Well, maybe not Malthus, but Garrett Hardin and Paul Ehrlich — the
1960’s-era neomalthusian academicians — have been right on the
money. There are hard limits to growth, and those limits are
us. This is the contention of Charles A. S. Hall and John W.
Jr., two systems ecologists who have published a paper in American
The paper is still behind a pay wall at the publication site, but a PDF
copy can be obtained href="http://www.esf.edu/efb/hall/2009-05Hall0327.pdf">from
Hall’s web site. (HT: href="http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5330#more">EROI Guy, @
Drum. EROI Guy is
Murphy, a student of Charles Hall)
Here is the introduction to the article, as published at American
In the 1970s a rising world population and the finite resources
available to support it were hot topics. Interest faded—but
to take another look
Charles A. S. Hall, John W. Day
global population Thomas Malthus was perhaps the first economist to
indicate that there were limits to the human population that could be
sustained by the Earth’s resources. The 1970s were also a
such limits on growth were widely discussed in research circles. In
both cases, an increase in energy use, particularly of fossil fuels,
has lead to greater food production, forestalling crisis. As a result,
such arguments have largely been silenced in current-day academia, to
the point where researchers interested in such topics cannot find a
department to work in, let alone funding. Hall and Day argue that this
is a mistake, that the problem has not gone away and will only take the
world population by surprise if it is ignored. They have re-examined
some of the data that led to the discrediting of the “limits
theory and have shown that both resource use and costs have only risen,
and are no longer being mitigated by market forces. Although new
sources of energy have been found, they are much more expensive to
extract, a declining return on investment that Hall and Day think could
lead to large societal problems in the near future.
Peak Oil theorists make use of an important concept: Energy Return On
Investment (EROI). This refers to the ratio between the
used in the effort to obtain more energy, and the amount of energy that
is generated by that effort. If the EROI is 1, the effort is
waste of time. EROI is described in this article:
MAYBE Malthus was on to something, after all…
…The debate about limits to growth is coming back with a vengeance.
The world’s supply of cheap energy is tightening, and
humankind’s enormous output of greenhouse gases is disrupting
the earth’s climate. Together, these two constraints could
eventually hobble global economic growth and cap the size of the global
..As the average E.R.O.I. of an economy’s energy sources
drops toward 1 to 1, an ever-larger fraction of the economy’s
wealth must go to finding and producing energy. This means less wealth
is left over for everything else that needs to be done, from building
houses to moving around information to educating children. The energy
return on investment for conventional oil, which provides about 40
percent of the world’s commercial energy and more than 95
percent of America’s transportation energy, has been falling
From the Hall and Day paper:
The other big question about oil is not how much is
the ground (the answer is a lot) but how much can be extracted at a
significant energy profit. The EROI of U.S. petroleum declined from
roughly 100:1 in 1930, to 40:1 in 1970, to about 14:1 in 2000. Even
these figures are relatively positive compared to EROI for finding
brandnew oil in the U.S., which, based on the limited information
available, appears likely to approach 1:1 within a few decades.
The authors’ main point is that the neomalthusian projections are
turning out to be valid. This view has not been popular in
years. There probably are several reasons for this
denialism. Perhaps one reason is that if one acknowledges
to growth, then it would be prudent to moderate the rate of
growth. Such moderation is not good for profits, at least in
Hall and Day recognize that
scarcity were not borne out in the latter years of the 20th century,
and the first few years of this century. Thus, there was a
of time during which the projections appeared to not hold. In
2008, though, we did
see an alarming
rise in food prices, accompanied by href="http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/americas/04/14/world.food.crisis/">scarcity
riots. That has abated somewhat, due to the
the price of oil, but it did demonstrate the principle. Hall
Day now argue that the early neomalthusian projections have been
validated by recent events.
Their story is an illustration of the classic interplay between
science, the business community, and public opinion. In order
understand it, it is necessary to know some history.
An important contribution to neomalthusian theory appeared in 1972: a
Limits of Growth, by by Donella
H. Meadows, Dennis l. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W. Behrens
III. This was prepared for a group, The Club of
RTF format, is available from href="http://www.clubofrome.org/eng/home/">The Club of Rome;
Wikipedia has an article on href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limits_to_growth">The
The Club of Rome is an independent, not-for-profit
organization with an international membership. It draws on the insights
and expertise of its members from all regions of the world, from
different cultures and histories, from different fields of science and
public policy and from academia, civil society and the corporate
sector. Since its founding forty years ago, it has been promoting
interdisciplinary analysis, dialogue and action on the fundamental,
systemic challenges which are determining the future of humanity.
There was a backlash against the book, and it gradually fell from
public notice. This backlash was comparable to the
we see against the concept of anthropogenic climate change, in that it
was widespread, highly motivated, and highly illogical.
Of course, it can be upsetting to see graphics such as this (based upon
the projections in The
Hall and Day are careful to point out, as the original authors did,
that the timing of these projections is uncertain. However,
model suggests that the post-2000 world will see a period of
disequilibrium. Many things will change. Sometime
first three decades of the 21st century, we will see an inflection
point in the world death rate, roughly corresponding with decreases in
food per capita, industrial output per capita, and services per
capita. Sometime around 2050, the population will start to
Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with these kinds of mathematical
models will know that: the slopes, the timing or the inflection points,
and the relative positions of the peaks are susceptible to considerable
uncertainty. Also, the slopes are not nearly so smooth as
look on the graph, when
on a human scale (month-to-month, year-to-year).
result, everyday experiences will lead to observations that seem to
contradict the trends. For example, if there is a major oil
field discovered, or a news report about a new,
higher-efficiency type of solar panel, it could be temping to think
that new discoveries and technologies could permit indefinite expansion
of the economy.
