Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Discussing Die-off Should not be Taboo: The weatherman syndrome

Is die-off the truth that cannot be discussed? To solve any problem you must first be prepared to admit there is a problem that needs solving. Die-off is a real and serious possibility that won't go away by ignoring it.

Okay, maybe the term "die-off" wasn't the best choice. How many people, after all, would buy more appropriately named "death insurance"? Over the years how many concepts, ideas, theses, theories and movements have failed to spark the public consciousness because of a poor choice of name or slogan? There seems to be an unfortunate human tendency to reject a book because of it's unacceptable cover, a message because of the way it is conveyed. Alvin Toffler (or his publisher) aptly explored this phenomenon by releasing his then controversial book "Future Shock" in multiple colours when it was came out in paperback. I assume, though I do not know, that they tracked sales by cover colour. The marketing and advertising industry, in fact, exists to ensure that the combination of words and images used for a product fit together in such a way as to maximize public acceptance of the product. The product and the messages used to sell it are even tailored to fit different markets and different consumer niches. This is particularly important when that product has no built-in aesthetic appeal. Think of all of the possible bad terminology choices that could be used to try to sell "bathroom tissue" or "sanitary pads" or "suppositories" or a host of other products designed around various bodilly functions. Advertising and marketing, in fact, do not sell products. They sell dreams. They do not satisfy needs. They create them. They do not appeal to our rational consciousness. They appeal to the deeper, often unexpressed or even unrecognized desires of our subconscious.

So let us, instead of talking about "die-off", discuss "carrying capacity enhancement" or "personal spatial optimization" or some such positive and socially acceptable interpretation of the population rationalization that will accompany our transition into the new energy-minimized society of the future. In this new world the individual worth and importance of each of us will be much enhanced. Each of us will have a much bigger piece of the global pie...........

A rose by any other name........... Regardless of what we call it, "die-off" is a distinct and serious possibility in the near-term future of the human race. We are facing a serious convergence of global disasters that collectively will represent the greatest challenge to our species that there has ever been. Overpopulation, as well as being one of them is also central to several others. The other global disasters before us include, peak oil, climate change, habitat destruction, accelerated species extinction, global pollution, global pandemics, top-soil loss, desertification, aquifer depletion, sea-level rise, and more.

There is significant though debated evidence that the human race has gone through multiple die-offs in the ancient past. On at least one of those occassions it appears that human numbers were reduced to a few tens of thousands putting our species precariously on the verge of extinction. The bell curve that we have all become familar with in the peak-oil movement thanks to the work of M. King Hubbert also seems to apply to the evolutionary history of species which have gone extinct. Such species, about midway through their history on earth, reached their apex and then began a long, slow decline toward eventual extinction.

This, of course, begs the question of whether we are currently sitting at the point of peak-homo-sapiens, peak-humanity. That, of course, depends on how soon the global disasters mentioned above befall us and whether they do so concurrently or serially. Since the likelihood of any of those disasters erupting with a force sufficient to have a measurable impact on human numbers over the next few years it is reasonable to assume that the human population will continue to increase in the immediate short term. It is also unlikely that multiple of the above disasters will occur with full severity at exactly the same time. So peak humanity, if that is what we are soon approaching, will unlikely be a sharp peak but a bumpy plateau that could last for some time, perhaps decades, possibly centuries. Considering the energy use per person that has allowed the population to rise from a billion at the beginning of the industrial revolution to 6.5 billion today, and the permanent decline in available energy per capita that will follow the global peak in oil and other fossil fuels, it is very unlikely that there can ever be in the future a peak in global human population greater than whatever level we top out at in the near future.

The question before us now is whether we can sustainably maintain the peak in human population, whether it be the current 6.5 billion or something higher. According to a 1994 paper entitled "Optimum Human Population Size" authored by Gretchen C. Daily University of California (Berkeley) Anne H. Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich Stanford University, " energy use [1993] amounts to about 13 terawatts (TW = 1012 watts), about 70% of which is being used to support somewhat over a billion people in rich countries and 30% to support more than four billion people in developing countries." Since that time, however, world population has increased by over a billion, the global energy use has, according to recent reports, increased to 14.5 terawatts. The overall energy use (availability?) per capita, however, has declined by six percent. The energy use per capita in the rich developed nations has increased so the gap in energy use between rich and poor has also increased. In the above paper, Daily, Ehrlich and Ehrlich then suggested that a sustainable level of global energy use would be about 6 terawatts. That is about 41% of the energy use per capita than present usage even if the population stabilized at the current 6.5 billion. The authors of the above report, however, also suggest that the potentially sustainable human population at that energy level would be about two billion. This is a figure that is generally regarded in die-off discussions as the high-end of sustainability. Admittedly it is difficult to see how over five billion people in the third world could possibly decrease their miniscule use of energy by another 41 percent.

The energy availability on the other side of the global peak in fossil fuels, despite heroic efforts to maintain it with alternative energy options, will begin to decline. It is a long way down from the current 14.5 terawatts to the suggested sustainable energy level of 6 terawatts. It is even debatable now, considering that nothing has been done since that paper was written to curb our consumption of non-renewable energy resources, whether 6 terawatts of usage would be sustainable in the future. That also, therefore, puts in question the suggested sustainable population level of two billion, which is one of the reasons it is the high-end estimate in die-off discussions. It must also be noted that the two billion number in the above paper was based on somewhat optimistic assumptions that needed political action would take place. To date there are no indications that such is happening.

