The Population Implication

The world is not so large a place as it once was. It is no longer a place of vast, unexplored spaces. Frontiers no longer exist. Man can no longer venture far without encountering other men. From this arises conflict. Wars are currently waged mostly for one reason; you have something I want. Wars of the future will be waged for another reason; you have something I need. This seemingly slight distinction is needed to identify the two trends that will set the stage of the coming world play. These trends are: 1) An exponentially soaring world population and 2) A finite amount of global resources. Dealing with these two occurrences will define the future.

When we speak of resources, we mean everything that man produces or uses, from corkscrews to clean water. Yet one resource stands alone from the others. You cannot hold it or touch it, but everybody uses it everyday. That resource is energy.

Energy stands alone because every other resource needs energy to be created. If you buy groceries, energy is consumed by the machines that cultivate plants or grassland to sustain herds. Energy is consumed in the processing and packaging of foods. Trucks/airplanes/ships/trains that transport food to merchants consume energy. Markets use energy to refrigerate, illuminate, and vend merchandise. You use energy when you drive to the store and back. Finally, energy is used to refrigerate and then prepare your dinner. Energy is consumed with every step. This is true of every resource. When you turn on the shower, that water has been filtered, processed, pumped, and heated. It disappears down the drain to begin the same process over again. You need clothes. Energy is used to harvest cotton, spin cloth, dye, cut and sew, transport, sell, buy, and finally wash and dry, wash and dry, wash and dry.

The reason energy resources are so important is that they are un-renewable. Once they are used, they cannot be recovered. They are gone. Other resources like food and clothing can be considered renewable, but that is only so long as there is energy to produce them. The primary energy resources in the world right now are fossil fuels, meaning oil, natural gas, and coal. There are others, like wood, for example, but their inefficiency excludes them in any important way. Try, for example, to build a tractor with a wood burning engine.

Now consider this: it takes energy to produce energy. It requires energy to pump oil from the ground, mine coal, or extract natural gas. The resource must be refined, and contaminants removed. It must be transported and stored. In order to remain viable as an energy source, the amount of energy gained from a resource must be greater than the amount of energy used to remove, process, and distribute it. The closer to the surface of the earth a resource is and the less contaminants it contains, the cheaper it is to produce in energy costs. It requires more energy to pump oil from 300 meters underground than 100 meters. This means that, over time, the energy cost of an energy resource becomes greater and greater. This can never be reversed. We will eventually reach the point where it takes more than one barrel of oil to extract one barrel of oil. We run out of oil before we actually physically deplete the world’s oil reserves. It no longer becomes profitable or sensible to try and extract it, because you are now running at an overall energy debt. Would you give me ten dollars in return for nine? Maybe once. When an energy resource reaches this point, it becomes an energy sink.

So what happens when oil becomes an energy sink? Consider the implications. In the United States we have the world’s largest supply of coal, enough to power us for decades. Clean coal technology sounds appealing right now, but it is a temporary fix.We will potentially become the world’s largest supplier of coal. But does your car run on coal or natural gas? Do the trucks that bring food to your local grocery store? How long would it take to convert our energy infrastructure from oil to coal? About as long as it would take for the other two fossil fuels to become energy sinks themselves. The same will also quickly happen with uranium and nuclear power. Also the impact on the environment from the last mad scramble for diminishing energy resources will be severe.

Life on earth will change drastically. 6.7 billion people currently populate the earth, a number that is growing rapidly. When fossil fuels become deplete, that number is no longer sustainable. What population could be sustained without fossil fuels is right now a matter of speculation, but most estimates place it at about 1 billion.The reason for this is again, that all other resources, most importantly food, depend on fossil fuels.

Food. We love it, we eat it, we need it. Food in and of itself does not need fossil fuels to be produced, man did quite well before the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. But at that time only slightly more than 1 billion people populated the earth. Fossil fuels are necessary to produce the massive volume of food required to sustain 6 times that amount of people. Keep in mind that vegetable food stuff is really the only one that matters, because meat products are also dependant upon them. Cattle graze, chickens need grain, etc. Vegetable food sources require three things: arable land, water, and sunlight. All three of these are finite resources. X amount of crops can be produced from X amount of land. Only so much sun can shine on one acre of crops at a time, which requires sufficient water and also nutrients from the soil.  Under ideal circumstances, crops are rotated from field to field, giving the land time to replenish the vital nutrients essential to vegetable growth. Given the amount of food that needs to be constantly produced to feed the world, this is no longer possible. Crops are grown year after year on the same acreage. So how do farmers compensate for the continued loss of soil nutrients? With fertilizers. Fertilizers not only allow farmers to feed plants nutrients when the soil has become depleted, but also produce greater amounts of crops from their acreage. Great, problem solved! But there is one drawback; fertilizers are produced from, you guessed it, fossil fuels! So when (not if) these energy sources are depleted, our ability to coax exaggerated  amounts of food from depleted soil ends. A food supply system that is already strained and operating at peak capacity will collapse. Current US and world stockpiles of grains are at an all-time low and rapidly diminishing. Right now there is only a 50 day grain surplus available. Consider the implications of even one lost harvest, not to mention the inevitable drastic drop in overall food production when we suck the last viable barrel of oil from the ground. Currently, the United states exports 50% of it’s grain. When we need that grain to feed our own starving masses, the world will suffer.

Now let’s briefly look at the last vital resource: water. The world is mostly water. Great! But only 3% of that water is freshwater. Most of the water utilized by humans is pumped from aquifers, vast underground supplies stored in porous rock like a sponge and pushed nearer the surface through the water table. Since we have been discussing the US and its food production, I will use the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest in the world, as an example. The Ogallala is 174,000 square miles in area and lies under 8 states in the Great Plains where the majority of food in the US is produced. It provides drinking water for over 80% of the people who live within its boundaries and 30% of all the water used for crop production in the United States. The problem is that the Ogallala is being quickly depleted, recharging only 10% of the water drawn from it. Some estimates claim total depletion in as little as 25 years. And this problem is not confined to the Ogallala, aquifers around the world are suffering from severe depletion rates and pollution.