If one focuses too much on the minor
perturbations, and falls into the cognitive trap of href="http://skepdic.com/confirmbias.html">confirmation bias,
would be very easy to dismiss the entire model as bunk.
Of course, it is impossible to prove that there will not be new
discoveries and technologies. But the question is: at what
point is is most reasonable to continue gambling on the belief that
discoveries and technologies will save us, and at what point is it most
reasonable to start taking precautions. Hall and Day contend
that the model, so far, has been accurate. They note,
however, that the model predicts a more dynamic phase to follow.
Perhaps the model won’t hold up.
After all, what evidence do we have that resource depletion is causing,
or is about to cause, limits to growth?
We know that the persons who would discredit neomalthusian ideas have a
conflict of interest: they want to make money. But perhaps
the neomalthusians have a conflict of interest, too. If so,
it is less obvious, but perhaps it exists. So are there
others who have evidence to offer, evidence that would tend to confirm
the notion that there are is a hard limit to growth, and that we are
approaching that limit?
Here I provide some more background on the relation between oil price
increases and economic recessions.
When I first began working on my Ph.D. dissertation in 1980, I was
intrigued by the fact that the oil embargo of 1973-74 and the collapse
in Iranian oil production after the revolution in 1978 were both
followed by global recessions. But when I called attention to the fact
there had been a sharp increase in the price of oil prior to 6 of the 7
postwar U.S. recessions up to that point, the general response was one
…Was the oil shock of 2007-08 the sole cause of the recession?
Certainly not. But did it make a material contribution? In my opinion,
the answer unquestionably is yes.
To some extent, the relationship between energy prices (with the price
of motor fuel serving as proxy) and economic activity tends to be self
correcting. The most recent price spike has been followed by
a substantial reduction in economic activity. The prices have
fallen is response. But so far, there has not been a recovery
this time around, even though the prices have fallen. For
example, in March 2009, cargo href="http://www.calculatedriskblog.com/2009/04/truck-tonnage-more-cliff-diving-in.html">truck
tonnage declined by 2.5% in the USA. The href="http://www.istockanalyst.com/article/viewarticle/articleid/3195514">Baltic
Dry Index (index of ocean shipping costs) remains severely
depressed, although it has recovered a bit lately.
What these findings imply, is that as economic activity improves (if it
ever does), energy prices will go back up. This will happen,
in part because because capital expenditures for oil and gas
exploration have gone down. We will face increasing demand,
with decreasing supply.
…Yet despite its seeming invincibility, Exxon is surprisingly
vulnerable. Interviews with industry analysts, consultants, and current
and former employees cast doubt on its strategy and growth prospects…
…Not only is Exxon producing less oil but it’s also having difficulty
replacing the oil it pumps from the ground. In 2007 the company
replenished just 76% of the approximately 1.52 billion barrels it
produced that year, according to its Securities & Exchange
Commission filing. The 2008 numbers, to be reported this month, seem
certain to be worse. That’s because the SEC considers only those
reserves that are economically viable at the price of oil on the last
day of the year. On Dec. 31, 2008, a barrel of crude sold for $44.60,
less than half the 2007 yearend price of $95.98. The lower the price of
oil, the lower the percentage of Exxon’s reserves that would clear the
I’m in the camp that really worries about the
L-shaped recession. We level off but we don’t get the recovery. We hope
it isn’t, but it has all the markings of it. This looks like the kind
of slump that has all the markings of where normal recovery forces are
very, very weak.
It’s hard to see where recovery comes from. Almost always the way a
country recovers from a financial crisis is with an export boom. The
problem is that we have a global crisis this time. So who are
we going to export to, unless we find another planet to take our stuff?
Repeated energy price shocks have the potential to limit any nascent
recovery (especially considering the price of interplanetary transport,
if we do find another planet as a trading partner). Even
without overt price shocks, a steady decrease in EROI will functions as
an increasingly onerous tax on all energy-requiring activity…which is
pretty much every activity there is.
If you expand your view to include the many other potential
activity-limited resources (in addition to oil) it is difficult to see
the way out. For example, converting all the world’s vehicles
to fuel cells would lead to depletion of known reserves of platinum in
15 years. Sure, new technology might get us around that
particular problem, but there are many limiting resources, and many
potential causes of depletion. And it only takes one
rate-limiting factor, to cause a massive slowdown of economic activity.
New Scientist has a review of the many potential
resource limitations href="http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19426051.200-earths-natural-wealth-an-audit.html?full=true">here,
with some nice graphical representations. A more extensive
review, focused on metals, is in PNAS: href="http://www.pnas.org/content/103/5/1209.full">Metal
stocks and sustainability.
Providing today’s developed-country level of services
for copper worldwide (as well as for zinc and, perhaps, platinum) would
appear to require conversion of essentially all of the ore in the
lithosphere to stock-in-use plus near-complete recycling of the metals
from that point forward.
One could argue that it is not likely that the entire world will get to
the point that everyone is using as much metal as we use per capita in
the USA. But that leaves us with a problem. The
problem is this: we are, to some extent, depending upon increasing
international trade and development to get us out of this recession.
If there are hard limits to growth in developing nations,
then there is a hard limit to the extent to which we can hope for this
to solve the economic crisis.