Saturday, June 4, 2011

Part 10: Peak oil exports, peak oil and implications for population change.

This is the tenth and final part of this series where I summarize my analysis of regional petroleum production and consumption trends, and, the implications this has for population growth.  I predict that population growth will continue or remain stable, with no global die-off for quite some time, although some regions, like Africa, may suffer a die-off soon.  

Summary of Parts 1-9

I launched this study with the goal of performing a world-wide export land model analysis of (instead of just the USA as I did previously), by analyzing the petroleum production trends for seven large regions: North America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, South America, Asia-Pacific,  and Africa. 

As explained in part 1, the production and consumption data for these regions is described or is derivable from the BP Statistical Review back to 1965.  In part 2 and part 3, I analyzed the production and consumption trends in these regions and based on this analysis, I predicted the export/import trends for these regions in part 4. 

My analysis showed that exports for the four net exporting regions: Middle East, Africa, former Soviet Union and South America, will all drop off to zero between about 2017 and 2030-35, depending on whether some of these ex-exporter regions after 2017 themselves become petroleum importers or not. 

As shown in part 5, petroleum consumption trends will have to change dramatically over the next 20 years as exports decline and intra-regional production rates also declines.  Future petroleum consumption rates in Europe and Africa look especially troublesome if the predicted trend in production and exports continues.  That is fro Europe and Africa domestic production will be approaching zero at about the same time net global exports approach zero.  In terms of per capita petroleum consumption rate (Figure 18, part 5), however, the Asia Pacific region, which is heavily dependent in getting exports from the net exporting regions, joins Europe and Africa in looking very poor off by the mid 2030s.  By 2020, South America and the former Soviet Union countries will be better off than Europe, and North America and the Middle East look the best off, relatively speaking.

At this point in the series, I shifted my attention away from export land model considerations, towards considering what my analysis said about global peak oil production and total remain reserves of petroleum in these regions and globally. In part 6 I showed that, based on the analysis done in parts 2 and 3, all seven of these regions are past 50% depletion of their total recoverable oil.  In part 6 I also pointed out that because this analysis is considering seven times more data than a simple analysis of total global production, it should provide a more accurate model of future global production and total recoverable oil.  Based on this composite 7-region analysis, I estimated that world peak petroleum production occurred in 2007 and that presently the total recoverably petroleum is about 60% depleted.  This is a strikingly different result than predicted from doing the same kind of analysis of total global production.

Starting in part 7, I shifted my attention away from petroleum production towards looking at the relationship between my predictions of global petroleum consumption rate and global population growth, or, predicted regional petroleum consumption rate and regional population growth.  I considered two different scenarios: an immediate decline in population in lock-step with the predicted decline in petroleum production/consumption (Figure 28), or, continued population growth even in the face of declining petroleum production/consumption (Figure 25). 

Although there is a linear correlation between petroleum consumption rates and population, in part 8, I showed that this was not a simple causal relationship.  In particular, for periods when there was a down-turn in petroleum consumption in the early 80s as well as in North America, Europe, South America or Asia Pacific regions, there was no decline in population.  Even during a 54% decline in petroleum consumption rate in the former Soviet Union during the early 1990s, the population change barely turned negative.  That is, no big die-off.

I speculated that the reason for the absence of a relationship between population change and petroleum consumption was that even during the periods of dramatic consumption decline there was still more than enough petroleum available to ensure that the modern food production and delivery system could still function.  

Still, there must be some critical level of petroleum consumption rate in a country below which the food production system begins to fall apart. 

In part 9, I estimated that critical level of petroleum consumption to sustain the prototypical petroleum-drive green revolution style food system—the USA—is in the range of 1.3 to 1.7 barrels of oil per person per year (b/py).  This amount is mainly limited by the oil needed to produce the diesel fuel to operate farm equipment and the transportation network from farm to market—other petroleum products used in the food system can be provide by this same 1.3-1.7 barrels of oil.  Since 1965, per capita petroleum consumption has been far greater than this for all the regions of the world except Asia Pacific in the 60s and early 70s and Africa up to the early 80s.  The plot for Africa (Figure 43, part 9) I thought was very interesting—once per capita consumption got above 1.1 b/py, population growth continues without the need for larger inputs of petroleum consumption. 

Thanks to some reader suggestions, I looked at the per capita consumption of two countries that have experienced some enormous declines in petroleum consumption: North Korea and Albania.  North Korea’s per capita consumption fell from about 1.3 to 0.3 b/py  (Figure 45, part 9) with a concomitant decline in population growth.  Still, population growth remained positive.  However, the absence of population decline was probably due to food-aid shipped into the country.  Probably food-aid also explains why Ethiopia’s population continues to grow, even though it can not produce enough food to feed itself.  Ethiopia’s per capita petroleum consumption is about 0.2 b/py.

Implications for population change

If 1.2 b/py is enough to keep Africa’s population growing, but 0.2 is not enough for North Korea's or Ethiopia's population to be maintained without getting food aid, then I think that I should decrease my estimate of the critical level of per capita petroleum consumption from 1.7 b/py, derived in part 9, down to something between 1.2 and 0.2 b/py.

The relationship between food and petroleum consumption deserves further study, which I plan to do in the future.  But for now, based on the present analysis, for the remaining discussion, I will take 1.1 b/py as my best-estimate of the minimum per capita consumption level needed to sustain a petroleum-driven food production system. 

