Limits to growth

Animal populations increase in size in the absence of constraints. Classic ecological examples include extirpation of all native predators (consider white-tailed deer in much of the northern United States, for example, now that humans have removed their predators). In our case, ready access to cheap fossil fuels alleviates constraints such as famine and pestilence. Like all animals that overshoot — that is, outstrip resources — the human animal will undergo a large-scale correction. The longer overshoot persists, the larger the human population becomes, and the greater the requisite correction. The Club of Rome was right, way back in 1972: There are limits to growth, for economies and populations.


Jared Diamond gave us many examples of the collapse of human societies, some of them quite catastrophic. Consider all 23 major civilizations that came before industrial civilization. Consider the microcosmic example of Easter Island. Seems we aren’t nearly as special as cockroaches, after all.
We’re due for a massive correction with respect to our hallucinatory economy and our bloated population. Because we’ve run out of inexpensive energy, we’ve reached the end of economic growth. We might be at the end of global population growth, too. If not today or tomorrow, the day is fast upon us. Within a few years, the global human population will shrink by eighty percent or so. When it does, the alleviation of oppression will be profound, with respect to the rest of the world.
The world’s non-industrial cultures and species likely will not rebound immediately, especially if the collapse drags on for a few years. In that case, we’ll continue to exploit resources, chopping down every tree and hunting down every bird, bunny, and bug. Soon enough, though, we’ll exhaust local resources. And, since long-distance transportation is halted when the economy collapses, local resources will be the only resources. You can forget about tapping the last barrel of “oil” from the Canadian tar sands when you’re living in Brazil. Or even in Nebraska. We’ll be “reduced” to living sustainably (think Stone Age) or, in the case of most of us, not at all.
Indeed, if we come up with energy too cheap to meter — the promisecurse of nuclear energy, back in the day — we’ll turn the planet into a lifeless pile of rubble within a couple decades.
For industrial civilization, the human suffering and subsequent loss of life is only beginning. We can only imagine how bad it will get when the economy really tanks. Right now, we’re on the leading edge of the housing bubble and the financial collapse. At some point — and I’m guessing that point comes this year — the whole damned thing comes crashing down. No amount of wishing, praying to false idols such as cheap energy, or American exceptionalism is going to save the empire when we reach the state of capitulation in the stock markets. Just because we say it shouldn’t happen doesn’t mean it shouldn’t, or won’t.
Who’s to blame, or thank, as if either one matters? Consider these prescient words from Will Durant and Ariel Durant (The Story of Civilization, volume 3 “Caesar and Christ, Epilogue – Why Rome Fell”): “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

Comments 16

  • Species Prejudice–the selfish and self-centered idea that the human species is the only thing of importance on this earth–is at the root of our wanton destruction of
    everything non-human.Is a human indeed any more special than a cockroach?
    I have so much to say on this subject,but right now I need a nap so I’ll be in fit shape to celebrate the eve with a drop.But fear not–the celebratory drop is not a waste of time,but the framework for the finest human creative activity.
    More anon.

  • Well, I don’t know what to say. I was listening to the callers in NPR today as they talked about the economic impact. It is definitely an edgy feeling I have at the moment. The news seems grim all around, and we are limited in our ability to respond in any way more meaningful than simply “waiting” and “seeing”.
    I freecycled some food to a care home for abused kids that I’d collected from neighbors and family. I sorted through things to try and donate either to freecycle or a shelter. Then, I worked a little on our version of a “victory garden”, which I keep in pots so, hopefully, they could come with us if we had to leave.
    In the meantime, I’m considering purchasing some chickens from one of the locals to keep for eggs, fertilizer and meat. I would hope, again, if we had to leave, we could take those with us as well. Oddly enough, I have some neighbors considering the option as well. It’s kind of amusing, considering we live in the burbs.
    All of which is very theraputic, but probably not going to do much good if the scenario you describe comes to pass.
    The hubby applied to a job up in Oregon: http://www.ci.hillsboro.or.us/
    I’d feel a lot better if it came through. I really don’t like being in a desert. The more I learn about our local water company and the water issues I’m starting to see/hear about, the less comfortable I feel. At least, in a place like that, there would be more water than there is here.

