Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction

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Apocalyptic fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that is concerned with the end of civilization either through nuclear war, plague, or some other general disaster. Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after such a disaster. The time frame may be immediately after the catastrophe, focusing on the travails or psychology of survivors, or considerably later, often including the theme that the existence of pre-catastrophe civilization has been forgotten (or mythologized). Post-apocalyptic stories often take place in an agrarian, non-technological future world, or a world where only scattered elements of technology remain. There is a considerable degree of blurring between this form of science fiction and that which deals with false utopias or dystopic societies.

The genres gained in popularity after World War II, when the possibility of global annihilation by nuclear weapons entered the public consciousness. However, recognizable apocalyptic novels existed at least since the first quarter of the 19th century, when Mary Shelley's The Last Man was published. Additionally, the subgenres draw on a body of apocalyptic literature, tropes, and interpretations that are millennia old.



Ancient predecessors

Numerous societies, including the Babylonian and Judaic traditions, have produced apocalyptic literature and mythology, some of which dealt with the end of the world and of human society.[1] The scriptural story of Noah and his Ark describes the end of a corrupt civilization and its replacement with a remade world. The first centuries AD saw the creation of various apocalyptic works; the best known (due to its inclusion in the New Testament) is the Book of Revelation (from which the word apocalypse was originated, meaning "revelation of secrets"), which is replete with prophecies of destruction.[1] In the study of religious works, apocalyptic texts or stories, are those that disclose hidden secrets either by taking an individual literally into the heavens or into the future. Most often these revelations about heaven and the future are used to explain why some currently occurring event is taking place.[2]

Outside of the corpus of New Testament apocrypha also includes apocalypses of Peter, Paul, Stephen, and Thomas, as well as two of James and Gnostic Apocalypses of Peter and Paul. The beliefs and ideas of this time, including apocalyptic accounts excluded from the Bible, influenced the developing Christian eschatology.[citation needed]

Further apocalyptic works appeared in the early Middle Ages. The 7th century Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius includes themes common in Christian eschatology; the Prophecy of the Popes has been ascribed to the 12th century Irish saint Malachy, but may in fact date from the late 16th century. Islamic eschatology, related to Christian and Jewish eschatological traditions, also emerged from the 7th century. Ibn al-Nafis's 13th century Theologus Autodidactus, an Arabic novel, used empirical science to explain Islamic eschatology.[3]

Modern works

Pre-1900 works

The first work of modern apocalyptic fiction may be Mary Shelley's 1826 novel The Last Man. The last portion becoming the story of a man living in a future world emptied of humanity by plague, it contains the recognizable elements of the subgenre. It is sometimes considered the first science fiction novel, though that distinction is more often given to Shelley's more famous earlier novel, Frankenstein.

The 1885 novel After London by Richard Jefferies is of the type that could be best described as "post-apocalyptic fiction"; after some sudden and unspecified catastrophe has depopulated England, the countryside reverts to nature, and the few survivors to a quasi-medieval way of life. The first chapters consist solely of a loving description of nature reclaiming England: fields becoming overrun by forest, domesticated animals running wild, roads and towns becoming overgrown, the hated London reverting to lake and poisonous swampland. The rest of the story is a straightforward adventure/quest set many years later in the wild landscape and society; but the opening chapters set an example for many later science fiction stories. Similarly, Stephen Vincent Benét's short story "By the Waters of Babylon" (1937) describes a young man's coming-of-age quest to a ruined New York City after an unspecified disaster.

Ignatius Donnelly's 1890 novel Caesar's Column is another noteworthy entry in the genre.[citation needed]

Published in 1898, H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds depicts an invasion of Earth by inhabitants of the planet Mars. The aliens systematically destroy Victorian England with advanced weaponry mounted on nearly indestructible vehicles. Due to the famous radio adaptation of the novel by Orson Welles on his show, Mercury Theatre, the novel has become one of the best known early apocalyptic works. It has subsequently been reproduced or adapted several times in film, television, radio, music, and computer games.

Post-1900 works

Nuclear war

The period of the Cold War saw increased interest in these subgenres, as the threat of nuclear war became real. Paul Brians published Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, a study that examines atomic war in short stories, novels, and films between 1895 and 1984. Since this measure of destruction was no longer imaginary, some of these new works, such as Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7, Nevil Shute's On the Beach and Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, shun the imaginary science and technology that are the identifying traits of general science fiction.[citation needed] Others include more fantastic elements, such as mutants, alien invaders, or exotic future weapons such as James Axler's Deathlands.[citation needed]

According to some theorists, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in its modern past has influenced Japanese popular culture to include many apocalyptic themes. Much of Japan's manga and anime is filled with apocalyptic imagery.[4] It has, however, also been claimed[who?] that disaster and post-disaster scenarios have a longer tradition in Japanese culture, possibly related to the earthquakes that repeatedly have devastated Japanese cities, and possibly connected to Japanese political history, which includes strict adherence to authority until a sudden and dramatic change. See Meiji Restoration and the earlier ee ja nai ka phenomenon.[citation needed]

Andre Norton wrote one of the definitive, post apocalyptic novels, Star Man's Son (AKA, Daybreak 2250), published in 1952, where a young man, Fors, begins an Arthurian quest for lost knowledge, through a radiation ravaged landscape, with the aid of a telepathic, mutant cat. He encounters mutated creatures, "the beast things," which are possibly a degenerated form of humans.

A seminal work in this subgenre was Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). Ideas such as a recrudescent Church (Catholic or other), pseudo-medieval society, and the theme of the rediscovery of the knowledge of the pre-holocaust world were central to this book.

In 2003, children's novelist Jeanne DuPrau released the first of four books in a post-apocalypic series for young adults. The City of Ember has since been made into a film starring Bill Murray and Saorise Ronan.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) is a recent work of post-apocalyptic fiction. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It was made into a film by director John Hillcoat starring Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee. What actually causes the event which partially destroys the world is never actually explained.

The Fallout series of video games are about survival in a post-nuclear wasteland after "The Great Atomic War" which was set in the year of 2077.[5]


The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, published in 1912, is set in San Francisco in the year 2072, sixty years after a plague has largely depopulated the planet.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949), deals with one man who finds most of civilization has been destroyed by a plague. Slowly a small community forms around him as he struggles to start a new civilization and preserve knowledge and learning.

In 1978, Stephen King published The Stand, which follows the odyssey of a small number of survivors of a world-ending influenza pandemic. Although reportedly influenced by the 1949 novel Earth Abides, King's book includes many supernatural elements and is generally regarded as part of the horror fiction genre.

The award winning novel Emergence by David R. Palmer (1984) is set in a world where a man-made plague destroys the vast majority of the world's population.

The Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago wrote Blindness in 1995. It tells the story of a city or country in which a mass epidemic of blindness destroys the social fabric.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is an example of dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction.[6] The framing story is set after a genetically modified virus wipes out the entire population except for the protagonist and a small group of humans that were also genetically modified. A series of flashbacks depicting a world dominated by biocorporations explains the events leading up to the apocalypse. This story was later followed up with The Year of the Flood.

Her short story "Freeforall" deals with a totalitarian society attempting to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend deals with the life of Robert Neville, the only unaffected survivor of a global pandemic that has turned the world's population into vampire-like creatures.

The White Plague (1982) a novel by Frank Herbert. When a bomb planted by the IRA goes off, the wife and children of molecular biologist John Roe O'Neill are killed on May 20, 1996. Driven insane by loss, he plans a genocidal revenge and creates a plague that kills women. O'Neill then releases it in Ireland (for supporting the terrorists), England (for oppressing the Irish and giving them a cause), and Libya (for training said terrorists); he demands that the governments of the world send all citizens of those countries back to their countries, and that they quarantine those countries and let the plague run its course, so they will lose what he has lost; if they don't, he has more plagues to release.

Survivors (2008 TV Series) is a re-make of its namesake, the 1970s post-apocalyptic series also known as Survivors. It focuses on a group of British survivors of a mutated genetically engineered virus that wipes out 99.9% of the world's population.

Failure of modern technology

In René Barjavel's 1943 novel Ravage, written and published during the German Occupation of France, a future France is devastated by the sudden failure of electricity, causing chaos, disease, and famine with a small band of survivors desperately struggling for survival.

Half a century later, S. M. Stirling took up a similar theme in the 2004 Dies the Fire, where a sudden mysterious worldwide "Change" alters physical laws so that electricity, gunpowder and most forms of high-energy-density technology no longer work. Civilization devastatingly collapses, and two competing groups struggle to re-create Medieval technologies and skills, as well as master magic.

The film, The Matrix, describes a future in which reality perceived by humans is actually the Matrix: a simulated reality created by sentient machines in order to pacify and subdue the human population while their bodies' heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source. Upon learning this, computer programmer, Neo, is drawn into a rebellion against the machines.

Extraterrestrial threats

Edgar Allan Poe's 1839 short story "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" has two souls in the afterlife discussing the apocalyptic end-of-the-world by a comet that removed nitrogen from earth's atmosphere leaving only oxygen, resulting in a worldwide inferno.

In the 1933 novel When Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, the earth is destroyed by a rogue planet Bronson Alpha. A selected few escape on a spaceship. In the sequel After Worlds Collide the survivors start a new life on the planet's companion Bronson Beta, which has taken the orbit formerly occupied by earth.

In the 1954 novel One in Three Hundred, by J. T. McIntosh, scientists have discovered how to pinpoint the exact minute, hour, and day the Sun will go "nova" - and when it does, it will boil away the Earth's seas, beginning with the hemisphere that faces the sun, and as the Earth continues to rotate, it will take only 24 hours before all life is eradicated. Super-hurricanes and tornadoes are predicted. Buildings will be blown away. A race is on to build thousands of spaceships for the sole purpose of transferring evacuees on a one-way trip to Mars. When the Sun begins to go nova, everything is on schedule, but most of the spaceships turn out to be defective, and fail en route to Mars.

Lucifer's Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven (1977) is about a cataclysmic comet hitting the Earth, and various groups of people struggling to survive the aftermath in southern California.

Cosy catastrophe

The "cosy catastrophe" is a name given to a style of post-apocalyptic science fiction that was particularly prevalent after World War II among British science fiction writers. A "cosy catastrophe" is typically one in which civilization (as we know it) comes to an end and everyone is killed except for a handful of survivors, who then set about rebuilding their version of civilization. The term was coined by Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. The concept, however, can be dated back as far as 1890's Caesar's Column by Ignatius L. Donnelly (under the pseudonym Edmund Boisgilbert), where the violent uprising of the lower class against a plutocratic oligarchy leads to the destruction of civilization, while the protagonist survives back home in a now-fortified European colony in the Ugandan highlands.

English author John Wyndham was the figure at whom Aldiss was primarily directing his remarks, especially his novel The Day of the Triffids. The critic L. J. Hurst dismissed Aldiss's accusations, pointing out that in the book the main character witnesses several murders, suicides, and misadventures, and is frequently in mortal danger himself.[7]

John Christopher's The World in Winter (1962) also falls into this category, with the main character being able to avoid the worst excesses of the collapse of European civilisation, due to a fall in solar radiation. Those who are fortunate enough to escape move to Africa where they find themselves treated as second class citizens. Eventually, an expedition is made by hovercraft to London by Nigerian soldiers and the main character, who sabotages the mission in order to remain with his new wife who has joined a growing group of survivors there.

David Graham's Down to a Sunless Sea (1979) starts off with a seeming "cosy catastrophe" - i.e., the rest of the world is completely destroyed in an all-out nuclear war spreading deadly radioactivity over the world, but the small band of survivors led by a heroic jetliner pilot manage to set up a colony in Antarctica and apparently start a new life for humanity. But in the devastating ending, the radioactivity catches up with them and they all die, humanity and all life on earth become extinct.

Post-peak oil

James Howard Kunstler has written a novel World Made By Hand that imagines life in New England after a declining oil supply has wreaked havoc on the US economy and people and society are forced to adjust to daily life without cheap oil.

David Graham also explored a similar theme in his 1982 book Sidewall in which the world is forced to look for alternatives to oil when OPEC cuts production for political purposes. The story covers the construction of a nuclear powered, near-supersonic ocean-going craft and the attempts to stop it by various terrorist groups and nations in order to keep the world dependent on oil.

See also


  1. ^ a b Zimbaro, Valerie P. (1996). Encyclopedia of Apocalyptic Literature. US: ABC-CLIO. p. 9. ISBN 0874368235. 
  2. ^ http://www.theology.edu/revappen.htm
  3. ^ Dr. Abu Shadi Al-Roubi (1982), "Ibn al-Nafis as a philosopher", Symposium on Ibn al-Nafis, Second International Conference on Islamic Medicine: Islamic Medical Organization, Kuwait (cf. Ibnul-Nafees As a Philosopher, Encyclopedia of Islamic World).
  4. ^ Murakami, T.: Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture, Yale University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-300-10285-2
  5. ^ Bethesda Softworks. "Fallout 3 overview". http://fallout.bethsoft.com/eng/info/overview.html. 
  6. ^ Guardian book club: Oryx and Crake, The Guardian, April 11, 2007.
  7. ^ Essay by L. J. Hurst


External links

Peak oil

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A bell-shaped production curve, as originally suggested by M. King Hubbert in 1956.
Peak oil depletion scenarios graph which depicts cumulative published depletion studies by ASPO and other depletion analysts.

Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. The concept is based on the observed production rates of individual oil wells, and the combined production rate of a field of related oil wells. The aggregate production rate from an oil field over time usually grows exponentially until the rate peaks and then declines—sometimes rapidly—until the field is depleted. This concept is derived from the Hubbert curve, and has been shown to be applicable to the sum of a nation’s domestic production rate, and is similarly applied to the global rate of petroleum production. Peak oil is often confused with oil depletion; peak oil is the point of maximum production while depletion refers to a period of falling reserves and supply.

M. King Hubbert created and first used the models behind peak oil in 1956 to accurately predict that United States oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970.[1] His logistic model, now called Hubbert peak theory, and its variants have described with reasonable accuracy the peak and decline of production from oil wells, fields, regions, and countries,[2] and has also proved useful in other limited-resource production-domains. According to the Hubbert model, the production rate of a limited resource will follow a roughly symmetrical bell-shaped curve based on the limits of exploitability and market pressures. Various modified versions of his original logistic model are used, using more complex functions to allow for real world factors. While each version is applied to a specific domain, the central features of the Hubbert curve (that production stops rising and then declines) remain unchanged, albeit with different profiles.

Some observers, such as petroleum industry experts Kenneth S. Deffeyes and Matthew Simmons, believe the high dependence of most modern industrial transport, agricultural, and industrial systems on the relative low cost and high availability of oil will cause the post-peak production decline and possible severe increases in the price of oil to have negative implications for the global economy. Predictions vary greatly as to what exactly these negative effects would be. If political and economic changes only occur in reaction to high prices and shortages rather than in reaction to the threat of a peak, then the degree of economic damage to importing countries will largely depend on how rapidly oil imports decline post-peak. According to the Export Land Model, oil exports drop much more quickly than production drops due to domestic consumption increases in exporting countries. Supply shortfalls would cause extreme price inflation, unless demand is mitigated with planned conservation measures and use of alternatives.[3]

Optimistic estimations of peak production forecast the global decline will begin by 2020 or later, and assume major investments in alternatives will occur before a crisis, without requiring major changes in the lifestyle of heavily oil-consuming nations. These models show the price of oil at first escalating and then retreating as other types of fuel and energy sources are used.[4] Pessimistic predictions of future oil production operate on the thesis that either the peak has already occurred,[5][6][7][8] oil production is on the cusp of the peak, or that it will occur shortly.[9] As proactive mitigation may no longer be an option, a global depression is predicted, perhaps even initiating a chain reaction of the various feedback mechanisms in the global market which might stimulate a collapse of global industrial civilization, potentially leading to large population declines within a short period. Throughout the first two quarters of 2008, there were signs that a global recession was being made worse by a series of record oil prices.[10]



Demand for oil

Petroleum: top consuming nations, 1960-2006
The world increased its daily oil consumption from 63 million barrels (Mbbl) in 1980 to 85 million barrels in 2006

The demand side of peak oil is concerned with the consumption over time, and the growth of this demand. World crude oil demand grew an average of 1.76% per year from 1994 to 2006, with a high of 3.4% in 2003-2004. World demand for oil is projected to increase 37% over 2006 levels by 2030 (118 million barrels per day (18.8×10^6 m3/d) from 86 million barrels (13.7×10^6 m3)), due in large part to increases in demand from the transportation sector.[11][12]

Energy demand is distributed amongst four broad sectors: transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial.[13][14] In terms of oil use, transportation is the largest sector and the one that has seen the largest growth in demand in recent decades. This growth has largely come from new demand for personal-use vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.[15] This sector also has the highest consumption rates, accounting for approximately 68.9% of the oil used in the United States in 2006,[16] and 55% of oil use worldwide as documented in the Hirsch report. Transportation is therefore of particular interest to those seeking to mitigate the effects of peak oil.

Although demand growth is highest in the developing world,[17] the United States is the world's largest consumer of petroleum. Between 1995 and 2005, U.S. consumption grew from 17.7 million barrels a day to 20.7 million barrels a day, a 3 million barrel a day increase. China, by comparison, increased consumption from 3.4 million barrels a day to 7 million barrels a day, an increase of 3.6 million barrels a day, in the same time frame.[18]

United States oil production peaked in 1970. By 2005 imports were twice the production.

As countries develop, industry, rapid urbanization, and higher living standards drive up energy use, most often of oil. Thriving economies such as China and India are quickly becoming large oil consumers.[19] China has seen oil consumption grow by 8% yearly since 2002, doubling from 1996-2006.[17] In 2008, auto sales in China were expected to grow by as much as 15-20%, resulting in part from economic growth rates of over 10% for 5 years in a row.[20] Although swift continued growth in China is often predicted, others predict that China's export dominated economy will not continue such growth trends due to wage and price inflation and reduced demand from the United States.[21] India's oil imports are expected to more than triple from 2005 levels by 2020, rising to 5 million barrels per day (790×10^3 m3/d).[22]

The International Energy Agency estimated in January 2009 that oil demand fell in 2008 by 0.3%, and that it would fall by 0.6% in 2009. Oil consumption had not fallen for two years in a row since 1982-1983.[23]

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that the United States' demand for petroleum-based transportation fuels fell 7.1% in 2008, which is "the steepest one-year decline since at least 1950." The agency stated that gasoline usage in the United States may have peaked in 2007, in part due to increasing interest in and mandates for use of biofuels and energy efficiency.[24]


World population

Another significant factor on petroleum demand has been human population growth. Oil production per capita peaked in the 1970s.[25] The United States Census Bureau predicts that the world population in 2030 will be almost double that of 1980.[26] Author Matt Savinar predicts that oil production in 2030 will have declined back to 1980 levels as worldwide demand for oil significantly out-paces production.[27][28] Physicist Albert Bartlett claims that the rate of oil production per capita is falling, and that the decline has gone undiscussed because a politically incorrect form of population control may be implied by mitigation.[29] Oil production per capita has declined from 5.26 barrels per year (0.836 m3/a) in 1980 to 4.44 barrels per year (0.706 m3/a) in 1993,[26][30] but then increased to 4.79 barrels per year (0.762 m3/a) in 2005.[26][30] In 2006, the world oil production took a downturn from 84.631 to 84.597 million barrels per day (13.4553×10^6 to 13.4498×10^6 m3/d) although population has continued to increase. This has caused the oil production per capita to drop again to 4.73 barrels per year (0.752 m3/a).[26][30]

One factor that has so far helped ameliorate the effect of population growth on demand is the decline of population growth rate since the 1970s, although this is offset to a degree by increasing average longevity in developed nations. In 1970, the population grew at 2.1%. By 2007, the growth rate had declined to 1.167%.[31] However, oil production is still outpacing population growth to meet demand. World population grew by 6.2% from 6.07 billion in 2000 to 6.45 billion in 2005,[26] whereas according to BP, global oil production during that same period increased from 74.9 to 81.1 million barrels (11.91×10^6 to 12.89×10^6 m3), or by 8.2%.[32] or according to EIA, from 77.762 to 84.631 million barrels (12.3632×10^6 to 13.4553×10^6 m3), or by 8.8%.[30]

Agricultural effects and population limits

Because supplies of oil and gas are essential to modern agriculture techniques, a fall in global oil supplies could cause spiking food prices and unprecedented famine in the coming decades.[33][note 1] Geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer contends that current population levels are unsustainable, and that to achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster the United States population would have to be reduced by at least one-third, and world population by two-thirds.[34] The largest consumer of fossil fuels in modern agriculture is ammonia production (for fertilizer) via the Haber process, which is essential to high-yielding intensive agriculture. The specific fossil fuel input to fertilizer production is primarily natural gas, to provide hydrogen via steam reforming. Given sufficient supplies of renewable electricity, hydrogen can be generated without fossil fuels using methods such as electrolysis. For example, the Vemork hydroelectric plant in Norway used its surplus electricity output to generate renewable ammonia from 1911 to 1971.[35] Iceland currently generates ammonia using the electrical output from its hydroelectric and geothermal power plants, because Iceland has those resources in abundance while having no domestic hydrocarbon resources, and a high cost for importing natural gas.[36] However, in the near term, almost every large-scale source of renewable energy still requires petroleum inputs, such as to fuel construction equipment and to transport workers and materials. Iceland, for example, has abundant renewable energy resources, but still depends critically on liquid fuels from petroleum,[citation needed] all of which it must import. If the supply of petroleum should fall faster than people can learn how to build renewable energy infrastructure using only renewable inputs, it may not be possible to maintain the intensive agriculture necessary to support the high global population.

