the emergent dark age. Uncharted territory for “Salad Shooter Nation” for sure…
Obviously if you are attuned to White’s law, and the concept of “Bartlett in reverse” you’ll have a much easier time wrapping your head around the concept of contraction. But it flies in the face of so much automatic thinking (assumptions), that it really is hard to have an “on the same page” conversation about this prospect with people who just kind of go with the flow…
Even with some perspective, it’s very difficult to anticipate the myriad ways in which contraction will affect business as usual.
The notion of “business as unusual” springs to mind as an economic/cultural equivalent to “Weather Weirding”…

Brian Weber said...

Ok, so I want to give examples after all; maybe JMG will even post this. There are the stomach-churning examples of Ugarit ~1180BC or maybe Baghdad 1258AD, but in these twilights the scale of cultural and human destruction was just over the top, so some might think the comparison unreasonable.

Then how about Alaric's more understandable saga? A "charismatic warlord," he was actually relatively tame for his era (seems he more "took" cities than sacked them---for a really crazy dude, look at Clovis a generation or two later). His ranks swelled up with many thousands of Rome's discontents: its impoverished, its slaves, its ethnic Germans revolting from the era's racist government policies, etc. Many brought their whole families on the march, so despite starting with an army, he (probably inadvertently) ended up leading what amounted to a migration. He brought his bands through Dalmatia and Italy, which were populated, settled areas that hadn't seen serious disruption in *centuries* if not half a millennium or more.

Now Alaric's people would not have fed themselves by taking honest coin to the local shops on their way through. This sort of group supplied itself on the road as they could; there was no other way for masses of unemployed, impoverished people, who largely wouldn't have spoken the local languages, to travel together---obviously not having sophisticated, long range logistical networks, planned months or years in advance and at immense expense---Alaric fed his people directly on Rome's gangrenous, dying body. What does that mean in human terms? It means if you were anywhere near their path and felt disinclined to join up, they'd just take your stuff: your food, your winter supplies, desperately needed pack animals, even family members (maybe women as wives for themselves, maybe boys for replacement manpower). And if you felt your treatment was unfair..... well, I guess you could complain.

To me JMG's example of post-Roman Britain looks like a kind of outlier, though obviously this can be debated. It certainly saw an uptick in violence, but, true, it seems society-cracking warfare never came (Britain produced some warlords, eg Constantine III, but apparently didn't attract too many). Seems to Britain came just poverty, shorter lives, Germans, and relatively controlled warfare.

Dr. Kris said...

Dear JMG,

I've been a silent student of your blog (and of the druid path as a result, as well) for years.

Of all the science fiction stories about the end of eras discussed here, I don't recall a mention of Nightfall, which had profound resonance for me in high school in the 70s, though at the time I didn't know why.

Of all the voices out here yours rings most true, and I want to thank you personally for doing what you must with art and humor. Facing nightfall with a true wizard for guidance is a great comfort.

Blessings to you and yours.

Shane Wilson said...

People having trouble wrapping their minds around an exponential decrease in population: most of us lived through the late 20th century when worldwide population exploded to 7 billion. How much of that growth did you feel or experience intimately on a day to day basis? There's no reason to think the reverse would be any different.

rabtter said...

"Plunder Assessment Specialist", that has a ring to it. I'm trying to figure out how to brew a tolerable ale from wild yeast and indigenous herbs using locally farmed items like sweet potatoes and corn. Hopefully a chieftan will acquire a taste for it. If it doesn't benefit me I can pass the craft on to a youngster that was close to in my old age.

Some other things I'll speculate may be useful, a musical skill. Prison thug bosses tend to protect folks that can make a good tune. Chiropractic/Physical Therapy skills, a chieftan's thugs may need those services due to the nature of their job description.

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, if I may offer a suggestion here, as long as you see meaning and purpose as something that has to do with the future, you're going to be facing the same sort of trouble. What meaning and purpose can you make of your existence right now? At this moment?

Brian, I take it you're not a regular reader. I'd encourage you to glance back over the archives a bit, and you'll find that I've been saying for a long time that drastic crises are a standard part of the process of decline and fall -- yes, including the kind of drastic crises that involve, say, the entire population of a city dying in a very short time. The fact that I reject the sort of overnight apocalypse beloved of Hollywood scriptwriters emphatically does not mean that I'm proposing a calm and gentle future; it fascinates me that so many people are incapable of seeing any ground between those extremes.

Morgenfrue, condoms made from sheep intestine were in common use in the 1700s -- they were made by hand, and were washed and reused -- and there's a very good reason why they'll remain in use: venereal disease, which was what got them invented in the first place.

Unknown Deborah, entirely on topic. As that sentiment builds, so does the likelihood of an explosion.

K-dog, actually, food availability might well decline over any number of curves, including exponential ones -- the end of one set of supply chains, for example, will be met by all-out attempts to create new ones, since people normally dislike starving to death and will do almost anything to prevent it, and governments that fail to do something about such things are normally replaced in short order. Will the new ones be less efficient and more of a burden on the economy? Very likely. More on this, again, as we proceed.

Kyoto, "business as unusual" earns you tonight's gold star. Thank you.

Brian, not so. Britain actually had a worse time of it than most of the other European provinces of the Western Empire -- there's a reason why people in those other provinces still speak languages descended from Latin, you know, while the English speak languages descended from the speech of the barbarian invaders. I'd encourage you to read up on post-Roman Britain and the Saxon invasion; it might give you a better idea of what I'm talking about here.

Dr. Kris, you're right -- I should talk about Nightfall one of these days. It's a particularly interesting piece, and very atypical for Asimov, in that it shows how scientific rationalism can dismiss crucial data because the form in which that data is transmitted is that of an older, mythological stage in the culture.

Shane, my point exactly. Thank you.

Rabtter, it sounds as though you're getting set up to function as a Barbarian Support Specialist -- quite possibly a major new growth industry! ;-)

BoysMom said...

Another thought, which is not mine, but that of an immigrant acquaintance, is that world population numbers are likely off, on the high side, at the moment. Because while we in the developed countries are fairly decent at counting people, the procedure in some parts of the world is simply the town mayor or village chief sending a number in to a central authority, and the number sent in determines how international aid is distributed. It is to the mayor/chief's advantage, and that of his tribe, to lie about how many people live in his village: the more people the more aid. If anyone ever comes to check up on the numbers, "They moved to the city" or "they died".
If my acquaintance is correct, peak population may well happen sooner or even have already happened.

Brian Weber said...

Mr Greer, I'm having a hard time understanding your overall point of view. In a reply to me, you said "I've been saying for a long time that drastic crises are a standard part of the process of decline and fall -- yes, including the kind of drastic crises that involve, say, the entire population of a city dying in a very short time", yet when Shane said "most of us lived through the late 20th century when worldwide population exploded to 7 billion. How much of that growth did you feel or experience intimately on a day to day basis? There's no reason to think the reverse would be any different" you replied "Shane, my point exactly. Thank you."

Am I cherry picking here? Was there a different point you were responding to? Are you saying both that the reduction of entire cities (deaths of many thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, conceivably millions) might occur, but also that population decline might not be "felt or experienced intimately on a day to day basis"?

k-dog said...

Any number of curves but there is only one exponential. A series of exponentials stitched together with different time constants, infinitely more likely. On the tree of mathematics the smooth equation which has been discussed is way out on a stochastic limb and it is the only one that is uniformly smooth. Every other curve has times when the inexorable change becomes up close personal and would certainly be noticed. Not all the time, but some of the time.