  • Human population shrinking by 80% within the next few years is a bit of a stretch in my humble opinion. Short of countries starting to lob nukes at each other, I think we’re going to plateau for a while.

  • Just how many monkeys have we got jumping on the bed? With that answer, I would know exactly how many more times the chorus will come around. (They never listen to the doctor.)
    Funny how Rush thought we should all stand behind the decider in chief when there was war to be had. -Not so chipper lately.
    Free energy will make us all happy. Then we will all be able to do whatever we want! After all, I want my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness -Pronto!
    Your assertions to the contrary are very unpatriotic. : (
    Perhaps we have been beaten at our own cold war games. The bear hibernates still, after all, and bin Laden appears fully operational. Guerilla tactics!

  • do not wish for an economic collapse,
    everything that can be eaten or
    combusted will be consumed in a few short
    years. this is happening now in areas
    adjacent to national parks in the poorer
    parts of india where cooking oil is scarce
    and extreme poverty is a way of life.
    the undestorey gets stripped for fuel.
    if one knows anything about the ecology
    all the complexity is in the understorey.
    similar story in central africa where
    poor miners supplement their poor
    incomes with by bush meat gathered from
    the surrounding rain forest.
    this activity has been devastating for
    faunal populations. in this example
    the miners are mining for a semi
    precious metal that is used in the
    manufacture of mobile phones.
    this metal goes from low entropy
    to high entropy, ie it becomes
    unrecoverable. i am assuming we
    all have cheap mobile phones? we are all
    complicit. (the article appeared in the
    melbourne age about 3 years ago).
    the way forward/transistion towards the future
    will require a new imagination other than
    the aforementioned purchasing of arms at bargain
    basement prices.
    apparently there are 11 banks in the world
    with the highest rating standard, anyway
    4 of them are austalian, we only have 4 banks here.
    (perhaps there is fundamental basis to my optimism)
    melbourne has just experienced a record breaking heatwave,
    43, 44, 45 and 40 degrees celsius today, the vegetable garden is toast,
    (we have water restrictions here)
    the olive trees are doing well
    nature bats last
    nature has the last laugh
    ‘limits to growth’ should be text book in every secondary school
    late news flash – arne naess died, legend!
    his book ‘ecology, community and lifestyle’ written in the 70s
    is up there with silent spring, highly recommend it,
    in my moments of despair i reach for my norwegian,
    I know others prefer their german

