A Depopulation Explosion?

The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike. The meadows were green, and so was the rising wheat which had been sown, but neither had nor would receive any further care...

With this brilliant image, Richard Jefferies began the harrowing prologue to his 1885 novel After London, or Wild England, one of the first works in the modern genre of apocalypse fiction. In Jefferies’ backstory, some unremembered catastrophe erased nearly the entire population of Britain, leaving a few survivors to rebuild a medieval society amid the ruins. Jefferies is almost forgotten today but his novel was influential in its time; echoes of After London can be found straight through the next century of science fiction, showing up in writers as different as H.G. Wells and Edgar Pangborn, and Jefferies’ vision of a depopulated world in which the remains of civilization crumbled beneath spreading greenery hit a chord in the modern imagination.

It’s a vision that has seen quite a bit of play in recent discussions about the future of industrial society, especially among those who like to frame those in terms of one apocalyptic narrative or another. In some circles these days, global depopulation in the near future is treated as a given, and the only point of debate seems to be what mechanism will tip six billion superfluous lives into history’s dumpster. A certain amount of millennarian machismo seems to creep into these debates, as though believing in a catastrophe more dire and more imminent than anyone else’s is a sign of toughness. All this has a good deal to say about the way social narratives are shaped, but arguably much less about the shape of the future ahead of us.

Thus, for example, I was contacted not long ago by a reader of The Archdruid Report who announced he’d come up with a scenario that involved the immiment extermination of 95% of the world’s population in a matter of weeks. Did I want to read more? Well, no, in fact, I didn’t. I’m old enough to remember when Comet Kohoutek was supposed to cause global devastation and Anwar Sadat was widely identified as the Antichrist, and one thing I’ve learned is that it’s very easy to come up with a worst case scenario and back it up with a bunch of cherrypicked factoids. Another thing I’ve learned is that this sort of exercise is probably the least effective way there is of guessing the shape of the future. When such predictions leap into the pool of time, the reliable result is a thundering bellyflop.

Still, it’s important not to jump to the conclusion that this means current global population levels are sustainable. What William Catton, in his classic work Overshoot, called “ghost acreage” – the vast boost to the means of subsistence that comes from the unsustainable use of fossil fuels in growing, storing, and distributing food – has allowed the world’s human population in the last few centuries to balloon to between three and four times what the earth can support over the long term. As the industrial age winds down, the surpluses of food and other resources and the infrastructure of public health that made this expansion possible will wind down as well, with predictable impacts on the size of the human population.

So far, this supports the catastrophist model, but there’s a catch. The winding down of the industrial age isn’t a fast process. The peak of worldwide conventional oil production may well have already happened – the best figures I’ve seen show that production rates reached in the fall of 2005 have not been equalled since – and the overall peak, including nonconventional sources such as tar sands and natural gas liquids, probably isn’t far away. What too few people seem to have noticed, though, is that the Hubbert curve is shaped like a bell, not like a sawtooth.

That bell-shaped profile means, among other things, that about as much oil will be pumped out of the ground on the downside half of the curve as was pumped on the upside. It also means that production rates along the downside will be roughly commensurable with production rates at points on the upside the same distance from the peak. If peak production comes in 2010, in other words, the amount of oil produced in 2030 will likely not be far from what was produced in 1990; production in 2060 will be somewhere near production in 1960, and production in 2100 will be around production in 1920. Even after the peak comes and goes, in other words, there will still be a great deal of oil in circulation for many years to come. The same will likely be true of most other energy resources, and of energy as a whole.

This same lesson could have been learned from the growth of nonconventional oil sources like the Alberta tar sands, and the reopening of hundreds of formerly uneconomical stripper wells in pumped-out oil provinces like Pennsylvania. As oil production falters, market forces and political pressures alike guarantee that every possible replacement will be brought online. Right now, attempts to increase production are struggling to keep up with slumping yields at existing fields, and it’s a struggle that will only get harder as more fields reach the downside of their own Hubbert curves. Still, even though new fields and alternative sources can’t make up for the exhaustion of supergiant fields like Ghawar and Cantarell, they can stretch out the process much further than the raw figures on production declines from existing fields might suggest.