Even the USA's food production system could probably stand to drop down to about this level without too much impact.  For instance, simply ending the present practice of shipping food on average 1500 miles, down to 150 miles, would cut the total petroleum used for the food production by about 0.5 b/py, or, from 1.7 b/py down to about 1.2 b/py. 

Based on this estimate, I think I can say something about future population trends in light of declining petroleum production and consumption rates, that is in light of "peak oil".

In particular, if I assume that 1.1 b/py is the critical number needed to sustain the modern food production system then what implications does this have for population growth globally, or, for the seven regions that has been the topic of this series?

Let's look at two opposing scenarios.

A fungible-food sharing scenario

This is pretty simple—just go back to Figure 25 in part 7 and ask, when does global per capita consumption get down to 1.1 b/py, and, what is the population at that point?
The global per capita petroleum production rate is predicted to drop to 1.1 b/py in 2037.  According to the US census bureau, the world's population by 2037 is 8.6 billion.  That sounds pretty close to Cribb's scenario (part 7) of 9 billion, at least until the food production system collapses.

After 2037, unlike the census bureau's prediction of further population growth, I expect that the world's population would decline as petroleum driven food production system goes into decline due to deminishing petroleum inputs.  To a first approximation, I expect the population to decline in proportion to the rate of decline in global petroleum production, such as presented in Figure 20, part 6.

What does the global population collapse down to? 

Well, in the absence of an adequate transportation fuel as a replacement for petroleum, I expect that the population would go back down to a pre-petroleum level.  For the purposes of this discussion, let's just say that number is about 1.6 billion—the World's populations in 1900, or 1.2 billion—the World's population in 1850 (see e.g., The World at Six Billion). 

The dashed line in the reprisal of Figure 25 shows the resulting population trend after 2037—a steep decline in proportion to the decline rate in petroleum production.  This is equivalent to saying that per capita consumption is fixed to 1.1 b/py.  So, as petroluem production declines, so to does the population to stay at this critical level of per capita consumption.  According to this scenario, a population decline to a 1900 level of 1.6 billion would be reached in about 2073 (orm a 1850 population 1.2 billion would be reached in 2079).  That's a population decline of 6-6.4 billion people in 36-40 years, or, 166 to 160 million per year.  

Presumably, at that point (analogous to 1900 or 1850), non-petroleum dependent food production systems would still be able to sustain the world's population in the range of 1.6-1.2 billion.  I admit that this might not a great assumption because other resources, like ground water, may have been depleted to the point where even ths population level couldn't be supported.  But this analysis is complicated enough without trying to introduce multiple additional factors into the mix at this point.  This analysis is a petroleum-centric analysis. 

A world population ultimately collapsing from 8.6 to 1.6 billion in 36 years sounds pretty close to Hanson's die off scenario (part 7), its only that the global die-off starts to happen in the late 2030s instead of right now as I had posed earlier in part 7.

The scenario I just outlined has assumed that there is complete fungibly of the food produced by the global petroleum driven agricultural system.  If there really was total global sharing of petroleum-driven food production, then I think that the above scenario would be reasonable.

But that is clearly not happening now. 

Yes, there is food aid presently being sent from the petroleum-based food producers to the undeveloped petroleum and food deficient countries, but there are plenty of asymmetries: some regions have undernourished populations, while other regions suffer obesity epidemics. 

As petroleum production and standards-of-living decline globally, and food prices go up, due to peak oil, I think that is likely that food aid will end, or, at least be grossly insufficient to feed a growing global population of hunger people.  We will likely see increasing periods of food exports being banned by governments in attempt to keep domestic prices down, or, for other purposes (Food: The Hidden Driver Of Global Politics). 

If this is the case, then some regions will have major food deficiencies sooner than other regions will.  In other words, there would be regional die-offs long before there is a general global die-off.

A regional non fungible-no food sharing scenario

We can look at the predicted regional per capita consumption trends from Figure 18, part 5 to see where the regional problems will arise first.  In this scenario, where I assume the complete absence of fungible food sharing, the population in some regions of the world will still grow, while other parts of the world, there will be a population decline when that region drops below the critical level of petroleum consumption needed to maintain food production. 

Here is a reprise of the predicted per capita petroleum consumption trends for the seven regions (Figure 18, part 5) where I note the year when 1.1 b/py is reached.

Analogous to the calculation done above, for estimating global population changes assuming complete global fungible food sharing, this scenario estimates regional population changes assuming that each region's population follows the trend predicted by the US Census Bureau until per capita consumption falls below 1.1 b/py.  At that point, the scenario predicts the population going down in proportion to that region's declining petroleum production rate.  The predicted production rate for the individual regions was present in part 2 and part 3.

Figure 48 summarizes the results of this analysis, showing the predicted population change for each region.   Because the population of Asia-Pacific is much higher than all the other regions (about the same as all other regions combined), I also present, in Figure 49, an expanded version of Figure 50 with the vertical scale increased and Asia-Pacific not shown—this is the same data as shown in Figure 48.

Africa is the first region predicted to have major problems with producing adequate food, as I estimate that Africa's per capita consumption will have already dropped below 1.1 in 2010 (the data in the BP Statistical Review only goes up to 2009). 

Given its present petroleum production trend, and this scenario's assumption of no food aid from other regions, Africa's population would go into immediate decline from its present peak population of 1 billion to a pre-petroleum level of 133 (Africa's estimated population in 1900, from The World at Six Billion) by 2022 as its petroleum production rapidly declines.  This is a huge 87% decline in relative population over a decade's period of time. 