Petroleum supply


All the easy oil and gas in the world has pretty much been found. Now comes the harder work in finding and producing oil from more challenging environments and work areas.
— William J. Cummings, Exxon-Mobil company spokesman, December 2005[37]

To pump oil, it first needs to be discovered. The peak of world oilfield discoveries occurred in 1965[38] at around 55 billion barrels(Gb)/year.[39] According to the ASPO, the rate of discovery has been falling steadily since. Less than 10 Gb/yr of oil were discovered each year between 2002-2007.[40]


2004 U.S. government predictions for oil production other than in OPEC and the former Soviet Union

Conventional crude oil reserves include all crude oil that is technically possible to produce from reservoirs through a well bore, using primary, secondary, improved, enhanced, or tertiary methods. This does not include liquids extracted from mined solids or gasses (oil sands, oil shales, gas-to-liquid processes, or coal-to-liquid processes).[41] Reserves in effect peaked in 1980, when production first surpassed new discoveries, though creative methods of recalculating reserves have made this difficult to establish exactly.[6]

Oil reserves are classified as proven, probable and possible. Proven reserves are generally intended to have at least 90% or 95% certainty of containing the amount specified. Probable reserves have an intended probability of 50%, and the possible reserves an intended probability of 5% or 10%.[42] Current technology is capable of extracting about 40% of the oil from most wells. Some speculate that future technology will make further extraction possible,[43] but to some, this future technology is already considered in Proven and Probable reserve numbers.

In many major producing countries, the majority of reserves claims have not been subject to outside audit or examination. Most of the easy-to-extract oil has been found.[37] Recent price increases have led to oil exploration in areas where extraction is much more expensive, such as in extremely deep wells, extreme downhole temperatures, and environmentally sensitive areas or where high technology will be required to extract the oil. A lower rate of discoveries per explorations has led to a shortage of drilling rigs, increases in steel prices, and overall increases in costs due to complexity.[44][45]

Concerns over stated reserves

World reserves are confused and in fact inflated. Many of the so-called reserves are in fact resources. They're not delineated, they're not accessible, they’re not available for production
Sadad I. Al Husseini, former VP of Aramco, presentation to the Oil and Money conference, October 2007.[7]

Al-Husseini's estimated that 300 billion (64×109 m3) of the world's 1,200 billion barrels (190×10^9 m3) of proved reserves should be recategorized as speculative resources.[7]

Graph of OPEC reported reserves showing refutable jumps in stated reserves without associated discoveries, as well as the lack of depletion despite yearly production.

One difficulty in forecasting the date of peak oil is the opacity surrounding the oil reserves classified as 'proven'. Many worrying signs concerning the depletion of 'proven reserves' have emerged in recent years.[46][47] This was best exemplified by the 2004 scandal surrounding the 'evaporation' of 20% of Shell's reserves.[48]

For the most part, 'proven reserves' are stated by the oil companies, the producer states and the consumer states. All three have reasons to overstate their proven reserves: oil companies may look to increase their potential worth; producer countries gain a stronger international stature; and governments of consumer countries may seek a means to foster sentiments of security and stability within their economies and among consumers.

The Energy Watch Group (EWG) 2007 report shows total world Proved (P95) plus Probable (P50) reserves to be between 854 and 1,255 Gb (30 to 40 years of supply if demand growth were to stop immediately). Major discrepancies arise from accuracy issues with OPEC's self-reported numbers. Besides the possibility that these nations have overstated their reserves for political reasons (during periods of no substantial discoveries), over 70 nations also follow a practice of not reducing their reserves to account for yearly production. 1,255 Gb is therefore a best-case scenario.[6] Analysts have suggested that OPEC member nations have economic incentives to exaggerate their reserves, as the OPEC quota system allows greater output for countries with greater reserves.[43]

Kuwait, for example, was reported by a January 2006 issue of Petroleum Intelligence Weekly to have only 48 Gb in reserve, of which only 24 were "fully proven." This report was based on "leaks of confidential documents" from Kuwait, and has not been formally denied by the Kuwaiti authorities. This leaked document dates back from 2001[49] so the figure includes oil that have been produced since 2001, roughly 5-6 billion barrels,[18] but excludes revisions or discoveries made since then. Additionally, the reported 1.5 Gb of oil burned off by Iraqi soldiers in the First Persian Gulf War[50] are conspicuously missing from Kuwait's figures.

On the other hand investigative journalist Greg Palast argued in 2006 that oil companies have an interest in making oil look more rare than it is, to justify higher prices.[51] Other analysts in 2003 argued that oil producing countries understated the extent of their reserves to drive up the price.[52]

In November 2009, a senior official at the IEA alleged that the United States had encouraged the international agency to manipulate depletion rates and future reserve data to maintain lower oil prices.[53] In 2005, the IEA predicted that 2030 production rates would reach 120Mb/d, but this number was gradually reduced to 105 million. The IEA official alleged industry insiders agree that even 90 to 95Mb/d might be impossible to achieve. Although many outsiders had questioned the IEA numbers in the past, this was the first time an insider had raised the same concerns.[53] A 2008 analysis of IEA predictions questioned several underlying assumptions and claimed that a 2030 production level of 75Mb/d (including 55Mb of crude oil and 20Mb non-conventional oil and NGLs) was more realistic than the IEA numbers.[8]

Unconventional sources

Syncrude's Mildred Lake mine site and plant near Fort McMurray, Alberta

Unconventional sources, such as heavy crude oil, oil sands, and oil shale are not counted as part of oil reserves. However, oil companies can book them as proven reserves after opening a strip mine or thermal facility for extraction. Oil industry sources such as Rigzone have stated that these unconventional sources are not as efficient to produce, however, requiring extra energy to refine, resulting in higher production costs and up to three times more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel (or barrel equivalent).[54] While the energy used, resources needed, and environmental effects of extracting unconventional sources has traditionally been prohibitively high, the three major unconventional oil sources being considered for large scale production are the extra heavy oil in the Orinoco Belt of Venezuela,[55] the Athabasca Oil Sands in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin,[56] and the oil shales of the Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming in the United States.[57][58] Energy companies such as Shell and Chevron have already started extracting bitumen, a reserve of oil sands, and processing it into synthetic oil.[59]

Chuck Masters of the USGS estimates that, "Taken together, these resource occurrences, in the Western Hemisphere, are approximately equal to the Identified Reserves of conventional crude oil accredited to the Middle East."[60] Authorities familiar with the resources believe that the world's ultimate reserves of unconventional oil are several times as large as those of conventional oil and will be highly profitable for companies as a result of higher prices in the 21st century[61]. In october 2009, the USGS updated the Orinoco tar sands (Venezuela) recoverable "mean value" to 513 billion barrels (8.16×1010 m3), with a 90% chance of being within the range of 380-652 billion barrels, making this area "one of the world's largest recoverable oil accumulations".[62]

Unconventional resources are much larger than conventional ones.[63]

Despite the large quantities of oil available in non-conventional sources, Matthew Simmons argues that limitations on production prevent them from becoming an effective substitute for conventional crude oil. Simmons states that "these are high energy intensity projects that can never reach high volumes" to offset significant losses from other sources.[64] Another study claims that even under highly optimistic assumptions, "Canada's oil sands will not prevent peak oil," although production could reach 5 million bbl/day by 2030 in a "crash program" development effort.[65] Moreover, oil extracted from these sources typically contains contaminants such as sulfur, heavy metals, and carbon that are energy-intensive to extract and leave highly toxic tailings.[66] The same applies to much of the Middle East's undeveloped conventional oil reserves, much of which is heavy, viscous, and contaminated with sulfur and metals to the point of being unusable.[67] However, recent high oil prices make these sources more financially appealing.[43] A study by Wood Mackenzie suggests that within 15 years all the world’s extra oil supply will likely come from unconventional sources.[68]

Synthetic sources

A 2003 article in Discover magazine claimed that thermal depolymerization could be used to manufacture oil indefinitely, out of garbage, sewage, and agricultural waste. The article claimed that the cost of the process was $15 per barrel.[69] A follow-up article in 2006 stated that the cost was actually $80 per barrel because the feedstock which had previously been considered as hazardous waste now had market value.[70]

A 2007 news bulletin published by Los Alamos Laboratory stated that waste heat from nuclear power plants could be used to convert sequestered CO2 and hydrogen gas into methanol, and then into gasoline. The press release stated that in order for such a process to be economically feasible, gasoline prices would need to be above $4.60 "at the pump" in U.S. markets. Capital and operational costs were uncertain mostly because the costs associated with sequestering CO2

are unknown.[71]


OPEC Crude Oil Production 2002-2006. Source: Middle East Economic Survey

The point in time when peak global oil production occurs is the measure which defines peak oil. This is because production capacity is the main limitation of supply. Therefore, when production decreases, it becomes the main bottleneck to the petroleum supply/demand equation.

World wide oil discoveries have been less than annual production since 1980.[6] According to several sources, worldwide production is past or near its maximum.[5][6][7][9] World population has grown faster than oil production. Because of this, oil production per capita peaked in 1979 (preceded by a plateau during the period of 1973-1979).[25]

The increasing investment in harder-to-reach oil is a sign of oil companies' belief in the end of easy oil.[37] Additionally, while it is widely believed that increased oil prices spur an increase in production, an increasing number of oil industry insiders are now coming to believe that even with higher prices, oil production is unlikely to increase significantly beyond its current level. Among the reasons cited are both geological factors as well as "above ground" factors that are likely to see oil production plateau near its current level.[72]

Recent work points to the difficulty of increasing production even with vastly increased investment in exploration and production, at least in mature petroleum regions. A 2008 Journal of Energy Security analysis of the energy return on drilling effort in the United States points to an extremely limited potential to increase production of both gas and (especially) oil. By looking at the historical response of production to variation in drilling effort, this analysis showed very little increase of production attributable to increased drilling. This was due to a tight quantitative relationship of diminishing returns with increasing drilling effort: as drilling effort increased, the energy obtained per active drill rig was reduced according to a severely diminishing power law. This fact means that even an enormous increase of drilling effort is unlikely to lead to significantly increased oil and gas production in a mature petroleum region like the United States.[73]

World-wide production trends

World oil production growth trends were flat from 2005 to 2008. According to a January 2007 International Energy Agency report, global supply (which includes biofuels, non-crude sources of petroleum, and use of strategic oil reserves, in addition to crude production) averaged 85.24 million barrels per day (13.552×10^6 m3/d) in 2006, up 0.76 million barrels per day (121×10^3 m3/d) (0.9%), from 2005.[74] Average yearly gains in global supply from 1987 to 2005 were 1.2 million barrels per day (190×10^3 m3/d) (1.7%).[74] In 2008, the IEA drastically increased its prediction of production decline from 3.7% a year to 6.7% a year, based largely on better accounting methods, including actual research of individual oil field production through out the world.[75]

Oil field decline
Alaska's oil production has declined 65% since peaking in 1988

Of the largest 21 fields, at least 9 are in decline.[76] In April, 2006, a Saudi Aramco spokesman admitted that its mature fields are now declining at a rate of 8% per year (with a national composite decline of about 2%).[77] This information has been used to argue that Ghawar, which is the largest oil field in the world and responsible for approximately half of Saudi Arabia's oil production over the last 50 years, has peaked.[43][78] The world's second largest oil field, the Burgan field in Kuwait, entered decline in November 2005.[79]

According to a study of the largest 811 oilfields conducted in early 2008 by Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), the average rate of field decline is 4.5% per year. The IEA stated in November 2008 that an analysis of 800 oilfields showed the decline in oil production to be 6.7% a year, and that this would grow to 8.6% in 2030.[80] There are also projects expected to begin production within the next decade which are hoped to offset these declines. The CERA report projects a 2017 production level of over 100 million barrels per day (16×10^6 m3/d).[81] Kjell Aleklett of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas agrees with their decline rates, but considers the rate of new fields coming online—100% of all projects in development, but with 30% of them experiencing delays, plus a mix of new small fields and field expansions—overly optimistic.[82] A more rapid annual rate of decline of 5.1% in 800 of the world's largest oil fields was reported by the International Energy Agency in their World Energy Outlook 2008.[83]

Mexico announced that its giant Cantarell Field entered depletion in March, 2006,[84] due to past overproduction. In 2000, PEMEX built the largest nitrogen plant in the world in an attempt to maintain production through nitrogen injection into the formation,[85] but by 2006, Cantarell was declining at a rate of 13% per year.[86]

OPEC had vowed in 2000 to maintain a production level sufficient to keep oil prices between $22–28 per barrel, but did not prove possible. In its 2007 annual report, OPEC projected that it could maintain a production level which would stabilize the price of oil at around $50–60 per barrel until 2030.[87] On November 18, 2007, with oil above $98 a barrel, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a long-time advocate of stabilized oil prices, announced that his country would not increase production to lower prices.[88] Saudi Arabia's inability, as the world's largest supplier, to stabilize prices through increased production during that period suggests that no nation or organization had the spare production capacity to lower oil prices. The implication is that those major suppliers who had not yet peaked were operating at or near full capacity.[43]

Commentators have pointed to the Jack 2 deep water test well in the Gulf of Mexico, announced 5 September 2006,[89] as evidence that there is no imminent peak in global oil production. According to one estimate, the field could account for up to 11% of U.S. production within seven years.[90] However, even though oil discoveries are expected after the peak oil of production is reached,[91] the new reserves of oil will be harder to find and extract. The Jack 2 field, for instance, is more than 20,000 feet (6,100 m) under the sea floor in 7,000 feet (2,100 m) of water, requiring 8.5 kilometers of pipe to reach. Additionally, even the maximum estimate of 15 billion barrels (2.4×10^9 m3) represents slightly less than 2 years of U.S. consumption at present levels.[14]

Control over supply

Entities such as governments or cartels can reduce supply to the world market by limiting access to the supply through nationalizing oil, cutting back on production, limiting drilling rights, imposing taxes, etc. International sanctions, corruption, and military conflicts can also reduce supply.

Nationalization of oil supplies

Another factor affecting global oil supply is the nationalization of oil reserves by producing nations. The nationalization of oil occurs as countries begin to deprivatize oil production and withhold exports. Kate Dourian, Platts' Middle East editor, points out that while estimates of oil reserves may vary, politics have now entered the equation of oil supply. "Some countries are becoming off limits. Major oil companies operating in Venezuela find themselves in a difficult position because of the growing nationalization of that resource. These countries are now reluctant to share their reserves."[92]

According to consulting firm PFC Energy, only 7% of the world's estimated oil and gas reserves are in countries that allow companies like ExxonMobil free rein. Fully 65% are in the hands of state-owned companies such as Saudi Aramco, with the rest in countries such as Russia and Venezuela, where access by Western companies is difficult. The PFC study implies political factors are limiting capacity increases in Mexico, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Russia. Saudi Arabia is also limiting capacity expansion, but because of a self-imposed cap, unlike the other countries.[93] As a result of not having access to countries amenable to oil exploration, ExxonMobil is not making nearly the investment in finding new oil that it did in 1981.[94]

Cartel influence on supply

OPEC is an alliance between 12 diverse oil producing countries (Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela) to control the supply of oil. OPEC's power was consolidated as various countries nationalized their oil holdings, and wrested decision-making away from the "Seven Sisters," (Anglo-Iranian, Socony-Vacuum, Royal Dutch Shell, Gulf, Esso, Texaco, and Socal) and created their own oil companies to control the oil. OPEC tries to influence prices by restricting production. It does this by allocating each member country a quota for production. All 12 members agree to keep prices high by producing at lower levels than they otherwise would. There is no way to verify adherence to the quota, so every member faces the same incentive to ‘cheat’ the cartel.[95] Washington kept the oil flowing and gained favorable OPEC policies mainly by arming, and propping up Saudi regimes. According to some, the purpose for the second Iraq war is to break the back of OPEC and return control of the oil fields to western oil companies.[96]

Alternately, commodities trader Raymond Learsy, author of Over a Barrel: Breaking the Middle East Oil Cartel, contends that OPEC has trained consumers to believe that oil is a much more finite resource than it is. To back his argument, he points to past false alarms and apparent collaboration.[52] He also believes that peak oil analysts are conspiring with OPEC and the oil companies to create a "fabricated drama of peak oil" to drive up oil prices and profits. It is worth noting oil had risen to a little over $30/barrel at that time. A counter-argument was given in the Huffington Post after he and Steve Andrews, co-founder of ASPO, debated on CNBC in June 2007.[97]

Timing of peak oil

M. King Hubbert initially predicted in 1974 that peak oil would occur in 1995 "if current trends continue."[98] However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, global oil consumption actually dropped (due to the shift to energy-efficient cars,[99] the shift to electricity and natural gas for heating,[100] and other factors), then rebounded to a lower level of growth in the mid 1980s. Thus oil production did not peak in 1995, and has climbed to more than double the rate initially projected. This underscores the fact that the only reliable way to identify the timing of peak oil will be in retrospect. However, predictions have been refined through the years as up-to-date information becomes more readily available, such as new reserve growth data.[101] Predictions of the timing of peak oil include the possibilities that it has recently occurred, that it will occur shortly, or that a plateau of oil production will sustain supply for up to 100 years. None of these predictions dispute the peaking of oil production, but disagree only on when it will occur.

