Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Hydrocarbon Generations

Everyone alive today was born into one of the just twelve hydrocarbon generations since the onset of the industrial revolution late in the eighteenth century. One generation, statistically, is twenty years, that time between birth and the beginning of giving birth to the next generation. But real generations are not neatly separated by twenty year intervals like statistical models portray them. Right now there are people living who individually represent six generations. All of those people collectively are the present global human population. Over the period since the industrial revolution began the statistical relationship between generations and overall population have changed dramatically. One very important and overriding statistic is that in those twelve generations since the industrial revolution began the human population has increased sevenfold........ in just twelve generations!

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the total global population was, by best estimate, about one billion. For the purposes of this article that population of one billion will be used as a base. When the generation born at the start of the Industrial Revolution began to have children of their own twenty years later, their children were being born into a world with a little less than 10 percent more population than when they themselves were born. That generation increased the global by another 12 percent more than that at the time their parents were born. Each new generation being born today is increasing the global population by more than 1.5 times (150%) the base Industrial Revolution population. During the hundreds and thousands of generations before the Industrial Revolution and the advent of serious hydrocarbon use, the human population had been relatively stable or grew by fractions of a percent from one generation to the next.

At the beginning of the industrial revolution, just twelve, short generations ago, we began building a global human infrastructure not only geared to the use of hydrocarbons but increasingly and critically dependent on them. Just as each generation cannot imagine their parents having sex, each generation cannot imagine living without the benefits they derive from hydrocarbons that did not exist in their parents' time.

It is impossible to separate the current global population from the use of hydrocarbons such as oil, coal and natural gas, thus the reason I call the past twelve generations the Hydrocarbon Generations. The utter explosion of human numbers in these past twelve generations is, in fact, diretly a result of that increased usage of and dependence on hydrocarbon fuels. Our global infrastructure was not only built through the energy derived from hydrocarbon fuels but that infrastructure itself is increasingly composed of products derived from those hydrocarbons. There are today over 300,000 products in everyday use in our society that are made from oil or derivatives of oil.

The dramatic rise in human population since the industrial revolution began is not a result of an equivalent rise in the number of children a couple are producing. In fact the number of children given birth by the average woman of childbearing years today is less than half those that would have been produced by a woman before the industrial revolution. In the largely agrarian societies that existed before the industrial revolution it was common to have more children to serve as helpers and labourers on the family farm and to serve as a source of security in the parents' senior years. As industrial society grew, and particularly as it evolved into a high-tech society this past century, children increasingly became an economic liability and cost, rather than the benefit they had previously been. With these changes families opted for fewer children on each of whom much more economic benefits were lavished.

The sevenfold rise in human population over these past twelve generations has essentially been the result of one overriding factor, the improved health and medicine resulting from the increased benefits of hydrocarbon usage. Prior to the Industrial Revolution the average life expectancy was about forty years. It is now over seventy-two years. That means that at the outset of the Industrial Revolution the living human population consisted of 2 generations. Today it consists of more than 3.5 generations.

More importantly, people are on average not only living longer, but a far greater number of people born are living long enough to produce children. Prior to the Industrial Revolution child mortality rates were often as high as 75%. Globally, even in 1960, the child mortality rate was still 19.8%. By 2001 that had been brought down to just 8.3% globally. With an average rate of 6 live births per woman in pre-industrial agrarian society, possibly only two of those children would survive to child-bearing age. Of the 2-3 average live births per woman today, on average over 91% of those children will survive to child-bearing age. In pre-industrial times, however, a larger proportion of females born would end up married and/or producing children. Today, with improved medicine, high divorce rates, fertility medicines and procedures, and birth selectivity through which, in many nations, unwanted female children are aborted, the number of females born that will eventually produce children has increased signifigantly from pre-industrial times.

In these past twelve generations not only has the human population increased sevenfold but the per person hydrocarbon usage has increased even more dramatically, from virtually zero to an average of over five barrels per year per person of oil alone. At the same time that we are inexorably increasing our dependence on oil and other hydrocarbons we are dramatically increasing the rate at which we are using up these irreplaceable, very finite hydrocarbons.

Here is the ultimate, unavoidable, and disastrous implications of that increased consumption. It is reasonably, though arguably, estimated that the total global carrying capacity for the human species, without the availability of those hydrocarbons, is about 1-1.5 billion, roughly the population during the early decades of the Industrial Revolution. The increase in human population since then has been irrevocably a result of our use of hydrocarbon fuels. The infrastructure we have evolved over these past twelve generations has been built of and through the energy derived from those same hydrocarbons. The dramatically increased pace of consumption of these vital resources is pushing ever harder on the acelerator of the train that we are all riding toward the hydrocarbon cliff, the cliff beyond which nature will help us balance the books between population and real carrying capacity. I'll leave it to your imagination as to how we get from a global human population of nearly 7 billion to one of 1-1.5 billion that can be supported without those hydrocarbons.

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