Next is Asia-Pacific, whose per capita consumption is predicted to drop below 1.1 b/py in 2022.  I don't have a direct historic population estimate for the Asia-Pacific region, as defined in the BP statistical review, but, I can derive this as follows:

According to the population estimates in the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency's, History Database of the Global Environment (HYDE version 3.1) the Commonwealth of Independent States (basically the former Soviet Union) in 1900 had a population of 0.121 billion, and the Middle East had a population of 0.037 billion.  I can subtract these two from HYDE's population estimate of Asia in 1900 (0.902 billion in 1900), and add in Oceania (0.005 billion in 1900), to get a 1900 population equivalent to the BP statistical review's definition of Asia-Pacific: 0.74 billion. 

This scenario predicts that the Asia-Pacific region would reach 0.74 billion in 2064 from a peak population of 4.2 billion in 2021.  Because of Asia-Pacific's huge population compared to all of the other regions, this decline would account for the largest magnitude drop population—4 billion people—of all the regions.

The next region to drop below 1.1 b/py is Europe in 2028—according The World at Six Billion Europe's population in 1900 was 0.4 billion.  Because Europe's petroleum production, like Africa's, is in sharp decline, this scenario predicts a very sharp decline in population from 0.60 billion in 2028 to 0.4 billion by 2031—essentially a die-off of 200 million people.

South America doesn't drop below 1.1 b/py until 2047.  According to The World at Six Billion the  population of South America in 1900 was 0.074 billion.  But because South America's predicted production decline curve is fairly gradual, this scenario predicts that it takes beyond 2080 before the population decline to these levels, from a peak population of 0.62 billion in 2046.

The former Soviet Union region drops below 1.1 b/py in 2048—it takes this long time to reach this critical per capita consumption level, in part because FSU's consumption rate is projected to be flat, and, because its population is already in decline.   The FSU's peak population peak actually occurred in about 1993 (0.29 billion) and has been in decline since then.  As noted above, according to HYDE version 3.1, FSU's population in 1900 was 0.121 billion.  This scenario predicts FSU's population declining to 0.121 billion in 2054 from 0.26 billion in 2047—again another sharp die-off because the predicted petroleum production decline curve is steep. 

Neither the Middle East nor North America decline below 1.1 b/py by 2050, the year to which I took per capita consumptions numbers out to for Figure 18.  Therefore under this scenario, neither of these regions would experience population declines until after 2050.  For the record, according to The World at Six Billion the population of North America in 1900 was 0.082 billion, and as noted above, HYDE's estimate of the Middle East's population in 1900 was a mere 0.037 billion.  My rough estimate is that the population in ME and NA would not decline to back to these levels until the 2080s or beyond.

Here is the reprisal of the population curve in Figure 25, now including the predicted cumulative population change based on the second scenario, as summarized above and shown in Figure 48. 

As you can see, despite the predicted sharp population decline in Africa, the global population stays flat.  This is mainly due to the continued population increase in Asia-Pacific until 2022.  The global population goes down after 2022 when Asia-Pacific's population is predicted to decline.  Because the population of Asia-Pacific is so huge, the global population declines despite continued population increases in South America and the former Soviet Union regions until the late 2040's and beyond that in the Middle East and North America. 

I expect that the "reality zone" will be somewhere in the hatched area between these two extreme scenarios of complete fungible food sharing between regions and complete non fungible no food sharing.

I don't really expect that food aid to Africa would end right now, as assumed in the second scenario.  So Africa's population, and the global population, will likely continue to climb along the US census bureau's prediction line. 

However, at some point, maybe in the early 2020's, the economies of the more developed regions will be too weak, and the domestic humanitarian crisis too large, to continue the food aid programs that, up to now, have prevented depopulation.  For example, I think that it will be very hard, and unrealistic, to expect Europeans after 2030 to continue sending food aid to Africa, when its own people are hungry.  And, it should not take people until 2030 to see the looming domestic crisis in Europe—when this recognition occurs, I expect food-aid to curtail dramatically.

And, even if food-aid were somehow continued to 2037 and beyond, then the entire world's population would go down together, once global per capita consumption drops below 1.1 b/py, or, whatever the critical number turns out to be. 

Criticisms, Alternative Scenarios and Final Thoughts

Other factors may be more important

A legitimate criticism, or limitation, of my population prediction scenarios is that petroleum is the rate limiting resource in the food production system.  I fully admit that this assumption could be wrong.  As I noted in part 7, Cribb discussed several other resources that could limit food production: scarcity of fresh water, farm land being encroached by urban sprawl, overused soils being depleted of nutrients, declining fish stock and climate change. 

At least some of these, like urban sprawl, over fishing or climate change, are likely linked or made possible by petroleum consumption, but others, like water scarcity and soil depletion, are separate major resource problems in their own right.  If one of these, not petroleum, is the rate limiting resource in food production, then I expect that the population decline should occur earlier, and, the shape of the population decline both, globally and regionally, may differ from what is predicted here.  I still expect that Africa and Asia will problematic however. 

The food productions problems for Africa are amplified when the governments of famine-prone countries, like Ethiopia, sell off the country's farm land and water rights in land grabs by Asia and the Middle East (Why the list is incomplete: land grab deals; When the Nile Runs Dry).  What a receipt for domestic conflict and revolution!

But I was really counting on a die-off

Some readers may be upset with my prediction that the population will likely continue to increase, especially in North America, not necessarily because they have an issue with the analysis, but rather because they were actually counting on, or hoping for, a die-off. 