According to Mathew Simmons, Chairman of Simmons & Company International and author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, "...peaking is one of these fuzzy events that you only know clearly when you see it through a rear view mirror, and by then an alternate resolution is generally too late."[102]

Pessimistic predictions of future oil production

Saudi Arabia's regent Abdullah told his subjects in 1998, "The oil boom is over and will not return... All of us must get used to a different lifestyle." Since then he has implemented a series of anti-corruption reforms and government programs intended to lower Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil revenues. The royal family was put on notice to end its history of excess and new industries were created to diversify the national economy.[103]

The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) predicted in their January 2008 newsletter that the peak in all oil (including non-conventional sources), would occur in 2010. This is earlier than the July 2007 newsletter prediction of 2011.[104] ASPO Ireland in its May 2008 newsletter, number 89, revised its depletion model and advanced the date of the peak of overall liquids from 2010 to 2007.[105]

Kenneth S. Deffeyes argued at one point that world oil production peaked on December 16, 2005.[5]

Sadad Al Husseini, former head of Saudi Aramco's production and exploration, stated in an October 29, 2007 interview that oil production had likely already reached its peak in 2006,[7] and that assumptions by the IEA and EIA of production increases by OPEC to over 45 MB/day are "quite unrealistic."[7]

2004 U.S. government predictions for oil production other than in OPEC and the former Soviet Union
World Crude Oil Production 1960-2008. Sources: DOE/EIA, IEA

Texas alternative energy activist and oilman T. Boone Pickens stated in 2005 that worldwide conventional oil production was very close to peaking.[106] On June 17, 2008, in testimony before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Pickens stated that "I do believe you have peaked out at 85 million barrels a day globally."[107] Data from the United States Energy Information Administration show that world production leveled out in 2004, and an October 2007 retrospective report by the Energy Watch Group concluded that this data showed the peak of conventional oil production in the third quarter of 2006.[6]

The July 2007 IEA Medium-Term Oil Market Report projected a 2% non-OPEC liquids supply growth in 2007-2009, reaching 51.0 mb/d in 2008, receding thereafter as the slate of verifiable investment projects diminishes. They refer to this decline as a plateau. The report expects only a small amount of supply growth from OPEC producers, with 70% of the increase coming from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Angola as security and investment issues continue to impinge on oil exports from Iraq, Nigeria and Venezuela.[108]

In October 2007, the Energy Watch Group, a German research group founded by MP Hans-Josef Fell, released a report claiming that oil production peaked in 2006 and will decline by several percent annually. The authors predict negative economic effects and social unrest as a result.[6][109] They state that the IEA production plateau prediction uses purely economic models which rely on an ability to raise production and discovery rates at will.[6]

Matthew Simmons said on October 26, 2006 that global oil production may have peaked in December 2005, though he cautioned that further monitoring of production is required to determine if a peak has actually occurred.[110]

At least one oil company, French supermajor Total S.A., announced plans in 2008 to shift their focus to nuclear energy instead of oil and gas. A Total senior vice president explained that this is because they believe oil production will peak before 2020, and they would like to diversify their position in the energy markets.[111]

The UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security (ITPOES) reported in late October 2008 that peak oil is likely to occur by 2013. ITPOES consists of eight companies: Arup, FirstGroup, Foster + Partners, Scottish and Southern Energy, Solarcentury, Stagecoach Group, Virgin Group, and Yahoo. Their report includes a chapter written by Shell corporation.[112]

In October 2009, a report published by the Government-supported UK Energy Research Centre, following 'a review of over 500 studies, analysis of industry databases and comparison of global supply forecasts', concluded that 'a peak in conventional oil production before 2030 appears likely and there is a significant risk of a peak before 2020'.[113] The authors believe this forecast to be valid 'despite the large uncertainties in the available data'.[114] The study is claimed to be the first to undertake an 'independent, thorough and systematic review of the evidence and arguments in the 'peak oil’ debate'.[115] The authors note that 'forecasts which delay a peak in conventional oil production until after 2030 are at best optimistic and at worst implausible' and warn of the risk that 'rising oil prices will encourage the rapid development of carbon-intensive alternatives which will make it difficult or impossible to prevent dangerous climate change[115] and that 'early investment in low-carbon alternatives to conventional oil is of considerable importance' in avoiding this scenario.[116]

Optimistic predictions of future oil production

Non-'peakists' can be divided into several different categories based on their specific criticism of peak oil. Some claim that any peak will not come soon or have a dramatic effect on the world economies. Others claim we will not reach a peak for technological reasons, while still others claim our oil reserves are quickly regenerated abiotically.

Plateau oil

Monthly world oil supply data from 1995 to 2008. Supply is defined as crude oil production (including lease condensates), natural gas plant liquids, other liquids, and refinery processing gains.

CERA, which counts unconventional sources in reserves while discounting EROEI, believes that global production will eventually follow an “undulating plateau” for one or more decades before declining slowly.[4] In 2005 the group predicted that "petroleum supplies will be expanding faster than demand over the next five years."[117]

In 2007, The Wall Street Journal reported that "a growing number of oil-industry chieftains" believed that oil production would soon reach a ceiling for a variety of reasons, and plateau at that level for some time. Several chief executives stated that projections of over 100 million barrels of production per day are unrealistic, contradicting the projections of the International Energy Agency and United States Energy Information Administration.[118]

In 2008, the IEA predicted a plateau by 2020 and a peak by 2030. The report called for a "global energy revolution" to prepare mitigations by 2020 and avoid "more difficult days" and large wealth transfers from OECD nations to oil producing nations.[75] This estimate was changed in 2009 to predict a peak by 2020, with severe supply-growth constraints beginning in 2010 (stemming from "patently unsustainable" energy use and a lack of production investment) leading to rapidly increasing oil prices and an "oil crunch" before the peak.[119]

Energy Information Administration and USGS 2000 reports

The United States Energy Information Administration projects (as of 2006) world consumption of oil to increase to 98.3 million barrels per day (15.63×10^6 m3/d) in 2015 and 118 million barrels per day (18.8×10^6 m3/d) in 2030.[120] This would require a more than 35 percent increase in world oil production by 2030. A 2004 paper by the Energy Information Administration based on data collected in 2000 disagrees with Hubbert peak theory on several points. It:[15]

The EIA estimates of future oil supply are countered by Sadad Al Husseini, a retired Vice President of Exploration of Aramco, who calls it a 'dangerous over-estimate'.[121] Husseini also points out that population growth and the emergence of China and India means oil prices are now going to be structurally higher than they have been.

Colin Campbell argues that the 2000 United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates is a methodologically flawed study that has done incalculable damage by misleading international agencies and governments. Campbell dismisses the notion that the world can seamlessly move to more difficult and expensive sources of oil and gas when the need arises. He argues that oil is in profitable abundance or not there at all, due ultimately to the fact that it is a liquid concentrated by nature in a few places that possess the right geological conditions. Campbell believes OPEC countries raised their reserves to get higher oil quotas and to avoid internal critique. He also points out that the USGS failed to extrapolate past discovery trends in the world’s mature basins.[122]

No peak oil

The view that oil extraction will never enter a depletion phase is often referred to as "cornucopian" in ecology and sustainability literature.[123][124][125]

Abdullah S. Jum'ah, President, Director and CEO of Saudi Aramco states that the world has adequate reserves of conventional and nonconventional oil sources that will last for more than a century.[126][127] As recently as 2008 he pronounced "We have grossly underestimated mankind’s ability to find new reserves of petroleum, as well as our capacity to raise recovery rates and tap fields once thought inaccessible or impossible to produce.” Jum’ah believes that in-place conventional and non-conventional liquid resources may ultimately total between 13 trillion and 16 trillion barrels and that only a small fraction (1.1 trillion) has been extracted to date.[128]

I do not believe the world has to worry about ‘peak oil’ for a very long time.
Abdullah S. Jum'ah, 2008-01[128]

Economist Michael Lynch says that the Hubbert Peak theory is flawed and that there is no imminent peak in oil production. He argued in 2004 that production is determined by demand as well as geology, and that fluctuations in oil supply are due to political and economic effects as well as the physical processes of exploration, discovery and production.[129] This idea is echoed by Jad Mouawad, who explains that as oil prices rise, new extraction technologies become viable, thus expanding the total recoverable oil reserves. This, according to Mouwad, is one explanation of the changes in peak production estimates.[130]

Leonardo Maugeri, group senior vice president, Corporate Strategies of Eni S.p.A., dismissed the peak oil thesis in a 2004 policy position piece in Science as "the current model of oil doomsters," and based on several flawed assumptions. He characterizes the peak oil theory as part of a series of "recurring oil panics" which have "driven Western political circles toward oil imperialism and attempts to assert direct or indirect control over oil-producing regions". Maugeri claims that the geological structure of the earth has not been explored thoroughly enough to conclude that the declining trend in discoveries, which began in the 1960s, will continue. He goes on to claim that complete global oil production, discovery trends, and geological data are not available globally.[131]

Possible effects and consequences of peak oil

The wide use of fossil fuels has been one of the most important stimuli of economic growth and prosperity since the industrial revolution, allowing humans to participate in takedown, or the consumption of energy at a greater rate than it is being replaced. Some believe that when oil production decreases, human culture, and modern technological society will be forced to change drastically. The impact of peak oil will depend heavily on the rate of decline and the development and adoption of effective alternatives. If alternatives are not forthcoming, the products produced with oil (including fertilizers, detergents, solvents, adhesives, and most plastics) would become scarce and expensive.

The Hirsch report

In 2005, the United States Department of Energy published a report titled Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management.[132] Known as the Hirsch report, it stated, "The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking."

Conclusions from the Hirsch report and three scenarios

The Hirsch report came to a number of conclusions:

  1. World oil peaking is going to happen - some forecasters predict within a decade, others later.
  2. Oil peaking could cost economies dearly - particularly that of the U.S.
  3. Oil peaking presents a unique challenge - previous transitions were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.
  4. The real problem is liquid fuels for transportation - motor vehicles, aircraft, trains, and ships have no ready alternative.
  5. Mitigation efforts will require substantial time - an intense effort over decades.
  6. Both supply and demand will require attention - higher efficiency can reduce demand, but large amounts of substitute fuels must be produced.
  7. It is a matter of risk management - early mitigation will be less damaging than delayed mitigation.
  8. Government intervention will be required - otherwise the economic and social implications would be chaotic.
  9. Economic upheaval is not inevitable - without mitigation, peaking will cause major upheaval, but given enough lead-time, the problems are soluble.
  10. More information is needed - effective action requires better understanding of a number of issues.

The report listed three possible scenarios: waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades; initiating a mitigation crash program ten years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked; or initiating a mitigation crash program twenty years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

Other predictions

Export Land Model

The Export Land Model states that after peak oil petroleum exporting countries will be forced to reduce their exports more quickly than their production decreases because of internal demand growth. Countries which rely on imported petroleum will therefore be affected earlier and more dramatically than exporting countries.[133] Mexico is already in this situation. Internal consumption grew by 5.9% in 2006 in the five biggest exporting countries, and their exports declined by over 3%. It is estimated that by 2010 internal demand will decrease worldwide exports by 2.5 million barrels.[134]

Transportation and housing

A suburb of Union, Kentucky

A majority of Americans live in suburbs, a type of low-density settlement designed around universal personal automobile use. Commentators such as James Howard Kunstler argue that because over 90% of transportation in the U.S. relies on oil, the suburbs' reliance on the automobile is an unsustainable living arrangement. Peak oil would leave many Americans unable to afford petroleum based fuel for their cars, and force them to use bicycles or electric vehicles. Additional options include telecommuting, moving to rural areas, or moving to higher density areas, where walking and public transportation are more viable options. In the latter two cases, suburbia may become the "slums of the future."[135][136] The issues of petroleum supply and demand is also a concern for growing cities in developing countries (where urban areas are expected to absorb most of the world's projected 2.3 billion population increase by 2050). Stressing the energy component of future development plans is seen as an important goal.[137]

Methods which have been suggested[138] for mitigating these urban and suburban issues include the use of non-petroleum vehicles such as electric cars, battery electric vehicles, transit-oriented development, bicycles, new trains, new pedestrianism, smart growth, shared space, urban consolidation, and New Urbanism.

An extensive 2009 report by the United States National Research Council of the Academy of Sciences, commissioned by the United States Congress, stated six main findings.[139] First, that compact development is likely to reduce "Vehicle Miles Traveled" (VMT) throughout the country. Second, that doubling residential density in a given area could reduce VMT by as much as 25% if coupled with measures such as increased employment density and improved public transportation. Third, that higher density, mixed-use developments would produce both direct reductions in CO2

emissions (from less driving), and indirect reductions (such as from lower amounts of materials used per housing unit, higher efficiency climate control, longer vehicle lifespans, and higher efficiency delivery of goods and services.  Fourth, that although short term reductions in energy use and CO2
emissions would be modest, that these reductions would grow over time. Fifth, that a major obstacle to more compact development in the United States is political resistance from local zoning regulators, which would hamper efforts by state and regional governments to participate in land-use planning. Sixth, the committee agreed that there changes in development which would alter driving patterns and building efficiency would have various secondary costs and benefits which are difficult to quantify. The report made two major recommendations: first that policies which support compact development (and especially its ability to reduce driving, energy use, and CO2
emissions) should be encouraged, and second that further studies should be conducted to make future compact development more effective.


To avoid the serious social and economic implications a global decline in oil production could entail, the Hirsch report emphasized the need to find alternatives at least ten-twenty years before the peak, and to phase out the use of petroleum over that time,[140] similar to the plan Sweden announced in 2005. Such mitigation could include energy conservation, fuel substitution, and the use of unconventional oil. Because mitigation can reduce the consumption of traditional petroleum sources, it can also affect the timing of peak oil and the shape of the Hubbert curve.

Positive aspects of peak oil

There are those who believe that peak oil should be viewed as a positive event.[141] Many of these critics reason that if the price of oil rises high enough, the use of alternative clean fuels could help control the pollution of fossil fuel use as well as mitigate global warming.[142] Permaculture, particularly as expressed in the work of Australian David Holmgren, and others, sees peak oil as holding tremendous potential for positive change—assuming countries act with foresight. The rebuilding of local food networks, energy production, and the general implementation of 'energy descent culture' are argued to be ethical responses to the acknowledgment of finite fossil resources.[143]

The "Transition Towns" Movement, started in Ireland and spread internationally by 'The Transition Handbook' (Rob Hopkins) sees the combination of peak oil and climate change as an opportunity to restructure society with local resilience and ecological stewardship.[144]

Peak oil for individual nations

US oil production (lower 48 crude oil only) and Hubbert's high estimate.
Canadian conventional oil production peaked in 1973, but oil sands production is forecast to increase to at least 2020
Mexican production peaked in 2004 and is now in decline

Peak oil as a concept applies globally, but it is based on the summation of individual nations experiencing peak oil. Although the most recent International Energy Agency and United States Energy Information Administration production data show record and rising production in Canada and China, in the State of the World 2005, Worldwatch Institute observes that oil production is in decline in 33 of the 48 largest oil-producing countries.[145] Other countries have also passed their individual oil production peaks.

The following list shows significant oil-producing nations and their approximate peak oil production years, organized by year.[146]

Peak oil production has not been reached in the following nations (these numbers are estimates and subject to revision):[160]

Oil price

New York Mercantile Exchange prices for West Texas Intermediate 1996 - 2009
Long-term oil prices, 1861-2008 (top line adjusted for inflation).

In terms of 2007 inflation adjusted dollars, the price of oil peaked on June 30, 2008 at over $143 a barrel. Before this period, the maximum inflation adjusted price was the equivalent of $95–100, in 1980.[161] Crude oil prices in the last several years have steadily risen from about $25 a barrel in August 2003 to over $130 a barrel in May 2008, with the most significant increases happening within the last year. These prices are well above those which caused the 1973 and 1979 energy crises. This has contributed to fears of an economic recession similar to that of the early 1980s.[10] One important indicator which supported the possibility that the price of oil had begun to have an effect on economies was that in the United States, gasoline consumption dropped by .5% in the first two months of 2008,[162] compared to a drop of .4% total in 2007.[163]

However some claim the decline in the U.S. dollar against other significant currencies from 2007 to 2008 is a significant part of oil's price increases from $66 to $130.[164] The dollar lost approximately 14% of its value against the Euro from May 2007 to May 2008, and the price of oil rose 96% in the same time period.

Helping to fuel these price increases were reports that petroleum production is at[5][6][7] or near full capacity.[9][118][165] In June 2005, OPEC admitted that they would 'struggle' to pump enough oil to meet pricing pressures for the fourth quarter of that year.[166]

Demand pressures on oil have been strong. Global consumption of oil rose from 30 billion barrels (4.8×10^9 m3) in 2004 to 31 billion in 2005. These consumption rates are far above new discoveries for the period, which had fallen to only eight billion barrels of new oil reserves in new accumulations in 2004.[167] In 2005, consumption was within 2 million barrels per day (320×10^3 m3/d) of production, and at any one time there are about 54 days of stock in the OECD system plus 37 days in emergency stockpiles.

Besides supply and demand pressures, at times security related factors may have contributed to increases in prices,[165] including the "War on Terror," missile launches in North Korea,[168] the Crisis between Israel and Lebanon,[169] nuclear brinkmanship between the U.S. and Iran,[170] and reports from the U.S. Department of Energy and others showing a decline in petroleum reserves.[171]

Another factor in oil price is the cost of extracting crude. As the extraction of oil has become more difficult, oil's historically high ratio of Energy Returned on Energy Invested has seen a significant decline. The increased price of oil makes unconventional sources of oil retrieval more attractive. For example, oil sands are actually a reserve of bitumen, a heavier, lower value oil compared to conventional crude.

Effects of rising oil prices

World consumption of primary energy by energy type in terawatts (TW), 1965-2005.[172]

In the past, the price of oil has led to economic recessions, such as the 1973 and 1979 energy crises. The effect the price of oil has on an economy is known as a price shock. In many European countries, which have high taxes on fuels, such price shocks could potentially be mitigated somewhat by temporarily or permanently suspending the taxes as fuel costs rise.[173] This method of softening price shocks is less useful in countries with much lower gas taxes, such as the United States.

Some economists predict that a substitution effect will spur demand for alternate energy sources, such as coal or liquefied natural gas. This substitution can only be temporary, as coal and natural gas are finite resources as well.

Prior to the run-up in fuel prices, many motorists opted for larger, less fuel-efficient sport utility vehicles and full-sized pickups in the United States, Canada, and other countries. This trend has been reversing due to sustained high prices of fuel. The September 2005 sales data for all vehicle vendors indicated SUV sales dropped while small cars sales increased. Hybrid and diesel vehicles are also gaining in popularity.[174]

In 2008, a report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates stated that 2007 had been the year of peak gasoline usage in the United States, and that record energy levels would cause an "enduring shift" in energy consumption practices.[175] According to the report, in April gas consumption had been lower than a year before for the sixth straight month, suggesting 2008 would be the first year U.S. gasoline usage declined in 17 years. The total miles driven in the U.S. peaked in 2006.[176]

Historical understanding of world oil supply limits

Although the Earth's finite oil supply means that peak oil is inevitable, technological innovations in finding and drilling for oil have at times changed the understanding of the total oil supply on Earth. As scientific understanding of petroleum geology has increased, so has our understanding of the Earth's total recoverable reserves. Since 1965, major oil surveys have averaged a 95% confidence Estimated Ultimate Retrieval (P95 EUR) of a little under 2,000 billion barrels (320×10^9 m3), though some estimates have been as low as 1,500 billion barrels (240×10^9 m3), and as high as 2,400 billion barrels (380×10^9 m3).[6]

The EUR reported by the 2000 USGS survey of 2,300 billion barrels (370×10^9 m3) has been criticized for assuming a discovery trend over the next twenty years which would reverse the observed trend of the past 40 years. Their 95% confidence EUR of 2,300 billion barrels (370×10^9 m3) assumed that discovery levels would stay steady, despite the fact that discovery levels have been falling steadily since the 1960s. That trend of falling discoveries has continued in the seven years since the USGS made their assumption. The 2000 USGS is also criticized for introducing other methodological errors, as well as assuming 2030 production rates which are inconsistent with projected reserves.[6]


Some do not agree with peak oil, at least as it has been presented by Matthew Simmons. The president of Royal Dutch Shell's U.S. operations John Hofmeister, while agreeing that conventional oil production will soon start to decline, has criticized Simmons's analysis for being "overly focused on a single country: Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter and OPEC swing producer." He also points to the large reserves at the U.S. outer continental shelf, which holds an estimated 100 billion barrels (16×10^9 m3) of oil and natural gas. As things stand, however, only 15% of those reserves are currently exploitable, a good part of that off the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Hofmeister also contends that Simmons erred in excluding unconventional sources of oil such as the oil sands of Canada, where Shell is already active. The Canadian oil sands—a natural combination of sand, water, and oil found largely in Alberta and Saskatchewan—is believed to contain one trillion barrels of oil. Another trillion barrels are also said to be trapped in rocks in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming,[177] but are in the form of oil shale. These particular reserves present major environmental, social, and economic obstacles to recovery.[178][179] Hofmeister also claims that if oil companies were allowed to drill more in the United States enough to produce another 2 million barrels per day (320×10^3 m3/d), oil and gas prices would not be as high as they are in the later part of the 2000 to 2010 decade. He thinks that high energy prices are causing social unrest similar to levels surrounding the Rodney King riots.[180]

Dr. Christoph Rühl, Chief economist of BP, repeatedly uttered strong doubts about the peak oil hypothesis:[181]

Physical peak oil, which I have no reason to accept as a valid statement either on theoretical, scientific or ideological grounds, would be insensitive to prices. (...)In fact the whole hypothesis of peak oil – which is that there is a certain amount of oil in the ground, consumed at a certain rate, and then it's finished – does not react to anything.... (Global Warming) is likely to be more of a natural limit than all these peak oil theories combined. (...) Peak oil has been predicted for 150 years. It has never happened, and it will stay this way.