Governments that fail to do something about such things are normally replaced in short order.

Daniel Defoe discussed this in 'The Plague Years'.

Throughout the London plague of 1665–66 the price of bread rose very little. The lord-mayor of London made sure it did not happen. Defoe's novel was based pretty much on reality. My copy is footnoted as to where and why poetic license was taken. It might take some reminding but our politicians would learn not to interrupt bread supplies. Politicians are being reminded of exactly that fact in the Middle East right now where food security has become a problem.

The scenario you suggest is approaching an exponential but those times when the supply chains are unhooked when supply chains are being changed will be where the action is. It would only look exponential from a distance. Close up it would be seen to be piecewise linear. Short bursts of dying when shortages become acute while a new equilibrium and regime is established.

Yet overall food supply still would not likely decline exponentially from personal points of view. Small changes in the environment can mean big changes in how much and what an area can grow. Growing conditions will be very chaotic and by this time in the future everything will have to be significantly localized. This means people will be living and dying subject to local harvests for the insurance of ready transportation will not cushion losses. Transportation won't be available; supply chains will certainly not be global. Not for anything that matters to ordinary people.

Overall population decline can resemble a smooth curve but for individuals the situation will more likely look random and chaotic. People can be totally unaware of how the decline looks from a global point of view.

To participants it may be normalcy interspersed with periods of great stress. The odds of centuries of a continual but milder stress as the road to twenty million, is astronomically small.

gaiabaracetti said...

"Gloucon, I figured that war, famine, and pestilence had something to do with it. The years from 1960 to now have seen quite a few of those, you know."
Actually, birth rates fell in Europe and North America too in that period, both of which have had no war, famine or pestilence since 1960 (or, more accurately, since WWII). At the same time, you can have high birth rates even during famine or war (see many African countries).
As for China, the birth rate went down following a deliberate policy to avoid further famines, rather than a consequence of them.
I maitain that government policies, contraception and changing cultural mores, as well as an aging population, have been, in recent decades, the biggest factor in reducing birth rates.

Odin's Raven said...

Brian Weber questioned the use of decimation.

Wikipedia tells us that it was used not only by the ancient Romans, but was applied as recently as 1642 to troops of the Holy Roman Emperor blamed for losing the battle of Breitenfeld.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Kutamun,

Everything you said about your farms recovery sounds spot on to me. Well done.

You also hit on the core problem in Australia. It is the intensity of agricultural methods (stocking rates etc.) that is causing the present problems. It would be very hard to see that unless you had traveled and observed that particular journey.



Cherokee Organics said...


Thank you for understanding.

If a great portion of the population here is acting like lemmings then it seems wise to do something else. Most people write as if it were somehow, someone else’s problem and that they and their descendants will be OK, but statistically this cannot be the reality. It is yet too far off for them.

It may surprise you, but I accept the loss - with good grace - although sometimes I wonder whether it was the correct path to follow. However, it was merely a path out of many which I chose. There could have been other outcomes, but all I have learned points to the fact that life is uncertain so therefore it must be faced and lived consciously.

Biological lineage is over rated! There you go, I’ve said it! I strongly suspect that it is not on other people’s radar otherwise they would not act as they do, instead they would make an accommodation with nature and the remainder of the human population.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Tom,

Lorde = wunderkind. Nuff said. Hope she saves her money...

Hi progress4what,

Shame? It is hardly a shame. Look at the situation in terms of declining net energy: I could spend my available energy reproducing or I could spend it doing other things. There is simply no correct answer.

All I know is that there will be so many people who are looking to off load hungry mouths, I'll be able to make my choice.

When I was young people used to tell me that I could have it all, but that was in fact a lie. You have to pick and choose.



Cathy McGuire said...

Lots of great comments - which is why I come back here through the week to keep reading.
This is not totally relevant to population (except that these small towns are "dying" and tryin to survive) but perhaps a creative way to promote Green Wizardry:

NEW LEBANON, N.Y. — Small rural communities are perpetually marketing themselves. Witness the annual Heritage Spudfest in Boonsboro, Md., or the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kan.
But it is probably fair to say that no place has come up with a concept quite like “Behold! New Lebanon,” in Columbia County, N.Y., in which this struggling Hudson Valley town in the shadow of the Berkshires is being reimagined as what it hopes will be a “living museum of contemporary rural American life.”
Over four weekends, starting with this one and running through Nov. 2, ticket-buying visitors are promised an unvarnished glimpse of present-day country culture, organizers say, which includes being ferried by school buses to working farms, forests, kitchens, corrals and a speedway. There they will “behold” guides like Cynthia Creech, showing off her genetically rare breed of Randall cattle; Eric Johnson, training Border collies to shoo Canada geese off public fields; and Melissa Eigenbrodt, 46, the local postmaster, who can demonstrate the art of tracking deer — without a gun — by following hoof scrapes along the trail.
Part museum-without-walls, part reality show, “Behold! New Lebanon” is being packaged as a deliberate contrast to the stereotypical bonneted butter churners at Old Sturbridge Village and other re-creations of yesteryear, which focus on nostalgic practices….The museum project has already raised about $55,000, Ms. Abram said. Tickets are $15 to $25 daily, and $40 for a weekend, including events like “Hitching the Horse to the Plow,” “Auctioneering 101” and “Surviving in the Wild.” (Take mosquito repellent.)
…In Green River, Utah (population 953), a group of Auburn University design and architecture graduates and former AmeriCorps/Vista volunteers started the nonprofit Epicenter in 2009 (motto: “Rural & Proud”). They have restored 14 houses and run school arts programs and sponsor a “frontier fellowship” for artists in residence.
In Reedsburg (population 9,000), between Chicago and Minneapolis, Donna Neuwirth, 60, and Jay Salinas, 55, are urban transplants who started as farmers but went beyond food, creating the nonprofit Wormfarm Institute to develop what they call a regional culture-shed. The Fermentation Fest — which includes artist-designed farm stands, a drive with scenic overlooks of art installations in fields, and opera performed in a hay wagon — drew 12,000 people last October.
On the Abode Farm, Evan Thaler-Null and Sarah Steadman, both 23, will show visitors how they cultivated seven acres of vegetables, using two Belgian draft horses, Lou and Belle. Mr. Null enjoys the partnership with a working animal, but even more, the silence. “You can actually hear the soil, how stony or gravelly it is,” he said.

Ed-M said...

Hello JMG!

Regarding your estimate, I am not so sanguine that the present range of livestock and basic technologies we had at the beginning of Caucasian North American culture will be kept. I am basing my estimate to what happened to Roman Britain after the Romans left. Certain technologies, which the Britons had prior to the Roman Conquest, like Spanish Tiles and wheel-thrown pottery, were lost to them, thanks in no small part to Roman "globalization" and mass production.

As for clathrates, if we get another bubble like fracking bubble, and the FF companies take on even more debt to exploit them, probably incompetently, or without taking due diligence every step of the way, then we are fracked. Especially if it enables BAU until 2100. Then we get the Mother of All Extinctions (not the Venus Syndrome it turns out; I was using a hyperbole as was Robertscribbler, my bad).

As for other extreme hydrocarbons being uneconomical, I agree with you! What was news to me (from was that tar sands were included in the mix -- I thought they were profitable.

thrig said...