KMO’s c-realm show touched upon this in some recent episodes, although sometimes in a different context than I am discussing here.  There are those counting on a die-off to help improve their own social status.  Others seem to hate humans for wrecking the planet and believe that most of us deserve to die to help save the planet.  Still others will just find that the idea of continued population growth clashes with their true believer mind set, and, blow all of this off as a faulty analysis. 

Personally, if the die-off includes me, then I’m against it! 

Therein lays a problem: everybody wants to live, and, humans are incredibly resilient and capable of finding ways to survive even in very inhospitable conditions. Think of Ethiopia's extended population boom continuing virtually in the absence of oil.    

An oil problem, what problem?

Speaking of true believers, still others reject the idea that oil does not present any kind of near term problem, that there is plenty of oil, and, decades of time to adjust, as we move through an “undulating plateau” of production. 

Okay, that’s fine, when there is some actual production data reported in the BP Statistical review to support this, I will adjust my model accordingly, like I did for the USA.  However, for the reasons explained in part 6, it is by no means a given that new oil wells will be discovered at a sufficient rate, or, that recovery methods will improve at a rate sufficient, to cause an undulating plateau of production.  At present, in my opinion, the published production data for most of the regions studied here does not support this.  Rather, the data suggests to me that production will go down.  In the mean time, consumption rates are going up in those parts of the world that still are net exporters, resulting in more rapidly declining net exports.

Black swans versus a slow wind down

Another criticism, or limitation, of these modeling efforts is that the model doesn’t account for geopolitical events like Libya or other black swan events, or the interactions between the black swan event and oil production and consumption. 

This about the same as saying, “some unpredictable earth shattering event 'X' is absolutely going to happen for sure, so don’t even both to model this”  or "unless you model everything at the same time and in a totally interactive way, this is just a waste of my time." 

Well if that works for you, fine.  I have heard of people who after 20 minutes looking at a video about peak oil, don't even want to finish the video—they just want to know "what should I do next?"  However, I worry about these people burning out after a few frantic years of preparation and then finding that the world is still about the same as it was before they started their preps.

In my opinion, you should be ready for hard times, but you should also be psychologically ready for many different possible future senarios.  Thinking through some scenarios in detail, as I did here and in past series, helps me gain a better understanding of the issues and pressures points, even if things don't play out the way the model predicted in the long run. 

What if that favorite black swan of yours doesn’t occur?  Maybe things will just go on as they are now.  Or maybe there is a more gradual, earth shattering change, occurring right now, but because the change is occurring gradually, we tend not to notice, or we just reset our perception of what passes for normal as the changes unfold.  I think that running scenarios, out as done here, helps accelerate time so that we can see these types of changes more clearly. 

I am not saying that black swans will not occur along the way to slowly winding down on petroleum consumption, or, that you shouldn't try and be ready for unexpected disruptions as best you can.   In my opinion, you just probably should not go "all in," financially or psychologically, on any one scenario. 

You might be interested to know that I actually did model for a black swan event in a past series.  Go read Transport Fuel Rationing in the USA: Part 1 - Introduction.  Instead of a conflict in the Middle-East as posed there, just insert your own favorite black swan event: war, natural disaster, political upheaval etc..., which would cause 10% or more of the world’s oil production to go off line, at least for several months.  The consequence, in my opinion, will likely be hoarding, followed by some form of Martial law, followed by fuel and food rationing, depending on the severity and length of the disruption.  There could be extended periods of food shortage during these times due to a disruption in the food transportation system.  However, as the disruption dissipates I would expect to see an easing or lifting of rationing and Martial law for some period of time, and a return to "normal" albeit at a lower level of petroleum consumption than before.  Then, the next black swan event arrives and the process repeats.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  This cycle could play out over a decade or two. 

The bumpy ride down

I do also not expect the declines in petroluem production and consumption to follow smooth mathematical curves, although I do expect them to follow the general trend of these curves.  Just look at the growth sides of the global production and consumption curves in Figure 20 of Part 6—you should expect that the decline sides of these curve should be at least as bumpy. 

I use mathematical models—based on a logistic model of change with a finite resource of oil (Q¥)—to look at production and consumption trends and then use the models to extrapolate into the future.  Some may say that this has no basis in reality, but those who say this may not have studied Hubbert’s original work. 

As I discussed in Refining the Peak Oil Rosy Scenario Part 3 and Part 4, Hubbert knew that the logistic equation was derived originally by a Belgian demographer, Verhulst, in the mid 1800s to study human population growth.  Hubbert also recognized that the spike in population over the last 200 years was likely due to the energy supplied from fossil fuels, in particular coal and petroleum.  Hubbert further recognized that the human population would go back down to that of an agrarian existence if these energy resources, once used up, were not replace by another energy source.

A brief rant about a massive squandering of petroleum resources

Perhaps what Hubbert could not have imagined was just how much oil would get wasted on non-biologically important activities, that is, non-food producing activity.

In part 9 of this series, I pointed out that the USA uses about 25 barrels of oil per person per year (b/py) but, at most, only 7% of this (1.7 b/py) is needed to support the present food production system. 

What about the other 93%?

Well, some of it is to support other seemly critical uses beside food production, and some of it is wasted on mostly non-critical activities, such as enabling the public to drive around and to drive “growth.”