According to Rühl, the main limitations for oil availability are "above ground" and are to be found in the availability of staff, expertise, technology, investment security, money and last but not least in global warming. The oil question is about price and not the basic availability. His views are shared by Daniel Yergin of CERA, who added that the recent high price phase might add to a future demise of the oil industry - not of lack of resources or an apocalyptic shock but the timely and smooth setup of alternatives.[182]

In fiction

A novel set in a peak oil crisis is Alex Scarrow's book Last Light.[183] The book portrays the collapse of the United Kingdom, as a result of a full-scale terrorist attack against several important key installations in the Middle-East. It follows the experiences of a family, a father trapped in Iraq, a mother far away from her children, a daughter and son fending for themselves, as the complete break-down of law and order causes looting, deaths, and worse.

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency[184] and The Geography of Nowhere,[185] fictionalized his predictions of post-oil civilization into a novel entitled World Made by Hand.[186][187] The book portrays the efforts of Robert Earle, a former software executive elected mayor of a small town in New York State, who faces the struggle of rebuilding a civil society amid arguing factions.

Another novel using peak oil for its premise is Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America.[188], set a hundred years after the end of the age of oil, where American society has fallen back to a level similar to that of the Civil War. The book follows Julian Comstock, the nephew of the President, during a series of battles and adventures across an American landscape where many cities have been scavenged for their precious resources.

The Mad Max films are based in a dystopian Australia, in which (Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior explains) the general social collapse has occurred because of a global energy shortage, particularly of oil.

Frontlines: Fuel of War, a 2008 First-Person Shooter video game for the Xbox 360 and PC, is set during a fictional World War after peak oil occurs.

See also





Further information



Reports, essays, and lectures

Documentary Film


  1. ^ A list of over 20 published articles and books from government and journal sources supporting this thesis have been compiled at Dieoff.org in the section "Food, Land, Water, and Population."


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Risks to civilization, humans and planet Earth

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Risks to civilization, humans, and planet Earth are existential risks that could threaten humankind as a whole, have adverse consequences for the course of human civilization, or even cause the end of planet Earth.[1] The concept is expressed in various phrases such as "End of the World", "Doomsday", "Ragnarök", "Judgement Day", "Armageddon", "the Apocalypse" and others.

Types of risks

Various risks exist for humanity, but not all are equal. Risks can be roughly categorized into six types based on the scope (personal, regional, global) and the intensity (endurable or terminal). The following chart provides some examples:

Typology of risk [1]

Endurable Terminal
Global Plate tectonics Nearby Gamma ray burst
Regional Flash flooding Permanent submersion
Personal Assault Death

The risks discussed in this article are at least Global and Terminal in intensity. These types of risks are ones where an adverse outcome would either annihilate intelligent life on Earth, or permanently and drastically reduce its potential. Jamais Cascio made an alternative classification system.

Future scenarios

Many scenarios have been suggested. Some that will almost certainly end humanity are certain to occur, but on a very long timescale. Others are likely to happen on a shorter timescale, but will probably not completely destroy civilization. Still others are extremely unlikely, and may even be impossible. For example, Nick Bostrom writes:

Some foreseen hazards (hence not members of the current category) which have been excluded from the list on grounds that they seem too unlikely to cause a global terminal disaster are: solar flares, supernovae, black hole explosions or mergers, gamma-ray bursts, galactic center outbursts, buildup of air pollution, gradual loss of human fertility, and various religious doomsday scenarios.[2]

Cosmology and space

On a very long time and distance scale, the ultimate fate of the universe is generally felt by scientists to be one that precludes the indefinite continuation of life. There are a broad spectrum of these predictive theories that fall in the realm of cosmology, but a long-established and widely-accepted notion is the Heat death of the universe. Most notions involve time periods much greater than the age of the universe, around 13 billion years.

At the latest, in about 5 billion years, stellar evolution predicts our sun will exhaust its core hydrogen and become a red giant.[3][4][5] In doing so, it will become thousands of times more luminous.[6] As a red giant, the Sun will lose roughly 30% of its mass, so, without tidal effects, the Earth will be in an orbit 1.7 AU (250,000,000 km) from the Sun when the star reaches its maximum radius. Therefore, the planet is thought to escape envelopment by the expanded Sun's sparse outer atmosphere, though most (if not all) existing life would have been destroyed by the Sun's proximity to Earth.[3] However, a more recent simulation indicates that Earth's orbit will decay due to tidal effects and drag, causing it to enter the red giant Sun's atmosphere and be destroyed.[4][7][8] The Earth will likely be dragged into the Sun when it becomes an enlarged red giant by no later than about 7.6 billion years[9]; before actual collision with the sun, the oceans would evaporate, and Earth could be destroyed by tidal forces. Alternatively, if the Sun shrinks to a white dwarf before consuming Earth, the Earth would be too frigid to sustain life.

Meteorite impact

In the timeframe of the geologically recent history of the Earth, as in the case of 100 million years, several large meteorites have hit Earth. The Cretaceous-Tertiary asteroid, for example, is theorized to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. If such an object struck Earth it could have a serious impact on civilization. It is even possible that humanity would be completely destroyed; for this, the asteroid would need to be at least 1 km (0.62 miles) in diameter, but probably between 3–10 km (2–6 miles).[10] Asteroids with a 1 km diameter impact the Earth every 500,000 years[10] on average. Larger asteroids are less common. The last large (>10 km) impact happened 65 million years ago. So-called Near-Earth asteroids are regularly being observed.

A star passage that will cause an increase of meteorites is the arrival of a star called Gliese 710. This star is moving on a near collision course with the Solar System and will likely pass within 1.1 light years from the Sun in 1.4 million years. Some models predict that this will send large amounts of comets from the Oort cloud to the Earth.[11] Other models, such as the one by García-Sánchez, predict an increase of only 5%.

Other cosmic threats

A number of other scenarios have been suggested. Massive objects, e.g., a star, large planet or black hole, could be catastrophic if a close encounter occurred in the solar system. (Gravity from the wandering objects might disrupt orbits and/or fling bodies into other objects, thus resulting in meteorite impacts or climate change. Also, heat from the wandering objects might cause extinctions; tidal forces could cause erosion along our coastlines.) Another threat might come from gamma ray bursts.[12] Both are very unlikely.[2]

Still others see extraterrestrial life as a possible threat to humankind;[13] although alien life has never been found, scientists such as Carl Sagan have postulated that the existence of extraterrestrial life is very likely. Some conspiracy theorists think that even UFOs could be existential risk. In 1969, the "Extra-Terrestrial Exposure Law" was added to the Code of Federal Regulations (Title 14, Section 1211) in response to the possibility of biological contamination resulting from the US Apollo Space Program. It was removed in 1991.[14] Scientists consider such a scenario technically possible, but unlikely.[15]

In April 2008, it was announced that two simulations of long-term planetary movement, one at Paris Observatory and the other at University of California, Santa Cruz indicate a 1% chance that Mercury's orbit could be made unstable by Jupiter's gravitational pull sometime during the lifespan of the sun. Were this to happen, the simulations suggest a collision with Earth could be one of four possible outcomes (the others being colliding with the Sun, colliding with Venus, or being ejected from the solar system altogether). If this were to happen, all life on Earth would be obliterated and the impact may displace enough matter into orbit to form another moon. Note that an asteroid just 15 km wide is said to have destroyed the dinosaurs; Mercury is some 5,000 km in diameter.[16]


Global pandemic

A less predictable scenario is a global pandemic. For example, if HIV were to mutate and become as transmissible as the common cold, the consequences would be disastrous.[17] It has been hypothesised that such an extremely virulent pathogen might not evolve.[18] This is because a pathogen that quickly kills its hosts might not have enough time to spread to new ones, while one that kills its hosts more slowly or not at all will allow carriers more time to spread the infection, and thus likely out-compete a more lethal species or strain.[19] This simple model predicts that if virulence and transmission are not linked in any way, pathogens will evolve towards low virulence and rapid transmission. However, this assumption is not always valid and in more complex models, where the level of virulence and the rate of transmission are related, high levels of virulence can evolve.[20] The level of virulence that is possible is instead limited by the existence of complex populations of hosts, with different susceptibilities to infection, or by some hosts being geographically-isolated.[21] The size of the host population and competition between different strains of pathogens can also alter virulence.[22] Interestingly, a pathogen that only infects humans as a secondary host and usually infects another species (a zoonosis) may have little constraint on its virulence in people, since infection here is an accidental event and its evolution is driven by events in another species.[23]


Another possibility is a megatsunami. A megatsunami could, for example, destroy the entire East Coast of the United States. The coastal areas of the entire world could also be flooded in case of the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.[24] While none of these scenarios are likely to destroy humanity completely, they could regionally threaten civilization. There has been one recent high-fatality tsunami, although it was not large enough to be considered a megatsunami.

Climate change and global warming

Climate change is any long-term significant change in the expected patterns of average weather of a specific region (or, more relevantly to contemporary socio-political concerns, of the Earth as a whole) over an appropriately significant period of time. Climate change reflects abnormal variations to the expected climate within the Earth's atmosphere and subsequent effects on other parts of the Earth, such as in the ice caps over durations ranging from decades to millions of years. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), climate disasters are on the rise. Around 70 percent of disasters are now climate related – up from around 50 percent from two decades ago.[25] These disasters take a heavier human toll and come with a higher price tag.[26] In the last decade, 2.4 billion people were affected by climate related disasters, compared to 1.7 billion in the previous decade and the cost of responding to disasters has risen tenfold between 1992 and 2008.[25] Destructive sudden heavy rains, intense tropical storms, repeated flooding and droughts are likely to increase, as will the vulnerability of local communities in the absence of strong concerted action.[26]

Ice age

In the history of the Earth, 12 ice ages have occurred. More ice ages will almost certainly come at an interval of 40,000–100,000 years. This would have a serious impact on civilization, because vast areas of land (mainly in North America, Europe, and Asia) could become uninhabitable. It would still be possible to live in the tropical regions, but with possible loss of humidity/water. Currently, the world is existing in an interglacial period within a much older glacial event. The last glacial expansion ended about 10,000 years ago, and all civilizations, save a few hunter-gatherer populations, have come into existence during that time.

Ecological disaster

An ecological disaster, such as world crop failure and collapse of ecosystem services, could be induced by the present trends of overpopulation, economic development,[27] and non-sustainable agriculture. Most of these scenarios involve one or more of the following: Holocene extinction event, scarcity of water that could lead to approximately one half of the Earth's population being without safe drinking water, pollinator decline, overfishing, massive deforestation, desertification, climate change, or massive water pollution episodes. A very recent threat in this direction is colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon that might foreshadow the imminent extinction[28] of the Western honeybee. As the bee plays a vital role in pollination, its extinction would severely disrupt the food chain.

World population and agricultural crisis

The 20th century saw a rapid increase in human population due to medical advances and massive increase in agricultural productivity[29] made by the Green Revolution.[30] Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%. The Green Revolution in agriculture helped food production to keep pace with worldwide population growth or actually enabled population growth. The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers (natural gas), pesticides (oil), and hydrocarbon fueled irrigation.[31] David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, and Mario Giampietro, senior researcher at the National Research Institute on Food and Nutrition (INRAN), place in their study Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy the maximum U.S. population for a sustainable economy at 200 million. To achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster, the United States must reduce its population by at least one-third, and world population will have to be reduced by two-thirds, says the study.[32]

The authors of this study believe that the mentioned agricultural crisis will only begin to impact us after 2020, and will not become critical until 2050. Geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer claims that coming decades could see spiraling food prices without relief and massive starvation on a global level such as never experienced before.[33][34]


When the supervolcano at Yellowstone last erupted 640,000 years ago, the magma and ash ejected from the caldera covered most of the United States west of the Mississippi river and part of northeastern Mexico.[35] Another such eruption could threaten civilization. Such an eruption could also release large amounts of gases that could alter the balance of the planet's carbon dioxide and cause a runaway greenhouse effect, or enough pyroclastic debris and other material may be thrown into the atmosphere to partially block out the sun and cause a volcanic winter, as happened in 1816, the Year Without a Summer. Such an eruption may cause the immediate deaths of millions of people several hundred miles from the eruption, and perhaps billions of deaths[36] worldwide due to the failure of the monsoon[citation needed], as well as destruction of the "American breadbasket", causing starvation on a massive scale.[36]


Some threats for humanity come from humanity itself. The scenario that has been explored most is a nuclear war or another weapon with similar possibilities. It is difficult to predict whether it would exterminate humanity, but very certainly could alter civilization, in particular if there was a nuclear winter.[37]

Another category of disasters are unforeseen consequences of technology.

It has been suggested that learning computers that rapidly become superintelligent may take unforeseen actions or that robots would out-compete humanity.[38] Because of its exceptional scheduling and organisational capability and the range of novel technologies it could develop, it is possible that the first Earth superintelligence to emerge could rapidly become very, very powerful. Quite possibly, it would be matchless and unrivalled: conceivably it would be able to bring about almost any possible outcome, and be able to foil virtually any attempt that threatened to prevent it achieving its desires.[39] It could eliminate, wiping out if it chose, any other challenging rival intellects; alternatively it might manipulate or persuade them to change their behaviour towards its own interests, or it may merely obstruct their attempts at interference.[39]

Biotechnology could lead to the creation of a pandemic, Nanotechnology could lead to grey goo in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all living matter on Earth while building more of themselves - in both cases, either deliberately or by accident.[40] It has also been suggested that physical scientists might accidentally create a device that could destroy the earth and the solar system.[41]

It has been suggested that runaway global warming might cause the climate on Earth to become like Venus, which would make it uninhabitable. In less extreme scenarios it could cause the end of civilization.[42] According to a UN climate report, the Himalayan glaciers that are the sources of Asia's biggest rivers - Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Yellow - could disappear by 2035 as temperatures rise.[43] It was later revealed that the source used by the UN climate report actually stated 2350, not 2035.[44] Approximately 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan rivers.[45] India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar could experience floods followed by droughts in coming decades. In India alone, the Ganges provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million people.[46][47][48] The west coast of North America, which gets much of its water from glaciers in mountain ranges such as the Rocky Mountains, Cascade Mountains and Sierra Nevada, also would be affected.[49][50] According to the California Department of Water Resources, if more water supplies are not found by 2020, California residents will face a water shortfall nearly as great as the amount consumed today.[51] Directly linked to observed increases in the intensity and frequency of natural disasters, global warming and climate change are now considered key drivers behind rising global humanitarian and emergency relief needs.[26] According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), climate disasters are on the rise. Around 70 percent of disasters are now climate related – up from around 50 percent from two decades ago.[25] These disasters take a heavier human toll and come with a higher price tag.[26] In the last decade, 2.4 billion people were affected by climate related disasters, compared to 1.7 billion in the previous decade and the cost of responding to disasters has risen tenfold between 1992 and 2008.[25] Destructive sudden heavy rains, intense tropical storms, repeated flooding and droughts are likely to increase, as will the vulnerability of local communities in the absence of strong concerted action.[26]

Approximately 40% of the world's agricultural land is seriously degraded.[52] In Africa, if current trends of soil degradation continue, the continent might be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025, according to UNU's Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa.[53]

James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, in his book The Revenge of Gaia (2006), has suggested that the elimination of rain forests, and the falling planetary biodiversity is removing the homeostatic negative feedback mechanisms that maintain climate stability by reducing the effects of greenhouse gas emissions (particularly carbon dioxide). With the heating of the oceans, the extension of the thermocline layer into Arctic and Antarctic waters is preventing the overturning and nutrient enrichment necessary for algal blooms of phytoplankton on which the ecosystems of these areas depend. With the loss of phytoplankton and tropical rain forests, two of the main carbon dioxide sinks for reducing global warming, he suggests a runaway positive feedback effect could cause tropical deserts to cover most of the world's tropical regions, and the disappearance of polar ice caps, posing a serious challenge to global civilization.

Using scenario analysis, the Global Scenario Group (GSG), a coalition of international scientists convened by Paul Raskin, developed a series of possible futures for the world as it enters a Planetary Phase of Civilization. One scenario involves the complete breakdown of civilization as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, competition for scarce resources increases, and the rift between the poor and the wealthy widens. The GSG’s other scenarios, such as Policy Reform, Eco-Communalism, and Great Transition avoid this societal collapse and eventually result in environmental and social sustainability. They claim the outcome is dependent on human choice[54] and the possible formation of a global citizens movement which could influence the trajectory of global development.[55]

Other scenarios

Peak oil 
Fossil Fuels attain a level of scarcity before an economically viable replacement is devised, leading firstly to economic strain, followed by the collapse of modern agriculture, then to mass-starvation.[56]
Antibiotic resistance 
Natural selection would create super bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, devastating the world population and causing a global collapse of civilization.[57]
Gulf Stream shutdown 
There is some speculation that global warming could, via a shutdown or slowdown of the thermohaline circulation, trigger localized cooling in the North Atlantic and lead to cooling in that region. This would affect in particular areas like Ireland, the Nordic countries, and Britain that are warmed by the North Atlantic drift.[58][59]
Mutual assured destruction 
A full scale nuclear war could kill billions, and the resulting nuclear winter would effectively crush any form of civilization.
Some scenarios of simultaneous ecological (food & water production) and economical (see f.e. below) collapses with overpopulation are presumed to lead to a global civil war, where the remaining habitable areas are destroyed by competing humans (so called 'Mad Max'-scenario).[60]
As of late 2007, increased farming for use in biofuels, along with world oil prices spiking to more than $140 per barrel,[61] had pushed up the price of grain used to feed poultry and dairy cows and other cattle, causing higher prices of wheat (up 58%), soybean (up 32%), and maize (up 11%) over the year.[62][63] Food riots have recently taken place in many countries across the world.[64][65][66] An epidemic of stem rust on wheat caused by race Ug99 is currently spreading across Africa and into Asia and is causing major concern. Scientists say millions of people face starvation.[67][68][69]
Experimental accident 
Investigations in nuclear and high energy physics, such as the Trinity test and more recently with the Large Hadron Collider, theoretical chain-reaction global disasters triggered by these unusual conditions were worried about by some but have not yet occurred.[70][71][72][73]

Historical futurist scenarios

Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) studied old texts and surmised that the end of the world would happen no earlier than 2060, although he was reluctant to put an exact date on it.[74]

The belief that the Mayan civilization's Long Count calendar ends abruptly on December 21, 2012, is a misconception due to the Mayan practice of using only five places in Long Count Calendar inscriptions. On some monuments the Mayan calculated dates far into the past and future but there is no end of the world date. There will be a Piktun ending (a cycle of 13 144,000 day Bak'tuns) on December 21, 2012. A Piktun marks the end of a 1,872,000 day or approximately 5125 year period and is a significant event in the Mayan calendar. However, there is no historical or scientific evidence that the Mayas believed it would be a doomsday. Some believe it will just be the beginning of another Piktun.[75]

See also

Societal collapse

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Societal collapse

The general subject arises in anthropology, history, sociology, politics and other fields, and more recently in complex systems science. In systems science it refers to the presumed organizational structures of societies and how they prevent societies from adapting to change in their circumstances. A simple example would be the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The abrupt disappearance of a global super-power in the course of a few months, that was not attacked, was evidently caused by some kind of structural change in its internal complex system. That people, as yet, have no real ability to identify such internal structures for large distributed systems like human societies is an important scientific curiosity and problem. Science can't readily study subjects that are undefined.