One point behind doing the simple arithmetic out to a 100 years or so is that fancy things involving e can then be tested against that result; if the results agree, one can be reasonably less suspicious that there is not some error in one or the other of the calculations. Errors are what humans do, and this is by no means limited to the sciences; I recently noticed that my copy of King Lear contains the most curious casting call for the "Ear of Gloucester."

Odin's Raven said...

Here's an interesting discussion of the background to the Declaration of Arbroath. Forget the Hollywood version. It seems the freedom loving Scots nobles were of mainly Viking descent.
Arbroath 5

The relevance to this week's topic is that the warband leaders and their followers in an age of declining population may have little connection to the previous population, and the important political skills may be different from what previously obtained.

'If the scientists are correct and there were major population reductions in the earlier part of the sixth century due to geo-physical events and then epidemics and longer periods of crop failure at times, then what remnants may have remained of the previous populations in what would have been a cold wet tundra and how far any of these were able to remain as a major tribal chiefdom is an open question.

By the 1320’s their memory would have been a collection of traces in the DNA, with nothing written and much lost in translation, whatever the minstrels might have sung in the spin of their propaganda. The Scottish nobles were not a distinct ethnic group, still less the genetic inheritors of a single ancient tribe. They were armed, organised, war lords with their personal war bands who had asserted personal control over whatever land could be taken and whoever could be coerced into their service or serfdom.

They may have assumed the role of tribal leaders, but they may have had little familial connection with those over whom they came to rule. The consent of the ruled amounted to an agreement within the war band that the lord was the man to deliver on his promises and only if he delivered.

As far the rest of the population, one can only speculate what groups from all the demographic events were able to hang on in the scattered valleys and communities of a much disputed stretch of land and waters.'

FLwolverine said...

@Mark Luterra: "I cannot say I look forward to a world where physical suffering becomes more common, but I long for a return to an existence where real things matter. Where a good harvest brings joy and celebration. Where good farm planning is important not just for satisfaction but for health and survival. Where the cycles of weather and seasons cease to be mere curiosities through the windows of our climate-controlled spaces but instead become realities in which we are enmeshed. There is a certain spark of life in those people who have come close to death and survived. There is a certain joy that is inextricably intertwined with a inevitability of change and loss. If JMG's vision of the future comes to pass, I have a feeling that life will become both more difficult and more meaningful for the creatures we call humans."

Personally I think this is a somewhat romanticized picture of life "close to the earth", but there are people on here more qualified to comment on that than I am. To the extent such a life is possible, I think there will be a point on the long descent where circumstances are so desperate that difficulty eclipses meaningfulness, and that such a life will not be regained, if ever, until humanity passes through the deep dark intervening morass. It's that morass I was ruminating about. I doubt that I or anyone on here will see it.

I would also suggest that it is possible today to find the kind of life you long for, although obviously it takes sacrifice and work. Lots of work! There are people on here who can point you in the right direction - yes, Chris, I'm looking at you!

FLwolverine said...

JMG - a very sane approach, which I will take to heart. These thoughts were a knot I needed to work through so I could go forward.


wagelaborer said...

I believe that Dimitry Orlov made the same observations, as the collapse of the USSR led to millions of deaths in the 1990s, along with fewer births. There are just more people you know dying, along with fewer people you know reproducing.
Russia is not the only country that has had population loss. France and Japan are two that are held up for concern by the corporate media. And I have read that the US rise in population is attributed almost entirely to immigrants and their offspring, since the Americans that were here in 1970 have a below replacement birth rate.
Will our ruling overlords use the resurrected 1918 flu to kill us off?
Not very likely, if you look at the loud warnings of population decrease and the horrors it would involve, in the corporate media. I'll have to take their word for it that they believe it would be a horrible development.
The Black Death in Europe supposedly led to the improvement of living standards for the lower classes, as the shortage of labor led to higher wages. Clearly, this is not a development desired by the 1%.
One scientist commented on the rapid rise in population "It's not that people are suddenly reproducing like rabbits. It's that we are no longer dying like flies". Vaccinations, as well as more food, make it possible for children to survive.
I don't know why you discount the ability of women to control their fertility as a possible way to lower population growth. That is what has led to the decreased birth rates in the US, Mexico, Italy,Japan, etc.
It's the countries where women don't have that control that have the high birth rates.

John Michael Greer said...

BoysMom, that's a very interesting point. I wonder if there's any proxy measure that could be used to check on the official figures.

Brian, right now Ebola is spreading like wildfire, and unless something really remarkable happens, a fairly large fraction of the population of West Africa may be dead in a year or two. How directly will that affect your life? Take the same principle and apply it to the normal events of the decline and fall of a civilization; unless you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the background of demographic decline will be a more significant factor in your life than the annihilation of a city five hundred miles away from you.

K-dog, okay, we're actually talking about the same thing in different terms. The rhythm of periods of steady decline broken by sudden crises is exactly what I've been trying to talk about -- see previous comments about war, famine, pestilence, etc. You're focusing on the crises; I'm focusing on the background curve of decline.

Gaia, which still ducks the issue of why more than half a century of attempts to apply those same things to the world as a whole hasn't kept us out of the current mess. Still, I don't see any point in going round that particular issue again.

Cherokee, exactly. All you can do is make the choices that make sense at the time.

Cathy, that's almost eerie. Modern rural life as a performance art, a representation of itself...

Ed-M, you're letting yourself get buffaloed by fossil fuel company handwaving about "limitless energy reserves" blah blah blah. Based on everything I've seen, clathrates are like all that gold that's dissolved in seawater: sure, it's there, but try getting it out at any cost you can afford! I expect it will be another subsidy dumpster like ethanol and fusion power, gulp down a great deal of funding, and go belly up.

Thrig, funny!

Raven, good. That's more relevant to next week's post than this one, but it's a good point.

FL, glad to hear it. It's a real challenge, no question.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thank you, Thrig, for the Ear of Gloucester. There was also apparently the actor who did a Spoonerism on one of Shakespeare's historical plays (Richard the Something?), turning "Stand back, and let the coffin pass" into "Stand back, and let the parson cough." And it is said that some tongue-tripping thespian TRIED to say, in The Merchant of Venice, "Shall I lay perjury on my soul" and Spoonerized even that. It's awful what goes on with Shakespeare, simply awful - even now, even before the onset of the Dark Ages.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo

near Toronto

(awaiting the onset with some impatience, in Balcony, Row A)

Anne Patterson said...

Hi JMG, another fascinating and apposite exploration of a major dimension of the way the next few centuries will play out.

I do have a question though, given that population decline as you describe will happen in countries such as the majority of those in the developed world where the birth rate is under replacement rate what about countries in the 3rd world where the birth rate is still higher than the death rate, despite the 3rd world being used to the 4 horsemen as regular visitors already? Surely the issue here is unless something happens to bring the birth rate down drastically the population will carry on growing in the 3rd world with corresponding impacts on resources. Though those countries are most likely to have large scale occurences of famine, pestilence, war & death from other causes. It seems to me there are two (or more) different trajectories here - for the developed world and the 3rd world, which maybe need looked at separately.

