Saturday, March 16, 2019

Is the pie shrinking?

This is a Malthusian question.

The population continues to expand.

Resources are subject to depletion.

Human inventiveness can substitute and redefine resources to soften the blow of resource depletion. Coal replaced firewood. Oil replaced coal. Natural gas can replace oil. But each resource is subject to depletion and the laws of diminishing returns.

Top soil erodes. Major nutrients are replaced. Nitrogen is synthesized using electricity generated by oil, gas or coal. Phosphate mined from deposits in Florida, Carolina, Utah or Idaho. Potassium is mined in Canada. All subject to depletion in their own right.

"Toys" can be miniaturized so they consume less. Thirty years ago, who would have believed that everybody would be walking around with a TV and movie theater in their back pocket?

The masking of resource depletion is temporary. As time marches on, more and more people will start to notice the loss of opportunities. Others will notice the disappearance of freedoms as the collective redefines the use of resources as crimes.

It is a pessimistic view of the future but the math will win. Eventually.


  1. Many people will argue against Peak Oil. Peak Conventional was 2005. But they will argue it. What is hard to ignore is Peak BTU Per Capita. In 1979, global per capita total energy use peaked. The US did a great job hogging most of that for itself, but all those control mechanisms are breaking apart before our eyes. Population, UP. Resources, DOWN. Only the timing is in question. For a fun lighthearted read, I suggest The Olduvai Theory. Start here:

  2. Math ALWAYS wins... How it will win is yet to be determined...

  3. It appears that your argument assumes that population always goes up AND that reported population growth is accurate.
    We know that in many countries, population growth is slowing or occasionally (like Japan) reversing.
    You also assume that the amount of a resource that we know of now is constant; due to technology we can find, and access, resources we didn't know of before - deep drilling for oil and gas is a great example of exploitation of resources we didn't even know about 15 years ago.

    Beware of assuming linear behavior in a non linear world.

    1. Yes, I did specify the population increasing but even a constant population will deplete resources.

      I concur that technology can soften the impact of resource depletion. The problem with the substitutes is that they often have less favorable net energy return on investment. At the start of the oil era one BTU invested returned about thirty. That number is now lower.

      Extrapolation is always fraught with numerical risk. In the absence of other information, linear extrapolation is defensible in the short term.


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