That genuine structural collapse seems the only plausible explanation in many cases, supports the idea that such structures exist. It is as yet not possible to verify. Until such structures can be concretely identified scientific inquiry appears limited to the construction of scientific narratives [1], using systems thinking for careful story telling represent systemic organization and change. History seems full of mysterious stories about the appearance and disappearance of human societies with no obvious good explanation.

The term "societal collapse" usually refers to the disappearance of human societies along with their life support systems, but due to the lack of clear definition for why that occurs includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by collapses such as that of the Mayan Civilization, as well as more extended grinding declines of superpowers like the Roman empire in Western Europe and the Han Dynasty in East Asia. The great irony expressed by these and others like them is that civilizations that seem ideally designed to creatively solve problems find themselves doing so self-destructively.

What distinguishes the more dramatic failures of human societies, seeming to deserve the term "collapse", from less dramatic long term decline is not widely agreed on. The subject also then generally includes any other long term decline of a culture, its civil institutions or other major characteristics of it as a society or a civilization, generally permanent.

The coupled breakdown of economic, cultural and social institutions with ecological relationships is perhaps the most common feature of collapse. The most accessible and thorough discussions of the subject are the review of the scientific anthropology literature by J.A. Tainter and the popular but thorough book of the same title by Jared Diamond.

Although a societal collapse is generally an endpoint for that form of administering the social and economic life of a culture, it can be as another kind of change of administration of the same culture. Russian culture would seem to have outlived both the society of the Czars and the society of the Soviet Union, for example. Frequently the phenomenon is also a process of decentralization of authority after a 'classic' period of centralized social order, perhaps replaced by competing centers as the central authority weakens.

Societal collapse is certainly not a benign social process, but remnants may linger long after the high culture of the society vanishes. As when the black plague contributed to breaking the hold of European feudal society on its underclass in the 1400s, societal failure may also result in a degree of empowerment for the lower levels of a former climax society, who escape from the burden of onerous taxes and control by exploitative elites.

The common factors appearing to contribute to societal collapse are economic, environmental, social and cultural, but they manifest combined effects like a whole system out of balance. In many cases a natural disaster (e.g. tsunami, earthquake, massive fire or climate change) may seem to be an immediate cause. However, other cases of civilizations in similar situations that were resilient and survived the same kind of insult show that such causes are not sufficient.

This is the reasoning method used by Joseph Tainter, and how he examined the evidence to eliminate the insufficient causes in his thesis that societies essentially exhausted their own designs, and were unable to adapt to natural diminishing returns for what they knew as their method of survival. It matches closely Toynbee's idea that "they find problems they can't solve".

The diversity of forms that societies evolve corresponds to diversity in their failures too. In other instances significant inequity may combine with lack of loyalty to a central power structure and result in an oppressed lower class rising up and taking power from a smaller wealthy elite. If there is a general "antidote" to collapse, it would seem to be societal cohesion, diversity, and adaptability.

Linking Societal/Environmental dynamics

Modern social critics commonly interpret things like sedentary social behavior as symptomatic of societal decay, and link what appears to be laziness with the depletion of important non-renewable resources. Many primitive cultures actually have high degrees of leisure too, though, so if that is a cause in one place it may not be in another -- leisure or apparent laziness is then not a necessary cause.

What produces modern sedentary life, unlike nomadic hunter-gatherers, is extraordinary modern economic productivity. That exceptional productivity is actually more the sign of hidden weakness that Tainter points to, both because of our great dependence on it, and its potential to undermine its own basis for success by not being self limiting as demonstrated in Western culture's ideal of perpetual growth.

As a population grows and technology makes it easier to exploit depleting resources, the environment's diminishing returns are hidden from view. Social complexity is then potentially threatened if it develops beyond what is actually sustainable, and a disorderly reorganization were to follow. That is like the scissors model of Malthusian collapse where population grows without limit and resources don't, and is the usual simple idea of great opposing environmental forces cutting into each other of concern.

It also appears to occur in complex forms in real collapses. For the modern world economy, for example, the growing conflict between food and fuel, depending on many of the same finite and diminishing resources is visible in the recent major commodity price shocks, and is one of the key relationships people since the early studies of the Club of Rome have been most concerned with.

Energy Return on Energy Invested theories

A related economic model is proposed by Thomas Homer-Dixon[2] and by Charles Hall[3] in relation to our declining productivity of energy extraction, or Energy Return on Energy Invested or EROEI. This measures the amount of surplus energy a society gets from using energy to obtain energy.

There would be no surplus if EROEI approaches 1:1. What Hall showed is that the real cutoff is well above that, estimated to be 3:1 to sustain the essential overhead energy costs of a modern society. Part of the mental equation is that the EROEI of our generally preferred energy source, oil, has fallen in the past century from 100:1 to the range of 10:1 with clear evidence that the natural depletion curves all are downward decay curves. An EROEI of more than ~3, then, is what appears necessary to provide the energy for socially important tasks, such as maintaining government, legal and financial institutions, a transportation infrastructure, manufacturing, building construction and maintenance and the life styles of the rich and poor that a society depends on.

The EROEI figure also affects the number of people needed for food production. In the pre-modern world, it was often the case that 80% of the population was employed in agriculture to feed a population of 100%, with a low energy budget. In modern times, the use of cheap fossil fuels with an exceedingly high EROEI enabled 100% of the population to be fed with only 4% of the population employed in agriculture. Diminishing EROEI making fuel more expensive relative to other things may require food to be produced using less energy, and so increases the number of people employed in food production again.

Population Dynamics and Other Features of Collapse

In the general study of cultural change and population dynamics a whole system displays complex ecosystem change, and organizational adaptability relates importantly to organizational diversity. Several key feature of human societal collapse can be related to population dynamics[4]

Reversion/Simplification: A society's adaptive capacity may be reduced by either a sharp increase in population or social complexity, destabilizing social institutions and cause massive shifts in population and other social dynamics. In cases of collapse civilizations tend to revert to less complex, less centralized socio-political forms using simpler technology. These are characteristics of a Dark Age. Examples of such societal collapse are: the Hittite Empire, the Mycenaean civilization, the Western Roman Empire, the Mauryan and Gupta Empires in India, the Mayas, the Angkor in Cambodia, and the Han and Tang dynasties in China.

Incorporation/Absorption: Alternately, a society may be gradually incorporated into a more dynamic, more complex inter-regional social structure. This happened in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Levantine cultures, the Eastern Roman Empire, the Mughal and Delhi Sultanates in India, Sung China, the Aztec culture in Mesoamerica, the Inca culture in South America, and the modern civilizations of China, Japan, and India, as well as many modern states in the Middle East and Africa.

Other Features

Models of societal response

According to Joseph Tainter[5] (1990), too many scholars offer facile explanations of societal collapse by assuming one or more of the following three models in the face of collapse:

1. The Dinosaur: The best example is a large scale society in which resources are being depleted at an exponential rate and yet nothing is done to rectify the problem because the ruling elite are unwilling or unable to adapt to said changes. In such examples rulers tend to oppose any solutions that diverge from their present course of action. They will favor intensification and commit an increasing number of resources to their present plans, projects and social institutions.

2. Runaway Train: An example would be a society that only functions when growth is present. Societies based almost exclusively on acquisition, including pillage or exploitation, cannot be sustained indefinitely. The societies of the Assyrians and the Mongols, for example, both fractured and collapsed when no new conquests were forthcoming.

Tainter argues that Capitalism can be seen as an example of the Runaway Train model as it requires whole economies, individual sectors, and companies to constantly grow on a three month basis. Current methods of resource extraction and food production may be unsustainable; however, the philosophy of consumerism and planned obsolescence encourage the purchase of an ever increasing number of goods and services to sustain the economy.

3. House of Cards: In this aspect of Tainter's model societies that grow to be so large and include so many complex social institutions that they are inherently unstable and prone to collapse.

An example of Tainter's Critique of Simplistic Models

Though superficially useful, Tainter argues that these models alone fail to account for societal collapse. Often they are seen as interconnected occurrences that reinforce each other.

For example, leaders on Easter Island saw a rapid decline of trees but ruled out change (i.e. The Dinosaur). Timber was used as rollers to transport and erect large statues called moai as a form of religious reverence to their ancestors. Reverence was believed to result in a more prosperous future.

It gave the people an impetus to intensify moai production (i.e. Runaway Train). Easter Island also has a fragile ecosystem because of its isolated location (i.e. House of Cards). Deforestation led to soil erosion and insufficient resources to build boats for fishing or tools for hunting. Competition for dwindling resources resulted in warfare and many casualties. Together these events led to the collapse of the civilization, but no single factor ("house of cards" for example) is adequate.

Mainstream interpretations of the history of Easter Island also include the slave raiders who abducted a large proportion of the population, and epidemics which killed most of the survivors (see Easter Island History#Destruction of society and population.) Again, no single point explains the collapse, but only a complex and integrated view.

Tainter's position is that societal complexity is a recent and comparatively anomalous occurrence requiring constant support. He asserts that collapse is best understood by grasping four axioms. In his own words (p 194):

1. human societies are problem-solving organizations;
2. sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
3. increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
4. investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

With these facts in mind, collapse can simply be understood as a loss of the energy, what Tainter calls "declining marginal returns," needed to maintain societal complexity. Collapse is thus the sudden loss of societal complexity, stratification, internal and external communication and exchange, and productivity.

Toynbee’s theory of decay

The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, in his 12-volume magnum opus A Study of History (1961), theorized that all civilizations pass through several distinct stages: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.

Toynbee argues that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the environment, over the human environment, or attacks from outside. Rather, ironically, societies that develop great expertise in problem solving become incapable of solving new problems by overdeveloping their structures for solving old ones.

The fixation on the old methods of the "Creative Minority," leads it to eventually cease to be creative and degenerates into merely a "Dominant minority" (that forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience), failing to recognize new ways of thinking. He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their "former self," by which they become prideful, and fail to adequately address the next challenge they face.

He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a "Universal State," which stifles political creativity. He states:

First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force - against all right and reason - a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation - and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands.

He argues that, as civilizations decay, they form an "Internal Proletariat" and an "External Proletariat." The Internal proletariat is held in subjugation by the dominant minority inside the civilization, and grows bitter; the external proletariat exists outside the civilization in poverty and chaos, and grows envious. He argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism in the body social," whereby:

He argues that in this environment, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, as a Prophet). He argues that those who Transcend during a period of social decay give birth to a new Church with new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form after the old has died.

Toynbee's use of the word 'church' refers to the collective spiritual bond of a common worship, or the same unity found in some kind of social order.

Foreign invasions

The decline of the Roman Empire is one of the events traditionally marking the end of Classical Antiquity and the beginning of the European Middle Ages. Throughout the fifth century, the Empire's territories in western Europe and northwestern Africa, including Italy, fell to various invading or indigenous peoples in what is sometimes called the Barbarian invasions, although the eastern half still survived with borders essentially intact for several centuries (until the Arab expansion).

North Africa's populous and flourishing civilization collapsed after exhausting its resources in internal fighting and suffering devastation from the invasion of the Bedouin tribes of Banu Sulaym and Banu Hilal.[6] Ibn Khaldun noted that the lands ravaged by Banu Hilal invaders had become completely arid desert.[7]

In the brutal pillaging that followed Mongol invasions, the invaders decimated the populations of China, Russia, the Middle East, and Islamic Central Asia. Later Mongol leaders, such as Timur, though he himself became a Muslim, destroyed many cities, slaughtered thousands of people and did irreparable damage to the ancient irrigation systems of Mesopotamia. These invasions transformed a civil society to a nomadic one.[8]

Encounters between European explorers and populations in the rest of the world often introduced local epidemics of extraordinary virulence. Smallpox ravaged Mexico in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitlán alone, including the emperor, and Peru in the 1530s, aiding the European conquerors.[9] Some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases.[10]

Examples of civilizations and societies which have collapsed

By Reversion/Simplification

By Incorporation/Absorption

Sites which are believed to represent "societal collapse"

See also


  1. ^ T.F. Allen, J.A. Tainter et. all. 2001 Dragnet Ecology: The Privilege of Science in a Postmodern World. BioScience
  2. ^ Homer-Dixon, Thomas (2007), "The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization" (Knopf, Canada)
  3. ^ Hall, Charles 2009 "What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have" ENERGIES [1]
  4. ^ Population crises and cycles in history, A review of the book Population Crises and Population cycles by Claire Russell and W M S Russell.
  5. ^ Tainter, Joseph (1990), The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press) pp. 59-60.
  6. ^ The Great Mosque of Tlemcen, MuslimHeritage.com
  7. ^ Populations Crises and Population Cycles, Claire Russell and W.M.S. Russell
  8. ^ Ibn Battuta's Trip: Part Three - Persia and Iraq (1326 - 1327)
  9. ^ Smallpox: Eradicating the Scourge
  10. ^ The Story Of... Smallpox – and other Deadly Eurasian Germs

Further reading


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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A Doomer is a peakist (one who has peak oil related concerns that oil depletion will lead to a severe economic recession or another Great Depression) that also believes that a Malthusian Catastrophe will inevitably follow. Doomers attribute their beliefs to humanity's over reliance on petroleum for agricultural and industrial productivity. Many doomers are also survivalists.



Use of the term

The term is commonly used in peakist forums by way of introduction. Example: "Hi, I'm a Doomer from way back — I was convinced by the Club of Rome in the 1970s". Or it can also be used to describe a more momentary feeling. Example: "I think we can survive Peak Oil — but when I hear all the cliché denial from my friends I feel a bit more Doomer."

Common themes

A convinced Doomer believes that the Green Revolution will collapse at the end of cheap oil.[1] According to Doomers, humanity will be in a state of overshoot after oil depletion makes modern farming methods economically unviable. Various academics have calculated that our numbers would then far exceed the carrying capacity of the earth. For example: they believe our situation is comparable to bacteria in a petri dish with cheap oil as the human growth medium. As the “growth medium” is consumed and runs out the “bacteria” dies off.

Doomers also hold a wide range of theories about the collapse of complex societies and systems.[2] The influences of Thomas Malthus and the Club of Rome are present in the doomer movement,[3][4][5] as are some of the more recent works by Joseph Tainter who wrote The Collapse of Complex Societies in 1988, and Richard C. Duncan who presented his Phd The Peak of World Oil Production and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge in 1989 (now known as the Olduvai theory.) The lectures and DVD by Albert Bartlett, Arithmetic, Population and Energy is also highly influential. (See below for online video streaming of the lecture he has been presenting and refining for over 30 years.)

The common concerns are that of overpopulation leading to resource and energy depletion, soil degradation and environmental destruction all culminating in agricultural collapse and famine. Some Doomers estimate that the anarchic collapse will be so catastrophic that population levels may fall below the levels prior to the industrial revolution — possibly below 2 billion. When trying to calculate the extent of the postulated dieoff, the most extreme doomer will also take into account that the existing eco-infrastructure is massively supported by oil based fertilizers and that we will not only hit peak oil but peak phosphate and peak nitrogen simultaneously. When oil production starts to decline the productivity of the soil will drop far below that of pre-industrial times and thus a drop down to 2 billion is optimistic. This kind of doomer will also ignore technology and dismiss it with commonly believed myths such as "wind farms cost more energy to build than they get out". This common refrain is generally applied to all technology solutions since it is assumed a priori that a population crash is inevitable.

Survivalist mindset

The typical Doomer response to peak oil and the collapse of the industrial system is to “ignore civilization to death” by setting up a Permaculture village.[6] This Survivalist mindset is what distinguishes the Doomer from the Peakist.[2][5] The Peaknik may spend many hours campaigning for peak oil awareness, societal change and changes in government policy, while Doomers would generally see this as a waste of valuable time.[2] The Doomer focus is more on preparing the family and local community for the imminent collapse of civilization.[6]

The spectrum between Peakists and Doomers

A purist Doomer concentrates on their "Lifeboat" survivalist permaculture farm.[1] If the purist Doomer raises awareness at all, it is to selectively encourage necessary tradespeople to join their eco-village, sharing their vital skills with their village to add to their security. Some Doomers call for making active Survivalist preparations to be ready to survive a protracted societal collapse.[1]

This tension between optimism and pessimism is appreciated by Peakist author Richard Heinberg in his book, Powerdown, who argues that local communities should immediately learn how to provide for their own power, water, and food security, while also campaigning for awareness on a State, Federal, and International level. Richard Heinberg admits that the ideal situation would be for the United Nations and Federal Governments to step in and institute a massive "war-time economy" shifting the industrial world from oil dependency. However he argues that there is the strong possibility that societal awareness is all too little too late to prevent "dieoff". As the future is so uncertain, Heinberg argues that the wisest course of action for the local community is to prepare for the implosion of modern infrastructure while also campaigning to prevent this disaster.

The more convinced Doomer would typically refer to the peakist movie The End of Suburbia as peak oil lite — for those who cannot handle their peak oil straight. While the last 15 minutes of The End of Suburbia focuses on the local community solutions of New Urbanism, the Doomer would argue that the movie fails to describe the inevitable Malthusian catastrophe. The Doomer protests that The End of Suburbia implies suburban sprawl will experience an orderly transition into New Urbanism. The convinced Doomer rejects this outright as an ecological and energetic impossibility without the Green Revolution and cheap oil transport.


  1. ^ a b c The origins of peak oil doomerism | EnergyBulletin.net | Peak Oil News Clearinghouse
  2. ^ a b c Of doomers, realists, powerdowners and fantasists | EnergyBulletin.net | Peak Oil News Clearinghouse
  3. ^ Deep thought - Mar 25 | EnergyBulletin.net | Peak Oil News Clearinghouse
  4. ^ Wanted: a new global paradigm | EnergyBulletin.net | Peak Oil News Clearinghouse
  5. ^ a b Eclipse Now: Peakniks, Doomers, and Collapse
  6. ^ a b Origins of Peal Oil Doomerism

External links

World energy resources and consumption

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Rate of world energy usage in terawatts (TW), 1965-2005[1]
Global energy usage in successively increasing detail[2][3]
Energy intensity of different economies The graph shows the ratio between energy usage and GNP for selected countries. GNP is based on 2004 purchasing power parity and 2000 dollars adjusted for inflation.[4]
Energy consumption per capita versus the GNP per capita The graph plots the per capita energy versus the per capita income for all countries with more than 20 million inhabitants, the data more than 90% of the world's population. The image shows the broad relation between wealth and energy consumption.[5]
GDP and energy consumption in Japan from 1958 - 2000 The data shows the correlation between GDP and energy use; however, it also shows that this link can be broken. After the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 the energy use stagnated while Japan's GDP continued to grow, after 1985, under the influence of the then much cheaper oil, energy use resumed its historical relation to GDP.[6]
Worldwide energy sources (TW)(2004)[4]
Remaining Oil Breakdown of the remaining 57 ZJ oil on the planet. The annual oil consumption was 0.18 ZJ in 2005. There is significant uncertainty surrounding these numbers. The 11 ZJ of future additions to the recoverable reserves could be optimistic.[7][8]
Renewable energy sources worldwide at the end of 2008 Source: REN21[9]
Available renewable energy The volume of the cubes represent the amount of available geothermal, hydropower, wind and solar energy in TW, although only a small portion is recoverable. The small red cube shows the proportional global energy consumption.[10]
Solar energy as it is dispersed on the planet and radiated back to space. Values are in PW =1015 watt.[11]

In 2008, total worldwide energy consumption was 474 exajoules (5×1020 J) with 80 to 90 percent derived from the combustion of fossil fuels.[1] This is equivalent to an average power consumption rate of 15 terawatts (1.504×1013 W). Not all of the world's economies track their energy consumption with the same rigor, and the exact energy content of a barrel of oil or a ton of coal will vary with quality.

