Off the keyboard of RE
Published originally on The Burning Platform on Novemeber 17, 2010
Discuss this article at the Frostbite Falls Daily Rant inside the Diner
My father rode a camel, I drive a car, my son flys a jet plane, his son will
ride a camel. -Old Saudi Saying
A recent thread here brought up Richard Duncan’s Olduvai Theory, which basically states that with decreasing per capita energy availability, we are eventually destined to return to the Stone Age in terms of our technology, with a fairly precipitous decline which began sometime in the late 1970s, and should put us back in the 1930s era by 2030 or so. Whenever I bring up this possibility, I get the same Kneejerk Rections, that the possibility that Homo Sapiens is destined to be using Stone Knives and dressed in Bearskins is Science Fiction on a par with ET landing in Elliot’s Garage and Phoning Home. I’d like to try to examine the ideas for how valid they might or might not be, along with what the actual timeline might be for a technological retracement
First off, as far as my own knowledge of this theory, I only found out about it quite some time after I joined the Peak Oil message board writing my own take on how our civilization would be affected by the disappearance of easily accessible fossil fuels. My general conclusion was (and for the most part still remains) that we will eventually drop back down to about a 1750s era level of technology, utilizing Sail Power for shipping and animal and human labor for over land transportation and food production. However, I can see some justification for the hypothesis that over a really long term of a millennia or more that we could end up going all the way back to a Neolithic paradigm. This assuming of course we don’t end up going completely extinct either through natural causes like a Supervolcano, or through a Man Made self-extinction through Nuclear War and/or poisoning the planet through further ecological disasters like the Deepwater Horizon in the GOM.
What would the justification be for this? Well, if you assume steadily increasing population here for as long as there is some sort of fossil fuels to access, more people will continue to use up more resources ever faster, even while per capita usage drops. This is reflected in the idea that China with 1.3B people will put as many cars out on the road as we did for the last 50 years, so even if we conserved the fuel would get burned up anyhow. Then we go through the Coal and NG reserves, until in the end the only fuel left to burn is that which grows each year fed by Solar Energy. A Pay as you Go paradigm from that point forward.
Duncan is assuming a few things here which may or may not be true. First one would be that we don’t at least partially replace the lost fossil fuel energy source with Nuke and Renewables. Second and even more important is that he is assuming a pretty steady population increase to keep the fossil fuels consumption up, and thus drop us off the fairly steep curve he draws downward to 2030 or so.
While its not a very pleasant scenario to contemplate, if through War, Pestilence or Famine sometime between now and 2030 we cut World Population in Half, per Capita we could roughly double energy usage with the remaining resource, or raise it 50% while halving the decline rate. If at the same time we make a concerted effort at developing alternative energy resource, we could extend it out further than that. Over a fairly long period of time, the population might shrink down to 1/10th what it is now, or even 1/100th. As long as that shrinkage is not also accompanied by ever increasing energy usage by the smaller population, in theory you REALLY could extend out the timeline of a such a technological society, although no matter how long and with how small a population you work with, eventually you would reach the point where fossil fuels were completely unavailable to use. However, with such a long timeline and such a reduced population, you might be able to Pay as You Go turning Sedge Grass into liquid fuel using enzymatic processes, or some variant of this with Algae or some other rapidly growing organism. Making these assumptions, which are not all that unrealistic, Duncan’s Olduvai Theory doesn’t play out that well.
GIFSoupHowever, that decline of Population commensurate with maintaining current infrastructure and production levels falls apart when you consider the real results of what the competition for the remaining resource will be, which is ever increasing War. For as long as it is possible to get enough Oil to run a Mechanized Army, societies will build such a War Machine, with the specific purpose of taking control of the Oil fields necessary to run that machine. The FIGHT for the remaining Oil is what will use it up faster, along with destroying the infrastructure used to pump up what oil remains and then refine it. This brings about a crash in population and technology that is FASTER than our possible ability to replace it with alternative energy resource. Under this scenario, Duncan’s Olduvai Theory is more justifiable.
Fossil Fuels aren’t the ONLY thing necessary to stay above the Stone Age though, long before we accessed the thermodynamic energy of Oil to run the civilization of Homo Industrialis, we jumped up from Stone Tools to using Metal ones. To smelt and refine those metals though, entire Forests were burned down, along with also Coal being used, but in this projected future there wouldn’t be any Coal left to burn, so in terms of burning stuff to create the heat necessary to create all those metal tools, you would need another heat source. This of course could be provided by Nuke Energy, but again you have to remember that the Fight for the Oil resource probably would ALSO end up destroying any Nuke Reactors. Even if they all were not destroyed, just maintaining them and keeping them operational takes Oil, and they only have around a 50 year lifespan anyhow before they need to be decommissioned or all their internal parts replaced due to constant exposure to high energy radiation.
