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The Great Global Famine – The Aftermath of Peak Oil

The Great Global Famine – The Aftermath of Peak Oil thumbnail
Humanity has struggled to survive through the millennia in terms of Nature’s tendency to balance population size with food supply. The same is true now, but population numbers have been soaring for over a century. Oil, the limiting factor, is close to or beyond its peak extraction. Without ample, free-flowing oil, it will not be possible to support a population of several billion for long. Without fossil fuels for fertilizer and pesticides, as well as for cultivating and harvesting, crop yields drop by more than two-thirds (Pimentel, 1984; Pimentel & Hall, 1984; Pimentel & Pimentel, 2007).
Over the next few decades, there will be famine on a scale many times larger than ever before in human history. It is possible, of course, that warfare and plague, for example, will take their toll to a large extent before famine claims its victims. The distinctions, in any case, can never be absolute: often “war + drought = famine” (Devereux, 2000, p. 15), especially in sub-Saharan Africa, but there are several other combinations of factors.
Although, when discussing theories of famine, economists generally use the term “neo-malthusian” in a derogatory manner, the coming famine will be very much a case of an imbalance between population and resources. The ultimate cause will be fossil-fuel depletion, not government policy (as in the days of Stalin or Mao), warfare, ethnic discrimination, bad weather, poor methods of distribution, inadequate transportation, livestock diseases, or any of the other variables that have often turned mere hunger into genuine starvation.
The increase in the world’s population has followed a simple curve: from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to over 7 billion today. A quick glance at a chart of world population growth, on a broader time scale, shows a line that runs almost horizontally for thousands of years, and then makes an almost vertical ascent as it approaches the present. That is not just an amusing curiosity. It is a shocking fact that should have awakened humanity to the realization that something is dreadfully wrong.
Mankind is always prey to its own “exuberance,” to use Catton’s term. That has certainly been true of population growth. In many cultures, “Do you have any children?” or, “How many children do you have?” is a form of greeting or civility almost equivalent to “How do you do?” or, “Nice to meet you.” World population growth, nevertheless, has always been ecologically hazardous. With every increase in human numbers we are only barely able to keep up with the demand: providing all those people with food and water has not been easy. We are always pushing ourselves to the limits of Earth’s ability to hold us (Catton, 1982).
Even that is an understatement. No matter how much we depleted our resources, there was always the sense that we could somehow “get by.” But in the late twentieth century we stopped getting by. It is important to differentiate between production in an “absolute” sense and production “per capita.” Although oil production, in “absolute” numbers, kept climbing — only to decline in the early twenty-first century — what was ignored was that although that “absolute” production was climbing, the production “per capita” reached its peak in 1979 (BP, annual).
The unequal distribution of resources plays a part. The average inhabitant of the US consumes far more than the average inhabitant of India or China. Nevertheless, if all the world’s resources were evenly distributed, the result would only be universal poverty. It is the totals and the averages of resources that we must deal with in order to determine the totals and averages of results. For example, if all of the world’s arable land were distributed evenly, in the absence of mechanized agriculture each person on the planet would still have an inadequate amount of farmland for survival: distribution would have accomplished very little.
We were always scraping the edges of the earth, but we are now entering a far more dangerous era. The main point to keep in mind is that, throughout the twentieth century, while population was going up, so was oil production. Future excess mortality can therefore be determined — at least in a rough-and-ready manner — by the fact that in modern industrial society it is largely the oil supply that determines how many people can be fed.
There is no precise causal relation, of course, between oil production and famine. To suggest such a thing would conflict with other ways of estimating future population. Another figure, closely related, might be the ratio of population to arable land. Even then, the history of famine does not suggest an exact correlation between population and arable land; certainly in the 1950s there were major famines although the world population was only a third of that today. Ó Gráda claims that the worst famines in recent times were actually in countries which rate relatively well in terms of the ratio of population to arable: Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Afghanistan, and Sudan. In fact famine, at least up to the present time, seems to have been more related to politics than to arable land or other resources.
Famine will also cause a lowering of the birth rate (Devereux, 2000; Ó Gráda, 2007, March). This will sometimes happen voluntarily, as people realize they lack the resources to raise children, or it will happen involuntarily when famine and general ill health result in infertility. In most famines the number of deaths from starvation or from starvation-induced disease is very roughly the same as the number of lost or averted births. In Ireland’s nineteenth-century famine, the number of famine deaths was 1.3 million, whereas the number of lost births was 0.4 million. The number of famine deaths during China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), however, was perhaps 30 million, and the number of lost births was perhaps 33 million.