Most of the world's energy resources are from the sun's rays hitting earth. Some of that energy has been preserved as fossil energy, some is directly or indirectly usable; for example, via wind, hydro- or wave power. The term solar constant is the amount of incoming solar electromagnetic radiation per unit area, measured on the outer surface of Earth's atmosphere, in a plane perpendicular to the rays. The solar constant includes all types of solar radiation, not just visible light. It is measured by satellite to be roughly 1366 watts per square meter, though it fluctuates by about 6.9% during a year—from 1412 W m−2 in early January to 1321 W m−2 in early July, due to the Earth's varying distance from the sun, and by a few parts per thousand[clarification needed] from day to day. For the whole Earth, with a cross section of 127,400,000 km2, the total energy rate is 174 petawatts (1.740×1017 W), plus or minus 3.5%. This value is the total rate of solar energy received by the planet; about half, 89 PW, reaches the Earth's surface.[citation needed]

The estimates of remaining non-renewable worldwide energy resources vary, with the remaining fossil fuels totaling an estimated 0.4 YJ (1 YJ = 1024J) and the available nuclear fuel such as uranium exceeding 2.5 YJ. Fossil fuels range from 0.6-3 YJ if estimates of reserves of methane clathrates are accurate and become technically extractable. Mostly thanks to the Sun, the world also has a renewable usable energy flux that exceeds 120 PW (8,000 times 2004 total usage), or 3.8 YJ/yr, dwarfing all non-renewable resources.




Primary energy

The United States Energy Information Administration regularly publishes a report on world consumption for most types of primary energy resources.

Fuel type Average power in TW[12]
1980 2004 2006
Oil 4.38 5.58 5.74
Gas 1.80 3.45 3.61
Coal 2.34 3.87 4.27
Hydroelectric 0.599 0.933 0.995
Nuclear power 0.253 0.914 0.929
Geothermal, wind,
solar energy, wood
0.016 0.133 0.158
Total 9.48 15.0 15.8

Fossil fuels

The twentieth century saw a rapid twentyfold increase in the use of fossil fuels. Between 1980 and 2006, the worldwide annual growth rate was 2%.[1] According to the US Energy Information Administration's 2006 estimate, the estimated 471.8 EJ total consumption in 2004 was divided as follows, with fossil fuels supplying 86% of the world's energy:

Coal fueled the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th century. With the advent of the automobile, airplanes and the spreading use of electricity, oil became the dominant fuel during the twentieth century. The growth of oil as the largest fossil fuel was further enabled by steadily dropping prices from 1920 until 1973. After the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, during which the price of oil increased from 5 to 45 US dollars per barrel, there was a shift away from oil.[13] Coal, natural gas, and nuclear became the fuels of choice for electricity generation and conservation measures increased energy efficiency. In the U.S. the average car more than doubled the number of miles per gallon. Japan, which bore the brunt of the oil shocks, made spectacular improvements and now has the highest energy efficiency in the world.[5] From 1965 to 2008, the use of fossil fuels has continued to grow and their share of the energy supply has increased. From 2003 to 2008, coal, which is one of the dirtiest sources of energy,[14] was the fastest growing fossil fuel.[15].

Nuclear power

In 2005 nuclear power accounted for 6.3% of world's total primary energy supply.[16] The nuclear power production in 2006 accounted 2,658 TWh (23.3 EJ), which was 16% of world's total electricity production.[17][18] In November 2007, there were 439 operational nuclear reactors worldwide, with total capacity of 372,002 MWe. A further 33 reactors were under construction, 94 reactors were planned and 222 reactors were proposed.[17]

Renewable energy

In 2004, renewable energy supplied around 7% of the world's energy consumption.[19] The renewables sector has been growing significantly since the last years of the 20th century, and in 2005 the total new investment was estimated to have been 38 billion US dollars. Germany and China lead with investments of about 7 billion US dollars each, followed by the United States, Spain, Japan, and India. This resulted in an additional 35 GW of capacity during the year.[3]


Worldwide hydroelectricity consumption reached 816 GW in 2005, consisting of 750 GW of large plants, and 66 GW of small hydro installations. Large hydro capacity totaling 10.9 GW was added by China, Brazil and India during the year, but there was a much faster growth (8%) in small hydro, with 5 GW added, mostly in China where some 58% of the world's small hydro plants are now located.[3]

In the Western world, although Canada is the largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world, the construction of large hydro plants has stagnated due to environmental concerns.[20] The trend in both Canada and the United States has been to micro hydro because it has negligible environmental impacts and opens up many more locations for power generation. In British Columbia alone the estimates are that micro hydro will be able to more than double electricity production in the province.

Biomass and biofuels

Until the end of the nineteenth century biomass was the predominant fuel, today it has only a small share of the overall energy supply. Electricity produced from biomass sources was estimated at 44 GW for 2005. Biomass electricity generation increased by over 100% in Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. A further 220 GW was used for heating (in 2004), bringing the total energy consumed from biomass to around 264 GW. The use of biomass fires for cooking is excluded.[3]

World production of bioethanol increased by 8% in 2005 to reach 33 billion litres (8.72 billion US gallons), with most of the increase in the United States, bringing it level to the levels of consumption in Brazil.[3] Biodiesel increased by 85% to 3.9 billion litres (1.03 billion US gallons), making it the fastest growing renewable energy source in 2005. Over 50% is produced in Germany.[3]

Wind power

According to the World Wind Energy Association, the installed capacity of wind power increased by 29 % from the end of 2007 to the end of 2008 to total 121  GW, with over half the increase in the United States, Spain and China.[21] Doubling of capacity took about three years. The total installed capacity is approximately three to eight times that of the actual average power produced as the nominal capacity represents peak output; actual capacity is generally from 13[22]-40% of the nominal capacity.[23]

Solar power

The available solar energy resources are 3.8 YJ/yr (120,000 TW). Less than 0.02% of available resources are sufficient to entirely replace fossil fuels and nuclear power as an energy source. Assuming that our rate of usage in 2005 remains constant, we will run out of conventional oil in 40 years (2045), coal in 154 yrs (2159). In practice neither will actually run out, as natural constraints will force production to decline as the remaining reserves dwindle.[24][25][26]

In 2007 grid-connected photovoltaic electricity was the fastest growing energy source, with installations of all photovoltaics increasing by 83% in 2009 to bring the total installed capacity to 15 GW. Nearly half of the increase was in Germany, now the world's largest consumer of photovoltaic electricity (followed by Japan). Solar cell production increased by 50% in 2007, to 3,800 megawatts, and has been doubling every two years.[27]

The consumption of solar hot water and solar space heating was estimated at 88 GWt (gigawatts of thermal power) in 2004. The heating of water for unglazed swimming pools is excluded.[3]


Geothermal energy is used commercially in over 70 countries.[28] In the year 2004, 200 PJ (57 TWh) of electricity was generated from geothermal resources, and an additional 270 PJ of geothermal energy was used directly, mostly for space heating. In 2007, the world had a global capacity for 10 GW of electricity generation and an additional 28 GW of direct heating, including extraction by geothermal heat pumps.[3][29] Heat pumps are small and widely distributed, so estimates of their total capacity are uncertain and range up to 100 GW.[28] Heat pump capacity factors are low since demand is seasonal.

By country

Energy consumption is loosely correlated with gross national product, but there is a large difference even between the most highly developed countries, such as Japan and Germany with 6 kW per person and United States with 11.4 kW per person. In developing countries such as India the per person energy use is closer to 0.7 kW. Bangladesh has the lowest consumption with 0.2 kW per person.

The US consumes 25% of the world's energy with a share of global GDP at 22% and a share of the world population at 5%. The most significant growth of energy consumption is currently taking place in China, which has been growing at 5.5% per year over the last 25 years. Its population of 1.3 billion people (20% of the world population) is consuming energy at a rate of 1.6 kW per person.

Over the past four years, electricity consumption per capita in the U.S. has decreased about 1% per year between 2004 and 2008. Power consumption is projected to hit 4,333,631 million kilowatt hours by 2013, an annual growth rate of 1.93% for the next five years. Consumption increased from 3,715,949 in 2004 to an expected 3,937,879 million kilowatt hours per year in 2008, an increase of about 1.5% per year. The rate of increase has been steadily decreasing - it was 2.5% in the 1990s.[30] U.S. population has been increasing about 1.3% per year, a total increase of about 6.7% over five years.[31] The decrease has been mostly due to efficiency increases. Compact fluorescent bulbs, for example use about one third as much electricity as incandescents. LED bulbs, however, use about one tenth as much, and over their 50,000 to 100,000 hour lifetime are cheaper than compact fluorescents.

One metric of efficiency is energy intensity. This is a measure of the amount of energy it takes a country to produce a dollar of gross domestic product.

By sector

Industrial users (agriculture, mining, manufacturing, and construction) consume about 37% of the total 15 TW. Personal and commercial transportation consumes 20%; residential heating, lighting, and appliances use 11%; and commercial uses (lighting, heating and cooling of commercial buildings, and provision of water and sewer services) amount to 5% of the total. [32]

The other 27% of the world's energy is lost in energy transmission and generation. In 2005, global electricity consumption averaged 2 TW. The energy rate used to generate 2 TW of electricity is approximately 5 TW, as the efficiency of a typical existing power plant is around 38%.[33] The new generation of gas-fired plants reaches a substantially higher efficiency of 55%. Coal is the most common fuel for the world's electricity plants.[34]

Fossil fuel

Remaining reserves of fossil fuel are estimated as: Assessment Team |url= http://pubs.usgs.gov/dds/dds-060/ESpt4.html#Table | accessdate=2007-01-18}}</ref>

Fuel Energy reserves in ZJ
Coal 290.0
Oil   18.4
Gas   15.7

Significant uncertainty exists for these numbers. The estimation of the remaining fossil fuels on the planet depends on a detailed understanding of the Earth crust. This understanding is still less than perfect. While modern drilling technology makes it possible to drill wells in up to 3 km of water to verify the exact composition of the geology, one half of the ocean is deeper than 3 km, leaving about a third of the planet beyond the reach of detailed analysis. The Energy Watch Group reports suggest that supplying the demand for oil may be insufficient,[35] and that uranium resources would be exhausted within 70 years.[36] However, these views are greatly at variance with those of most industry observers.


Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel. This was the fuel that launched the industrial revolution and has continued to grow in use; China, which already has many of the world's most polluted cities,[37] was in 2007 building about two coal fired power plants every week.[38][39] Coal is the fastest growing fossil fuel and its large reserves would make it a popular candidate to meet the energy demand of the global community, short of global warming concerns and other pollutants.[40] According to the International Energy Agency the proven reserves of coal are around 909 billion tonnes, which could sustain the current production rate for 155 years,[41] although at a 5% growth per annum this would be reduced to 45 years, or until 2051. With the Fischer-Tropsch process it is possible to make liquid fuels such as diesel and jet fuel from coal. Citing concern for global warming, the Stop Coal campaign calls for a moratorium on the construction of any new coal plants and on the phase out of all existing plants.[42] In the United States, 49% of electricity generation comes from burning coal.[43]


It is estimated that there may be 57 ZJ of oil reserves on Earth (although estimates vary from a low of 8 ZJ,[1] consisting of currently proven and recoverable reserves, to a maximum of 110 ZJ[citation needed]) consisting of available, but not necessarily recoverable reserves, and including optimistic estimates for unconventional sources such as tar sands and oil shale. Current consensus among the 18 recognized estimates of supply profiles is that the peak of extraction will occur in 2020 at the rate of 93-million barrels per day (mbd). Current oil consumption is at the rate of 0.18 ZJ per year (31.1 billion barrels) or 85-mbd.

There is growing concern that peak oil production may be reached in the near future, resulting in severe oil price increases.[44] A 2005 French Economics, Industry and Finance Ministry report suggested a worst-case scenario that could occur as early as 2013.[45] There are also theories that peak of the global oil production may occur in as little as 2–3 years. The ASPO predicts peak year to be in 2010. Some other theories present the view that it has already taken place in 2005. World crude oil production (including lease condensates) according to US EIA data decreased from a peak of 73.720 mbd in 2005 to 73.437 in 2006, 72.981 in 2007, 73.697 in 2008.[46] According to peak oil theory, increasing production will lead to a more rapid collapse of production in the future, while decreasing production will lead to a slower decrease, as the bell-shaped curve will be spread out over more years.

In a stated goal of increasing oil prices to $75/barrel, which had fallen from a high of $147 to a low of $40, OPEC announced decreasing production by 2.2 mbd beginning January 1, 2009.[47]


Political considerations over the security of supplies, environmental concerns related to global warming and sustainability are expected to move the world's energy consumption away from fossil fuels. The concept of peak oil shows that we have used about half of the available petroleum resources, and predicts a decrease of production.

A government led move away from fossil fuels would most likely create economic pressure through carbon emissions and green taxation. Some countries are taking action as a result of the Kyoto Protocol, and further steps in this direction are proposed. For example, the European Commission has proposed that the energy policy of the European Union should set a binding target of increasing the level of renewable energy in the EU's overall mix from less than 7% today to 20% by 2020.[48]

The antithesis of sustainability is a disregard for limits, commonly referred to as the Easter Island Effect, which is the concept of being unable to develop sustainability, resulting in the depletion of natural resources.[49]

Nuclear power

Nuclear fission

The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates the remaining uranium resources to be equal to 2500 ZJ.[50] This assumes the use of breeder reactors which are able to create more fissile material than they consume. IPCC estimated currently proved economically recoverable uranium deposits for once-through fuel cycles reactors to be only 2 ZJ. The ultimately recoverable uranium is estimated to be 17 ZJ for once-through reactors and 1000 ZJ with reprocessing and fast breeder reactors.[51]

Resources and technology do not constrain the capacity of nuclear power to contribute to meeting the energy demand for the 21st century. However, political and environmental concerns about nuclear safety and radioactive waste started to limit the growth of this energy supply at the end of last century, particularly due to a number of nuclear accidents. Concerns about nuclear proliferation (especially with plutonium produced by breeder reactors) mean that the development of nuclear power by countries such as Iran and Syria is being actively discouraged by the international community.[52]

Nuclear fusion

Fusion power is the process driving our sun and other stars. It generates large quantities of heat by fusing the nuclei of hydrogen or helium isotopes, which may be derived from seawater. The heat can theoretically be harnessed to generate electricity. The temperatures and pressures needed to sustain fusion make it a very difficult process to control. The tantalizing potential of fusion is its theoretical ability to supply vast quantities of energy, with relatively little pollution.[53] Although both the United States and the European Union, along with other countries, are supporting fusion research (such as investing in the ITER facility), according to one report, inadequate research has stalled progress in fusion research for the past 20 years.[54]

Renewable resources

Renewable resources are available each year, unlike non-renewable resources which are eventually depleted. A simple comparison is a coal mine and a forest. While the forest could be depleted, if it is managed properly it represents a continuous supply of energy, vs the coal mine which once it has been exhausted is gone. Most of earth's available energy resources are renewable resources. Renewable resources account for more than 93 percent of total U.S. energy reserves. Annual renewable resources were multiplied times thirty years for comparison with non-renewable resources. In other words, if all non-renewable resources were uniformly exhausted in 30 years, they would only account for 7 percent of available resources each year, if all available renewable resources were developed.[55]

Solar energy

Renewable energy sources are even larger than the traditional fossil fuels and in theory can easily supply the world's energy needs. 89 PW[56] of solar power falls on the planet's surface. While it is not possible to capture all, or even most, of this energy, capturing less than 0.02% would be enough to meet the current energy needs. Barriers to further solar generation include the high price of making solar cells and reliance on weather patterns to generate electricity. Also, solar generation does not produce electricity at night, which is a particular problem in high northern and southern latitude countries; energy demand is highest in winter, while availability of solar energy is lowest. This could be overcome by buying power from countries closer to the equator during winter months. Globally, solar generation is the fastest growing source of energy, seeing an annual average growth of 35% over the past few years. Japan, Europe, China, U.S. and India are the major growing investors in solar energy. Advances in technology and economies of scale, along with demand for solutions to global warming, have led photovoltaics to become the most likely candidate to replace nuclear and fossil fuels.[57]

Wind power

The available wind energy estimates range from 300 TW to 870 TW.[56][58] Using the lower estimate, just 5% of the available wind energy would supply the current worldwide energy needs. Most of this wind energy is available over the open ocean. The oceans cover 71% of the planet and wind tends to blow stronger over open water because there are fewer obstructions.

Wave and tidal power

At the end of 2005, 0.3 GW of electricity was produced by tidal power.[3] Due to the tidal forces created by the Moon (68%) and the Sun (32%), and the Earth's relative rotation with respect to Moon and Sun, there are fluctuating tides. These tidal fluctuations result in dissipation at an average rate of about 3.7 TW.[59] As a result, the rotational speed of the Earth decreases, and the distance of the Moon to the Earth increases[citation needed], on geological time scales. In several billion years, the Earth will rotate at the same speed as the Moon is revolving around it. So, several TW of tidal energy can be produced without having a significant effect on celestial mechanics[citation needed].

Another physical limitation is the energy available in the tidal fluctuations of the oceans, which is about 0.6 EJ (exajoule).[60] Note this is only a tiny fraction of the total rotational energy of the Earth. Without forcing, this energy would be dissipated (at a dissipation rate of 3.7 TW) in about four semi-diurnal tide periods. So, dissipation plays a significant role in the tidal dynamics of the oceans. Therefore, this limits the available tidal energy to around 0.8 TW (20% of the dissipation rate) in order not to disturb the tidal dynamics too much.[citation needed]

Waves are derived from wind, which is in turn derived from solar energy, and at each conversion there is a drop of about two orders of magnitude in available energy. The total power of waves that wash against our shores add up to 3 TW.[61]


Estimates of exploitable worldwide geothermal energy resources vary considerably, depending on assumed investements in technology and exploration and guesses about geological formations. According to a 1999 study, it was thought that this might amount to between 65 and 138 GW of electrical generation capacity 'using enhanced technology'.[62] Other estimates range from 35 to 2000 GW of electrical generation capacity, with a further potential for 140 EJ/year of direct use.[29]

A 2006 report by MIT that took into account the use of Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) concluded that it would be affordable to generate 100 GWe (gigawatts of electricity) or more by 2050, just in the United States, for a maximum investment of 1 billion US dollars in research and development over 15 years.[28] The MIT report calculated the world's total EGS resources to be over 13 YJ, of which over 200 ZJ would be extractable, with the potential to increase this to over 2 YJ with technology improvements - sufficient to provide all the world's energy needs for several millennia.[28] The total heat content of the Earth is 13,000,000 YJ.[29]


Production of biomass and biofuels are growing industries as interest in sustainable fuel sources is growing. Utilizing waste products avoids a food vs fuel trade-off, and burning methane gas reduces greenhouse gas emissions, because even though it releases carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide is 23 times less of a greenhouse gas than is methane. Biofuels represent a sustainable partial replacement for fossil fuels, but their net impact on greenhouse gas emissions depends on the agricultural practices used to grow the plants used as feedstock to create the fuels. While it is widely believed that biofuels can be carbon-neutral, there is evidence that biofuels produced by current farming methods are substantial net carbon emitters.[63][64][65] Geothermal and biomass are the only two renewable energy sources which require careful management to avoid local depletion.[66]


In 2005, hydroelectric power supplied 16.4% of world electricity.[67]

Alternative energy paths

Denmark and Germany have started to make investments in solar energy, despite their unfavorable geographic locations. Germany is now the largest consumer of photovoltaic cells in the world. Denmark and Germany have installed 3 GW and 17 GW of wind power respectively. In 2005, wind generated 18.5% of all the electricity in Denmark.[68] Brazil invests in ethanol production from sugar cane which is now a significant part of the transportation fuel in that country. Starting in 1965, France made large investments in nuclear power and to this date three quarters of its electricity comes from nuclear reactors.[69] Switzerland is planning to cut its energy consumption by more than half to become a 2000-watt society by 2050 and the United Kingdom is working towards a zero energy building standard for all new housing by 2016. In 2005, the Swedish government announced the oil phase-out in Sweden with the intention to become the first country to break its dependence on fossil fuel by 2020.