On a much more personal note I am trying to plan and prepare for the remaining decades of my own life (current age 48). I don't have children and neither does my only sibling, so my nearest relatives in the future will be my husband's nieces, not sure how far I could expect any practical help from them. I have 15-20 more years in the health service before I can retire, but that depends on their still being job for me for that whole time (with current 5% cuts to mental health services funding in the UK I can't bank on still having a job in 5 years let alone 15-20) and the state still being able to pay me a pension that I can live on, which could well not be the case by then. We are doing what we can to adapt & prepare for worse to come. I am following a weight-loss programme primarily to reduce my risk of obesity-related diseases in the future and am planning on learning more about how to look after my own health needs through use of herbs & can grow & forage. We grow some of our own food & meet some of our fuel needs through using wood for our wood-burner, but we are aware that this will get less practical as we get older. A contingency plan would be to take in a lodger who could help do the heavy work when we can't in the future. But we will still need a viable water supply, enough money to still buy necessities we can't produce ourselves and a functioning infrastructure that can still provide these necessities. Hopefully these will still be around for long enough for us, though a lot of shit will have hit the fan by then I'm sure. But those of us who are already recognising the issues and choosing to do what we can to adapt are in a better position than those who are not doing so and this blog is a great guide to what we and our descendents will need to prepare for as best as we can.

k-dog said...

"K-dog, okay, we're actually talking about the same thing in different terms."

Yes, I'll agree. Such unintentional pseudo disagreements are usually productive. They can be lively.

Since there will be episodes of periods of steady decline broken by sudden crises the question of cultural continuity becomes interesting. Steady decline the status-quo can handle. I'll claim we see evidence of that right now, just look around. As you said it has been downhill since the 70's. In steady decline collapse becomes a personal problem and if it is happening to you society may kindly ask that you step aside and not be a bother.

When a majority suffer the situation becomes different and the present regime becomes challenged. Incidents that in more normal times would be ignored can trigger a riot. In the ensuing chaos and change much may be lost. I see little gain in turbulent times.

Yet in the calm times between, when memory is fresh, I hope the unfolding drama manages to engender some spiritual advancement. Perhaps that exercising kindness and always rejecting acts with unkind consequences is a good thing in everything we do. That we are all in this together. That it is not all about whoopie! Look at me.

Something like that.

nuku said...

Chris and Tom, re our N.Z. teen wonderkind “Lorde,” I read she is asking a cool $300,000 for ONE private performance! I recon she knows she’s a flash in the pan and is trying to cash in on celebrity hype before she fades.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Rebecca,

No there is no discomfort here and the issues you raise are valid. As an interesting data point for you: 1 in 7 babies in Australia are now born with the assistance of reproductive technologies.

This is not going to end well.



Violet Cabra said...

Something that struck me while reading the comments this week were the several voices lamenting that people who comment here and/or "people with high IQs" aren't having children. The basic concern being that the most intelligent and capable people are committing, as Spengler call's it, "race suicide"

This "race suicide," again according to Spengler, is pretty much standard across the landscape of dying civilizations. He claims that the "best blood" is always lost during this time.

As background I am transgender, and quite literally don't have a reproductive system. Most of my close friends are queer intelligentsia and don't want children. I live and work at an organic farm. About 1/3 of the farm workers here are white downwardly mobile intellectuals. 2/3 are East African refugees.

The first group are a remarkably infertile. For one reason or another we all have no children because, to paraphrase Spengler we "can no longer rationalize it." Also many of the downwardly mobile white intellectuals drink quite a bit, and have frequent, sometimes intense existential crises.

The East African's, on the other hand, are mostly illiterate and many know relatively little English. They live in big families in relative poverty and have lots and lots and lots of babies! One older gentleman told me he has sired 20 children! A lady who I adore has given birth to 9! A man younger than me has just had his first daughter and instead of being filled with terror or regret is thrilled to be a young father!

The East Africans are devout Muslims, are usually kind, generous, surprisingly tolerant, super fun to be with and deeply rooted in their communities.

As far as I can tell, in strictly evolutionary terms, the downwardly mobile white ecology isn't adaptive. We produce no offspring and as conditions change we, our assumptions about the world, and are value systems will likely disappear, maybe forever. The East African human ecology is far more likely to be adaptive to changing conditions. They raise many children in poverty, have for generations, and will most likely continue for generations. Their assumptions and value systems will likely endure, at least for awhile.

I posit this is what evolution looks like in real-time. "High IQs" and all that go with them, may not be adaptive in certain contexts, which is impossible to square with the Myth of Progress. Evolution, it bears remembering, doesn't have an agenda or a direction.

Ed-M said...

clathrates are like all that gold that's dissolved in seawater: sure, it's there, but try getting it oupricey price that you can afford!"

Well I read somewhere on the Internet that Exxonmobil had inked a $500tln deal with Rosneft to do that very thing over at the ESAS.

I expect it will be another subsidy dumpster like ethanol or fusion power, gulp down a great deal of money, and go belly up.

It would be Putin's loss then, even if he does seize all of Exxonmobil's assets in Russia in retaliation. But then again the clathrate extraction could be like fracking: make an obscene mess for the amount of fuel extracted, in addition to gulping down a great deal of money and going belly up. Only in this case, the mess would be up in the atmosphere, i.e., manifold amounts of methane released over the amount "recovered", not staying in the ground to pollute the groundwater and poison the land.

Shane Wilson said...

Regarding the whole births vs deaths thing. Perhaps a higher birthrate simply means more visits from the four horsemen? More people means more crowding, means more opportunity for disease transmission between people and even animals (Ebola in Africa). Population explosion means fewer resources (e.g., food) to go around means more intergroup conflict/fighting for remaining resources (ISIL, etc in the Middle East) So perhaps lower birthrates in the West simply delay the onset of the four horsemen due to less population pressure.
I'm not sure if this falls under this week's topic or next, but one thing to consider is the role of natural disaster in population control, particularly as it hits up against people's sense of entitlement to live wherever they want, regardless of environmental suitability. I see uncontrolled fire destroying most of the suburban west in short order, and hurricanes taking out a lot of the low lying populated Atlantic areas. Just to wrap your mind around natural disasters proceeding full force with little effective response, and the death that would result from the initial incident and any after effects.

steve pearson said...

Just another anecdote on the population/economic trajectory: my daughter is 30 with a masters in botany. Most of her friends are in the 25-40 age group, many with advanced degrees. Very few of them have children and the majority of those that do have one. I can only think of one that has 3 kids and 3 that own houses.Most of those with kids are madly trying to juggle their work schedules and childcare. Of the ones in academia, only one has a tenure track position. My daughter has had a series of jobs, some paying quite well, that ended when they lost their funding or their grants expired.
Of the people I worked with at the middle school in CA, mostly now in their mid 40s to early 50s, most had houses and after two careers into their mid 30s, they would have one or two children and one parent, usually the mother, would quit or telecommute to care for them. They also tend to have much more secure jobs. Big changes in those few years.

steve pearson said...

I'm posting this in two bits because of a dodgy internet connection.
Even going back to my peers (I'm 74), I can't think of any who had children, at least consciously, thinking that the children would support them in their old age.The trend was to push them out of the nest to find their own lives and count on funding your own retirement.Those years seemed to mark the peak of "individualism". A lot of my peers didn't even seem to like their children. Other than social norms and pressure, I,m not sure why they even had them. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has seen an enormous RV with a bumper sticker reading"we are spending our kids inheritance"
I don't think my daughter's peers who have kids now think of them as a future insurance policy. Having them is a real financial sacrifice and they make it because they love the kids. Most of them have no idea where the future is going, other than that they can't count on it. As to consciously thinking their children will support them then: forget about it.
I also have seen less evidence of people wanting to preserve their genetic heritage than a lot of those commenting refer to. I agree with Chris that it is greatly overrated.I love my daughter more than anyone in the world, though she is not genetically mine. I also love a lot of the kids I taught and worked with in middle school. Perhaps the important thing is to feel you have passed on something that is important to you.
This may well be a luxury of the boom years, and will doubtless change as we enter the years of decline and the dark ages. We shall see.
cheers, Steve

Cathy McGuire said...