In an earlier series, Transport Fuel Rationing in the USA: Part 2 Estimating Gasoline and Diesel use in the USA today, my attention was focused on gasoline and dfo use in the context of a emergency rationing scenario, but the analysis provides some number to illustrate how much petroleum gets used, or, wasted.

Of the 368 million gallons of gasoline used per day in the USA, only about 14% (52 million G gas/d) gets used for “critical uses:” commercial trucking, commercial and industrial uses, and government uses.  The other 86% is for household use—things like member driving to and from work and school and on leisure trips. 

 A higher relative amount of the diesel (dfo) supply, 83% (about 126 million G dfo/d), gets used for the "critical uses," with only 17% being for household use. 

It takes only about 2.6 million barrels of oil per day or 0.97 bbs/yr to supply the critical needs amount of gasoline (i.e., 52 x 106 G dfo/d / 19.5 G dfo/b).  But, it takes 13.7 million barrels of oil per day or 5 bbs/yr to supply "critical use" amounts of dfo (i.e., 126 x 106 G dfo/d / 9.2 G dfo/b).  Clearly dfo is the limiting quantity as far as critical uses are concerned.  Of course, the food production system using about 1.7 b/py, is a subcategory within this 5 bbs/yr. 

The USA’s present petroleum consumption totals 7 bbs/yr or 19 million barrels/day (Trends in USA Petroleum Production and Consumption).

So if 5 bbs/yr is for critical uses then the remainder 2 bbs/yr is squandered to support non-critical household uses. 

"Wait at minute" you might say, "driving to work is not a 'non-critical use'—if people don't drive to work then the economy will crash and people will starve because they can't buy food."  I would slightly disagree.  If people can't get to work then, yes, there is a problem—but getting to work does not necessarily require that everyone separately drives to work in a 2 ton vehicle.  Millions (billions?) of people everyday get to work without driving a 2 ton vehicle.  As much fun as driving around in your own car may be, in my opinion, compared to preserving petroleum so that food can be produced for future generations, this amounts to squandering a precious resource.

And what about that 5 bbs/yr used to produce diesel for those "critical uses?" Unfortunately, I think that most of the petroleum consumed in these "critical uses" also gets squandered, being used mainly for the sake of churning the economy and thus creating “economic growth.”

For instance, from Transport Fuel Rationing Part 3, about 60% of these "critical uses" involves transportation uses (truck, rail and other vessels), about 34% is for non-transport uses (mostly for industrial uses, followed by use as residential heating oil and then commercial uses) and the final 6% involves government use (federal, including military uses, as well as state and local government uses).  But, as discussed above, of 1.7 bbs/yr used for food production—about 0.5 bbs/yr is basically spent shipping food around the country for on average 1500 miles.  My hunch is that other goods are shipped over similar distances as part of these other "critical" transport uses of petroleum.  Is this really "critical?"

And let’s not forget the energy and materials to manufacture and ship products around the world which are intentionally designed to fail and be replaced in a few years time.   Go listen to The Light Bulb Conspiracy, an audio presentation brilliantly assembled by Upton at Unwelcome Guests.  The 2-hour audio documents how “built-in obsolescence,” not just of incandescent light bulbs, but virtually every consumer product, was introduced, ostensibly to stimulate employment and the economy, during the great depression.  Then go listen to part 2 of Homo Miserabilis which provides a radio adaptation to “Shop Til You Drop,” which also describes the marketing efforts to drive the world towards “conspicuous consumption.”

I suspect that the present churning of energy and material resources to give the appearance of “economic growth” is what really is gobbling up most of those industrial and commercial “critical use” portions of the 5 bbs/yr. 

Well, at 70 single-spaced pages, +50 figures and scores of tables produced over the course of two months, I see, in retrospect, that I should have divided this into two or three separate series.  I doubt that there is anyone out there with the fortitude to actually get through all of this material.  Probably not the best way to run a popular blog, but, here we are. 

A complaint I sometimes see at other sites is readers asking for “proof” to support whatever proposition is being proposed.  Hopefully, at least that is not a problem here—you are free to wallow around in the same data that I have spent hours looking at, in just as much detail as you can stand. 

This is my 50th post!  This has really become half-blog and half-online research log book to help me explore and document answers to questions that I just don't see adequately addressed anywhere else. 

My hope is that you have found at least some of it useful.


  1. You´ve done a tremendous job and I´m grateful for your analysis. By far this is the most insightful and useful piece of research into this controversial topic. Thank you and I´m looking forward to read more. Jan K.

  2. Well researched and nicely analyzed.I have been following this post from the first part and this conclusion here is great ending to a very informative (and really long) article.Looking forward to read more from you. A.U

  3. CW, I have enjoyed (and at times agonized) reading your blog. You have done a fine job of analysis and projection of what the future world will look like over the coming decades. When you have had a chance to rest, what will your next project be? Sam Penny, the Prudent RVer

  4. Great job, one thing I have been wondering is how much will petroleum consumption decline when the worlds economy begins to nosedive as a result of peak oil and O.E.C.D insolvency issues.
    Would love a reply from anyone :)

  5. Great job, I have found it fascinating how closely your analysis coincides with my own rough predictions of things going forward.

    For the Eurasia, I predicted a few years ago a collapse of industrial civilisation by 2030, with Africa going first, then sections of Asia-Pacific and the oil-importing countries of the Middle East, and than Europe around 2030.

    Maybe Russia could hold out the longest on the mainland with Japan and Australia as wild cards. North America is a interesting case, the most likely scenario is a Second Civil War in the United States by around 2040.

