ZPG2: zero population and zero oil growth

August 31, 2009

One “emerging consensus view”, even among politicians who continue rooting for economic growth if only to claw tax receipts for paying off swollen national debt, is that world oil demand will ceiling if not crater. Peak Oil has won converts, some of them even able to openly admit it is real, but mostly selling oil saving and oil substitution to consumers as part and parcel of the hunting down of the Evil Molecule called CO2. A new accessory to the claimed climate change mitigation imperative for eschewing oil is that Global Green Energy will generate jobs and profits.

In reality, geological depletion of global oil reserves sets a hard limit on flights of fantasy as to why we suddenly have to go green and hunt down GHG. As anybody able to read a few charts on world oil discoveries, reserves, incremental capacity costs and net capacity gains will agree, increasing net total supply is more than difficult. By 2025-2030 world oil supply could be down 25% or more from today’s output, and export supply or “offer” will shrink even faster.

Talk of ZPG for Zero Population Growth may be on a lot shakier ground for media and political opinion manipulators, but like Zero Oil Growth has some very powerful logic behind it.

In the 20thC world population nearly quadrupled from around 1.55 billion to about 6 bn. Nobody in their right mind, today, claims it could quadruple this century, to about 24 billion. Population boomers are however still at work. This includes the newly victorious Democratic Party of Japan, insisting that restoring or strengthening population growth is vital for the nation and good for everybody. Above all, population growth is claimed as good for ‘classic’ economic growth.

Population Growth Economic Growth
The clear problem for ZPG is therefore set: it appears to set a cap or ceiling on economic growth, or at least state tax receipts. The old time favorite among arguments for population growth – that it increases the number of footsoldiers for the nation’s army – has been relegated to the trash can of military history. One missile battery with a few thermonuclear warheads weighs a lot heavier than bayonet wielding heroic masses.

Conversely, Peak Oil and Climate Change are now both admitted as plausible or probable, and above all are big business. Peak Oil and Climate Change have been converted to assets for political and business deciders, and their benefits as rallying calls, profit centers and the base for a thousand hedge funds now exceed the time, effort and costs needed for stonewall denying them. As with any major change in the society and economy, previous controversial and troubling theories either get rejected, or are “reappraised” to become new profit centers for downstream economic exploitation.

The non fossil energy, or Green Energy Revolution, rationalised by climate change if not peak oil, now generates new consumer goods and services, industrial output, and the employment, profits and taxes they produce. ZPG however only seems to imply lower tax receipts and declining sales of the latest eco-friendly baby carriage with disk brakes. The consumer public totally approves the spinoffs from climate change and peak oil activism, or are told to love them, but are conversely easy to rouse against demographic doomsters.

Climate change and peak oil activists, we can note, were treated as doomsters until their ideas were “reappraised” and they became assets in generating a hoped-for new consumer boom. Also, to be sure, this “reapparaisal” was helped by the simple fact that climate change and oil resource depletion are real.

Equally simple facts stand in the way of continuing to believe that population growth almost guarantees economic growth and the “logical extension” of this, greater human wellbeing. One simple fact will do. In 2007-2008 using FAO and IFPRI data, the number of people facing acute food shortage or starvation increased by about 9% to attain more than 950 million. The same year, the last year of what is called ‘vigorous’ global economic growth before the present crisis, the world economy grew by about 4% using IMF data. Summarizing: 4% global economy growth produced 9% more starving people.

To be sure, this reality can be swept aside as a problem of income distribution, piranha capitalism, bad technology, inappropriate crops, or whatever, necessitating yet more economic growth to resolve. More economic growth, the prayer wheel continues, is facilitated or even directly generated by population growth. The same type of logic reversals and acts of faith, we can note, have always been a basis for religious philiosophy, for example the agonizing question of the ranks and types of angels, why some are not good and their messenger role for connecting us to God, or not.