@ JMG: it's when people are too deeply involved in something to think clearly about it that they fall back most automatically on the mythic narratives that structure their thinking. That is so wonderfully succinct!! That is the piece that so many educated people forget when they think about their actions during emergencies... I find it happens all the time when something suddenly goes wrong on the homestead. ;-) Learning "in the bone" takes much longer than book learning!

@Eric S: any work that I put towards the earth or the future will be absorbed and lost in the static of the time…Where do you turn when you find you no longer have a place in that whole..
That is actually true for all the generations of humans – despite our modern culture’s mythology of “heroing for the masses”, most of us are like blades of grass – uncounted, unnoticed when we’re gone. It’s part of mid-life’s challenge to recognize and accept that. You DO have a place in the whole – it’s just less than your ego has hope for. (And I’m saying this gently – this is true for all of us, even most “celebrities”). It’s as if a cell deep in our gut woke one day and realized it was not the whole heart or face or brain.

edboyle said...

I come from alaska, my wife from northern russia. Your previous post mentioned usa, mexico but i don't recalcanada, arcticcoast changes in climate. It would seem to become more hospitable than now with no permafrost, more varied vegetation and better agriculture and wildlife. Population carrying capacity, could grow, when one calculates out fossil fuels in general. Unpopulated expanses are huge in canada, siberia, alaska, for a very good reason, i assureyou, but if the earth warms considerably and after the messof forest fires, melting permmafrost transition is over a shiftnorthward would be reasonable to expect. Look at civilizational history, egyptian, north tosumer, babylon, greece, rome, all getting deforested and wasted and then germany, england, france, lastly primitive russia which still has will to survive on burning wood and planting a garden and is thinly settled. Civilization destroys through resource destruction, human caused climate change then decimates own population and moves on. The north is the final frontier after this cycle is over and will keep humanity alive.

sv koho said...

Another thought provoking piece by arguably one of the most thought provokers around. I would like to see the math involved in a population decline that you posited. Could you lead us thru the math and perhaps show a few graphs or links to how you arrived at these stunning numbers. I am assuming it involved exponential curves, calculus...Did you possibly arrive at these numbers by looking at the exponential increase going up and then just to the inverse or obverse going negative. I assumed we are in an overshoot and collapse mode but, strange it hadn't occurred to me that a increase just in death rate of 1% could cause such a precipitous decline. I assumed that it was a decline primarily in birth rates that would drive the negative population dymanic. Obviously once this baby gets rolling it will likely be both.

Shane Wilson said...

@ Violent,
The barbarism of reflection? I'm not too familiar with East African immigrants, but I feel that way towards the Latino immigrants I know. It keeps me grounded. The future belongs to them. I try to keep a commonsensical, practical level headedness about all that I do, and cultivate that in others. I think that's what JMG cultivates on this blog as well

Phil Knight said...

Regarding the point that has been made about commenters on this and other peak oil blogs not having children, it's long been an observation of mine that most of the prominent peak oil bloggers don't have children either.

I've wondered for a while now if not having children is one of the pre-requisites for taking peak oil and resource limitations seriously. That, if you do have children, there's a perverse incentive not to recognise that your civilisation is dying.

And perhaps this is one of the reasons why troubled civilisations don't change their behaviour - those who have an investment in the future of that civilisation, in the form of their offspring, are generally not inclined to countenance its collapse.

Certainly, I suspect that were I to unexpectedly sire a sprog or two, I would no longer be quite so inclined to hang around here talking rising sea levels and Spengler.

Redneck Girl said...

David Rhodes said...

Looking forward to your discussion of the collision with growth economics. But what happens to concentration of resources? The Elites (borrowing a metaphor from M. Piketty --- fully-transitioned demographic, we could say) will continue their arts of agglomeration, and possibly more effectively in a weakened society. Enter Feudalism and Big Man societies. This would be a much more radical restriction in per-commoner-capita resources than the straight population numbers suggest, and any cultural edifice won't have much to stand on. I do wonder how inevitable this is.

@David and JMG:

There's a book I've been thinking of getting by an author the name of John Mann, it's titled "A Thousand Years of Shadow Warriors" or something to that effect. It's about the area of Japan that the ninjas originated in. It was particularly rugged and escaped the control of the ruling class because of the difficulty of the terrain, until I believe, the Meigi (?) restoration. They were in fact so ornery that they had a nascent democracy going in their rugged little corner of the world complete with elected representatives. Not that I'll live to see such a thing but here in Cascadia it sounds like it could be a dandy idea! Who needs invading Warlords when you've got an association of locals that have no problem with spying and a little judicious assassination? (Only here we would call it varmint control or pest removal!) But that could just be some of my wild Irish and Cherokee genes talking.

I think a copy of that book along with a few other texts on different aspects of the subject, should be squirreled away in the many books I keep collecting, it might come in handy. It wouldn't be a bad subject for a post collapse novel either!


Shane Wilson said...

What I think some of the comments boil down to is the rationale for having children. According to the myth of progress, one hopes that their children will be better off than they are. Absent a belief that the future will be better than the past, the rationale for childbearing according to the myth of progress is gone. However, in a cyclical, nature based belief system, childbearing completes the birth/death cycle, and is a necessary part of the cycle of life and death. Going back to the existential post a few weeks back, there are reasons for going on and continuing the cycle of life absent the myth of progress. Non-progressive peoples have found reasons to rejoice in childbirth in the past, and our ancestors will, too.

Violet Cabra said...

Shane Wilson,

Yes! The Barbarism of Reflection does play a huge role in what I was talking about in terms of myself and my more affluent peers.

Keeping level-headed is a skill I'm working hard to cultivate. Pragmatism comes a lot easier to me.

There is one small point I must bring to your attention though; my name is "Violet" like the flower, not "Violent" like warfare, or the Barbarism of reflection ;)

Random Man said...

Violet Cabra:
Yes you've hit an important point there. Ultimately the future belongs to youth. We are all here having this discussion because untold generations of humans before us actually reproduced.

However, I would caution against anyone predicting too much right now. Our world is highly unstable, trends can reverse in an instant.

For example, the high survival rates and immigration from third world populations is itself the result of western technology (industrial agriculture, airplanes and modern travel, medicine, aid etc.) If the people who created and maintain these technologies go away, there is no guarantee of continued massive population growth in the poor places.

I am not convinced, for example, that high birth rates alone will enable Africans or Arabs to take over. They just don't have the complexity or tools to maintain the industrial infrastructure, and never really did.

progress4what said...

"Progress4what, given that assumption, shouldn't you be delighted that other people are removing their genes from the game, since that makes yours that much more likely to be propagated?"

JMG, I've never really noticed you using sarcasm, but I had to read that twice to be sure. So - assuming you're not being sarcastic, alls I can say is, "Bwaa ha ha!! My master plan is working! And now I have the blessing of the Druid! Bwaa ha ha!"

All joking aside, though - there are likely to be fundamental differences between the views and actions of those with children and those without as we head into a declining future.