    "We run a mainframe computer simulation of the global political and economic situation, modelling various outcomes of the resource crunch that begins in the back half of the 2010s. And no matter which way we tweak it, it always comes out with the same result: civil war in America in 25 years's time."

  6. Many thanks Jan K and AU, I appreciate your comments.

    Good to hear from you Sam. I'm not sure if your agony is from my prose style or from the subject matter I choose to write about! Maybe both? Neither continued population growth nor a die off are particularly appealing, but that is the nature of being in a predicament, isn't it?

    I have so many projects I would like to investigate that I think that I could occupy a team of research assistants for months or years. The relationships between petroleum consumption and food production, petroleum consumption and GDP, regional flows of petroleum, a detailed ELM analysis of each of the seven regions considered here, ELM analysis for coal and natural gas production and consumption trends for the seven regions, are just some topics I would like to explore in the future.

    Hello sabs, thanks for your question.

    As I discussed in a few different places on this blog (see: Relating Per Capita GDP to Petroleum Consumption and Exports for the MENA Countries, or, An Export Land Model Analysis for the USA-Part 4) there is a tight correlation between GDP and petroleum consumption, and, I do have a bias about which is causing which (that could be yet a another topic of study).

    So, I will answer your question by re-phasing it from, "how much will petroleum consumption decline when the worlds economy begins to nosedive" to "how much will the world economy nosedive as oil consumption declines?"

    Trying listening to the presentation, Effects of triple digit oil prices on the economy, by Jeff Rubin to see what I mean: (I said listen, so that you won't get sea sick watching Rubin's gyrations during his fine talk).

    If petroleum production cannot further increase, as I contend is likely the case, then the global petroleum driven economy cannot grow, although we may see some regions grow while other regions decline.

    "I have found it fascinating how closely your analysis coincides with my own rough predictions of things going forward."

    I take that you are "oil-man" referred to in Mason's article? I agree that it is hard not to see problems ahead for Africa, Asia-Pacific and Europe, based on the current trends. No mainfrme computer needed.

  7. "Well, in the absence of an adequate transportation fuel replacement for petroleum, I expect that the population would go back down to a pre-petroleum level."

    Out of interest, if we found an alternative to petrol for transportation, how would that effect your calculations?

    Sorry to dissapoint you, I am not 'oil-man' but I have taken a active interest in Peak Oil since 2003 and have even did my MA in the subject. Your ten part series is one of the best written series on this subject of die-off in a rational manner.

    The role of coal and natural interests me and its role as a means of 'softening' the decline in oil in coming decades. You may find interesting a Pentagon report into climate change which covers the issue of over carrying capacity in much of the world. Here is a link:

    Anather link you may find interesting is this link, which explores theories of collapse and the likely future of industrialised civilisation.

    Looking forward to your future posts.

    Out of interest, I am struck by the plunging collapse of the Asia-Pacific population after 2020. Will the catalyst be a Indian-Pakistani nuclear war or some kind of pandemic?

  8. Thanks Anonymous—I'm not disappointed that you are not "oil-man," it just sounded like that was who you were.

    Alternatives to petroleum as a transport fuel might change things in some ways.

    Staying in the mind-set of the scenarios played out in parts 8-10, this would effectively mean that the critical use of petroleum would drop from 1.1 b/py to some lower number corresponding the amount of petroleum needed to provide pesticides, fertilizer, packing etc...

    In my opinion, finding and implementing in time, a replacement for petroleum is a tall order.

    Coal and natural gas might help. However, these are being used presently for electricity generation. So, there would have to be something to replace coal or natural gas as electricity sources.

    A few years ago, T. Boone Pickens was trying to promote the use of wind as a means to provide electricity and thereby free-up natural gas to be used as a transport fuel. But he couldn't get enough support in the US Congress to implement his plan. The failure just illustrates to me that until there is an emergency, not much will get done.

    "Will the catalyst be an Indian-Pakistani nuclear war or some kind of pandemic?"

    No, an Indian-Pakistani nuclear war, pandemics, or other black swan events, are not assumed to occur as part of this model.

    The model of decline in Asia-Pacific's population is based on the same premise as all of the other regional population declines that are predicted here. Once Asia-Pacific 's per capita petroleum consumption drops below a critical level (which I estimated to be 1.1 b/py) needed to sustain a petroleum-driven food production system, its population will decline in proportion to Asia-Pacific's rate of petroleum production. Per capita consumption is a ratio of two variables: petroleum consumption and population. If petroleum production, and therefore consumption, is going down but a certain ratio (1.1 b/py) is needed to sustain food production, then the population will have to decline to keep the ratio at 1.1.

    Of course, there are many other things that could change the predictions. For example, a large shift in the flow of oil exports away from Europe and North America towards Asia-Pacific might delay the time when Asia-Pacific reaches 1.1 b/py. But this would likely accelerate the time when Europe reaches 1.1 b/py.

    Despite the limitations and assumptions, working through scenarios like this helps me better see what the issues and pressures will likely be going forward.

  9. You've presented an intriguing case, the one of Ethiopia, where population still increases, despite the low oil consumption.

    Besides the inflow of food aid, do you think there is a way to quantify not only the inflow of other more subtle factors, like medications, water storage, etc., but the role of fossil fuels in their production?

    Intuitively speaking a country today can function virtually without oil if it has at least one demanded resource. But in order for other countries to demand the resource, extract it and use it, fossil fuels are necessary.