  • Guy: Glad to see you’re continuing with your blog. There are worse things than despair. Given that we’re all blind men feeling up an elephant, here’s this blind man’s perspective on the matter:
    George Bush and History
    Historians two hundred years from now will not regard George W. Bush as a great president. They will not think about him at all, unless they start imagining their job as something beyond using charred sticks to write last year’s potato crop numbers on the walls of mud huts. Even then, it will be hard to remember Bush’s name. They’ll have to give him a name based on rumor, something like Doofus the Second, because the name George will have gone back to one of the broken granite profiles on what’s left of Mount Rushmore. Names last longer in stone than on paper, and it’s hard to think that anyone could affect history without a name.
    The facts of history are hard to get right in the aftermath of civilization. Sometimes it’s even hard to remember which individuals caused the civilization to collapse in the first place. History comes to be seen as a series of uncontrollable events rather than the product of personal will.
    There will be historians who say civilization ended with the formation of the giant glow-in-the-dark glass-lined craters in that poisoned and empty place known variously as Iraq or Iran or Israel or Palestine.
    Other historians will say it ended with an epidemic of Ill-Eagle Bird-Flu from Anthraxico, the mythical land beyond the heat-shimmering dunes of the Southern Desert.
    Religious authorities, writing history for their own purposes, will claim that steaming oceans rose over the land and drowned the sinful portion of humanity, which was most of them, but then the Great God P’taah felt remorse, and gave humankind the cool green Eden of Antarctica. It’s hard to get there in reed rowboats caulked with melted bits of Interstate, but they will say it’s somewhere on the other side of the Dead Sea, that band of scalding water that circles the planet south of Anthraxico. Some of them will say that if you worship the Giant Potato on the altar in the Great P’taah Potato Cellar, and faithfully tithe a tenth of your potato crop, you get to go to Antarctica when you die.
    Economists two hundred years hence will scoff at the idea that there was ever a President Doofus the Second, because they won’t believe he had a country to be president of. They will understand the concept of IOUs, but they will regard as absurd the legend that an entire country’s financial system could be based on them. It will be a matter of economic faith that every economy has to be based on turnips, squash, potatoes, and domesticated ground squirrels. “How can you have a money that people can’t eat?” they will ask. “Why would people think it was worth anything at all?” They will roll their eyes. “This Doofus the Second, if he existed, was probably a minor functionary in the ancient Simplot Empire’s Potato Flake Division.”
    Philosophers of 2208 will suggest that Doofus the Second was a concept used to indicate that any human who presumed to talk to the gods would bring disaster to his family and to his village. “The gods are capricious,” they will say. “They mess with our potato crops for sport. Only a fool would deliberately try to get their attention.”
    And yet legends die hard. In 2208, there will be a group of hard-core believers who refuse to believe that Doofus the Second was just a philosophical concept. They will be the shamans and witch-doctors in the Ancient Order of Emergency Room Physicians, and they will recognize Doofus the Second as their founding father. “He replaced an entire health-care system with our emergency rooms,” they will say. “Finally, there was a place where the tired, tattered, homeless, and uninsured could get low-cost medical care.”
    There will be others, like the spear-makers and the mud-hut builders, the scavengers of ancient metal, the sellers of bits of highway, and the copper-wire jewelry makers, who will know that Doofus the Second really walked the earth, and that they owe their livelihoods to him. And when they stitch up a spear wound for two potatoes, trade a kilo of asphalt for a zucchini, a bridge rail for seven ground-squirrel carcasses, or a copper bracelet for a pumpkin, they will whisper the secret real name of Doofus the Second, the sacred two syllables that will last for eternity in all their glory: Bozo.

  • Memo to Matt of Oz:
    Matt please.No more personal attacks.Can’t we have harmony in the house.I would have thought you would have learned your lesson after driving Our Stan from this blog.Now
    for no reason you have to attack Total Turboguy.
    Stupid,silly,childish.Pick the word that best describes it.
    Now please cut it out and never do it again.Notice how I kid Total without getting personal.
    OK Matt?

  • Phoenix is a good example of our horrible waste of natural resources.We are in the Sonoran desert,but have more than enough water.Enough for 130 golf courses that consume obscene amounts of water,not to mention thousands of swimming pools,green lawns abound (I have only desert landscaping with a stone lawn) fountains,car washes,palm trees-anything that needs water we have it in spades.I thought of this when Matt mentioned that there are water restrictions in Melbourne.

  • Frank, does Fountain Valley east of Phoenix still have a humungous geyser of a “fountain” shooting 100s of feet into the air?

  • a bit overly sensitive frank,
    i assume you are referring to the
    comment regarding the purchasing of arms?
    ‘stupid, childish and silly?’ ie questioning
    the hoarding of weapons that are specifically
    designed to kill people.
    a personal attack? i must be missing something,
    for the record – stan should have drove me away with his
    insults, none was given in return,
    maybe its a cultural thing,
    ‘taking the piss’ is a national past time here,
    given the senstivity expressed here, i have mates
    that would have you guys in tears in a matter of moments,
    you have to able to laugh at yourself,
    besides, this whole peak oil thing, cheer up
    its only the ‘end of civilisation and the extinction of humanity’,
    once you acknowledge this and get over it,
    i am alive and its all blue sky thereafter

  • Frank, he’s not personally attacking me. If he’s not a gunowner that’s his personal choice.
    See that’s the beauty of America, that Australia is horribly without. We have choice here. If I choose to or not to own a firearm, that right is open to me.
    It’s not his fault he has the view of firearms that he does. He’s been indoctrinated from a very young age by his government to believe that a police state is good, right, and okay. Even in the face of evidence to the contrary he’ll believe unquestioningly in his government and that self defense is wrong. I don’t fault him for it, it’s like a prisoner in jail having different views of right and wrong than people on the outside.