So we are faced with a haunting question. Which will we run out of first: energy, food, or water? Can we picture what life will be like in 100 years, or even 25? The face of the world will be reshaped as we enter the inevitable era of the Resource Wars that must happen. It may not be in our lifetimes, but we definitely leave these problems for our children and grandchildren to deal with.

Defining the problem is simple: we have too many people. The answer, however, is not so easy. The idea of population control carries with it unsavory implications, rife with overtones of racism and manifest destiny. Who would be allowed to reproduce, and why? Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, considered our population a garden, and certain segments “weeds” that needed to be eradicated (is it mere coincidence the number of abortion clinics that provide free services in low-income neighborhoods?). Garret Hardin in his controversial 1968 article the Tragedy of the Commons claimed that people should not only be controlled in their breeding habits, but also in their right to inherit property. Hardin’s utopia allowed only the fittest and most intelligent these rights. For example, Paris Hilton would never be allowed to reproduce or inherit her parent’s fortune. Hardin also asserted that people needed to voluntarily submit to Darwin’s credo “survival of the fittest.” But any group that recognized this need for control and voluntarily subscribed to it would considerably lessen their own viability and chance for survival (despite its racist cant, Hardin’s “Tragedy” does pose some interesting questions and I do suggest you give it a read). Our basest primal instinct, propagation of the species, goes against the necessity of controlling our population. For example, one could logically argue that we need a worse health care system, not a better one, but to do so would probably result in provoking anger and possibly physical violence. People today shudder to think of the failed American eugenics movement or forced abortions in China. Yet just because the question of how to resolve this problem is disturbing does not mean that it is going to go away. And is it the question that disturbs you, or the answer?

Critical mass here has not yet been reached, but it is lurking just around the corner. Fossil fuel depletion is imminent. Devastating world food shortages are predicted as early as 2020. Nature has its own way of dealing with a species that outgrows the natural resources it needs to survive: it is called extinction. The time for action is not now, it was 50 years ago. We throw our hope towards technology, yet greed and corruption prevent the development of the necessary alternative and renewable energy sources we will need if we hope to survive as a species. Personally I fear it is too late, we are too close to the brink. There are too many questions and not enough answers. Will the earth be better off without us? Perhaps.

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3 Comments

  1. wow. dire. intelligent. provocative. thoughtful.

    great piece here, although i would offer just a couple of observations:

    you are clearly an intelligent person and did your research before writing this piece, so why not an intelligent and thoughtful exploration of alternative energy? You only gave it a passing mention as if it has no potential. Also- why did you write off nuclear?

    Also: “Defining the problem is simple: we have too many people”

    is a little too simplistic, even by your own standards in discussing the complex linkages between energy, food, land, water, etc…

    the problem can be defined in a myriad of ways, and is critically important.

    it is how we define a problem that defines our solution. by defining the problem as “too many people” you limit the other possible solutions- including alternative energy.
    not that it would be a panacea, but there is potential.

    i do agree with the overall notion that the earth can only support so many people before an epidemic /global phenomenon wipes out vast amounts of the population

    i guess we better start colonizing Mars via our new technologies 😛

  2. Kevin, I appreciate your thoughtful comment!
    The reasons I glossed over alternative energy (and yes it was intentional) were mainly the length of the post (you can probably guess that no one has accused me of brevity, judging by some of the monsters in here and some of my posts in the forums), and to keep with the theme of the article.
    Concerning length: since no one reader seems to have the endurance to tackle anything longer than 1,500 to 2,000 words (this figure was glossed from my pitiful blog stats), I made a commitment to try and stay within that boundary from now on. As is, Population Implication tips the scale at just over 1,800 words, so I felt that to add any more content would defeat my purpose of actually getting people to read it.
    Concerning theme: It was my intent with this to raise questions, not answer them, hoping it would lead people to ask not “what are the alternative energy sources,” but rather “why aren’t these sources currently being developed.”
    Nuclear energy was dismissed because it falls under the category of “non-renewable” and therefore seemed to me, at least, to not be a long-term solution.
    In hindsight I agree that stating the problem as “we have too many people” is somewhat simplistic, but it does comprise the crux of the situation. I like and agree, however, that the “problem defines the solution,” as you so aptly put it. You are right, the solution will rely not just on finding a way to agreeably control rampant population spread, but also the development of renewable energy sources despite the current stagnation of these technologies due to greed and avarice.
    Again, thank you for your comment, it was much appreciated!
    TTF

  3. Admittedly, I did not read every word, but scanned your article. I think you have done a fair job of representing serious human issues that must be faced. There is another side to these issues that you do not mention: a spiritual side. There are spiritual realities behind the crises we face. Ultimately, we find ourselves in a broken world because we (each of us) have a spiritually broken nature.

    Our spiritual brokenness has affected every aspect of life on our planet. You suggest that it may be too late to fix some of the problems and, as far as running out of human resources, I agree. But we will never, as humans, be able to deplete the spiritual resources that have been provided for us in the God-man Christ. His love for us in our brokenness reaches to every aspect of who we are and touches on every need we have including our need for daily bread (and energy).

    Our needs and problems are far greater than we are able to resolve. Thankfully, we are not left alone. Big problems as well as little ones are all intended to point us to our need for a Savior. And though he may not fix all of our problems in the way we imagine is best, he does provide real help for real problems, both physical and spiritual.


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