    In particular the quantification of the role of fossil fuels in the production of antibiotics would be interesting...

    Thanks, Jan K.

  10. Hi Jan K,

    I first became aware of the paradox that is Ethiopia when I did my earlier article, "Survey of Oil Exports from North Africa."

    You might want to look at the figures in that article to see that Ethiopia is not unique in that there are several other North African countries with very low petroleum consumption rates but exponential population growth curves (Chad, Djibouti, Eritea etc...), which I find fascinating.

    There is nothing like an exception to "test" the rule.

    These countries produce almost no oil (blue line), and, therefore their consumption (red line) is almost all due to oil imports. I'm sure that some of that consumption is going into domestic food production, and there is also food production by non-petroleum dependent means, but that is not enough.

    So how does the population continue to grow?

    The common theme to me seems to be continuing food aid, but I have not tried to quantify this. Food aid means that the country doesn't even need a resource to trade for the food, and it doesn't consume any petroleum on producing the food. That gets done in another country.

    It would be interesting to see if there is also a form of "petroleum aid" starting to happen. As Asian countries, like India, lease Ethiopia's land and water rights to produce food to be shipped back to India, we might see an increase in petroleum consumption due to these activities, giving an artificial type of "per capita consumption" increase, that does not benefit the local population very much.

    I think that it would be hard to quantify fossil fuels used in the production of antibiotics specifically.

    One would end up trying to estimate the amount of energy involved, and then converting this to "barrel-of-oil-equivalents," which I don't think is too useful. I think that the barrels of oil used to produce the petrochemicals to make medications, are the same barrels of oil used to produce diesel fuel or gasoline for transportation. Medications, like antibiotics, all take energy to produce—but that energy is probably expended in other countries and then shipped to Ethiopia, as aid, or in exchange for agricultural or other goods.

  11. What if we ended up changing our method of farming to Permaculture and using food forests. Martin Crawford states a food forest can grow enough to feed 4-5 people per acre. At this number, the US could feed the world in 2050.
    The problem is that it takes years for it to mature, during which it produces less than a regular farm. The benefit of a food forest is that there is no need for any oil inputs.

    It is my opinion that these haven't become popular yet because they need labor while traditional farming needs very little labor and a lot of oil.

  12. Interesting points Seani,

    I think that food production will be forced to change to a new system that doesn't require petroleum—permaculture and food forest might be part of that new system.

    I have no idea if growing food to feed 4-5 people per acre, just from land in the USA, would feed a global population of 9 billion. I recall that Cribb's presentation pointed out that farm land was disappearing at a rate of 1% per year due to a variety of causes, so there are many challenges ahead.

    An issue will be whether or not that new system can support global and regional populations that are much higher than they were in 1850, in the pre-petroluem days. In other words, will that new system be a lot smarter about food production than the system back in 1850, which could support a little over 1 billion people?

    Another, perhaps longer-term issue will be how efficient the entire food system will be in the absence of the petroleum or other fossil fuel inputs. That is, a system without the fossil fuels to make possible the irrigation of land or the packaging or refrigeration of food. Also, even if food is produced locally, say within 150 miles, of a city or town, that will still be long way to ship the food, if you don't have refrigerated petroleum power vehicles.

  13. I'm concerned about thinking we can/should/will go back to our former farming methods. Very few people would know how to farm this way and even fewer farmers would be physically fit enough to farm this method. If we try this the population will drop a lot more than to 1850's levels due to our incompetence... I doubt a country will accept looming famine with a stoic view- they will invade others lands, wipe them out, and farm there for their own people...rinse and repeat.

    We need to use our current knowledge to move into a new farming system as I mentioned previously. Japan in 1700-1850s had 30 million people with 12 million acres of farmland, so this is possible (and it was a stable pop). At 7 billion acres give or take, and using japan's population numbers, we could handle 21 billion using proper farming tech. (by no means would I suggest we try!)
    The problem with our current system is that by using oil we can gloss over soo many issues: we have killed our soil so we use fertilizers. Because the soil is now dead it won't retain rainwater, so we are draining our aquifers. Fact most of our farmers don't know how to farm anymore, just how to convert oil to food.

    I'm not concerned about the loss of arable land (as long as we stop doing it) because Geoff Lawton showed that he can reclaim farmland in the deserts of Jordan. (without irrigation, without inputs)

    Our cities will have to reduce in size to allow local farming to feed them and we will probably move back to using Canals, pulling boats with mules.

    If the produce needed spoils easily, the city will have to grow it internally, using greenhouses and backyards/rooftops. Root cellars will need to be back in style. We can go back to using ice boxes that store winter ice for the entire summer to keep food.

    We have solutions out there for our problems, some that were used for centuries, but only only if we stop thinking a new energy source will solve our problems.

    As a last point, these ideas are useless if we don't stop adding to our population. No matter what ideas we come up with to save ourselves, we will end up going down the road you have envisioned if we continue with exponential is a mathematical certainty (Dr. Albert Bartlett).

  14. As Seani writes it would be interesting to investigate approaches to farming that are independent of fossil fuels, like permaculture. I wonder if there is a data set that would prove Patrick Whitefield´s assertion that a food forest can produce 2.5 times more calories than a field of wheat for the same area and much less work.

    This change of approach wouldn´t be without a historic precedent. As Ronald Wright notes the industrial revolution had more chances to start in China than in the West, but the reason why it started in the West was that biological capital like potatoes and corn had 2x the yield in calories for the same amount of work than traditional European crops and once imported from the New World, they liberated half of the European population to move to cities and do crafts and trade.