Eating Oil: For How Much Longer ?
The simple fact that “belle epoque” economic growth in 2007-2008 was far outstripped by the increase in numbers of starving people underlines an uncomfortable reality for population boomers. Economic growth does not at all guarantee that people eat, let alone eat more. Also, we can note, the most basic cause in history for population declines is neither disease nor war – but food shortage.

The vast majority of starving persons in today’s world are poor and exist outside the mainly white OECD countries. The OECD countries are still able to generate food surpluses, and food linked problems include mass obesity and transgenic animal-human crossover viruses brewed by Belsen agriculture, pesticides, and agrochemicals. How the OECD countries are presently still able to attain or create food surpluses is very simple to explain: they burn a lot more oil than poor countries. Whatever the calls for Green Energy, in the OECD countries of the real world present, OECD national food production in the real world present is totally oil dependent.

In some countries of the OECD, specially Japan, this has attained extreme highs, Japan using an average of more than 12 barrels direct oil consumption per hectare (about 80 GJ) for rice production each year. If the new Democratic Party government obtains its way, and succeeds in inciting Japanese families to reproduce French-style or US-style and achieve French or US population growth (about 0.6 million a year for France and 2.8 million a year for the USA) Japan’s agricultural oil burn will inexorably rise, barring green tech miracles.

Put another and simple way, the ‘demographic growth of oil demand’, for the USA at about 23 bbl per capita in 2008 (down from 25 in 2007), is about 56 M barrels a year. For world population growth in 2008 at 67 million extra consumers using 4.8 bbl each, it is around 321 Mby.

Oil intense food production is a long way from being an unlimited blessing. The ransacking of world fish stocks and destruction of ocean biodiversity, called commercial fishing, mostly the work of OECD countries, Russia and China, was not and is not possible without very intensive use of oil energy. Due to politically correct global growth thinking and business practices, producing more food with current technology and current practices would need a very large step up in nonOECD oil consumption. Not surprisingly, no OECD leaderships, however pro-baby, pro-global growth and anti-misanthropic they may be in public, call for increased oil demand of the nonOECD countries, even to produce more food and feed their starving in the present. Neither will these defenders of consumer civilization call for nonOECD countries to use more oil to produce more food in the peak oil and climate change constrained future.

In other words, the world’s poor can starve when or if they cannot buy our exports or supply cheap labor, but above all the poor should not use more oil – which would raise the barrel price for us. The supposedly “humanist” rationale of global economic and population growth fanatics in fact has this underlying logic.

Consume Less Live Longer
Through the 40 years 1969-2009 world population added about 3 billion. Looking back 40 years takes us to 1969. At the time, not only the Internet did not exist, but more important the world population increment of 3bn was a powerful motor for oil demand growth. From the OECD country standpoint, if this 3 bn addition had been exclusively of OECD populations, adding 3 bn more average oil consumers of the OECD group, the question of Peak Oil would no longer have any remaining ‘controversy’ attached to it. It would have become a permanent headline crisis.

Adding 3 bn OECD oil consumers who used an average of about 13.5 barrels per head in 2008 to the world’s population would raise world oil consumption to around 75 bn barrels a year today. If this had happened in 1969-2009, world oil demand today would be far above twice the actual consumption of around 31 bn barrels a year – and very simply totally impossible to produce. Climate change would also very surely and certainly be far worse, today, than it is. More important to this article, world food supplies would very likely be in permanent crisis and population growth would collapse.

Similar to world oil the OECD countries with a current 2009 population of just over 1 bn or about one-sixth of world populaton, which consume a little more than 50% of world oil output, take over 60% of world metals and minerals, and about 70% of world wood products and merchandise food supplies. Imagining an “OECD style globalized economy” is maybe attractive for fools and dreamers, but is not physically or environmentally possible.

This underlines a few simple facts about OECD style economic growth, personal and national consumption, and population growth. There is only one read out. Far from being sustainable, combining OECD style consumption and ongoing population growth – which is the basic driver of the Global Economy – can and will only generate world economic collapse, uncontrolled mass migration or war for resources. When this unpalatable message is understood, change can start.

