Saturday, June 06, 2009

Carrying Capacity, Demographics and Easter Island's Die-Off

Recent posts elicited thoughtful replies on resource and demographic overreach.

Readers responded to Booms, Manias, Windfalls and Die-Offs and Why the Present Depression Will Be Deeper than the Great Crash of 1929 with comments on resource and demographic overreach.

Simply put, every environment has a sustainable carrying capacity. In the past hudnred years or so, humanity has boosted food production by devoting vast quantities of non-renewable inputs like oil and phosphorus (chemical fertizilers) to agriculture. Once those inputs are depleted then production will revert to pre-fossil fuel/chemical fertilizer levels.

Yes, even the minerals used in chemical fertilizers are in the depletion phase:Phosphorus Famine: The Threat to Our Food Supply (Scientific American)

As population has risen then the pressure on carrying capacity increases.Add in staggering energy consumption of depleting fossil fuels and you get a scenario with startling parallels to the die-off of the human population on Easter Island.

Various policy decisions such as suburban sprawl and a growing dependence on consumption have also raised the demands on irreplaceable productive assets such as arable land. How much "air" is left in a global economy careening down a path of resource/windfall exploitation is an open question; one oft-overlooked reality is that all the "alternative energy" sources in the entire world provide perhaps 3% of the global energy consumption.

Double that, triple that, scale it up tenfold (a very costly project) and it would still supply less than a third of current global energy consumption, never mind future demand, which is set to skyrocket as another billion (or two) people reach for a middle-class level of energy consumption.

I follow up these readers' comments with a short list of suggested "further reading" on these topics.

Galen W.:

Another good one. But, you left out one large, important pressure facing the world today which was not present in 1929 - population.

Kevin M.:

In support of what you wrote, I'd like to offer a perspective on what I've seen living in the Atlanta area since the early 1990s.

Atlanta has been one the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the US for the past 20 years. The population of the metro area has grown from about 3 million in 1990 to over 5.3 million today.

However, within all of that growth--the explosion in the number of subdivisions, condos, apartment complexes, shopping centers, office buildings, warehouses, schools, public buildings and recreation centers--there has been no corresponding development of manufacturing facilities in the region. The biggest manufacturing stories of the past few years have been the closing of the area's only two auto assembly plants.

In addition, many thousands of acres of farmland have been annexed for additional suburban and exurban development.

Tremendous growth has occured here, not only without producing anything tangible (other than real estate of course), but with an erosion of both manufacturing and agriculture.

Atlanta is an extreme example but it's hard to imagine this trend continuing successfully on a national level for too much longer.

Bob Z.

I caught your blog today on why the depression will be worse than the 1930s. I think one other factor that is seldom mentioned or even recognized is that the 77 million baby boom from 1946-1964 was followed by a 44 million baby bust from 1965-1995.

Aging boomers will consume less of practically everything except health care - less houses, less furniture, less clothing, less imported stuff from China. The Gen X/Gen Y baby busters are far too few in number to pick up the slack from declining consumption among boomers. This alone spells disaster for a consumption-based economy.

Also, the Gen X/Gen Y baby busters will be called upon to pay some $50 trillion+ for aging boomers' Medicare, which is about $1.1 million in Medicare taxes per baby buster. My guess is that they simply refuse to pay up. So I'm almost willing to bet that the typical "Medicare" received by aging boomers who fall seriously ill will be a fatal overdose of morphine.

I'm afraid that US demographics indicate a very long and protracted period of depression and economic stagnation, perhaps lasting as long as 20-25 years.

Buzz M.:

Reading Michael Goodfellow's comments this morning turned a light on in my head. A couple days ago a young (35) friend of mine who has a small metal fabricating business came over to my shop to ask if I might give him some comments on a weld fixture he was building. On walking back across the street to his shop he says to me, " ...Yeah... last night my wife and the kids and I watched this cool show about how humans are effecting the ecology and environment of the planet. I mean...what do you think the guy that cut down the last tree on Easter Island was thinking?..."

Well that about bowled me over as I thought this kid was just another 'gearhead ' - oil burner like all the rest. I was very impressed. I reminded him that his two beautiful children would have to live in the world that we leave for them. Made my day to hear this realization coming from someone I would not have thought.

Anyway while I was reading Goodfellows comment this morning I thought of the Easter Island paradox, tragedy--call it what you will--and found Jared Diamond's take on it: Easter Island's End.

The story would make a nice childrens book.

As far as how I related it to Goodfellows comment was in the significance of the giant statues. Perhaps they knew that their time was limited by their life style and cultural practices but HOPED and PRAYED that someday something or someone whould happen along to SAVE them.

Jeff R. suggested this piece by Eliot Spitzer:

Green Shoots, Red Ink, Black Hole: Truly terrifying data about the real state of the U.S. economy.

Here is a popular metaphor of hubris/false confidence, circa 1912:

Hopefully you can borrow these titles from your local library:

The first chapter of The Future of Life is the best short piece written on China in the past decade. Academic studies loaded with statistics on China's GDP, etc. miss the point: China is facing environmental collapse, sooner rather than later. Quantitative financial data cannot possibly capture this as the environmental data points are lacking/massaged for political purposes. The economy is not some free-floating entity disengaged from the rivers running dry.

On Peak Oil:

Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak

The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies

The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World

Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy

On chemical/toxins overload:

Our Stolen Future: How We Are Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival

On the demographic time bomb about to explode:

Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future

The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know about America's Economic Future

On collapse of advanced civilization:

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Jared Diamond)

The Collapse of Complex Societies

A realistic appraisal of alternative energy:

Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air

Our previous lists of hot reading and viewing can be found at Books and Films.

Of Two Minds is now available via Kindle: Of Two Minds blog-Kindle

Of Two Minds reader forum (hosted offsite, reader moderated)

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