The “normal,” non-famine-related, birth and death rates are not a factor in determining the future population figures, since for most of pre-industrial human history the sum of the birth and death rates — in other words, the growth rate — has been nearly zero: 2,000 years ago the global population was about 300 million, and it took 1,600 years for the population to double. If not for the problem of resource-depletion, in other words, the future birth rate and death rate would be nearly identical, as they were in pre-industrial times. (And there is no question that the future will mean a return to the “pre-industrial.”)
Nevertheless, it will often be hard to separate “famine deaths” from a rather broad category of “other excess deaths.” War, disease, and other factors will have unforeseeable effects of their own. Considering the unusual duration of the coming famine, and with Leningrad (Salisbury, 2003) as one of many precursors, cannibalism may be significant; to what extent should this be included in the calculation of “famine deaths”? In any case, it is probably safe to say that an unusually large decline in the population of a country will be the most significant indicator that this predicted famine has in fact arrived.
We must ignore most previous estimates of future population growth. Instead of a steady rise over the course of this century, as generally predicted, there will be a clash of the two giant forces of overpopulation and oil depletion, followed by a precipitous ride into an unknown future.
We are ill-prepared for the next few years. The problem of oil depletion turns out to be something other than a bit of macabre speculation for people of the distant future to deal with, but rather a sudden catastrophe that will only be studied dispassionately long after the event itself has occurred. Doomsday will be upon us before we have time to look at it carefully.
The world has certainly known some terrible famines in the past. In recent centuries, one of the worst was that of North China in 1876-79, when between 9 and 13 million died, but India had a famine at the same time, with perhaps 5 million deaths. The Soviet Union had famine deaths of about 5 million in 1932-34, purely because of misguided political policies. The worst famine in history was that of China’s Great Leap Forward, 1958-61, when perhaps 30 million died, as mentioned above.
A closer analogy to the coming “petroleum famine” may be Ireland’s potato famine of the 1840s, since — like petroleum — it was a single commodity that caused such devastation (Woodham-Smith, 1962). The response of the British government at the time can be summarized as a jumble of incompetence, frustration, and indecision, if not outright genocide, and the same may be true of any future responses by government.
As previously mentioned, population is not tied with mathematical precision to oil production; the latter provides only a rough indication of the former. To some extent, people will learn to live with less. Certainly most westerners can cut their living standards considerably and still live healthy lives — perhaps even healthier, since they would be eating less and walking more. People will also switch to other sources of energy: in particular, firewood can replace fossil fuels for heating, though the amount of wood will not be sufficient for billions of people. All these adjustments will alleviate matters for a while, although the basic problem will remain: that fossil fuels will decline at a much faster rate than any voluntary reduction in births.
The above predictions can be nothing more than approximate, but even the most elaborate mathematics will not entirely help us to deal with the great number of interacting factors. We need to swing toward a more pessimistic figure for humanity’s future if we include the effects of war, disease, and so on. One of the most serious negative factors will be largely sociological: To what extent can the oil industry maintain the advanced technology required for drilling ever-deeper wells in ever-more-remote places, when that industry will be struggling to survive in a milieu of social chaos? Intricate division of labor, large-scale government, and high-level education will no longer exist.
On the other hand, there are elements of optimism that may need to be plugged in. We must not forget the sheer tenacity of the human species: we are intelligent social creatures living at the top of the food chain, in the manner of wolves, yet we outnumber wolves worldwide by about a million to one; we are as populous as rats or mice. We can outrace a horse over long distances. Even with Stone-Age technology, we can inhabit almost every environment on Earth, even if most of the required survival skills have been forgotten.
Specifically, we must consider the fact that neither geography nor population is homogeneous. All over the world, there are forgotten pockets of habitable land, much of it abandoned in the modern transition to urbanization, for the ironic reason that city dwellers regarded rural life as too difficult, as they traded their peasant smocks for factory overalls. There are still areas of the planet’s surface that are sparsely occupied although they are habitable or could be made so, to the extent that many rural areas have had a decline in population that is absolute, i.e. not merely relative to another place or time. By careful calculation, therefore, there will be survivors. Over the next few years, human ingenuity must be devoted to an understanding of these geographic and demographic matters, so that at least a few can escape the tribulation. Neither the present nor future generations should have to say, “We were never warned.”

