Without energy surpluses, they won’t be able to control us. They will probably try to enslave us and/or plunder us, but that’s a fight we can handle. Firepower at Eradica thinks they’ll easily control us. I don’t see it. Their mercenaries will revolt against them; we’ll be able to bribe and honeytrap or otherwise flip their mercs to our side.
However bad the ruling oligarchs make it for us, it has the potential to be very very bad for them. Sack of Troy bad.
[–]Erinaceous 3 points 2 days ago
I could probably take the neo-Malthusian position if we wanted to structure this as a debate. Outside of economics the sustainability of population dynamics and urbanism is very much an open question and much of the literature in complexity science, ecology and biophysical economics has a very different approach to the issues.
First off I can’t help but notice you didn’t cite one of the Limits To Growth study which is tracking very well against 40 years of data. It was a better constructed model than Elrich’s and has proven rather robust in spite of the very simplistic computing that was available at the time. I’ve used the same logistic map equations as Elrich and it’s easy to see why he was freaking out but it’s also easy to see how such simplistic equations don’t really capture population dynamics. The take away though is that these dynamics are highly sensitive to initial conditions and the stable attractors are in very specific regions of the logistic map. If the region shifts say from 2.3 to 3.1 population is no longer stabilizing but back into exponential growth. The most recent UN projections were revised upwards so we are not quite tracking on the medium run scenario.
In ecology population is usually seen to be limited by forcing factors. The most important of these is net energy flows or the ability of organisms to maximize their energy inputs at specific gradients in a thermodynamically open, far from equilibrium system. From an energy standpoint the green revolution meant shifting agriculture from a net positive energy system (preindustrial agriculture had net energy ratios of between 2-8:1 depending on a number of factors) to a net negative energy system (Pimentel, 1975). As such much of the green revolution was farming two things fossil fuels and top soil.
Most importantly however is all future productivity increases are predicated on expanding intensive agriculture. This is however highly dependent on cheap and high flow rate sources of liquid fuel. As we are past peak oil sources of conventional crude will begin declining by 2015 at the earliest. Alternatives such as tight oil, bitumen, kerogen and biofuel are poor in terms of both flow rates and net energy meaning the net flow through of energy into agriculture will be constrained. Whether this results in extremely high prices or price collapse is still an open question but even a moderate decline scenario is too nonlinear for even cutting edge econometric techniques to predict. As such it would be prudent to anticipate scenarios where energy intensive farming cannot be expanded either for economic reasons (poor farmers shouldn’t take on debt for farming systems that will only get more expensive before the debt is discharged) or for energetic reasons (energy constraints should push us towards more energy efficient solutions such as earth works, perennial polycropping, and integrated horticulture).
Economic theories of population and sustainability tend to be problematic since the economics field is not very energy literate. As such it is typical in economics to treat energy as substitutable for any other commodity and make no distinction between energy sources and energy sinks. For example a barrel of oil and a pair of blue jeans both cost about $100 but one requires energy to produce and the other is a source of the equivalent of about 11 1/3 years of continuous human labour. From an energy perspective we cannot say that an energy source and a sink have the same value however in the paper you cited above biofuels such as corn ethanol, which are net energy neutral or sinks (EROI is given at -0.3 to 1.1) are treated as substitutable for energy sources such as petroleum (currently ranging from EROI 4.3 to 20 depending on the source). For agriculture to continue to innovate it needs to either have a new source of concentrated fuel energy to replace the diminishing net energy from oil or the use of more sustainable techniques such as polyculture perennial farming or food forestry. Neither of these exist at scales that would be significant or allow for transition before we are in a crisis.
Soil is also an important limiting factor. Since modern agriculture top soil losses have lead to the degradation of 2 million of hectacres and desertification has increased from 11% of the planet to 23% planet. Desertification is a significant issue in the fragile tropical and subtropical soil systems. Its significant that the most degraded landscapes on earth are also the oldest known agricultural societies (ie. the Fertile Crescent in Turkey and Iran). Humus degradation is endemic to modern agriculture since high nitrogen soil is a poor environment for mycellium which plays an important role in sequestering carbon, bringing up nutrients and binding soil structures. Since the 90’s no till farming has increased but with it so has the use of herbicides which are highly damaging to the microbial ecology of the soil. As well excess phosphorus use can poison the landscape as we see in some regions of New Zealand where phosphates doped with cadmium have renders soils toxic and non-arable. Intensive agriculture also compacts soil removing important oxygen pockets which in turn kills much of the important soil ecology.
Lastly there is the issue of fresh water loss and depletion of ancient fossil aquifers that have sustained farming and settlements. In North American this is most significant in the depletion of the Ogallala. Irrigation is also a significant factor in soil degradation, particularly in dry land biomes. The use of prophylactic fertilizer use, particularly potassium in conjunction with heavy irrigation and bare earth cropping leads to soil salting and raising of the salt table which ultimately leads to desertification and loss of arable land as well as eutrophication in the downstream hydrology. Increasing fertilizer use and irrigation as proposed in the Hertel paper could result in increasing desertification particularly in fragile tropical soils. As well land use transitions, particularly the conversion of forest to broad acre farm has significant effects on patterns of rainfall and soil water sequestration. Tree sequester and transpire massive amounts of water and have profound relationships with soil mycellium that contribute significantly to to climate stability and rainfall. Large scale conversion of these forest biomes have non-linear effects on the surrounding areas and rainfall patterns in downwind areas.
There is also the question of whether equilibrium modelling techniques are appropriate for systems such as population and city growth which are clearly non-linear, non-equilbrium systems that have network structures better defined by power laws. Using allometric growth theory we can formalize the metabolic requirements of cities in a non-equilibrium framework and have a framework for growth that is dependent on energy (see also more standard approaches from Charles Hall, Robert Ayres, Cleveland, etc). Cities also have significantly higher ecological footprints in spite of their direct land impact. An [urban Canadian has an an average ecological footprint of 7.25 ha with areas of higher urban sprawl such as Calgary increasing to 9.86 ha/person. By contrast rural areas designed in lower energy periods such as ireland have average ecological footprints of 4.59 ha/pp. While this is still above the available biocapacity of world of 1.50 ha/pp it is half of what intensive urban sprawl elicits. Cities are more efficient in terms of space filling infrastructure such as road area, plumbing, electrical grids etc but they require higher energy inputs. Metabolic energy for a city follows a super linear power law of population1.15. Since the key question is how we will deal with an energy constrained future it remains very much open to debate if massive scale cities will remain viable. If we take Bill Mollison’s definition of sustainability as “A system that over its lifetime, it produces more energy than it consumes.” then clearly cities are not sustainable, nor is intensive agriculture. The question Geoffrey West poses on this issue is will we continue to innovate fast enough to avert the ‘finite time singularity’ that will happen as our economic system runs up against it’s energy limits.
Lastly it’s is not at all a given that price will cause shifts to more sustainable systems. So far price increases in oil have mostly resulted in increased investment in dirtier, higher carbon and more environmentally degrading sources of oil (ie. bitumen, tight oil). While there has been some increase in alternatives they are a tiny fraction of investment in terms of the total energy system. Price does not include foresight. Price is a short term information system, not a system for long term planning or sustainability.