As your virtual living room empties out for the week, perhaps you, JMG, and Chris @ Cherokee, and I could linger over a beer and discuss how having children might have affected our lives and our views of the future? No,on second thought, there's not enough virtual beer in all of Australia, Maryland, and Georgia (USA) to induce 3 grown men to have a conversation like that! (haha, again!) It's just too personal, maybe too painful, and much of it, about the turns and twists in the course of a man's life, is just understood without a word needing to be said.

"And juss 'member," progress4what slurs, as he slips off the virtual bar stool onto JMG's floor. "Men can still sir children at age 85 and above! If we survive depopulation, guys - then we will surely help young women rebuild humanity."

Nastarana said...

Redneck Girl, The Pacific Northwest has what can be found in no other region of the continental USA, defensible boundaries.

Desert to the west, rugged mountains to the south and north and the Pacific coast is a famous graveyard of ships. Between SF Bay and Puget Sound there is one major river giving access to the interior and the crossing from the ocean into the Columbia River is considered one of the three most dangerous in the world, not to be undertaken without channel markers and experienced pilots, both of which a successor govt. would make it a priority to control, along with the water flow of Bonneville Dam.

I think your instincts are sound as to the possibility of some sort of rough democratic institutions being able to survive.

heather said...

@Phil Knight- Parents have a perverse incentive not to take the imminent collapse of civilization seriously? I'd argue the opposite- as a parent of two, I feel the intense need to understand and prepare for the future, in order to properly equip my kids for the world they will have to make a life in. That drive, to give them a fighting chance, is far stronger than my fears for my own personal comfort or even survival, not to be too melodramatic about it. Those of us with sprogs to tend to might find it more difficult to make the time to discuss Spengler and sea levels at length, but I assure you we're not automatically missing some prerequisite after spawning.

Brian Weber said...

Mr Greer, in reply, I admit that Ebola in west Africa, a deep, deep tragedy, does not affect me personally. I don't live there.

But we are talking about the decline & fall of the West, no? North America, specifically? That's where I live. How many people in the Roman world go to watch events unfold from a distance, their lives sorta going on, maybe poorer? Some did, I suppose. Jerome comes to mind. "Third World" periphery areas, like Ireland, Scotland, or the Arabian subcontinent, also come to mind. But how many, many 1000's of individuals were in Rome in 455?

There are some sequences in history that read like compounding tragedy on top of tragedy---in Europe, the 14th century, or the 5th through 7th centuries, read like a nightmare of self-reinforcing social decay, violence, famine, bad decision-making, destruction.

What was the position of the Gallic commoner in the century after 406? No matter your philosophy or lifestyle, seemed your life or death was up to forces out of your control. This city resisted the Suebi, only to be burned. That city resisted the Visigoths, only to be burned. That other city let the Visigoths in, only to be looted, then burned. Similar, unrecorded stories would be repeated on smaller scales many thousands of times. Landholders jockeying to retain privilege. Forcible recruitment into this or that service.

Are we to understand something like 5th-6th c Gaul might return? Seems like that situation would affect *everyone* living in those places. You're right, destruction of the cities of whole subcontinents isn't the end of the world, or the end of history. But it seems like apocalypse enough.

Therian said...

A side bar to the disaster that is coming is that foreigners who have entered in the USA in the last 20 years have a REAL sense of community and greatly assist the businesses and communities of their ethnicities. Meanwhile, people born in the USA are as divided, apathetic, fat, stupid, and uncivic minded as they have ever been. Whatever is left of America after the inevitable economic and resource wars are lost by EVERY participating country will NOT look like the America that existed 50 years ago. White supremacists frankly look a bit silly in this kind of environment because, as a whole, they're the class that's taking a dive to a permanent lower class status. Anyone who doubts this should read Charles Murray's "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010" to set themselves straight.

Bogatyr said...

Anne Patterson mentioned, re: future necessities, "we will still need a viable water supply". Absolutely true.

Here in St. Petersburg, there's a major program underway to replace the old Soviet-era water pipes with more modern infrastructure. All over the city there are great pits being dug, and stacks of black plastic pipes.

My (Tsarist-era) apartment complex was upgraded over the summer. The water supply came and went unpredictably. This coincided with an uncommonly hot and humid period of weather. At the time I was doing a lot of travelling - by metro, bus, and foot - between clients' offices, and fairly rapidly developed an uncomfortable heat rash.

You can imagine, perhaps, how uncomfortable it was to get up after a hot night, with a hot day ahead, to find no water coming from the taps. Fortunately (?) the tap water is undrinkable, so I've always got a few 5-litre bottles available, and on a few occasions had to use those to wash.

If this had continued for much longer, I might actually not have been able to walk for any long distance; the heat rash was becoming more and more painful. Luckily, the weather cooled down (dramatically), and the work on the pipes was finished.

It brought home very powerfully what I read on Selco's SHTF School blog: that during the siege of Sarajevo, a very high number of deaths were caused simply by being unable to wash small cuts which then became septic, or to fungal diseases such as Athelte's Foot, which crippled people and left them helpless.

Every time I turn on the tap, now, I'm reminded what a sophisticated, and vulnerable, process makes it possible. I'm also reminded that if it were seriously disrupted, life in a city would very quickly become impossible.

Shane Wilson said...

(Blush) oops, total overlooked spell check error, my apologies. ..

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thank you, Mr Weber, for hitting the nail on the head. (You wrote, in part, "nightmare of self-reinforcing social decay, violence, famine, bad decision-making, destruction.") When it comes, it comes, and boy is it bad.

Grandma and Mum fled Petseri (present-day Pechory) with some exceedingly light baggage, including a couple of oranges. Heaven knows how Estonia managed to have oranges in the September of 1944, but there you are. (Unless Mum was misremembering when she recounted this to me, decades later? My guess, knowing Mum's general capacity for handling facts, is that she was accurate.) The retreating Nazis said fine, we'll give you ladies a lift, but we can't stop: when this truck slows down at a specially sharp bend, you will have to jump. So Mum and Grandma jumped (I am inclined to think jumping in the night, but am unsure on this point), with no bones broken. Eventually they got out to the Estonian west coast, then out to Germany, then into the greater safety of Denmark. After that came Sweden, then in Mum's case nine or so days of tedious acute nausea in lower berth from Göteborg to Pier 21 in Halifax.

In later life, Mum did not enjoy travel.

I listened last night to an archive file of the BBC news from the evening of the first day of the war (the Friday which was 1939-09-01) and started Ye Olde Hyperventilation - as the London announcer was intimating, I guess, that HM Govermnent would be taking irrevocable steps shortly. Such fun, being poised to be a new war casualty, on the eve of the 75th anniversary. But no chest pains, LOL LOL, and physiological normalcy rapidly restored :-) .

Two days after 1939-09-01, on the morning of the Sunday, at 11.15 by the London civilian clocks and 10.15 by what was then called "Greenwich Mean Time" (now in essence Universal Coordinated Time), dear old Neville was on the air from the Cabinet Office, saying HM Government's ultimatum to Germany had expired.