77 Comments on "The Great Global Famine – The Aftermath of Peak Oil"

  1. bonnielass on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 2:39 pm 

    I wasn’t laughing at starvation, I was laughing at the level of doom I saw as I just came back from McDonalds, where everyone was having a great time …Just kidding.

    I read peakoil ocasionaly, but never seen such doom on the articles as recently.

    I agree that the world is definitely not going to get better in the future, but I think Governments will step in and save us with martial law and soup kitchens if the JIT supply chain crashed.

  2. peakyeast on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 3:10 pm 

    @bonnie: I can believe that perhaps the US and other rich countries can step in and do something for a limited period – and btw. that will probably be at the expense of people in other countries.

    So that leaves the majority of the world – including the 1 billion mentioned to die of JNIT.

    But more likely is that the psychos in power will start wars (they have started many wars for much less) and then things will really be crashing around the world. But perhaps you will still get your bowl of soup. Who knows.

  3. Apneaman on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 3:20 pm 

    Kids have it worse in many ways every new generation. Born into a form of slavery. My nieces are highly active – they even go to an outdoor environmental school where they are moving around in the bush or on the water every day. They play outside like crazy too. They are only 8, but already putting weight on. They are even getting breasts. Isn’t 8 young for that? They eat wholesome foods, but also get processed crap. Who knows everything the food industry puts in it, but they are no different than drug dealers. Worse actually since they target kids starting with high fructose baby food. There is more going on than most are aware of and the “back in my day” observations, although fun moralizing, are not exactly a scientific explanation. Back in my day we ate plenty of animal fat and way less sugar and no one was overweight until well into adulthood. That whole low fat movement, where they took out the fat from products and replaced it with sugar, looks awfully suspicious since we now know sugar acts like any other drug on the brain.

    Food cravings engineered by industry
    How Big Food keeps us eating through a combination of science and marketing

    Food on the Brain BBC Documentary 2015

    Sugar is ‘addictive and the most dangerous drug of the times’

    “Mr Van der Velpen cites research claiming that sugar, unlike fat or other foods, interferes with the body’s appetite creating an insatiable desire to carry on eating, an effect he accuses the food industry of using to increase consumption of their products.
    “Sugar upsets that mechanism. Whoever uses sugar wants more and more, even when they are no longer hungry. Give someone eggs and he’ll stop eating at any given time.”

  4. twocats on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 3:33 pm 

    @bonnielass – yeah, the people on this thread aren’t the best at determining tone and intent on posts – it was pretty clear to me you weren’t “laughing at starvation” but the level of doom. Don’t take it personally.

    Although it’s lost on the first 50 comments but peakyeast’s statement of fact about 21,000 people a die dying of starvation is a good jumping point for a realistic assessment.

    I agree that we would see bread lines in the US before piles of dead people (1 in 7 people in the world dying would probably be noticeable).

    As for peaky’s other comment about the 1 billion being mostly in other countries, I’m of the opinion that developing countries MIGHT (in the medium term) do very well if the Imperial countries collapsed under peak oil. There might be some starvation initially, but in 5 years they COULD be better off, depending on their natural resource base and remaining agricultural IQ.

  5. Apneaman on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 3:42 pm 

    Fall in rain hits Southeast Asia food yields

  6. Apneaman on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 3:49 pm 

    Argentina declares flood emergency in six key farm provinces

  7. Apneaman on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 4:12 pm 

    Fish Kills: Unprecedented temperature threatens marine eco-system

  8. GregT on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 5:57 pm 

    “I think Governments will step in and save us with martial law and soup kitchens if the JIT supply chain crashed.”

    Thanks bonnielass. I was beginning to get worried. I feel much better now, knowing that our governments will save us.

  9. Apneaman on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 7:01 pm 

    Phoenix hits 90 degrees; earliest in Arizona’s history

  10. makati1 on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 7:41 pm 

    Twocats, deaths are all relative. The world wide deaths from cancer exceed the deaths from starvation, by about 2,000 per day and the rate of cancers are increasing.

    I agree that those in developing countries will be better off in the long run. Weather is going to effect the large, developed countries first as their interiors turn into deserts. Even Russia is going to fare better because of its northern location and huge natural resources. That is why the US is so anxious to get control of it again. And why Putin is determined to not allow it.

    I see a world war as being inevitable at some point. A war no one will win.

  11. makati1 on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 8:06 pm 

    Signs of the times:
    “2016: The Year Wishful Thinking Fails”
    “South Africa drought pushes 50,000 into poverty: World Bank”
    “How climate change may lead to depletion of western US groundwater”
    “Scientists say we’re in for a “global disaster” if we don’t solve water inequality”
    “New Report Ties “Hottest Year on Record” to Human Toll of Disasters”
    “Global Warming Crushes Records. Again.”

