real story is probably a bit worse than that though, because the amount
of oil available on the world market seems to be declining.
Producing countries are keeping more of their oil for their own use
even as their production rates go into decline, leaving less and less
surplus oil to export.
following graph shows the actual volume of the international oil market
for the past 45 years, and a couple of projections for the next 20
based on some fairly conservative assumptions. The mechanisms behind
this behaviour are well understood. The main unknown quantities at this
time are how fast the underlying production will decline, and how much
influence rising prices will play in modifying our use of oil. I
suggest you think of these projections as "well founded speculation"
for now, and use them to try and frame your thoughts about what this
kind of event could mean to the world.
is this an issue for the world's food supply? After all we only use on
average between 2% and 3% of our energy for agriculture. Obviously we
should be able to work around a problem like this with no trouble.
the problem is that it's not just the planting, growing and harvesting
of food that's important. As I described in another
article, the global food system as a whole (which includes all
processes and infrastructure involved in feeding our population: the
growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing,
consumption, and disposal of food and food-related items) probably
consumes between 20% and 25% of the world's
oil - largely for transportation.
people are fond of pointing out whenever the potential for problems
with global food production is raised, what we have is not so much a
food production problem
as a food distribution problem. So anything that
makes food distribution more problematic (e.g. by raising the cost of
distribution) is going to impact food availability and prices. And
anything that raises food prices hits the world's poor the hardest,
driving them out of the marketplace. And that is a fancy way of saying
World Food System Under Pressure
now have a world food supply system that is under pressure from both
ends. Climate Change is already reducing harvests and will continue to
do so into the future, while Peak Oil is making the distribution of the
food that is grown steadily more expensive. We are seeing these
effects already, in both the field and the marketplace.
the demand side we are still adding 80 million people per year to the
world, the equivalent of adding another Egypt every year. That growth
brings with it an irreducible requirement for new food production and
distribution - 80 million new people require that we grow and
distribute an additional 30 million tonnes of grain every year. While
the percentage growth rate of our population is in
fact declining, the absolute
number we are
adding each year is remaining constant at 80 million, a level it has
stubbornly maintained since 1980.
is a picture of a global life support system under enormous strain,
attacked on both the supply and demand sides by inexorable
forces. Will this situation result in a Malthusian crisis?
Well, if I had to lay a bet, I wouldn't bet against it. Here's why.
me say at the outset that we have indeed learned a lot since the days
of Thomas Malthus in the 18th century. The Green Revolution based on
Norman Borlaug's incredible research has given the world much respite
from hunger for the last 60 years. However, science has also
progressed in other areas. For example we have become much better at
efficiently using up the world's resources, especially fossil fuel -
oil and natural-gas derived fertilizer - that was one linchpin of
Borlaug's Green Revolution.
can think of the Green Revolution as a stable tripod, with one leg
composed of fossil fuel, oneof water and one of high-yield crops.
- Due to Peak Oil and the net oil export crisis the
first leg of our food-production tripod, fossil fuel, is showing
signs of getting shorter.
- The second leg of the tripod, water, is now under
pressure both from climate change and from the depletion of aquifers
- The third leg, intrinsic crop yields (related to the
plant itself and not to operational factors like fertilizer, water and
not increased significantly in the last 20 years or more, despite
Herculean efforts with hybridization and even genetic engineering. The
increased crop yields we have seen over the last 30 years are instead
related to operational factors like mechanization, fertilizer and water
- the very factors that are now threatened by peak oil and climate
Limits to Population Growth
of its growing impact on the global food system, the convergence of
climate change and peak oil has enormous implications for population
growth. I think it's entirely probable that we are near the upper limit
of human population growth even now. I would expect that as the
converging crisis begins to bite harder over the next (few?) years,
food production will plateau and may even begin to fall. Some time soon
afterward (perhaps within 5 years of the crisis fully manifesting) the
global population growth rate will begin to drop precipitously,
reaching zero perhaps 5 to 10 years later. At that point our population
will begin to fall.
our best intentions around family planning, educating and empowering
women and raising the material circumstances of the poorest among us,
these efforts are already being overtaken by the circumstances I
describe here. We must continue these ameliorating efforts with the
utmost urgency, however, because the more successful we are the more
people we will be able to protect against the worst effects of the
coming food storm.
storm is coming upon us faster than most of us realize. The time
to act is now.