Does this mean peak oil is nothing to worry about? Not at all. The fact that the “ghost acreage” that supports our huge global population is going away gradually, rather than all at once, does not change the fact that it’s going away. Historically speaking, both a slow decline and a fast collapse produce population loss; the difference is that in a slow decline, depopulation tends to be a much more complex process, subject to major regional and temporal variations.

It actually doesn’t take that much to change an expanding population into a contracting one. Modest changes in birth and death rates will do the trick, and such changes are predictable consequences of the twilight of the industrial age. We’ve already had a preview in the former Soviet Union, where the implosion of Communism launched a classic cycle of catabolic collapse in the 1990s followed by partial recovery in this decade. Statistics I’ve seen put live births in Russia around 8 per thousand annually, and deaths around 14 per thousand; that alone is predicted to reduce the Russian population to half its present size by midcentury.

The factors that push population contraction in hard times are familiar enough to demographers. Malnutrition is a major factor; so are epidemic disease and child mortality driven by failing public health; so are social factors such as alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and suicide, driven by the psychological impacts of life in a failing society. There’s at least one additional factor to keep in mind, though, and the best way to explain it is to introduce a guest who will be appearing in this blog tolerably often in the future.

‘Abd-er-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami – ibn Khaldun for short – was a jurist, politician, and Sufi mystic who lived from 1332 to 1406. He was also one of the first known historians to make a serious attempt to get under the hood of history and figure out what makes it go. His major work, the Muqaddimah (Introduction to History), was a massive treatise – three thick volumes in English translation – setting out the patterns he saw at work behind historical events, and his conclusions hold up remarkably well in the light of history since his time.

He spent much of his life in northwestern Africa, where the contrast between the ruins of Roman settlement and the deserts of his own time was hard to miss, and one of the many questions he set out to answer was why that happened. It’s popular nowadays to blame it on deforestation and the like, but ibn Khaldun saw a different cause at work – infrastructure failure caused by political dysfunction. In the examples he surveyed, agricultural societies were conquered by new ruling classes of nomad origin, who saw their subjects as cash cows but failed to realize that cows have to be fed. Revenues needed to maintain vital infrastructure were thus diverted into unproductive uses, sending societies into a downward spiral of economic collapse and depopulation from which they rarely recovered.

In the the twilight of the industrial age, ibn Khaldun’s insight is likely to be worth close attention. There aren’t a lot of nomads at the edges of today’s civilizations, but too many members of the political class in the modern world have no more sense of the importance of infrastructure to survival than the nomad rulers ibn Khaldun critiques, and the malign neglect so often visited on infrastructure in the US and elsewhere may be a foretaste of worse to come. Since a significant amount of North American infrastructure is locally managed and maintained, this represents a factor that could be powerfully shaped by community action on the local level.

Like every other aspect of our contemporary predicament, finally, these forces will also be shaped by geographic factors. Communities that are economically viable in a global economy awash in cheap fossil fuel energy, in many cases, are not places that will be economically viable in the deindustrial future. This cuts both ways. Sprawling Sun Belt cities with little water and no potential for agriculture will slowly shrivel and die as the energy that keeps them going sputters and goes out, and tourist communities across the continent will pop like bubbles and become ghost towns once travel becomes a luxury, while Rust Belt towns struggling for bare survival today will likely find a new lease on life when adequate rain, workable soil, and access to waterborne transport become the keys to prosperity, as they were in the 18th century.

One question not yet settled, though, is how many of the communities in areas that might prosper in the deindustrial age will be inhabited by descendants of the people who now live in those parts of North America, and how many will be populated by way of the second theme to be discussed in this series of essays – the theme of migration. We’ll turn to this theme in next week’s post.