    And the beat goes on…

  12. Energy Investor on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 10:22 pm 

    Have you noticed that it isn’t population pressure but “climate change” that is causing all these bad things. Last time I checked our sea levels haven’t risen by any more than about 1-1.5mm per year. This has been the trend since records began and since before we used vast quantities of fossil fuels. It also happens like this in every inter-glacial period – or so I am told. Sure fossil fuels may have an impact, but frankly the hysteria over climate change has reached the ridiculous when it stops us looking at other more deserving causes…like over-population.

    It is just that we regard that over-population topic as not being PC.

  13. Energy Investor on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 10:25 pm 

    Good to see this article tries to set the record straight.

    I wonder if anyone is listening?

  14. Apneaman on Sun, 21st Feb 2016 11:36 pm 

    Energy Investor, since you last checked? With whom? Where? Link. “or so I am told.” again who told you? Rush Limbaugh? Fuck off with your lame assed vague babblings. Do you and the other denier abortions really expect anyone to believe you at this point ya fucking retard?

    Here are some pictures from Miami Beach where flooding is the new normal. It’s a similar situation all up and down the eastern seaboard. The hysteria has not even begun, but I bet when it destroys your family’s life you’ll be hysterical and feel really fucking stupid too. I hope all you denier tards and your idiot children take no precautions and get wiped off the face of the planet first so I don’t have to listen to your kind in the last years. You know every time another one of these ever increasing and more powerful storms or deluges hits a denier state like Texas or South Carolina and kills a bunch of you mouth breathers, I laugh my ass off. How’s that for your Political Correctness asshole?

  15. Apneaman on Mon, 22nd Feb 2016 12:32 am 

    Winston’s 185 mph Winds in Fiji: Southern Hemisphere’s Strongest Storm on Record

    Nice chart. Half of the strongest dozen cyclones recorded have hit in the last 15 years.

  16. Apneaman on Mon, 22nd Feb 2016 12:50 am 

    Going Beyond “Dangerous” Climate Change

    “Despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature increase at or below 2 degrees Celsius. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2°C have been revised upward sufficiently so that 2°C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change.

    Kevin Anderson will address the endemic bias prevalent amongst many of those building emission scenarios to underplay the scale of the 2°C challenge. In several respects, the modeling community is actually self-censoring its research to conform to the dominant political and economic paradigm. However, even a slim chance of ‘keeping below’ a 2°C rise now demands a revolution in how we consume and produce energy. Such a rapid and deep transition will have profound implications for the framing of society, and is far removed from the rhetoric of green growth that increasingly dominates the climate change agenda.

    Kevin Anderson (@KevinClimate) is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester.

    Tim Dyson is Professor of Population Studies in the Department of International Development at LSE.

    “self-censoring” That’s a polite way of saying they are lying to everyone because they fear losing their jobs. None of these models can incorporate all the feedbacks either.

  17. simonr on Mon, 22nd Feb 2016 3:09 am 

    This article assumes a sharksfin descent.

    Personally, I suspect as we start descending the price of oil rises and new forms come on-line, essentially a step formation, with each step down being hailed as the end of peak oil.
    The famines will come, but I hope (for us in the west) they will take decades to get here.


  18. Dubya on Mon, 22nd Feb 2016 5:53 am 

    Republicans – “scientists are lying to us about the existance of climate change because they are afraid they will lose their jobs.”
    Apneaman – scientists are lying to us about the inevitability of climate change because they are afraid they will lose their jobs”.

    Seems a weak argument.

  19. Cloud9 on Mon, 22nd Feb 2016 6:55 am 

    When the bread stops, the circus stops.

  20. JuanP on Mon, 22nd Feb 2016 9:25 am 

    Ap, Those Argentinian floods are not new. These areas have been flooding for centuries, if not millennia. “Entre Rios” means between rivers in Spanish. These Argentinian provinces are on the Paraná and Uruguay rivers, and on the border with Uruguay, and I have been hearing about major floods there all my life.

    A friend and I lead guided kayak tours on Biscayne Bay in Miami on full moon nights with our wives, including campfires and BBQs on the shore, and we have been thinking of adding Queen and King tides guided kayak trips on Miami Beach streets, too. With so many projects and so little time, we haven’t been able to do one yet, but the demand for them is there. We have miles of streets to choose from as the floods keep getting worse down here every time.

  21. ERRATA on Mon, 22nd Feb 2016 10:25 am 

    It is important:

  22. Robert Spoley on Mon, 22nd Feb 2016 10:50 am 

    R. J. Spoley Try the website named “DIE OFF” if you want to get depressed. This planet can handle about 3 billion people if we are careful and practice a lot of self discipline. If not, the ancestors that survive will pay a very high price. Like the old adage, “you can pay me now, or you can pay me later”.

