Citizen Action Monitor

Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 8/13: Oil triggers population explosion

No 25, Posted by fw, June 15, 2010

Continuing his talk on the impact of humans on the planet, in Pt 7, Dr William Rees explained how two biological tendencies that humans share with other species have pressed us up against the carrying capacity of our habitats. As we approach the upper limits of earth’s carrying capacity, the human population growth rate will be unsustainable and begin to decline.

Here in Pt 8, Rees traces the link between the explosive growth of human population during the past 150 years to the discovery and refining of oil. The corresponding industrial revolution was built on the over-exploitation of natural resources. Absent some form of growth control mechanism, Rees warns we are on a sure path to collapse. The following selected transcribed excerpts are drawn from Part 5 of the You Tube video, which you can watch by going to the end of this post, or view it on You Tube at UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 5

Oil + Population Explosion = Industrial Revolution = Resource Depletion = Collapse?

“Here’s the evidence. Notice this part of the curve and the levelling out [points to the steep rise of the curve]. This is the real growth of the human population when the cap of the carrying capacity has been removed.”

“For the longest period of time humans survived at carrying capacity. In fact we could draw this way, way back here. A flat line for 50,000 years, little ups and downs as civilizations or local communities rose and fell, but for the most part growth is not a persistent phenomenon in human population.”

Then we found oil. And oil gave us access to everything else: more food, more resources of every kind to create the infrastructure we needed to sustain more and more people and so more and more people came along. This explosion of human beings is unprecedented for any species and certainly unprecedented for human beings. It’s what we think of as normal. Look at the data. Only 8 generations of people have really experienced a consistent period of growth sufficient so that they would notice it really in their lifetimes.”

“Almost everything important about modern technology didn’t exist when I was born. Certainly not that camera, these computers, the projectors . . . Change is just inordinately fast today. It’s a unique period in history. It’s only been since the 1950s that any government of planet earth has taken growth to be an important part of its economic platform. Do you realize that? Only since the 1950s has economic growth been a part of any official government economic platform. It took us five or six generations to really figure out that we could use this.”

“So the point I’m really getting at here is that what each of us in this room takes to be the norm – of course growth is normal, we need 3 or 4 % just to keep the economy on its feet — is really the single most admirable phenomenon in the history of our species. Now again, there have been other cultures that have risen or fallen but the time dimensions are different and the scale is different. Up until – this is 3,000 years ago [pointing at the graph] — there were less than a million people on the entire planet. And it had been that way for thousands of years and continues to be that way for almost 2,000 more years before this incredible explosion in just the last 150 years.”

“In the 20th century we saw a four-fold increase in human numbers in just a hundred years alone. Completely unprecedented and remember that this will always flatten out [points to the peak of the curve] at some point and perhaps come down which is what we want to avoid. It’s inevitable. What goes up – even in population – must at some point come down.”

Canada's black hole of shame -- Alberta Tar Sands

“Now, just a couple of things. Some of you may yet be thinking, well, surely we don’t use all the resources  . . . There have actually been studies of the history of human resource exploitation. One of the more famous ones was undertaken by three of my colleagues at UBC in the 90s. This is a quote from an article in Science: ‘Although there’s considerable variation in detail, there’s remarkable consistency in the history of resource exploitation. Resources are inevitably over-exploited often to the point of collapse of extinction.’ ” (Source: Uncertainty resource exploitation and conservation Lessons from history)

There oughta be a law

“That is a fact of human resource exploitation. As our technology improves we will take the last one unless powerfully restrained by international regulation or some other form of federalism. You need a basis in law to inhibit what humans would otherwise do naturally.”

“So that’s the history.”

March 7, 2011 UPDATE: I have recently discovered that a full transcript and mp3 audio recording of Rees’ lecture is available on The Radio Ecoshock ShowClick here to access these free downloads.


End of Part 8

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