It is difficult to see how the transition from the current levels of global population and energy usage to those projected in the above paper and countless other studies and papers in the intervening years could be called anything but a die-off. It is equally or more difficult to see any possible way in an energy-deprived future how we could possibly maintain current population levels. Even today between twenty and forty thousand people die every day of starvation and other nutrition-related illness and disease. With the decline in global food production capability that will parallel the decline in global fossil fuels and the loss of the associated artificial carrying capacity (termed "ghost acres" in the above report), it is unreasonable to assume that there will not be a significant escalation of global deaths due to nutrition related diseases. The additional impact from fossil fuel decline on medicines and pharmaceuticals and a host of other areas (there are over 300,000 products in every day use derived from oil) very strongly suggests that there will also be increasingly measurable impact on human population in these areas as well.

The purpose of this essay is to provoke thought, not to supply answers. I will close it this way. Those who are prepared to look at, consider, discuss and write about the impact of peak oil, global climate change and other potential near-term disasters are collectively suffering from what I call "the weatherman syndrome". There is an unfortunate tendency to blame them for what they are presenting, to suggest that they somehow are relishing and looking forward to the problems they are discussing. The weatherman does not make the weather he reports. Catastrophists, as we are often called, are likewise not responsible for the disasters they see approaching. The weatherman is conveying information on which you can make decisions. So too are we.


Phil Plasma said...

The point of it is that there is no solution that would be tolerated by the masses. There is no way to curb the human population downwards with the extreme slope that is needed to match the impending slope of peak oil and all of the other global calamities we are facing. Those people being called weathermen due to their dire predictions should probably just stop talking about die-off because there is nothing to be done about it. Continue pushing energy alternatives and talking about peak oil so that at least some movement can help lessen the atrocities that are inevitable, but stop using die-off as a point of argument or contention.

Richard Embleton said...

I couldn't disagree more. There is no solution that can maintain either the current or future global popuation nor the current lifestyle enjoyed by the developed world. However there are solutions that can be implemented at local levels to minimize the impact and optimize survivability locally. To simply "just stop talking about die-off", IMHO, ensures the worst possible outcome at all levels. We will not survive the coming disasters without some form of preparation. To not make people aware of what is to come, no matter how distasteful they may find it, takes away, by default, their freedom of deciding a course of action (personally or at a community or local level) to optimize their chances of survival. By suggesting that we just stop talkng about it suggests that we should all simply sit down and wait. Knowing the consequences of inaction (the die-off) should be the strongest of all motivations to take action. Choosing to remain ignorant of what lies ahead will not make it go away. I have een suggestions on one of the Yahoo peak oil groups that I participate in that those who want to talk about the die-off should do everyone a favour and commit suicide to leave more for everyone else. I would strongly suggest that those who want to sleepwalk into the coming disasters would be better volunteers.

Andreas said...

I think a lot of people on the left are "uncomfortable" with the whole concept of die-off, because they fear the ghost of Malthus lurking in the background (I have a lot of sympathy for that attitude myself).

It's the fear that any talk about die-off implies a (frequently racists, sexist and classist) socially engineered "solution" to the problem of humans overshooting the earths carrying capacity. See for example phil plasma's first two sentences (although, of course, I don't know and wouldn't want to presume that he considers himself part of "the left").

I do think this cautionary approach is warranted in many situations, but it can also be an obstacle at times.

I feel that when discussing die-off, it should be made clear from the outset, that we are talking about theoretical predictions and demographic scenarios about the future of humanity on this planet, rather than about mechanisms to cull the human population in any way... Once those initial premises are defined, we should be able to have a rational conversation.

Phil Plasma said...

Richard: I've spoken to people about die-off and they almost immediately stop listening as they consider the idea ludicrous. If I start by asking questions like 'Do you agree that there is a finite amount of fossil fuels available to us?', this is a question that can be reasonably asked and answered. I'm not suggesting we sit and wait: Continue pushing energy alternatives and talking about peak oil.... If it is sufficiently clear to the masses that peak oil means a severe decrease in energy (among many other things), then maybe they will curtail their energy usage and there for extend the slope of peak oil and as a result, also extend the duration of a die-off. So indirectly, the promoting of the peak-oil topic takes into account a potential die-off in a less harsh way that is more palatable.

andreas: ..theoretical predictions and demographic scenarios about the future of humanity on this planet...
I agree that this is how die-off should be discussed, but such discussions invariably lead to topics like war, pandemics, devestating climate change events and other causes that are indiscriminatory in how they 'cull' the human population.

Maybe we need to turn to science fiction to handle our overpopulation problem. In Daysworld Rebel (Philip Jose Farmer) the population was divided into seven and everyone was frozen for six days of the week. In Logan's Run (William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson) society has decided that everyone could live to a certain age and that on your 'LastDay' that was it.

Andreas said...

Phil Plasma: In Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, humans colonise Mars (in part) to escape an over-crowded Earth.

I get your point. When talking to people who may not have given peak oil much thought or may not have heard of it at all, one would probably do more harm than good by discussing hard core die off issues from the get go.

It seems to me that that's a tactical issue though. Those of us who are more familiar with the debate should surely be able to talk about various scenarios of what might happen. Will there be a major crash? How will it pan out in detail? Will the poor cope better or worse than the rich? Will there be a die off? What are the time frames involved?

Why shouldn't we talk about all of these things?

Phil Plasma said...

I guess my reasoning is that the only places I have been able to have such conversations is with one friend of mine who is willing to talk about it and online groups like ROE2 and blogs like this one.

To go about and talk aboug die-off with acquantainces, or as a politician, or in the media, I just don't see that happening.

BTW, I recently read that Mars trilogy and thouroughly enjoyed it.