See also

Energy portal
Sustainable development portal


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  55. ^ Renewable Resources in the U.S. Electricity Supply
  56. ^ a b Tester, Jefferson W.; et al. (2005). Sustainable Energy: Choosing Among Options. The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-20153-4. 
  57. ^ Why PV is important.
  58. ^ Exergy Flow Charts
  59. ^ Munk & Wunsch, 1999
  60. ^ Marchuk, G.I. and Kagan, B.A. (1989) "Dynamics of Ocean Tides", Kluwer Academic Publishers, ISBN 978-9027725523. See page 225.
  61. ^ Tester, et al., p. 593
  62. ^ "All About Geothermal energy". Geothermal Energy Association - Washington, DC. http://www.geo-energy.org/aboutGE/potentialUse.asp#world. Retrieved 2007-02-07. 
  63. ^ Rosenthal, Elisabeth (2008-02-08). "Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/08/science/earth/08wbiofuels.html.  Registration required. "Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these “green” fuels are taken into account, two studies being published Thursday have concluded." "In the wake of the new studies, a group of 10 of the United States’s most eminent ecologists and environmental biologists today sent a letter to President Bush and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, urging a reform of biofuels policies. “We write to call your attention to recent research indicating that many anticipated biofuels will actually exacerbate global warming”" "International environmental groups, including the United Nations, responded cautiously to the studies, saying that biofuels could still be useful. “We don’t want a total public backlash that would prevent us from getting the potential benefits,” said Nicholas Nuttall, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, who said the United Nations had recently created a new panel to study the evidence. “There was an unfortunate effort to dress up biofuels as the silver bullet of climate change,” he said." "the papers published Thursday suggested that, if land use is taken into account, biofuels may not provide all the benefits once anticipated. Dr. Searchinger said the only possible exception he could see for now was sugar cane grown in Brazil, which take relatively little energy to grow and is readily refined into fuel."
  64. ^ Farigone, Joseph; Hill, Jason; Tillman, David; Polasky, Stephen; Hawthorne, Peter (2008-02-29), "Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt", Science 319: 1235–1238, doi:10.1126/science.1152747 
  65. ^ Searchinger, Timothy; Heimlich, Ralph; Houghton, R. A.; Dong, Fengxia; Elobeid, Amani; Fabiosa, Jacinto; Tokgaz, Simla; Hayes, Dermot et al. (2008-02-29), "Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change", Science 319: 1238–1240, doi:10.1126/science.1151861 
  66. ^ The New Math of Alternative Energy
  67. ^ Key World Energy Statistics 2007
  68. ^ "Danish Annual Energy Statistics" (XLS). Danish Energy Authority. December 2006. http://www.energistyrelsen.dk/graphics/UK_Facts_Figures/Statistics/yearly_statistics/Figures2005.xls. Retrieved 2007-01-27. 
  69. ^ Smil, p. ?

Further reading

External links

Olduvai theory

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The Olduvai theory states that industrial civilization (as defined by per capita energy consumption) will have a lifetime of less than or equal to 100 years (1930-2030). The theory provides a quantitative basis of the transient-pulse theory of modern civilization. The name is a reference to the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.




The Olduvai theory was first introduced by Richard C. Duncan, Ph.D. in 1989 as the "transient-pulse theory of Industrial Civilization".[1] The theory was backed up with data in the 1993 paper "The life-expectancy of industrial civilization: The decline to global equilibrium".[2]

In June, 1996, Duncan introduced a paper titled "The Olduvai Theory: Sliding Towards a Post-Industrial Stone Age" where the term "Olduvai Theory" replaced "transient-pulse theory" used in previous papers.[3] Duncan further updated his theory in "The Peak of World Oil Production and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge", at the Summit 2000 Pardee Keynote Symposia of the Geological Society of America, on November 13, 2000.[4] In 2005, Duncan extended his data set to include up to 2003 in "The Olduvai Theory Energy, Population, and Industrial Civilization".[5]

Details of theory

Industrial Civilization is defined in Duncan's paper as the time approximately from when energy production per capita rises from 37% of the peak value to when it falls to below 37% of its peak value (1930-2030)[3] i.e. the peak in energy production per capita is in between these two endpoints and these two endpoints have values of 37% of the peak value.

The Olduvai theory claims that exponential growth of energy production ended in 1979, that energy use per capita will show no growth through 2008, and that after 2008 energy growth will become sharply negative, culminating, after a Malthusian catastrophe, in a world population of 2 billion circa 2050. [5]

The Olduvai Theory divides human history into three phases. The first "pre-industrial" phase stretches over most of human history when simple tools and weak machines limited economic growth. The second "industrial" phase encompasses modern industrial civilization where machines temporarily lift all limits to growth. The final "de-industrial" phase follows where industrial economies decline to a period of equilibrium with renewable resources and the natural environment.[4]

The decline of the industrial phase is broken into three sections:


A bell-shaped production curve, as originally suggested by M. King Hubbert in 1956.

Perry Arnett postulates the following timeline:[6]

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, global food production will exceed population growth between today and 2030.[7]



At the time of Duncan's paper, the peak in per capita energy consumption was 11.15 boe/c/yr (barrels of oil equivalent per capita per year) and occurred in 1979; however, since then energy use per capita has increased beyond that level, with the most recent year providing the current peak value of 12.12 boe/c/yr.[8][9] This increase directly contradicts Postulate 2 of the most recent version of the theory, namely that "[average per capita energy] will show no growth from 1979 to circa 2008".[5] Duncan has not responded to this criticism.

Proponents note that the current trend of increasing per capita energy consumption may be difficult to sustain in the face of limits on finite resources such as oil, coal, and natural gas.[10] Critics argue that this demonstrated lack of predictive power renders the theory's other predictions unreliable, while others cite this as only compounding the warnings the theory gives.

Another criticism is that Olduvai, similar to Malthusian Population/Food Growth Theories (that population, if unchecked, increases at a geometric rate, whereas the food-supply grows at an arithmetic rate) and related theories of pandemic food shortages, does not take into account technological and social changes. For example, advances in alternative energies may allow for the possibility that energy consumption can be sustainable at current levels. Consumption habits are also a function of social change and evolution - e.g. conservation. Thus, the implementation of new technologies along with a change in consumption habits could significantly affect the likelihood of the consequences of Olduvai Theory.

See Cornucopian.


In justification of his reference to Olduvai Gorge, Duncan writes:

...(1) it is justly famous, (2) I've been there, (3) its long hollow sound is eerie and ominous, and (4) it is a good metaphor for the 'Stone Age way of life'.

See also


  1. ^ Duncan, R. C. (1989). Evolution, technology, and the natural environment: A unified theory of human history. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, American Society of Engineering Educators: Science, Technology, & Society, 14B1-11 to 14B1-20.
  2. ^ Duncan, R. C. (1993). The life-expectancy of industrial civilization: The decline to global equilibrium. Population and Environment, 14(4), 325-357.
  3. ^ a b "The Olduvai Theory:Sliding Towards a Post-Industrial Stone Age - Richard C. Duncan (1996), www.dieoff.org
  4. ^ a b "The Peak Of World Oil Production And The Road To The Olduvai Gorge" - Richard C. Duncan (2000), www.dieoff.org
  5. ^ a b c "The Olduvai Theory Energy, Population, and Industrial Civilization" - Richard C. Duncan (2005/2006), www.TheSocialContract.com
  6. ^ Peak Oil, Total Collapse, and the Road to the Olduvai - Perry Arnett, April 18 2007, www.oilcrash.com
  7. ^ World agriculture 2030: Global food production will exceed population growth
  8. ^ World Per Capita Total Primary Energy Consumption, 1980-2006 - Energy Information Administration, 2006 (Excel Sheet)
  9. ^ Energy Units and Conversions - Dennis Silverman, UC Irvine
  10. ^ Revisiting the Olduvai Theory - The Oil Drum, March 6, 2006

External links

2007–2008 world food price crisis

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Chart of global trade volume in wheat, coarse grain and soybeans 1990 to 2008, and projected to 2016. United States Department of Agriculture, 2008.
Chart of the United States stock to use ratio of soybeans, maize and wheat, from 1977 to 2007, and projected to 2016. United States Department of Agriculture, September 2007.

The years 2007–2008 saw dramatic increases in world food prices, creating a global crisis and causing political and economical instability and social unrest in both poor and developed nations.

Systemic causes for the worldwide increases in food prices continue to be the subject of debate. Initial causes of the late 2006 price spikes included droughts in grain-producing nations and rising oil prices. Oil price increases also caused general escalations the costs of fertilizers, food transportation, and industrial agriculture. Root causes may be the increasing use of biofuels in developed countries (see also food vs fuel),[1] and an increasing demand for a more varied diet across the expanding middle-class populations of Asia.[2][3] These factors, coupled with falling world-food stockpiles all contributed to the worldwide rise in food prices.[4] Causes not commonly attributed by mainstream views include structural changes in trade and agricultural production, agricultural price supports and subsidies in developed nations, diversions of food commodities to high input foods and fuel, commodity market speculation, and climate change.



Drastic price increases

Between 2006 and 2008 average world prices for rice rose by 217%, wheat by 136%, corn by 125% and soybeans by 107%.[5] In late April 2008 rice prices hit 24 cents (U.S.) per U.S. pound, more than doubling the price in just seven months.[6]

World population growth

Growth in food production has been greater than population growth. Food per person increased during the 1961–2005 period.

Although some commentators have argued that this food crisis stems from unprecedented global population growth,[7][8] others point out that world population growth rates have dropped dramatically since the 1980s,[9][10] and grain availability has continued to outpace population. However, despite production gains made in the last decade, world food demand outpaces any production increases. According to Joachim von Braun, of the IFPRI, total food production increases only about 1 to 2 percent per year, while total world population increases approximately 4% [11][12]. Aggregate cereal grain food production, per capita, had risen yearly from the 1960s to the 1980s but has been in decline since.[13] However, this does not take into account any non-food uses of grain production.

World population has grown from 1.6 billion in 1900 to an estimated 6.8 billion [2].

Increased demand for more resource intensive food

The head of the International Food Policy Research Institute, stated in 2008 that the gradual change in diet among newly prosperous populations is the most important factor underpinning the rise in global food prices.[14] Where food utilization has increased, it has largely been in processed ("value added") foods, sold in developing and developed nations.[15] Total grain utilization growth since 2006 (up three percent, over the 2000–2006 per annum average of two percent) has been greatest in non-food usage, especially in feed and biofuels.[16][17] One kilogram of beef requires seven kilograms of feed grain.[18] These reports, therefore, conclude that usage in industrial, feed, and input intensive foods, not population growth among poor consumers of simple grains, has contributed to the price increases.

2005/1990 ratios of per capita consumption[19]

India China Brazil Nigeria
Cereals 1.0 0.8 1.2 1.0
Meat 1.2 2.4 1.7 1.0
Milk 1.2 3.0 1.2 1.3
Fish 1.2 2.3 0.9 0.8
Fruits 1.3 3.5 0.8 1.1
Vegetables 1.3 2.9 1.3 1.3

Although the vast majority of the population in Asia remains rural and poor, the growth of the middle class in the region has been dramatic. For comparison, in 1990, the middle class grew by 9.7 percent in India and 8.6 percent in China, but by 2007 the growth rate was nearly 30 percent and 70 percent respectively.[4] The corresponding increase in Asian affluence also brought with it a change in lifestyle and eating habits, particularly a demand for greater variety, leading to increased competition with western nations for already strained agricultural resources.[20][21] This demand exacerbates dramatic increases in commodity prices such as oil.

Another issue was rising affluence in India and China was reducing the 'shock absorber' of poor people who are forced to reduce their resource consumption when food prices rise. This reduced price elasticity and caused a sharp rise in food prices during some shortages. In the media, China is often mentioned as one of the main reasons for the increase in world food prices. However, China has to a large extent been able to meet its own demand for food, and even exports its surpluses in the world market.[22]

Impact of petroleum price increases

The rise in the price of oil has heightened the costs of fertilizers (in some instances doubling the price within the six months before April, 2008[23]), the majority of which require petroleum or natural gas to manufacture.[4] Although the main fossil fuel input for fertilizer comes from natural gas to generate hydrogen for the Haber–Bosch process (see: Ammonia production), natural gas has its own supply problems similar to those for oil. Because natural gas can substitute for petroleum in some uses (for example, natural gas liquids and electricity generation), increasing prices for petroleum lead to increasing prices for natural gas, and thus for fertilizer.

Costs for fertilizer raw materials other than oil, such as potash, have themselves been increasing[24] as increased production of staples increases demand. This is causing a boom (with associated volatility) in agriculture stocks.

Declining world food stockpiles

In the past, nations tended to keep more sizable food stockpiles, but more recently, due to the fast pace at which food could be grown and the ease with which it could be imported, less emphasis was placed on keeping high stockpiles. Therefore, for example, in February 2008 wheat stockpiles hit a 60-year low in the United States (see also Rice shortage).[4]

Financial speculation

Destabilizing influences, including indiscriminate lending and real estate speculation, led to a crisis in January 2008, and eroded investment in food commodities.[4] The United States, specifically, had been facing an economic crisis which eventually lead to recession.[25][26][27]

Financial speculation in commodity futures following the collapse of the financial derivatives markets has contributed to the crisis due to a "commodities super-cycle." Financial speculators seeking quick returns have removed trillions of dollars from equities and mortgage bonds, some of which has been invested into food and raw materials.[28] That American commodities speculation could have a worldwide impact on food prices is reflected in the globalization of food production. It represents the concentration of wealth throughout the world which Frances Moore Lappé equates to a weakening in fundamental democracy. In a recent article for The Nation, she suggests that there is no food shortage but that "as long as food is merely a commodity in societies that don't protect people's right to participate in the market, and as long as farming is left vulnerable to consolidated power off the farm, many will go hungry, farmers among them—no matter how big the harvests."[29]

Impact of trade liberalization

Some theorists, such as Martin Khor of the Third World Network,[30] point out that many developing nations have gone from being food independent to being net food importing economies since the 1970s and 1980s International Monetary Fund (and later the World Trade Organisation's Agreement on Agriculture) free market economics directives to debtor nations. In opening developing countries to developed world food imports which continue to be subsidised by Western governments, developing nations have become dependent upon food imports which are cheaper than those which can be produced by local smallholders agriculture, even in the poorest regions of the world.[30]

While developed countries pressured the developing world to abolish subsidies in the interest of trade liberalization, rich countries largely kept subsidies in place for their own farmers. In recent years United States government subsidies have been added which pushed production toward biofuel rather than food and vegetables .[4]

Impact of food for fuel

One systemic cause for the price rise is held to be the diversion of food crops (maize in particular) for making first-generation biofuels.[31] An estimated 100 million tons of grain per year are being redirected from food to fuel.[32] (Total worldwide grain production for 2007 was just over 2000 million tonnes.[33]) As farmers devoted larger parts of their crops to fuel production than in previous years, land and resources available for food production were reduced correspondingly. This has resulted in less food available for human consumption, especially in developing and least developed countries, where a family's daily allowances for food purchases are extremely limited. The crisis can be seen, in a sense, to dichotomize rich and poor nations, since, for example, filling a tank of an average car with biofuel, amounts to as much maize (Africa's principal food staple) as an African person consumes in an entire year.[4]

Brazil, the world's second largest producer of ethanol after the U.S., is considered to have the world's first sustainable biofuels economy[34][35][36] and its government claims Brazil's sugar cane based ethanol industry has not contributed to the 2008 food crises.[36][37] A World Bank policy research working paper released in July 2008[38] concluded that "...large increases in biofuels production in the United States and Europe are the main reason behind the steep rise in global food prices", and also stated that "Brazil's sugar-based ethanol did not push food prices appreciably higher".[39][40] An economic assessment published in July 2008 by the OECD[41] also agrees with the World Bank report regarding the negative effects of subsidies and trade restrictions, but found that the impact of biofuels on food prices are much smaller.[42]

A report released by Oxfam in June 2008[43] criticized biofuel policies of rich countries and concluded that from all biofuels available in the market, Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is "far from perfect" but it is the most favorable biofuel in the world in term of cost and GHG balance. The report discusses some existing problems and potential risks, and asks the Brazilian government for caution to avoid jeopardazing its environmental and social sustainability. The report also says that: “Rich countries spent up to $15 billion last year supporting biofuels while blocking cheaper Brazilian ethanol, which is far less damaging for global food security."[44][45] (See Ethanol fuel in Brazil)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the rise in food prices is due to poor agricultural policies and changing eating habits in developing nations, not biofuels as some critics claim.[46] On April 29, 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush declared during a press conference that "85 percent of the world's food prices are caused by weather, increased demand and energy prices", and recognized that "15 percent has been caused by ethanol".[47] On July 4, 2008, The Guardian reported that a leaked World Bank report estimated the rise in food prices caused by biofuels to be 75%.[48] This report was officially released in July 2008.[38]

Since reaching record high prices in June 2008, corn prices fell 50% by October 2008, declining sharply together with other commodities, including oil. As ethanol production from corn has continue at the same levels, some have argued this trend shows the belief that the increased demand for corn to produce ethanol was mistaken. "Analysts, including some in the ethanol sector, say ethanol demand adds about 75 cents to $1.00 per bushel to the price of corn, as a rule of thumb. Other analysts say it adds around 20 percent, or just under 80 cents per bushel at current prices. Those estimates hint that $4 per bushel corn might be priced at only $3 without demand for ethanol fuel."[49] These industry sources consider that a speculative bubble in the commodity markets holding positions in corn futures was the main driver behind the observed hike in corn prices affecting food supply.

Second- and third-generation biofuels (such as cellulosic ethanol and algae fuel, respectively) may someday ease the competition with food crops, as non food energy crops can grow on marginal lands unsuited for food crops, but these advanced biofuels require further development of farming practices and refining technology; in contrast, ethanol from maize uses mature technology and the maize crop can be shifted between food and fuel use quickly.

Biofuel subsidies in the US and the EU

The World Bank lists the effect of biofuels as an important contributor to higher food prices.[50] The FAO/ECMB has reported that world land usage for agriculture has declined since the 1980s, and subsidies outside the United States and EU have dropped since the year 2004, leaving supply, while sufficient to meet 2004 needs, vulnerable when the United States began converting agricultural commodities to biofuels.[51] According to the United States Department of Agriculture, global wheat imports and stocks have decreased, domestic consumption has stagnated, and world wheat production has decreased from 2006 to 2008.[52]

In the United States, government subsidies for ethanol production have prompted many farmers to switch to production for biofuel. Maize is the primary crop used for the production of ethanol, with the United States being the biggest producer of maize ethanol. As a result, 23 percent of United States maize crops were being used for ethanol in 2006–2007 (up from 6 percent in 2005–2006), and the USDA expects the United States to use 81 million tonnes of maize for ethanol production in the 2007–2008 season, up 37 percent.[53] This not only diverts grains from food, but it diverts agricultural land from food production.

Nevertheless, supporters of ethanol claim that using corn for ethanol is not responsible for the worst food riots in the world, many of which have been caused by the price of rice and oil, which are not affected by biofuel use but rather by supply and demand.