  23. Apneaman on Mon, 22nd Feb 2016 4:29 pm 

    Severe droughts explain the mysterious fall of the Maya

    “After about 200 years of serious archaeological study, we know enough about the Maya to be suitably impressed. Their distinctive art and architecture prove that these were master craftspeople.
    The Maya were also intellectually advanced. They had a strong grasp of mathematics and astronomy, which they used to align their pyramids and temples with the precession of planets and the solar equinoxes. And they used the only known written script in Mesoamerica, a bizarre-looking set of characters known as Maya hieroglyphs.”

  24. Apneaman on Mon, 22nd Feb 2016 4:37 pm 

    JuanP, what’s “new” is the 7 – 10% extra moisture that the atmosphere holds for every 1 degree rise in temperature above the 1880 baseline. This will only increase and overwhelm much modern flood protection and lead to greater crop damage/rot and its a positive feedback too. We done fucked up the hydrological cycle that agriculture was developed under.

  25. Apneaman on Mon, 22nd Feb 2016 5:01 pm 

    A Monster 2016 Arctic Melt Season May Have Already Begun

    “It’s just the most recent marker on a path toward an ever-worsening polar heat that is becoming all-the-more difficult to ignore or deny. For at current greenhouse gas levels, that polar zone is hurtling toward temperatures not seen in 15 million years. A heat pressure that will push for warming not seen in 20, 30, 50 million years or more, if a nightmarish fossil fuel burning continues.

    Nothing in the recent geological past can compare to the danger we are now in the process of bringing to bear upon our world. Not the Great Flood. Not the end of the last ice age. Those were comfortable, normal cataclysms. Human beings and life on this world survived them. But the kind of geophysical changes we — meaning those of us who are forcing the rest of us to keep burning fossil fuels — are inflicting upon the Earth is something entirely new. Something far, far more deadly.”

    No worries kids the nightmarish fossil fuel burning will continue to the best of our abilities.

  26. Apneaman on Tue, 23rd Feb 2016 3:52 am 

    Mmmmmmm G meat.

    Congo’s giraffes being hunted into extinction — for their meat
    There are just 38 giraffes left in the Democratic Republic of Congo, down almost 90 per cent from two decades ago.

    We’ll kill everything edible eventually including each other.

    Mmmmmm A meat.

  27. Apneaman on Tue, 23rd Feb 2016 4:43 am 

    Dubya, good eye, but completely different arguments. Climate scientists are lying/self censoring about the severity and speed – not making shit up out of whole cloth. Biggest lie of all is they are still telling people that the worst can be avoided like it’s 1999 or something. And you’re forgetting that it is coming from a highly respected and accomplished climate scientist – Kevin Anderson – deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester in Britain. Anderson is not the only scientist to make the claim nor am I the only completely obsessed doomer who has wasted thousands of hours observant lay person to notice the pattern. There is likely some groupthink going on as well, but the pay cheque is something everyone can relate to and I doubt there is a working person who hasn’t done something similar – like look the other way and/or keep their mouth shut. Go along to get along. There are very few whistle blowers in the real world. Look what happens to them. In a dozen years as a Boilermaker I saw a number of serious environmental laws broken and did not report it. Similar scenarios in my other endeavors. Why? Protect my career/pay cheque. Lots of risk for something that will change nothing and may cost me big.

    Top Climate Expert: Crisis is Worse Than We Think & Scientists Are Self-Censoring to Downplay Risk

    “AMY GOODMAN: You have said that scientists, climate scientists, are self-censoring. What are they saying?

    KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, those of us who look at the—running between the science and then translating that into what that means for policymakers, what we are afraid of doing is putting forward analysis that questions the sort of economic paradigm, the economic way that we run society today. So, we think—actually, we don’t question that. So what we do is we fine-tune our analysis so it fits within a sort of a—the political and economic framing of society, the current political and economic framing. So we don’t really say that—actually, our science now asks fundamental questions about this idea of economic growth in the short term, and we’re very reluctant to say that. In fact, the funding bodies often are reluctant to fund research that raises those questions. So the whole setup, not just the scientists, the research community around it that funds the research, the journalists, events like this, we’re all being—we’re all deliberately being slightly sort of self-delusional. We all know the situation is much more severe than we’re prepared to voice openly. And we all know this. So it is a—this is a collective sort of façade, a mask that we have.”

    Accusations that climate science is money-driven reveal ignorance of how science is done
    Some bogus arguments take on a life of their own.

    Group Think or just a temporary case of bad math?

    Climate Science Predictions Prove Too Conservative
    Checking 20 years worth of projections shows that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has consistently underestimated the pace and impacts of global warming

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