Taking all this into consideration, Duncan’s Olduvai Theory seems to me to be possible over a pretty long timeline, but its NOT a return to the Stone Age in a Century. In under a Century, at the very least you still have plenty of already mined up and refined metals to work with to create tools and build or rebuild with. In under that timeline, you still have a good deal of Coal left to run Forges with and reuse all that metal. Metal by itself forgetting the advantages we get from more complex machines was a HUGE step up the ladder from the Stone Age. Metal Knives, Farm Implements, Tools like Crosscut Saws hell just NAILS to bang together a housing structure or boat made of wood is a big advantage over just using a Stone Hand Axe to roughly hew out some wood and put it together with mortice and tenet joints and lashings. As big a Doomer as I am, I don’t see any scenario likely in even half a millennia where we wouldn’t have NAILS to use. If you backtrack in time 500 years to 1500 or so, they certainly were not living in the Stone Age. So if Duncan’s Olduvai Theory is correct, its going to take a pretty long time to Reverse Engineer our way back there, probably pretty close to the 5000 years or so it took to work our way OUT of the Neolithic lifestyle to begin with.
Most people aren’t too concerned about what the long term fate of Homo Sapiens is here, really they are about 60% concerned with how things are going to play out in their own lifetime, and the other 40% in what will happen to their Kids. If they have Grandkids already born, they have somewhat less concern over their own lives (mostly over already), and transfer that concern to the Grandkids, for something like maybe 30% your own life, 30% your kids lives and 40% your grandkids or something like that. So the max timeline anyone really cares to consider here usually is the next 50-100 years. What might that look like here under the most plausible scenario I can conjure up?
Well first off like MANY other Doomers on the net, I see a major War for Resources (Oil, Water and arable Land mainly) coming down the pipe here. It probably will have both a Civil (local) component as well as a Global component. Whenever the Global portion of this does really take off, I doubt it would take more than 5 years for all the good Military Hardware to be at the bottom of Davey Jones Locker and most of the Oil production infrastructure to be irretrievably destroyed. I don’t forsee Global Thermonuclear War of the Wargames Scenario with the WOPRs pitching out 100s of MIRVs and sending us into a Nuclear Winter. Rather I see Tactical Nukes being used on the battlefield, Dirty Bombs being used in some cases for Terrorism purposes, and certainly from all sides involved the effort to diminish the war making capability of the other side by destroying their Oil infrastructure of Refineries. The outcome of this is so Devastating and Incalculable that by itself its usually the point at which most folks stop considering how it will all play out. The Big Shitties all starved of Oil to run the water pumping stations and sewage treatment plants turns ALL of them into a virtual Mirror Image of what is going on in Port Au Prince in Haiti right now. No fancy Flu Virus concocted in an Illuminati Lab necessary, good old fashioned CHOLERA will bloom in all these Cesspools waiting to happen.
Once the Conduits begin to fail in earnest resulting from Global destruction of the Conduits, Local Populations everywhere will be left on their own to first off try to Protect and Defend their locales from an OCEAN of Refugees (aka Zombies), which has these areas mostly become Feudalized mini-states run by Warlords. Next, they will have to make themselves Sustainable in just what they produce within their borders. This will be a major challenge for most of these neighborhoods. Without any Oil Product to run any of the machines, without the ability to pump water up from aquifers to irrigate the land, without high energy fertilizers to increase yields, without pesticides to keep crop losses minimal, and at least at the beginning without a whole lotta Draft Animals to help do the physical work necessary, they will be producing a whole heck of a lot less off their local landscape than they do now, even if it IS good land for growing. Cross your fingers for each of these areas they have a local Permaculture Expert who will instruct them on how to get fabulous yields organically with Heirloom Seeds which will Breed True and conserve and save the seeds to grow another generation of crops the following season.
In effect here, due to extreme dislocation which results from WAR causing a very rapid removal of the Oil resource from the current population dependent on it, I just do not think it will take very long at ALL for a ST Matthews Island Deer depopulation to take place in many places. It’s a cascade failure of systems. 5-10 years from the time the Technological War of Mechanized Armies really gets going in the Resource War before it consumes the Resources necessary to feed such an army, 10-50 years after that for the remaining local populations to decrease in size themselves to a level sustainable on their local resources. In 50-100 years, you will have a MUCH reduced population size, but you STILL will not be Stone Age. There will still be TONS of copper wire to Scavenge, tons of Steel and even still mega Tons of coal available to mine up and use in your forges. The resultant Technological level at this time is nowhere near so low as Stone Age. Its 1750 all over again, the main difference being that what went down before did a seriously good job with depleting many good Ag areas of nutrients now washed out to sea and a fairly well poisoned Fisherie in most of the good fishing grounds along with much coral reef destruction that will prevent the fisherie from rapidly returning to its former levels of fecundity. All these factors will make scraping a living out of the ground a lot harder than it was on the way up the ladder, which leads to a still further undershoot of the Homo Sapiens population possible on the planet even on a pay as you go paradigm.