Although we are not yet in the Dark Ages, we have been in a bad way for a long time. This bad stuff comes on bit by bit, in this jurisdiction and that, pretty unevenly. Now we have Ukraine, and one is not quite sure what comes next. Future historians, if there are any, putting things into pigeonholes as best they can, might say that the big slide started two or three generations before the year 2000.

thinking on 2014-09-01
of this 75th anniversary,
and doing the best I can here
(we really need some **POLISH** reader
of the ADR blog to weigh in today,
but we may not be that lucky),

Toomas (Tom) Karmo

www dot metascientia dot com

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Sorry, post in haste, repent at leisure: half an hour ago, I expressed uncertainty was to whether the big jump off the Wehrmacht vehicle in 1944 September, which Mum and Grandma made in their hasty journey from the small Estonian-Russian border town of Petseri (now Pechory) to Pärnu harbour, had to be made in daylight or in the dark, and now I do remember that it had to be made in the dark.

wishing somebody from Poland
would post on this 75th-anniversary day,

Toomas (Tom) Karmo

(overseas Estonian,
born 1953 in Canada,
still in Canada)

www dot metascientia dot com

Raymond Duckling said...

Hi all, my thoughts are a bit disperse so I will try to keep it short.

1. Children: I have 2 beloved male children who will be turning 18 in 2020 and 2026, so the War horseman keeps popping in my mind from time to time. It is not only organized warfare either, but the general social disintegration and rise of criminality. I have more than once reflected on my own foolish youth and come to the conclusion that I would not have survived if I had run into some hardened delinquent instead of other fool boys playing rough-man.

2. Choice into to have children: Yeah, I respect that. I do not know what I would have done, since I was a cornucopian back when my kids were born (though neither of them was planned, strictly speaking). However, I'd like to offer a piece of reflection: It was never about ourselves, it was about them.

3. Resource contraction vs overpopulation: There is something that have always bothered me but never seems to get mentioned. People in industrialized settings have stopped having children, but begun to treat pets like children. I have never understood this... it is like voluntarily taking on a profoundly disabled child that will never learn to talk, or to walk (in two feet), go to school or learn a trade... and that will die in it's teens no matter how well cared for. Still, people seem to find some meaning in the lives of their pets... so, who am I to judge.

steve pearson said...

This post and discussion has caused me to think a lot about population and attitudes towards family size.
When I was growing up (40s,50s)there was a huge pressure to conformity. A woman was expected to have multiple children, as a man was expected to have a career. The price of not following this path, which I didn't,was quite effective social scorn and almost ostracism. I can attest to this mostly in the anglosphere, but I'm sure it was also prevalent in other cultures. It was certainly the push that drove so many non conforming people to Greenwich Village, NY and North Beach, SF and ultimately to the hippie movement in the 60s.
I am not sure that people consciously thought of preserving their genetic heritage, though that was one club used to beat those who didn't reproduce. It was just part of the social fabric of those times, like being patriotic or going to church.
I remember as a landmark when my mothers friends stopped saying "Its just a phase he is going through" I had then been totally written off. I almost felt like Cyrano De Bergerac saying "there goes, thank God, another enemy. Not for the faint of heart, but the conformist track felt like suicide on the installment plan.

FLwolverine said...

@Shane Wilson: from my experience - going back 40 years or so - even those of us who believed in the myth of progress did NOT say "I should have children because they will be better off than I am (because things will keep getting better)". No, what we said (if we thought about it at all) was "great, I can have children because I'll be able to provide for them".

I think that historically most people in most times have said something like: "OK, I'm having children because I need an heir/I need someone to look after me when I'm old/I need help on the farm/it's my duty (to god or the state or whatever)/it's just natural/it proves I'm a man - and I just hope my children have a better life than I do, but who knows?"

Is it any wonder that some people now look at possible futures and say, "my children's lives would almost certainly be more difficult than mine, and I might not be able to provide for them, so I choose not to have children. I'll make my contribution to the world some other way" ?

I agree that at times our ancestors "found reasons to rejoice in childbirth" and that at times our descendants will do so too. But I've stated my belief before: I do not believe in propagating the species just for the purpose of propagating the species. I believe there are many decades ahead "when they will say 'Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!'"

Sean Strange said...

One of the first things I expect to return if and when this dark age you're predicting really gets rolling is a strong tribal sensibility, and the end of the postmodern progressive ethos that has normalized non-reproduction.

Obviously, one of the keys to cultural survival is reproduction. Only in our affluent and decadent modern societies have people gotten the strange, counter-evolutionary idea that not having children is a reasonable choice. Evolution being what it is, it is quickly routing around this sort of decadence – see Europe, where the postmodern natives are in the process of ethnically cleansing themselves and being replaced by more fecund cultures.

So the people who survive modernity will tend to be those who preserve the old values, the religious and tribal values which, in the name of progress, so many have abandoned, but without which their culture dies.

As a side note, I would be very interested in knowing what the birthrates are among people in the peak oil community. I suspect there is a strong correlation between them, perhaps suggesting a certain psychological and cultural tendency. A poster child for barren, doomer despair might be Michael Rupper, childless, as far as I know, and driven to suicide, but saying it was "for the children". I can't help but noticing that it is overwhelmingly my kind (white men) who are deconstructing themselves out of existence in this way, and thinking that at some point we have to look for deeper causes and solutions. But again, memetic and genetic evolution will have the final word. Fecundity always wins eventually.

So in general, I think we should ask whether doomer culture is itself a symptom of the widespread decadence, and whether it will be one of the first casualties of a dark age. How can it be otherwise? How can this sort of barren pessimism survive for long?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and all,

I'm a bit uncomfortable / mildly embarrassed about the high IQ meme that was thrown about this week. It doesn’t feel true to me.

All I can say is that I've known plenty of people with a PhD who: have children; are lazy; display a lack of curiosity; and buy heavily into the dominant culture at all costs. (Not all in the one person though!)

High IQ implies an ability to achieve high scores on a particular test, or hasn't anyone noticed that? It is overrated.

Gumption, dogged determination and an ability to learn are a different skill set altogether.

Spengler's reference to "race suicide" - which I haven't confirmed - sounds to me like a flight into intellectual arrogance and probably fitted nicely with his personal worldview? But I could be wrong too and completely misunderstood the point.



PS: A new blog entry is up showing the new water tanks in place: Sometimes you just need a deadline

It also has a video of a Californian Redwood forest - Down Under style!

Redneck Girl said...

Bogatyr said...

It brought home very powerfully what I read on Selco's SHTF School blog: that during the siege of Sarajevo, a very high number of deaths were caused simply by being unable to wash small cuts which then became septic, or to fungal diseases such as Athlete's Foot, which crippled people and left them helpless.

One thing I've learned in this life is there's a lot of things you can do to mitigate 'minor' medical problems. Although such mitigations sometimes has a high "Eeewwwwww!" factor! An old American soldier trick to cure athlete's foot is human urine,(your own!) just pour it over the affected toes and/or feet. Seems to clear up pretty fast. My mother was also told by an old Am. Indian woman that it works on poison oak rashes too! That's a nasty itchy rash that can be spread by scratching. The oil gets into the pores so the best way to get rid of it before it gets it's start is washing with soap and COLD water.


Redneck Girl said...

Nastarana said...

Redneck Girl, The Pacific Northwest has what can be found in no other region of the continental USA, defensible boundaries.

Desert to the west, rugged mountains to the south and north and the Pacific coast is a famous graveyard of ships. Between SF Bay and Puget Sound there is one major river giving access to the interior and the crossing from the ocean into the Columbia River is considered one of the three most dangerous in the world, not to be undertaken without channel markers and experienced pilots, both of which a successor govt. would make it a priority to control, along with the water flow of Bonneville Dam.

I think your instincts are sound as to the possibility of some sort of rough democratic institutions being able to survive.

