The Triple Crisis of Civilization

Population & Exponential Growth


For 90,000 years, our species (Homo sapiens) lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Despite potential to increase rapidly, population was harshly limited by the delicate balance between sporadic food supplies, climate, and personal energy for foraging.

About 10,000 years ago, superior intellect, helped by the additional energy of draft animals, began the food production of grains and animal protein. On this basis, population continued to increase but still at very low levels now limited by arable land availability, crop failure, tribal conflicts, disease, and the usual vagaries of climate. In addition, although not readily obvious, any non-sustainable interference with, or efforts to maximize, carrying capacity invariably resulted in a cut-back in output and localized or widespread famine. Still, there was enough additional food supply through agriculture to allow a higher population level, culture, trading, exploration, cities, organized religion, and, of course, warfare as dissimilar societies interacted at their boundaries.

    In 1798, Thomas Malthus proposed that human population, like any biological species, tends to increase exponentially until checked by “misery” caused by finite food and fuel resources. Any successful attempt to mitigate this inherent limitation only allowed additional population to re-establish the same misery at a slightly higher level. The cruel practice of harnessing human labor by slavery also allowed a very few to flourish as others were suppressed.

    Then, unanticipated by Malthus, the Industrial Age began based on inventions which utilized vast quantities of previously stored fossil energy. As would be expected, world population then exploded six-fold as the new energy sources as well as continuing advances in technology provided increased food supplies and longer life expectancy. Unchecked population has continued to grow exponentially for the last 150 years always led by a surplus of fossil energy. This is about to change because it is not possible for 7 billion people to survive on this planet without the temporary fossil energy base for food production. There is clearly not enough incoming annual solar energy to make up for finite fossil fuels and crop land lost to eco-devastation. The consensus among population experts (see “Population and Growth: Bibliography”) is a comfortable, sustainable carrying capacity of a non-fossil-fueled world be limited to about two billion people.

These and many other respected authors have been warning for years of imminent “peak population.” Few would listen as there has been enough excess food to keep the party going until now ... except for about half of the world, which has already slid over the cliff of diminishing food, ravaged resources, and localized climate change.


Population Growth: Bibliography

Since Malthus 200 years ago, many voices have been telling us that population growth (which in effect drives consumption growth) cannot continue indefinitely, especially when supported by a finite resource base. Nature cruelly restricts further numbers whenever the ceiling of food (energy) is breached. Are humans smarter than yeast which multiply, overshoot their food supply, and then collapse?

Malthus, TA., On The Principle of Population, Oxford, 1798

Ehrlich, P., The Population Bomb, Ballantine Books, 1968

Ehrlich, P., The Stork and The Plow, Yale Press, 1995

Catton, W.R., Overshoot, U. of Illinois Press, 1982

Bartlett, A., The Essential Exponential, U. of Nebraska, 2004

Grant, L., Too Many People, Seven Locks, 2000

Grant, L., The Collapsing Bubble, Seven Locks, 2005

Cohen, J., How Many People Can The Earth Support?, Norton, 1995

Meadows, D., Limits of Growth: The 30 Year Update, Chelsea Green, 2004

Stanton, W., The Rapid Growth of Human Populations, 1750-2000, Multi Science, 2003

Bergstrom, G., The Hungry Planet, MacMillan, 1972