If you ran this one Logarithmically, factor down 10 fold in the initial loss resulting from Conduit Failure in the Big Shitties from the Techno War; factor down another 10 fold resulting from the inability of the surviving population to produce as much food from their local area as before TSHTF; and factor down another 10 fold from overall depletion and destruction of environmental resources that produce food, you get a 1000:1 population reduction over a timespan of about a Century. So an Initial Population prior to the Die Off of Homo Industrialis starts out TODAY at around 6.3B, in about a Century it drops down to 6.3M. This is MASSIVE Undershoot, because even in around 1500 there were 500M people living on Earth. So this might be an overestimate either in how fast the die off takes place or what percentage loss there is in any phase. Still, barring a miracle here, I can’t see how we will not drop down to a max of 1B people over the next century, so for most of your current progeny, best case scenario is they got a 50-50 shot at making it through the next 50 years. You can console yourself though with the knowledge that if they do in fact survive, they most probably will not be living in Duncan’s Neo-Stone Age, but rather on a Techno level something closer to 1750’s era technology.
We still have a few questions to answer though. Even if you assume all the above as plausible, does even a destruction of the current population on the planet down to 6M Human Souls, or even a FURTHER destruction below that down to just 10, 000 Human Souls as happened after the Toba Bottleneck mean that Homo Sapiens will NEVER be so technologically advanced as he is today? Hell no, in 75,000 years Homo Sapiens might well develop sustainable Pay as you Go methods of harvesting energy, just it is wholly unlikely we would ever again have such an enormous footprint on the planet in terms of numbers. I also do not think that even had we been the most careful stewards possible of our Energy Resources that we would ever get off the Planet to go populating the Stars in Interstellar Spacecraft. Sending some Rockets around the Solar System was about as much as we could manage, and the other planets aren’t suited for life as we know it. Creating and building spacecraft that could negotiate interstellar distances and having the energy resource necessary for such travel is about as far beyond our abilities as it is for an Ant to build and fly a Drone Aircraft to bomb Afghani Ants. We aren’t destined to populate the Stars, our corporeal existence is fixed to this Planet, and always will be for as long as Homo Sapiens avoids an Extinction event on the planet. If you accept that to be true, then why AT ALL is it necessary to aspire to ever higher levels of technological advancement in the first place?
This is REALLY where I diverge from Richard Duncan. The subtext of his argument is that our foolishness with wasting the one time gift we got of the Fossil Fuel resource “condemns” Humanity to a “primitive” life with Stone Age technology. As I perceive it, life was a whole lot BETTER when people lived with Stone Age technology than they do now. Yes I realize how parochial such a viewpoint is, since I don’t live that way and likely never would be able to the way I was brought up in the Age of Oil. Still, knowing what we know NOW, did acquiring Agriculture and then Metal Working and then Industrialization REALLY make life BETTER? Its OUTCOME was a thoroughly Polluted Ecosystem, huge unsustainable Big Shitties, endless Wars for Resources and Control, a horiffically stratified society of Haves and Have Nots which in the end can only succeed in consuming itself with its own GREED. How can anyone see this as a good result?
You do not need I-phones or Computers or Plasma TVs to lead an introspective life examining existence. Galileo and Copernicus and Newton were at least as good mathematicians as any Hedge Fund Manager today sitting at his Bloomberg Terminal. You do not need Space Ships to Explore the Universe. 1000 years ago with Stone Age Technology, Polynesian Navigators without a GPS and without even a magnetic compass used their observations of the Heavens and the rhythm of the Sea to successfully Navigate between Hawaii and the Society Islands. Thousands of years ago, great writers observed the Human Condition and told the Stories later written down to be collective Human Wisdom in the Bible. All of their lives were RICH in thought and exploration. There are NO LIMITS to the Human Mind, and in fact it is the dependence on the crutch of technology that most limits us today, and which looks to be the Achilles Heel of our Civilization. We have been CONSUMED by an obsession with the physical world, money over spirit. True GROWTH of the Human Mind is LIMITLESS in the world of the Spirit. Perhaps when all this is said and done with, whomsoever is left standing will grasp this, and a greater and better form of Homo Sapiens will emerge in the long distant future. Hopefully BEFORE Yellowstone throws 5000 cu km of Ejecta into the atmosphere and wipes the spark of sentience we have off the face of the Earth forever more.
Of course getting from here to there is going to be a BITCH, and it’s the short term stuff most folks are concerned with not the eventual fate of sentience on Earth. So we ground ourselves mostly in the day to day spin down of our economic system. Will it end in a new Stone Age? Unlikely in the near term. Will it result in a whole lot of Dead People. Quite a bit more likely. Meantime I will just try to avoid being one of those dead people too soon.
See You on the Other Side.