Overpopulation and Oil: What the Talking Heads Don't Talk About

Oil Well at Sunset 

Sometime back on National Public Radio, a panel discussed the high cost of gasoline and what the next president should do about it. When asked if we should be concerned about running out of oil, a panelist quipped that “President Obama” will create appropriate tax incentives for photovoltaics and oil will become so much “useless sludge”. Am I alone in thinking that there is a general lack of understanding about what the future holds for all of us when petroleum runs out?

Yes, We Eat Oil

When nitrogen is allowed to infiltrate a suitable body of water, the normal population of algae grows explosively. It consumes available nutrients and oxygen, turns the water green, and kills most other species. The algae, unable to thrive under the conditions they themselves have created, begin to die. This is called an algae bloom.

Petroleum is humanity’s source of nitrogen. Increasingly, we’re aware that it doesn’t just heat our houses and propel our cars; we actually eat it. Through the twin miracles of modern agriculture and wet-milling, petroleum becomes nitrogen fertilizer, which becomes corn or soybeans, which become virtually every and any processed food product we know (including virtually all meat and farmed fish).[1] In Michael Pollan’s acclaimed book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he documents that over sixty percent of the average American’s diet comes from (petroleum-derived) corn![2]

Why Do We Eat Oil?

It’s petroleum that allows one farmer to feed ten thousand people. After all this time, it still costs less than a dollar to pump a barrel of oil out of the ground. Cheap petroleum gave rise to an a sustained era of over-producing food, which led to an explosion in world population. With any luck, petroleum will run out before we complete our algae-like “bloom” cycle.

Too Many People on Earth

Global climate change, dwindling aquifers, the accelerated loss of species and habitat are symptoms of a bigger disease: human overpopulation. How do we know this? For one, simple arithmetic. If you take the entire area of the earth’s surface, subtract out oceans, deserts, and extreme latitudes, and divide the result by six billion people (our current population), you get about four acres of habitable land per human, of which approximately two are suitable for growing food. The debate, then, is about whether a few acres is enough to sustain each of us — that is, without petroleum.

Most people frame the issue in terms of carrying capacity.  Some estimates for the carrying capacity of our planet range between eight-hundred million and eight billion people. (Actually, estimates vary more widely because determining what humans need, want, and then actually use, is non-trivial.) The lower number reflects the notion that there is not just a physical carrying capacity, but a social carrying capacity for the planet, which takes into account issues of competition, free will, and so forth (“human nature”).

If you ask a person on the street, likely they’ll tell you that Earth’s carrying capacity is around, or somewhat above, our current population. In other words, most folks assume that there is always room for a few more of us.  I’d argue that we’ve already way overshot the mark.

Smallest Footprint Too Big

Is the lower number more realistic? I’ve met a number of people who’ve attempted self-sufficiency on ten, twenty, and even forty acre properties. Not for lack of ability or effort, but no one was successful: all were dependent on some amount of petroleum and petroleum-manufactured goods. Observation and personal experience has led me to believe that estimates for sustainable footprints are low, chiefly because they ignore a dependence on fossil fuel energy, which will have to be made up by wood and other sources of fuel.  These require additional acreage to produce. Consider that without access to oil or coal, the Romans denuded much of Italy’s forests making cement and smelting steel.

What About Solar?

Solar technologies (photovoltaic, wind, hydro, and solar-thermal) are vital.[3] However, they’re not a replacement for petroleum. If you think about it, petroleum is just another form of solar energy. Ignoring the time period and the process by which it was actually formed, petroleum represents stored solar energy equivalent to a significant fraction of all the sun’s energy that struck the Earth for hundreds of years. The trouble is that we’ve gone through virtually all this energy in the last few decades. (Ever had a cell phone that used more power than the battery charger could feed to it? Once dead, even plugged in, it will make no more calls for a while.)

Even with solar cells on every roof, we still can’t sustain our current population without petroleum. We can’t imagine what it will be like to run out of oil.

What Does ‘Decimation’ Mean?

Does recorded history offer any examples of large human populations faced with this level of stress? “Lesser” examples abound right now: competition for limited resources in areas like Somalia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Palestine, and Iraq, to name a few. (It’s said that all wars, directly or indirectly, are about competition for resources.) I don’t mean to trivialize the suffering and upheaval in this places, but consider: at a carrying capacity number of eight-hundred million for our planet, and if we grow to eight billion by the time we effectively run out of oil, today’s most pressing issue is that we need to reduce our population by ninety percent! The definition of ‘decimation’, by contrast, is only to reduce by one-tenth.

If we face anything like this “reduction”, it’s hard to imagine that civil government — and modern economies — wouldn’t collapse, along with all the good stuff that comes with them: the ability to preserve the natural world and its species; art, culture, technology, and wealth.

The Money’s Gone!

If a common concern for most humans is (monetary) wealth, then consider: virtually all wealth as we know it is directly or indirectly petroleum-derived. Even were that not the case, its still hard to imagine that currencies and other vital trappings of an economy can survive when a majority of the population doesn’t. Even economic theory seems to depend on stable, growing populations.

Birth Control?

Theoretically, we might be able to achieve drastic population reduction through less chaotic means, through some form of birth control. Call me a skeptic if you will, but I can’t see getting the consensus needed to make this happen.

Bottom Line

The fact that we are poisoning our planet and ourselves finally has everyone’s attention. What we address now may determine what, if anything, we leave our grandchildren. Nevertheless, the scarier problem facing all of us is this: if we are significantly above the planet’s carrying capacity, our population must, and will, shrink dramatically.

It seems that very few people believe population pressure poses such an urgent problem. If overpopulation doesn’t trump all the other problems facing us, I’d like to know why.


[1]Wet-milling refers to processing that breaks up cereal grains into all manner of industrial components much the way petroleum is “cracked” to produce everything from petroleum jelly to solvents.

[2]Carbon atoms from corn have a distinct signature that allow them to be tracked from corn plant to human and animal consumers.  A piece of human hair, for example, can be analyzed to determine the amount of corn in an individual’s diet.   Industrial-scale farming rotates soybeans and corn; industrial consumers use whichever is cheaper.  This is the meaning behind food labels like “contains corn and/or soybean oil”.  Both are feedstock for wet-milling, but only corn has a traceable carbon signature.

[3]The sun heating air creates wind.  Water is evaporated and mobilized by the sun to higher elevations; hydro-electric power generation harnesses this energy.

Related Articles

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Sources and Recommended Links

Film: Crude Awakening
Book: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

Photo Credit: Sasha Burkhard – Fotolia.com

Written by chrisschille

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