At the edge of the Olduvain abyss?

The year 1900 is little more than two generations ago. It’s the year before my maternal grandmother was born. At that time, she was one of some 1.6 billion people then alive on the earth.

A hundred years, two World Wars and countless other setbacks later, and global population is edging towards seven billion. That’s more than a quadrupling of the planet’s population in a single century. There has never been a (human) population explosion like it in the history of the world, and there never will be again.

While global population may well continue on towards nine or even ten billion in the coming decades – barring disasters – even the most optimistic observers do not believe anything like this level of human population (and consumption) could be maintained even to the end of this century without calamitous consequences.

And just like in Ireland’s shaky property market, what everyone is hoping for is the proverbial ‘soft landing’ after years of wild growth. The scale of the climate crisis has already illustrated how difficult this will be to achieve, even if every country on the planet were to miraculously sign up to serious cuts in carbon intensity.

There are other scenarios than soft landings. Which any of us chooses to believe is most likely is entirely a matter of personal opinion. One alternate scenario is known as the Olduvai Theory. Its main proponent is Dr Richard Duncan, a Seattle-based electrical engineer and Director of the Institute on Energy and Man. One of his specialist topics is Peak Oil.

What caught this correspondent’s eye while reading one of Dr. Duncan’s lengthy papers setting out the Olduvai Theory was a date – 2008 – and its location on the chart below, which I have circled in red:Olduvia Peak

Briefly, the Olduvai Theory states that the life expectancy of industrial civilization is approximately 100 years: circa 1930-2030. Energy production per capita (e) defines it. The theory postulates that the phase of exponential growth of world energy production ended in c.1970. Average energy production globally per capita peaked and flattened off in the period roughly 1979–2008.

Olduvai Theory says that from c.2008 onwards, the rate of change of energy production per capita “will go steeply negative. World population will decline to about two billion circa 2050”.

The so-called ‘Cliff’ phase as shown in the graph above is triggered by a number of factors, key among which is Peak Oil. The extraordinary global economic and population boom of the last century was fuelled first and foremost by cheap, plentiful oil.

Apart from running our cars, central heating systems and airplanes, cheap oil made the Green Revolution (the massive increase in food production achieved from 1950 to the end of the 20th century) possible. Oil-based fertilisers, massive oil-driven agricultural machinery and oil-fuelled large scale irrigation schemes have delivered food to support world population levels that scientists 50 years ago warned would cause global famine and anarchy.

Cheap oil may have postponed the day of reckoning, in much the same way that the sudden appearance of the potato as a staple crop in Ireland in the 17th century allowed our population to double from 1760 to 1840, with disastrous consequences when that staple eventually and inevitably failed.

There is no question but that what we call western civilisation is predicated on an assumption of unrestricted, indefinite access to cheap oil. The system simply could not cope were that not to be the case. By dint of globalisation, all societies and economies are now intertangled and committed to the cult of endless growth. Failure of one or several major societies would most likely spark an unstoppable global spiral.

“The resource wars will run their courses, and populations will crash. The journey back to ‘natural’ levels of world population will not be a joyous one. Have policy-makers begun to grasp the scale of the problem that confronts them? Are they still dazzled by the contention that rates of increase are slowing, not grasping that all he time the numbers are mounting up? (Stanton, 2003).

How exactly might we know that the Olduvai Theory has come to pass? Dr Duncan believes the clearest signal will be when the lights go out. “Moreover, the Olduvai Theory specifies that permanent blackouts – each happening one-by-one, region-by-region, and spreading worldwide over time will be the proximate (direct, immediate) cause of the collapse of industrial civilization”.

The overshoot and collapse of industrial civilization was assured once humanity became dependent on the rapid exploitation of nonrenewable resources on a finite planet. Moreover our insatiable appetite for electric power has accelerated the collapse and steepened the decline, argues Dr Duncan.

Oil decline chart

Above, from an entirely different source is another perspective on how abundant cheap oil has created an extraordinary but short-lived energy ‘spike’.

Olduvai Theory may be beyond the Pale for many, but it certainly can’t be dismissed as a crackpot hypothesis. Many reputable scientists have contributed to its development and refinement in the last couple of decades. It merits close consideration. Let’s hope it’s dead wrong.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
This entry was posted in Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Peak Oil, Sustainability and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to At the edge of the Olduvain abyss?

  1. Podge says:

    Wow, scary stuff, just when i thought climate change was what we had to worry about, is this Duncan guy for real?? Hope not, but he kind of makes a lot of sense, now that’s the really scary bit.

  2. Tim B. says:

    lots to think about there for sure. Funny i’ve never heard of this until stumbling onto it on this blog. well worth the read though

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  4. Dr Timothy Norris says:

    Governmental policy around the World is presently mis-focused on irrelevant issues, and financial institutions remain incorrectly configured for perpetual growth; the director of Goldman Sachs banking empire has been quoted as starting a company annual presentation one year by a declaration “Greed is Good !”. Rather than squanderous use of resources on luxury over-consumption, excess air travel, oversized vehicles, gluttony, the present efforts should be on investing in energy efficiency, recycling of waste, renewable energy systems, establishing World political structures that promote population stabilization, general abstemiousness and such like. Conventional nuclear fission energy technologies are too complex and economically unviable, apart from their waste being incompatible with the Earth’s biosphere (Fukushima Dai’ichi et al.; 165000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste presently exists in the World and nobody really knows how to store it for hundreds of thousands of years. If industrial civilization has a duration of only 100 years, maybe people in government simply do not care any more ?! I am not convinced that Thorium energy is the answer, for example LFTR.

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