Global Growth Economy: Past but No Future
Today we have a “consensus view” that world population can only go on increasing. This alone shackles innovation because human numbers, and therefore needs are so high. It is not possible to change anything, or not much, because daily demand pressure on resources, of all kinds, is so extreme high. Due to this, the logic continues, we need the Green Revolution or “New Industrial Revolution” but in a rigorously growth economy context. There can only be minor change of urban and industrial systems, structures and infrastructures, in fact they must be dramatically increased due to population growth – needing strong and stable economic growth to pay the party. If not, we get disaster. Nobody pretends this will be easy, of course, so the next industrial revolution is described as indeed painful but above all necessary. This logic was compressed into the verbally gymnastic, but fragile, unrealistic or impossible by-line to the G20 London Summit of April 2009, catchily titled : Towards A Global Green Recovery.

Political leaderships of the G20 can be congratulated as not so far behind their captains of industry, and finance, in polishing up their climate change based, greenwash and green growth rhetoric. Staying ambivalent on peak oil, because any weakness on that front will of course be exploited by OPEC and Wall Street oil traders, they pile on CO2 fear and loathing as the reason why consumers must love windmills, buy solar collectors and change their oil-fuelled car for an electric car the moment these come on the market. Lithium supply problems are for the ‘investor community’ to play with, that is handy ammunition for cranking up boom-bust market swings for the financial gambling fraternity.

Never on public view is the population bomb that eliminates most options and makes economic growth not a luxury, but a basic need. Most political leaders therefore feel heavily constrained to play correct, and always warmly approve population growth – because they fondly believe it drives economic growth. However, the bad news for this demographic no alternative is that world population growth rates are falling, and population ageing is an increasing reality in many countries – including the world’s most populous country, China.

Won’t Double Again
World population doubled, that is added 3.35 billion or increased by 100% through 1965-2005, but not even population boomers who believe that growing population “can only mean” economic growth, are able to suggest more than another 50% or 60% added in the next 40 years to 2050. Put another way, try finding any talk on the Web, today, about world population attaining 13.4 bn by 2050, let alone the 24 bn that a century of full-blown 20thC-style growth would need.

Without admitting it too openly, population boomers have to concede that population growth as an annual percent rate is slowing, and has been slowing for a long time. Since the late 1960s, as an annual percent rate, world population growth has fallen about two-thirds or 67%, but due to the size effect of world population is able to generate a net increase of about 65 – 70 million per year. At late 1960s peak percentage growth rates, more than 3.3% a year, the world’s population would be growing, today, at around 200 million a year.

One reason the end of population growth is a no-no subject is simple. It is as politically incorrect as saying the simplest solution to peak oil and anthropogenic CO2 emissions is to use less fossil energy, every year, starting with the most oil and fossil energy intense, most energy wasteful economies and societies. That is, the OECD group and a few small population oil and gas exporter countries. Using less fossil energy is however basic to human survival this century, and in the case of oil is a self-fulfilling prophecy simply due to geological depletion. Shutting down the demographic pump of ‘classic’ economic growth will make this inevitable and obligatory process all the easier.

Like peak oil and climate change, calls for changing the population pump that pushes the world to make-or-break decisions on the future of civilization will likely stay underground, then break out to the high ground. This may be sooner rather than later. For decades, climate change and peak oil were politically uncorrect, the subject of controversy, of claims and counter claims, of deliberate disinformation but both finally broke out to the mainstream – and both now make money!

Winding down the growth economy while maintaining the sustainale parts of the global economy is not going to be easy. This fact alone makes for continued and determined refusal to publicly consider population options, including controlled large scale migration, but in no way removes the coming obligation to act. Linked with the cleantech and energy transitions, ZPG can become a key part of transition to sustainability – without ZPG the doomsters still retain a master card.

Tags: Culture & Behavior, Education, Food, Fossil Fuels, Media & Communications, Oil, Population