    Of course the development of fossil fuels had an even more tremendous effect, but also allowed for immense wastefulness. If we could develop a system that would capture sun´s energy in more layers, just like a forest does, but produce food at the same time, maybe we could sustain even more folks than the estimated 1.1 barrel of oil per person a year?

  15. Sorry for the slow response, but interesting thoughts Jan.

    Of course, eventually a food production and distribution system that does not depend on fossil fuels, and petroleum in particular, will have to come. Unfortunately such a system must complete against the present petroleum driven food system, which despite all the criticisms, has been effective. This will take time.

    Even if we consider 1 b/py as the lower limit needed to sustain such a system, if we weren’t “wasting” the bulk of the petroleum on non-food producing activities, then the remaining reserves of oil could last quite a long time.

    To make a simple illustration, 700 billion barrels and a consumption rate of 1 barrel per person per year would last 100 years for 7 billion people, or 50 years for 14 billion people.

    Unfortunately most developed countries are easily using 10 times or higher than this amount of petroleum per person year, and, I don’t see this trend ending any time soon.

  16. Elsewhere, JK asked:

    "Your main point, the fossil fuel based system failing gradually, with the dieoff breaking point being at 1 b/py, is a very interesting one.

    OK, let´s say that with preindustrial methods, agriculture was able to feed 1 bil. people. With the current food production system, we´re able to feed 7 billion.

    If I understand the conclusion of your series correctly, if we keep consuming at 1 b/py, we can keep those 7 bil. people, if we consume less, the best scenario is to fall back to 1 bil.? So 1 b/py is what it takes to keep 6 bil. of people alive?"

  17. JK, let me try to clarify the assumptions that went into the two scenarios featured here.

    I assumed that a post-petroleum food production system would be able to support about the same population as the pre-petroleum food production system did: about 1.2 to 1.6 billion people. Some commentators thought that was too pessimistic, and that modern permaculture techniques, spread worldwide, could support more people than this. That may be right, but I have no way to estimate what that post-petroleum population base might be equal to. If a base of 2 billion or 3 billion is more acceptable to you then use that as the post-petroleum base population—it doesn't change the way the model works.

    My second assumption was that the per capita amount of 1.1 b/py is the minimum of petroleum consumption needed to keep a country's or region's or the world's food production system running. This assumption was supported by the analysis done in Part 9, but now is further supported by my later five-part series, "The relationship between hunger and petroleum consumption."

    My third assumption is that global and regional petroleum consumption will follow the time course that I predicted in the earlier parts of this series.

    Given these assumptions I ran two scenarios one that assumes total global food sharing and a second one that assumes no food sharing between the seven regions.

    It is not so much that 1.1 b/py is what it takes to keep 6 billion of people alive and the other 1 billion are presently living "petroleum free." The petroleum driven food production system is pretty well world wide now, and the PER CAPITA amount of 1.1 b/py was my estimate of the minimum it takes to keep that system functioning. So, if the population is 7 billion, then we need about 7.7 billion barrels of petroleum production per year to support that food system. If the population increases to 10 billion, then we need about 11 billion barrels of petroleum production per year to support that system, etc...

  18. JK response (con't)

    The first, full-sharing scenario, is shown in Figure 25(reprised); population growth continues, as modeled by the US census bureau, until global petroleum production declines to the point where all the petroleum produced is being used for food production and that amount per capita amount equals 1.1 b/py. At that point, as petroleum production declines, the population will also decline to maintain that per capita amount equal to 1.1 b/py. That is, the population will decline at the same rate that petroleum production declines. For instance, if worldwide petroleum production equals only 5.5 billion barrels per year, then only 5 billion people can be supported by the petroleum driven food production system. If worldwide petroleum production equals only 2.2 billion barrels per year, then only 2 billion people can be supported by this food production system, etc...

    When the population declines to where it equals my assumed the post-petroleum base population (1.6 billion), then the population stabilizes again.

    The second, no-sharing-between-regions scenario, shown in Figures 48, 49 and Figure 25 (second reprise), basically runs this same model, but for isolated regions, and then adds up the results for each region to given the short dashed line in Figure 25 (second reprise).

    I would expect something in between these two model scenarios to happen if the assumptions are sound.

    These models are petroleum-centric because I am trying to gauge what is likely to happen if my petroleum production, consumption and export models hold true.

    Could something else happen? Why sure, of course.

    Don’t even get me started on trying to account for feed-back in models. Additionally, other factors, like ground water depletion, soil erosion, climate change, etc... may become THE limiting factor in the food production system, and consequently, the population could decline sooner or more rapidly than predicted here. That's possible in my opinion. Or, maybe global permaculture food production techniques can ride to the rescue and support a population of 7, 10, 11 billion with no petroleum inputs whatsoever. That's unlikely in my opinion, but still I expect some of that to be occurring.

  19. What would a depopulation protocol look like if humanity decided to consciously reduce the homo sapien headcount to 1.6 billion by 2100? If it is going to happen anyway and we foresee it, aren't we smart enough manage it in a way to mitigate a lot of suffering?

    St. Roy

  20. St. Roy I don't think that there appears to be any group consciousness, or signs of a mass movement, that would result in such a decision.

    As usual, individual and small groups of humans are good at adapting to the situation at hand and maybe the near-term future, but not long-term plans at a global level, especially if the costs to implement such plans are high and conflict with other beliefs.


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