However, a World Bank policy research working paper released in July 2008[38] says that biofuels have raised food prices between 70 to 75 percent. The study found that higher oil prices and a weak dollar explain 25–30% of total price rise. The "month-by-month" five year analysis disputes that increases in global grain consumption and droughts were responsible for price increases, reporting that this had had only a marginal impact and instead argues that the EU and US drive for biofuels has had by far the biggest impact on food supply and prices. The paper concludes that increased production of biofuels in the US and EU were supported by subsidies and tariffs on imports, and considers that without these policies, price increases would have been smaller. This research also concluded that Brazil's sugar cane based ethanol has not raised sugar prices significantly, and suggest to remove tariffs on ethanol imports by both the US and EU, to allow more efficient producers such as Brazil and other developing countries to produce ethanol profitably for export to meet the mandates in the EU and the US.[39][40]

The Renewable Fuel Association (RFA) published a rebuttal based on the version leaked before the formal release of the World Bank's paper.[54] The RFA critique considers that the analysis is highly subjective and that the author "estimates the impact of global food prices from the weak dollar and the direct and indirect effect of high petroleum prices and attributes everything else to biofuels."[55]

An economic assessment report also published in July 2008 by the OECD[41] agrees with the World Bank report regarding the negative effects of subsidies and trade restrictions, but found that the impact of biofuels on food prices are much smaller. The OECD study is also critical of the limited reduction of GHG emissions achieved from biofuels produced in Europe and North America, concluding that the current biofuel support policies would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport fuel by no more than 0.8 percent by 2015, while Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane reduces greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent compared to fossil fuels. The assessment calls on governments for more open markets in biofuels and feedstocks in order to improve efficiency and lower costs.[42]

Idled farmland

According to the New York Times on April 9, 2008, the United States government pays farmers to idle their cropland under a conservation program. This policy reached a peak of 36,800,000 acres (149,000 km2) idled in 2007, that is 8% of cropland in United States, representing a total area bigger than the state of New York.[56]

Agricultural subsidies

The global food crisis has renewed calls for removal of distorting agricultural subsidies in developed countries.[57] Support to farmers in OECD countries totals 280 billion USD annually, which compares to official development assistance of just 80 billion USD in 2004, and farm support distorts food prices leading to higher global food prices, according to OECD estimates.[58] The US Farm Bill brought in by the Bush Administration in 2002 increased agricultural subsidies by 80% and cost the US taxpayer 190 billion USD..[59] In 2003, the EU agreed to extend the Common Agricultural Policy until 2013. Former UNDP Administrator Malloch Brown renewed calls for reform of the farm subsidies such as the CAP.[60]

Distorted global rice market

Japan is forced to import more than 767,000 tons of rice annually from the United States, Thailand, and other countries due to WTO rules. This is despite the fact that Japan produces over 100% of domestic rice consumption needs with 11 million tonnes produced in 2005 while 8.7 million tonnes were consumed in 2003–2004 period.[citation needed] Japan is not allowed to re-export this rice to other countries without approval. This rice is generally left to rot and then used for animal feed. Under pressure, the United States and Japan are poised to strike a deal to remove such restrictions. It is expected 1.5 million tonnes of high-grade American rice will enter the market soon.[61]

Crop shortfalls from natural disasters

Several distinct weather- and climate-related incidents have caused disruptions in crop production. Perhaps the most influential is the extended drought in Australia, in particular the fertile Murray-Darling Basin, which produces large amounts of wheat and rice. The drought has caused the annual rice harvest to fall by as much as 98% from pre-drought levels.[62] Australia is historically the second-largest exporter of wheat after the United States, producing up to 25 million tons in a good year, the vast majority for export. However, the 2006 harvest was 9.8 million.[63] Other events that have negatively affected the price of food include the 2006 heat wave in California's San Joaquin Valley, which killed large numbers of farm animals, and unseasonable 2008 rains in Kerala, India, which destroyed swathes of grain. Scientists have stated that several of these incidents are consistent with the predicted effects of climate change.[64][65]

The effects of Cyclone Nargis on Burma in May 2008 caused a spike in the price of rice. Burma has historically been a rice exporter, though yields have fallen as government price controls have reduced incentives for farmers. The storm surge inundated rice paddies up to 30 miles (48 km) inland in the Irrawaddy Delta, raising concern that the salt could make the fields infertile. The FAO had previously estimated that Burma would export up to 600,000 tons of rice in 2008, but concerns were raised in the cyclone's aftermath that Burma may be forced to import rice for the first time, putting further upward pressure on global rice prices.[6][66]

Stem rust reappeared in 1998[67] in Uganda (and possibly earlier in Kenya)[68] with the particularly virulent UG99 fungus. Unlike other rusts, which only partially affect crop yields, UG99 can bring 100% crop loss. Up to 80% yield losses were recently recorded in Kenya.[69] As of 2005 stem rust was still believed to be "largely under control worldwide except in Eastern Africa".[68] But by January 2007 an even more virulent strain had gone across the Red Sea into Yemen. FAO first reported on 5 March 2008 that Ug99 had now spread to major wheat-growing areas in Iran.[70] These countries in North Africa and Middle East consume over 150% of their own wheat production;[67] the failure of this staple crop thus adds a major burden on them. The disease is now expected to spread over China and the Far-East. The strong international collaboration network of research and development that spread disease-resistant strains some 40 years ago and started the Green Revolution, was since slowly starved of research funds because of its own success and is now too atrophied to swiftly react to the new threat.[67]

Soil and productivity losses

Sundquist [71] points out that large areas of croplands are lost year after year, due mainly to soil erosion, water depletion and urbanisation. According to him "60,000 km2/ year of land becomes so severely degraded that it loses its productive capacity and becomes wasteland", and even more are affected to a lesser extent, adding to the crop supply problem.

Additionally, agricultural production is also lost due to water depletion. Northern China in particular has depleted much of its non-renewables aquifers, which now impacts negatively its crop production [72].

Urbanisation is another, smaller, difficult to estimate cause of annual cropland reduction [73].

Rising levels of ozone

One possible environmental factor in the food price crisis is rising background levels of ozone in the atmosphere. Plants have been shown to have a high sensitivity to ozone levels, and lower yields of important food crops, such as wheat and soybeans, may have be a result of ozone levels. Ozone levels in the Yangtze Delta were studied for their effect on oilseed rape, a member of the cabbage family that produces one-third of the vegetable oil used in China. Plants grown in chambers that controlled ozone levels exhibited a 10–20 percent reduction in size and weight (biomass) when exposed to elevated ozone. Production of seeds and oil was also reduced.[74]

Rising prices

From the beginning of 2007 to early 2008, the prices of some of the most basic international food commodities increased dramatically on international markets. The international market price of wheat doubled from February 2007 to February 2008 hitting a record high of over USD$10 a bushel.[75] Rice prices also reached ten year highs. In some nations, milk and meat prices more than doubled, while soy (which hit a 34 year high price in December 2007[76]) and maize prices have increased dramatically.

Total food import bills rose by an estimated 25% for developing countries in 2007. Researchers from the Overseas Development Institute have suggested this problem will be worsened by a likely fall in food aid. As food aid is programmed by budget rather than volume, rising food prices mean that the World Food Programme (WFP) needs an extra $500 million just to sustain the current operations.[77]

To ensure that food remains available for their domestic populations and to combat dramatic price inflation, major rice exporters, such as China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Egypt, have imposed strict export bans on rice.[78] Conversely, several other nations, including Argentina, Ukraine, Russia, and Serbia have, as well, either imposed high tariffs or blocked the export of wheat and other foodstuffs altogether, driving up prices still further for net food importing nations while trying to isolate their internal markets. Finally, North Korea, is also suffering from the food crisis (to such extent that a North Korean official was quoted in June '08 with saying "Life is more than difficult. It seems that everyone is going to die")..[79] This nation however is solely relying on food assistance to cope with the crisis.[80]

In developed countries

United States

The global food price crisis has appeared in the U.S.A. as the rice shortage[citation needed]. The retail prices of food in the U.S. increased four percent according to the Consumer Price Index in 2007, the largest increase in 17 years. The USDA Economic Research Service predicted that prices would increase another three to four percentage points throughout 2008.[81]

In April 2008 Sam's Club instituted a limit on how much long-grain white rice that restaurant and retail customers could purchase due to shortages. Purchases of other types of rice were not restricted.[82][83] A May 2008 national survey found that food banks and pantries across the U.S. were being forced to cut back on food distribution as 99 percent of respondents reported an increase in the number of people requesting services. Rising food and fuel prices, inadequate food stamp benefits, unemployment, underemployment, and rent or mortgage costs were factors reported as forcing an average of 15-20 percent more people.[84] Compounding this issue, USDA bonus foods have declined by $200 million and local food donations were down nationally about 9 percent over the same period. According to the California Association of Food Banks, which is an umbrella organization of nearly all food banks in the state, food banks are at the “beginning of a crisis.”[85]

Impacts on farmers

If global price movements are transmitted to local markets, farmers in the developing world could benefit from the rising price of food. According to researchers from the Overseas Development Institute, this may depend on farmers’ capacity to respond to changing market conditions. Experience suggests that farmers lack the credit and inputs needed to respond in the short term. In the medium or long term, however, they could benefit, as seen in the Asian green revolution or in many African countries in the recent past.[77]

Unrest and government actions in individual countries and regions

The price rises affected parts of Asia and Africa particularly severely with Burkina Faso,[86] Cameroon, Senegal, Mauritania, Cote d'Ivoire,[87] Egypt[88] and Morocco seeing protests and riots in late 2007 and early 2008 over the unavailability of basic food staples. Other countries which have seen food riots or are facing related unrest are: Mexico, Bolivia, Yemen, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh,[89] Pakistan,[90] Sri Lanka,[91] and South Africa.[92]


10,000 workers rioted close to the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, smashing cars and buses and vandalising factories in anger at high food prices and low wages. Dozens of people, including at least 20 police officials, were injured in the violence. Ironically, the country achieved food self-sufficiency in 2002, but food prices increased drastically due to the reliance of agriculture on oil and fossil fuels.[93]

Economists estimate 30 million of the country's 150 million people could go hungry.[94]


In April 2008, the Brazilian government announced a temporary ban on the export of rice. The ban is intended to protect domestic consumers.[95][96]

Burkina Faso

One of the earlier food riots took place in Burkina Faso, on February 22, when rioting broke in the country's second and third largest cities over soaring food prices (up to 65 percent increase), sparing however the capital, Ouagadougou, where soldiers were mobilized throughout strategic points. The government promised to lower taxes on food and to release food stocks. Over 100 people were arrested in one of the towns.[97]


Cameroon, the world's fourth largest cocoa producer, saw large scale rioting in late February 2008, in protest against inflating food and fuel prices, as well as the attempt by President Paul Biya to extend his 25-year rule. At least seven people were killed in the worst unrest seen in the country in over fifteen years.[98] This figure was later increased to 24.[99] Part of the government response to the protests was a reduction in import taxes on foods including rice, flour, and fish. The government reached an agreement with retailers by which prices would be lowered in exchange for the reduced import taxes. As of late April 2008, however, reports suggested that prices had not eased and in some cases had even increased.[100]

On April 24, 2008, the government of Cameroon announced a two-year emergency program designed to double Cameroon's food production and achieve food self-sufficiency.[101]

Côte d'Ivoire

On March 31, Côte d'Ivoire's capital Abidjan saw police use tear gas and a dozen protesters injured following food riots that gripped the city. The riots followed dramatic hikes in the price of food and fuel, with the price of beef rising from $1.68 to $2.16 per kilogram, and the price of gasoline rising from $1.44 to $2.04 per liter, in only three days.[102]


In Egypt, a boy was killed from a gunshot to the head after Egyptian police intervened in violent demonstrations over rising food prices that gripped the industrial city of Mahalla on April 8. Large swathes of the population have been hit as food prices, and particularly the price of bread, have doubled over the last several months as a result of producers exploiting a shortage which has existed since 2006.[103][104]


Drought and the food price crisis are threatening thousands in Ethiopia.[105]


On April 12, 2008, the Haitian Senate voted to dismiss Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis after violent food riots hit the country.[106] The food riots caused the death of 5 people.[99] Prices for food items such as rice, beans, fruit and condensed milk have gone up 50 percent in Haiti since late 2007 while the price of fuel has tripled in only two months.[107] Riots broke out in April due to the high prices, and the government had been attempting to restore order by subsidizing a 15 percent reduction in the price of rice.[108] As of February 2010, post-earthquake Port-au-Prince is almost entirely reliant on foreign food aid, some of which is ending up for sale in the black markets.[109]


Food riots were reported in the Indian state of West Bengal in 2007 over shortages of food. India has banned the export of rice except for Basmati types of rice which attract a premium price.[110]


Street protests over the price of food took place in Indonesia[111] where food staples and gasoline have nearly doubled in price since January 2008.[112]

Latin America

In April 2008, the Latin American members of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) met in Brasília in order to confront the issues of high food prices, scarcities and violence that are affecting the region. [113]


The President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, with industry representatives and members of the Confederation of Industrial Chambers (Concamin), agreed to freeze prices of more than 150 consumer staples, such as coffee, sardines, tuna, oil, soup or tea, among others, until the end of December 2008. The measure was carried out in an attempt to control inflation, which stood at an annual rate of 4.95%, the highest increase since December 2004.

Mexican baking company Grupo Bimbo, agreed to maintain stable prices of their products, despite of the 20% raise of the production costs.[114]. Daniel Servitje, CEO of this company, announced in the 19th Plenary Meeting of the Mexico–China Business Committee. Bimbo is one of the most important baking companies worldwide, with the recent expansion to China. Bimbo also recently has acquired five bakeries in the United States and Canada.[115]. Servitje also said that their investment plans of this year will be done, but the long term projects, can be changed.


In mid February, rioting that started in the Mozambican rural town of Chokwe and then spread to the capital, Maputo, has resulted in at least four deaths. The riots were reported in the media to have been, at least in part, over food prices and were termed "food riots." A biofuel advocacy publication, however, claimed that these were, in fact, "fuel riots", limited to the rise in the cost of diesel, and argued that the "food riot" characterization worked to fan "anti-biofuels sentiment."[116]


The Pakistan Army has been deployed to avoid the seizure of food from fields and warehouses. This hasn't stopped the food prices from increasing. The new government has been blamed for not managing the countries food stockpiles properly.[117]


Once the world's top rice producer, Myanmar has produced enough rice to feed itself until now. Rice exports dropped over four decades from nearly 4 million tons to only about 40,000 tons last year, mostly due to neglect by Myanmar's ruling generals of infrastructure, including irrigation and warehousing. On 3 May 2008 Cyclone Nargis stripped Myanmar's rice-growing districts, ruining large areas with salt water. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that these areas produce 65 percent of the Southeast Asian country's rice. Worries of long-term food shortages and rationing are rife. The military regime says nothing about the rice crisis, but continues to export rice at the same rate. "...at least the next two harvests are going to be greatly affected and there’ll be virtually no output from those areas during that time. So we’re likely to see considerable food and rice shortages for the next couple of years. The damage to the economy is going to be profound." said economist and Myanmar expert Sean Turnell, of Australia's Macquarie University. (interviewed in "The Irriwaddy", Tuesday, May 27, 2008)


In Panama, in response to higher rice prices the government began buying rice at the high market price and selling rice to the public at a lower subsidized price at food kiosks.


In the Philippines, the Arroyo government insisted on April 13 that there would be no food riots in the country and that there could be no comparison with Haiti's situation.[118] Chief Presidential Legal Counsel, Sergio Apostol stated that: "Haiti is not trying to solve the problem, while we are doing something to address the issue. We don't have a food shortage. So, no comparison..."[119] Comments by the Justice Secretary, Raul Gonzalez, the following day, that food riots are not far fetched, were quickly rebuked by the rest of the government.[120]

On April 15, the Philippines, the world's largest rice importer, urged China, Japan, and other key Asian nations, to convene an emergency meeting, especially taking issue with those countries' rice export bans. "Free trade should be flowing," Philippine Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap stated.[121] In late April 2008, the Philippines government requested that the World Bank exert pressure on rice exporting countries to end export restrictions.[122]


The Russian government pressured retailers to freeze food prices before key elections for fear of a public backlash against the rising cost of food in October 2007.[123] The freeze ended on May 1, 2008.[124]


On 31 March 2008, Senegal saw riots in response to the rise in the price of food and fuel. Twenty four people were arrested and detained in a response which one local human rights group claimed included "torture" and other "unspeakable acts" on the part of the security forces.[125] Further protests took place in Dakar on 26 April 2008.[126]


Witnesses and officials in Somalia said thousands of angry Somalis rioted on May 5, 2008 over rising food prices and the collapse of the nation's currency, culminating in clashes with government troops and armed shopkeepers that killed at least five protesters.[127] The protests occurred amid a serious humanitarian emergency due to the Ethiopian war in Somalia.


The Christian Science Monitor, neweurasia, and other media observers are predicting that a nascent hunger crisis will erupt into a full famine as a consequence of the energy shortages.[128] UN experts announced on 10 October that almost one-third of Tajikistan’s 6.7 million inhabitants may not have enough to eat for the winter of 2008-09.[129]


Food riots in southern Yemen that began in late March and continued through early April, saw police stations torched, and roadblocks were set up by armed protesters. The army has deployed tanks and other military vehicles. Although the riots involved thousands of demonstrators over several days and over 100 arrests, officials claimed no fatalities; residents, however, claimed that at least one of the fourteen wounded people has died.[130]


The UN (FAO) released a study in December 2007 projecting a 49 percent increase in African cereal prices, and 53 percent in European prices, through July 2008.[131] In April 2008, the World Bank, in combination with the International Monetary Fund, announced a series of measures aimed at mitigating the crisis, including increased loans to African farmers and emergency monetary aid to badly affected areas such as Haiti.[132] According to FAO director Jacques Diouf, however, the World Food Programme needs an immediate cash injection of at least $1700 million,[4] far more than the tens of million-worth in measures already pledged. On 28 April 2008, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established a Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis [3] under his chairmanship and composed of the heads of the United Nations specialized agencies, funds and programmes, Bretton Woods institutions and relevant parts of the UN Secretariat to co-ordinate efforts to alleviate the crisis.[133]

Actions by governments

IFAD is making up to US$200 million available to support poor farmers boost food production in face of the global food crisis.[134]

On May 2, 2008 U.S. President George W. Bush said he was asking Congress to approve an extra $770 million funding for international food aid.[135] On October 16, 2008, former US president Bill Clinton scolded the bipartisan coalition in Congress that killed the idea of making some aid donations in cash rather than in food.[136]

The release of Japan's rice reserves onto the market may bring the rice price down significantly. As of May 16, anticipation of the move had already lowered prices by 14% in a single week.[137]

On April 30, 2008 Thailand announced the creation of the Organization of Rice Exporting Countries (OREC) with the potential to develop a price-fixing cartel for rice.[138][139] This is seen by some as an action to capitalise on the crisis[citation needed].

In June 2008 the Food and Agriculture Organization hosted a High-Level Conference on World Food Security, in which $1.2 billion in food aid was committed for the 75 million people in 60 countries hardest hit by rising food prices.[140]

In June 2008, a sustained commitment from the G8 was called for by some humanitarian organizations.[141]

On October 23, 2008, Associated Press reported the following:

"Former President Clinton told a U.N. gathering Thursday [Oct 16, 2008] that the global food crisis shows "we all blew it, including me," by treating food crops "like color TVs" instead of as a vital commodity for the world's poor.... Clinton criticized decades of policymaking by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and others, encouraged by the U.S., that pressured Africans in particular into dropping government subsidies for fertilizer, improved seed and other farm inputs as a requirement to get aid. Africa's food self-sufficiency declined and food imports rose. Now skyrocketing prices in the international grain trade — on average more than doubling between 2006 and early 2008 — have pushed many in poor countries deeper into poverty."[136]

We need the World Bank, the IMF, all the big foundations, and all the governments to admit that, for 30 years, we all blew it, including me when I was President. We were wrong to believe that food was like some other product in international trade, and we all have to go back to a more responsible and sustainable form of agriculture.

Former US President Bill Clinton, Speech at United Nations World Food Day, October 16, 2008 [142]

Food price decreases

In December 2008, the global economic slowdown, decreasing oil prices, and speculation of decreased demand for commodities worldwide brought about sharp decreases in the price of staple crops from their earlier highs. Corn prices on the Chicago Board of Trade dropped from US $7.99 per bushel in June to US $3.74 per bushel in mid-December; wheat and rice prices experienced similar decreases.[143] The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, however, warned against "a false sense of security", noting that the credit crisis could cause farmers to reduce plantings.[144]. FAO has convened a World Summit on Food Security at its headquarters in Rome in November, noting that food prices remain high in developing countries and that the global food security situation has worsened.

See also


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