Thank you Nastarana, but we also have a catastrophe in the making of biblical proportions with the Juan de Fuca plate, which is one reason why JMG moved to the Cumberland Mountains nearly all the way across the continent. I'm thinking we should not only encourage Ninjitsu but also welcome all the Japanese refugees we can with open arms in hopes that some of them will have the antique building skills of their ancestors! I once posted to JMG that I could envision public buildings in Cascadia as having traditional pagoda like roofs. My mind made the association one day that during a massive quake the walls bow out and the roof slips below the original line so that when the wall swings back into line it's destroyed by the roof. Not so with a center supported pagoda roof! And then we could use the neat industry and influence of Japanese farmers in the inland valleys. The drier valleys further away from the coast would be excellent grazing for cattle and sheep so there would be plenty of products from grazers to be shipped overseas or up and down the west coast.

Leaving out the cyclic catastrophic earthquake and following tidal wave two or three times in a millennium as well as the odd volcanic eruption this area could be quite a going concern in the world to be!


Violet Cabra said...

Random Man, to be fair all the best trained engineers of the West are struggling, and in many cases failing, to maintain industrial infrastructure with all the complexity and tools at their disposal.

Shane, no worries!

Chris, I think we're in total agreement. My take is that IQ is a measure of how well one is able to intellectually embody the values of the dominant culture, rather than an objective metric of intelligence. Which is why I put "High IQ" in quotation marks in my comment which I think you are referring to. I don't buy into it and want to acknowledge it as a construct I don't believe in on its own terms.

As for Spengler's use of the term "race suicide" my memory/understanding is he used it to describe the process by which the most privileged members of a civilization stop having children during its decline. This is, according to him, part of the historical record of all civilization and that people witnessing it always express alarm about this reduction in fertility and try to reverse it it to no avail. I didn't find it a particularly offensive concept while reading DOTW, but I also admittedly do have a brain-crush on Oswald.

onething said...

I certainly didn't have children because I thought they would be better off. I remember when my daughters were teenagers and some of their friends spoke of not wanting to have children, and perhaps one of mine was half heartedly saying the same, playing with the idea, and asking me, "Surely, Mom, you went through a phase of not wanting to have children?" And I said no, never for even one second since I thought about it at age 6, was there a moment when I considered not having children.

It doesn't bother me in the least when people don't have children. I like to let people roam free, not feel pressured into this or that, let those who want them have them.
I do always pity them a bit, but in a tolerant way since I know I don't understand them.

It does indeed bother me, however, that so many decent, honest, intelligent people are not having them. There's definitely some sort of reverse evolution going on, and I do worry about it.

But I don't care for Sean Strange's strange take on it either, because why call it decadent to respond to reality, i.e., that there are too many people in the world? Why praise other cultures who have overpopulated their geological environments and who will be in a world of hurt once the artificial life support stops? I find that depressing because it means that people have no more ability to respond to their own increasing numbers like homo sapiens than the non sapien animals do. They overpopulate sometimes, too, and then they crash.

I agree that family, reproduction and other values will become important again, but it could also be argued that people were overpopulated long before this last superduper episode. England didn't have enough trees, enough forest, enough wild life for a long time. And yet people had many children, and died and died like flies.

I'd like to hope that in the future women might have around 5-6 births with most of them living and with some intentional spacing and attention paid to nutrition and sanitation rather than giving birth 12 times and living in squalor and misery and ill health.

Wadulisi, I get poison ivy all the time, and next spring I'm going to try eating a leaf, and will be trying the urine treatment as well.

Myriad said...

@sv coho,
The math in the 300-year scenario is based on an assumed death rate that's higher than the birth rate by an amount that results in the population decreasing by one percent of its current number each year. For example, if two people are born and three people die during one year for every hundred people alive, then that results in a one percent decrease in a year.

Another way of saying that the population decreases by one percent a year is that each year, the population becomes 99 percent of the population of a year before. So if the population starts out at 470 million, after a year it's at 99% of 470 million, which we calculate as 470,000,000 * 0.99, which works out to 465.3 million.

After another year, its 99% of 465.3 million, or 465,300,000 * 0.99. That's also 470,000,000 * 0.99 * 0.99; that is, 99% of the previous year's population that was 99% of the initial two-years-ago population. We can write that as 470 million * (0.99^2). (The symbol ^ means "raised to the power of," so ^2 means "squared" or "raised to the power of two.")

After three years, the population will be 470,000,000 * (0.99^3).

After four years, the population will be 470,000,000 * (0.99^4).

After x years, the population will be 470,000,000 * (0.99^ x)

It's an exponential function because as years go by, the population is multiplied by increasing powers (aka exponents) of the factor 0.99. Because 0.99 is less than one, raising it to higher and higher powers, which means multiplying it by itself more and more times, produces a smaller and smaller number. So the population is decreasing. This type of decrease is called "exponential decay."

When you raise a number greater than one to higher and higher powers, it gets larger and larger instead. That's also a type of exponential function, often described as an "exponential increase." That would happen, for example, if a population increased by the same percentage each year.

Using high school level math such as logarithms, you can answer questions about the scenario, such as "how many years will it take for the population to be reduced by half?" The answer, in this case, is about 69 years, no matter what year or what population you start with (as long as the population is high enough so that rounding off to the nearest whole person doesn't affect the numbers significantly.)

(Why isn't the answer 50 years? If the population decreases by one percent a year, won't it have decreased 50 percent, or half, after fifty years? That would be true if the population always decreased by one percent of the starting population, but that's not what's happening in our scenario, where the population decreases by one percent of its new value each year.)

Once you know the halving time is close to 69 years, you can get a rough idea of the population graph just from that. If you start with 470 million, after 69 years it's about half of that or 235 million. After another 69 years, or 138 years total, it's halved again to about 117 million. After another 69 years, or 207 years total, it's about 59 million. At 276 years, it's about 29 million.

Stacey Armstrong said...

I have been working my way very slowly through Decline of the West. Spengler writes: “There is a deep relation between the attitude that is taken towards the historic past and the conception that is formed of death, and this relation is expressed in the disposal of the dead." I have been giving this some thought this past week as I read the post and the comments.

I fear this may be slightly macabre but I thought it might be of interest to those considering what more deaths may look like in the ground and what could be done now in preparation. My small community ran out of burial spaces in the cemetery a number of years ago. While I was on the board of the local conservancy, we donated a small piece of land for a "green" cemetery. A broad outline of what this entails is an affordable, non chemical, simple burial in a fir forest attached to a local park. A local fellow has begun to accept orders for local willow woven caskets at very reasonable prices, although being composted surrounded by untreated wood or fabric are also possibilities. A lively dialogue has also been created around how to speed up the composting process! I think what I was most surprised about when the community was initially accessing the possibilities around the most simple ecologically sound burial possible was all the rules, money, refrigeration, and bureaucracy attached.

As an aside, In response to the fellow who speculated that perhaps those who participate in peak oil narratives generally have no children. I have found, as a parent, that talking about population (explosion and implosion) with people who have consciously chosen not to have children largely unhelpful. I have been charged with irrationality, being a slave to biology, selfishness etc. no matter how carefully I try to articulate how I arrived at my decision. It also seems disingenuous to not "confess" that I had one child in my late thirties. I think the notion of dissensus might be helpful here. We can agree roughly on what the current landscape looks like and that there are any number of ways to flip a coin into the future.

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