Responding to Peak Oil, Peak Food and Peak Population
In my last article I described how I think the effects of Climate Change and Peak Oil will combine to  limit the growth of the world's food supply.  I believe that a limited global food supply implies a limited global population, and also that a decline in the food supply will result in an overall decline in our population.  In this article I expand on how I think governments and individuals might respond if the oil/food/population situation unfolds as I think it will.
 
From the outset I want to emphasize that what I present here is not a monolithic global view. Each region, country, and even city has its own unique circumstances that will shape its particular responses. What I want to lay out is an idea of general trends that I think could spread to more and more regions over time.  I would also like to be clear that I'm not presenting proposals or prescriptions for solutions.  As I say below, I don't think we have the time or organization for effective top-down solutions.  Instead, this is a look at what I see as a range of probable responses that will occur on national, regional, municipal and personal levels as the situation unfolds.

Responding to Food and Energy Limits

Because of the size and elasticity of the global food system we will not face immediate general shortages of food. This rules out a global famine or anything approaching it. Regional situations will be different of course, and there will be increasing instances of dire food shortages for reasons as varied as the regions affected. However, I can imagine some responses to perceived limits in the food supply that will be fairly common throughout the world.

On the supply side there will be attempts to keep food production up. These will probably include broader and deeper subsidies for the energy used within the food system. That includes fertilizer and oil subsidies for farmers, gasoline and oil subsidies for the food transportation industry and rate subsidies for the electricity used in food processing. On the demand side there will be an extension of the consumer food subsidy programs already in place in many nations.

Essentially these subsidies are redistribution measures that move money from other portions of the economy into the food system. This can only last for so long, because once the subsidies reach a certain level (perhaps 25% of GDP?) things will begin to come unglued. The rest of the economy will slow down due to financial starvation, resulting in less output to be redistributed into the food system, which in turn will require an even higher percentage of GDP to be redistributed. At some point it becomes a vicious spiral.

There will be a surge in personal food growing, and low-energy agriculture will come into its own. While these initiatives will help, they will not solve the overall problem, as most people have neither the training nor the opportunity to participate. As we have already seen, food prices can rise very fast - fast enough to easily out-pace any ability to bring local or personal food supplies to fruition.

Similar considerations apply to the use of energy outside the food system. Subsidies will be provided for both producers and consumers, but in the face of a declining oil supply with rising prices the subsidies will have nowhere to go but up. This rising price/subsidy spiral will happen even as the demand for energy declines due to recessions and conservation efforts, because energy prices can rise much faster than society can reorganize to reduce its demand.

There are some opportunities for individuals to help their own situations. We will switch to using more to local fuels like wood and dung, many will hyper-insulate their homes, and there will be a surge in human-powered transportation and mass transit. Because of the forms of energy we use in our lives, we can only address price rises in oil, natural gas and electricity with conservation rather than replacement.

There will not be enough time for alternative sources of electricity like wind and solar to provide more than isolated local benefits. As the world economy goes through successive recessionary shocks, the building of new, expensive electrical infrastructure of any sort will become increasingly unattractive due to declining capital availability and dropping demand.

What Might Happen to our Population?

As I said above, I don't foresee mass global famines. The size and elasticity of the food system will forestall that. In fact, food production will behave much like the oil supply. Its growth will stagger to a halt, but there won't be a sudden overall drop in output. Essentially our food supply will be capped.

The probable results of a capped food supply can be inferred from biological experiments on laboratory colonies of mice whose food supply has been limited. If the limited food is enough to feed a specific number of adult mice, the observed results have not included a die-off of the adults. Instead, there is a reduction in the fertility of females (fewer live births) as well as an increase in early infant mortality.

Over time the adult population continues along quite normally, with replacement mice entering the population only as the food supply allows. In other words, the number of newborns reaching maturity balances the number of deaths in the adult population resulting in a stable population.

It makes sense to me that if the overall food supply were to decline slowly, the same mechanisms would continue to play out - only with fewer newborns reaching maturity.  There is no reason I can see that this dynamic should not apply equally to homo sapiens as to mus musculus. We are both species that remain subject to the laws of Mother Nature and ecology.
 
One other response to consider when it comes to limiting population growth is the role of family planning - deliberate fertility control.  As local situations become more difficult,  and especially if people see little hope for improvement in the short or medium term, more women will begin to think of controlling their fertility.
 
Such personal decisions were behind the drastic plunge in birth rates we saw as the former USSR fragmented.  The birth rate there fell by almost one half in the six years from 1987 to 1993. In fact the case of Russia is instructive, because the eventual rise in the death rate came a full five years after the birth rate began to plummet.  This time difference implies two things.  One is that that Soviet and Russian women made deliberate choices not to have children, beginning when the situation got bad.  The other thing it implies is that unlike the voluntary drop in birth rates, the rise in death rates was due to involuntary factors - primarily declining health due to longer term malnutrition, lack of health care and alcoholism.

In the global scenario we're considering, the ability of women to access family planning, whether contraception or abortion, is going to vary from region to region.  It will depend largely on the local cultural, religious, economic and educational situation.  As the economic and educational circumstances of women improve, more of them will have the opportunity to control their fertility, giving them the option of bringing fewer children into a situation that may already be desperate.  If their circumstances do not improve or access to such services is limited for cultural reasons, there is a high probability that the world will see a rise in infanticide - regardless of the social taboos against it.
 
So as in the laboratory mouse colonies, we may see a situation in which limited world food supplies do not lead to massive deaths due to global famine, but rather to a sharp drop in birth rates across all nations.  However...

Because of human nature things are unlikely to remain as peaceful in our civilization as they do in a mouse colony. There will be an enormous upsurge in global unrest as more poor countries find themselves threatened by food and energy shortages. Unreasoning hatreds will flare, predatory trade practices will grow, foreign aid will dry up and regional wars will become more common and more vicious. Poverty will spread due to successive global recessions of deepening severity. The life support systems of medical care and sanitation will eventually begin to disintegrate starting in the poorest nations (as they already have), and life expectancies will probably shrink as diseases increasingly penetrate the adult populations.

The Problems of Time and Markets

The biggest problems for the world in coping with this predicament revolve around the time line and the market pricing of commodities.

If my estimates are correct we have already reached the upper limit of our oil production, and we will reach an effective cap of our food supply within 5 years. This is far too fast for any global planning exercise to make a difference, especially as the problem is not even acknowledged yet at those levels. As in the past we will be limited mainly to local remediation efforts based on the unfolding local situation. Such efforts will always fall short of being a solution.

The other problem is with markets. Commodity prices can rise very fast, as we have already seen with both food and oil. Even more than frank shortages, these rises can put the affected commodities out of reach of consumers essentially overnight - with dramatic impacts on national economies and civil society. Unless we were to find some way to reform the market system the only systemic answers I know of are subsidies or rationing. At the grass roots there will be a strong growth in barter trade and underground economies, and regional currencies will become increasingly popular as people decouple from a dysfunctional market system and localize their activities.

We are about to enter very interesting times indeed.


Paul Chefurka
February 24, 2011

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