  • as always you guys make many
    assumptions about ones belief,
    the prisoner in jail analogy is beautiful,
    ‘personal choice’, what can one say besides
    ideology is blinding
    from here your retort sounds like ‘indoctrination’
    a russian friend who once lived in chicago
    for some time describes the usa as just
    like the old soviet union except there is more money
    ie the propaganda is stultifying
    frank, the comments here should be sharp and we all
    should be challenged, even your sir guy

  • I guess you’re right Matt, I am indoctrinated to believe in freedom of choice and hate for the lack thereof. I’m indoctrinated specifically to question government in its constant desire to grow and over-regulate. I am indoctrinated to believe that we have the society that all others strive to grasp but never will. I guess you’re right. II’ll just go on living the jingoistic life then! Cheers!
    About the jail analogy. I call it like I see it. Had you been an Englishman I’d be on you constantly about living in possibly the most Orwellian society the world has ever known. As it stands, you’ve stated here previously that you’re working for the Aussie government and that you believe them to be benevolant. I go with what you’re saying, and what that says is that you’ve been indoctrinated from an early age to believe whatever your government says be it on it’s lack of malevolance or against personal protection from criminals. It’s not a personal insult, just an observation. Prove me wrong, I desperately want you to Matt.
    Your friend’s predjudices are laughable. Stupifying propaganda for what? You get US television there it’s not like you can’t see for yourself. If I just went with whatever I learned from people that’ve been to Australia I’d think you were mostly grass wearing aborigines with a single city of white people called Sydney. Oh and there’s wild tales circulating the US military of a promised land filled with accented beautiful women down there who outnumber men five to one. Are these true? Hell no… well the one might have merit, but that I’ll have to se for myself.

  • it is true we are all beautiful here,
    i am the perfect aryan (spelling?),
    to a lesser or greater degree
    we are all indoctrinated,
    personal choice is always defined
    for you, it is a myth to believe
    that you have it
    the idea of ‘governance’ does not
    fill me with paranoia as expressed
    by you guys
    as always ‘truth’ is context dependent,
    statistically gun control produces far
    less homocides – i would like to think
    that you would see this as a good thing
    perhaps for you guys there is no going back,
    you now have to justify the society that you
    have ‘created’ via your constant referencing
    to the anachronistic constitution

  • Actually Matt, statistically gun control creates a dramatic spike in aggrivated crimes, ones that involve violence, which includes murder.
    The weeks and months after the UK banned all personal ownership of firearms aggrivated crime jumped more than 133%! You’re right inasmuch that “Gun Crimes” went down, but real aggrivated crimes went up dramatically. It’s funny that they couldn’t figure out what was going on and now are trying to ban knives. People face upwards of an instant four years, no questions or trial, for the simple possession of a knife. My Gerber folding knife, or the one I gave to my ten year old nephew would land us in Nasty Nate’s Playpen. Now there are calls for the quashing of the so called “Knife Culture” and how kids think they look cool with a knife on them. A KNIFE! They’ve got to be joking. Someone pulls a knife on me I’ll take it away from them and stick it up their butt! One has to wonder what’s next? Bent nails? Pointy pencils? Bad thoughts? I do hope that Australia isn’t heading down the same road as the cowards in the UK.
    An excellent example of exponential growth in regards to the correlation on gun controls to spikes in aggrivated crime are many large American cities where gun rights are constrained yet are literal cesspools of crime. Washington DC, Chicago Illinois, Los Angeles California all have extremely draconian restrictions to firearm ownership, yet conversely the highest rates of not only violent crimes, but gun crimes to boot.

  • the statistics are different here,
    as far as I am aware there have not been
    an increase in aggrivated crimes.
    I am aware of what is going on in the uk,
    i would not put that down to gun control.
    Youth orientated society/media culture/
    poor parenting is probably to blame and binge drinking
    in oz there is just less deaths by guns,
    no spike in death by knife.
    I am not against guns, someday i would like
    to go hunting – not for sport, but for real food,
    i question a culture that sees it necessary to
    carry a hand gun