This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.


Reaching Energy Limits in a Finite World

Gail Tverberg's picture

My background is as an actuary, making financial forecasts for the insurance industry. In 2015, I began investigating how the limits of a finite world might affect the financial system, oil...

  • Member since 2016
  • 373 items added with 176,960 views
  • May 8, 2013 12:00 am GMT

Your access to Member Features is limited.


We don’t usually think about it, but we live in a finite world. In other words, in theory we can count precisely how many atoms make up the earth. We can also theoretically count how many humans live on earth and how many of any other species live on earth at a particular point in time.

At some point, in a finite world, we start reaching limits. There are now about seven billion people in the world. We could probably add some more, but how many? What is it that limits our ability to add more people to the world we live in today?

Too Much Population “Morphs” to an Energy and Financial Limit

One obvious guess as to what might limit world population is the amount fresh water that is available. If we don’t have enough fresh water available, we can’t continue to expand population.

The amount of fresh water that is available can be changed, though, by adding desalination plants. There are many other ways of getting fresh water. To give an extreme example, the amount of fresh water available could be increased by melting ice in Antarctica and importing it by ship. Either of these solutions would require energy in an appropriate form—either to run the desalination plant, or to melt the ice and transport it by ship. Thus the fresh water shortage, at least for the foreseeable future, can be worked around if there is sufficient energy available of the right type.

The other not-so-minor detail is that the cost of desalination or of importing melted ice from Antarctica needs to be inexpensive enough that users of fresh water can afford it. In order for this to be the case, the cost of the appropriate type of energy must be extremely inexpensive.

We can think of other kinds of limits to population growth as well. For example, carbon dioxide limits. In theory, there are ways around carbon dioxide limits. For example, assuming current research projects are successful, we can build carbon capture and storage facilities and change our electricity generating plants so that the carbon dioxide that is emitted can be captured and stored underground.

Here, too, there are energy limits and cost limits. Carbon has a molecular weight of 12, while carbon dioxide has a molecular weight of 44. Because of this, if we create carbon dioxide from coal, the carbon dioxide we produce is much heavier and bulkier than the coal that we burned to make the electricity. It will take a lot of energy to store this gas underground in a suitable place. Thus, we have another problem that can be handled, if there is enough cheap energy of the right type available.

Almost any kind of obstacle to increased human population that we can think of has an energy-based work-around. Will people be so crowded that disease transmission will be a problem?  There are workarounds: better water treatment plants and sewer treatment plants, especially in the poorer parts of the world; more immunizations; more and better hospitals; antibiotics for all those who need them. These solutions also require energy, as well as other inputs (which indirectly require energy as well). The difficulty is making them affordable for the people who need them.

If the problem is not enough food, perhaps because of degraded soil, there are energy-based workarounds as well. Food can be imported from a distance. More fertilizers and soil amendments (either made using fossil fuels, or transported using fossil fuels) may be used. Irrigation, which uses either diesel fuel or electricity to pump water may be used to pump water to too dry areas, to increase food production per acre. In some cases, artificial soil can be created, and plants grown in a green house—again requiring much energy.  The issue again gets to be whether consumers can afford the food produced using this more energy-intensive procedure.

The Problem With Degraded Resource Supplies

Degraded resource supplies occasionally run out—for example, an aquifer may run dry. A more common situation, though, is that resources become progressively more expensive to extract as we approach limits. We tend to extract the easiest to extract (and thus cheapest-to extract) resources first. These resources are the highest quality ones, in the easiest to access locations. We then move on to more expensive to extract resources. A similar pattern applies to many types of resources, including ore used in making metals, oil, gas, coal, and uranium.

When we analyze resources of a given type, say uranium, we find that there are always more resources available. The problem is that they are increasingly expensive to extract because the ore is of lower concentration, or is located in a harder to reach area, or there is some other problem involved.

We have illustrated this situation in Figure 1, as a triangle with a dotted line at the bottom, because of the uncertain cut-off regarding how much is available. The cut-off is really a price cut-off. At some point, the resource becomes too expensive for customers to afford products made with it.

FIGURE 1 – Triangle of Available Resources

Resource triangle, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.

Figure 1. Triangle of available resources, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.

A company starts from the top of this triangle, extracting whatever resource is involved. A company can “see” a little way ahead, as it looks down toward the bottom of the triangle. The company will report reserves which are continually increasing because the width of the triangle keeps getting wider, even though these reserves are of lower quality and can only be extracted in a more energy-intensive way. The question then becomes whether customers can really afford products made with these expensive-to-extract resources.

The Broader Energy Picture

Energy is pretty amazing. Energy is what allows work of any kind to be done, from making a clay pot by hand, to baking a cake, to creating a carbon capture and storage facility. Humans by themselves are able to produce some energy, because of the food we eat. But we are also able to leverage the energy that our own bodies produce with energy from other sources, such as from burning biomass. We learned to burn biomass a very long time ago, over 1,000,000 year ago.

If humans were like other large primates, there would be only 100,000 or 200,000 of us, rather than 7 billion of us. We would live in an area to which we are biologically adapted, most likely a very warm part of Africa. Humans’ population is much higher, because once we learned to control fire, we were able to settle areas of the world that would otherwise be too cold or dry to live in, and we were able to increase population densities through energy-related techniques we developed.

One thing we learned to do was cook part of our food supply. This had many advantages. Unlike apes, we no longer needed to spend literally half of our day chewing. This freed up time for other activities, like tool-making, hunting, and clothing making. It also allowed the human body to evolve in a way that allowed a bigger brain and smaller digestive organs. Gradually we used our improved brain to develop other techniques such as making heat-tempered stone tools, which were sharper than other stone tools, and teaching dogs to help us with hunting for food. All of these approaches to using external energy allowed humans to leverage our own puny energy supply from food with energy supply from other sources and gain an advantage over other animals.

Human prosperity was able to increase and population was able to grow as we learned to use increasing amounts of energy from outside sources. Energy sources we gained control over included domesticated plants and animals, facilitating agriculture. World population by the year 1 C. E. reached 200 million, or over 1,000 times the population level before the leveraging impact of external energy supplies began enabling greater human world population.

Fossil fuel (coal, oil and natural gas) use became common after about 1800 C. E., and population grew very quickly. In fact, when population is graphed, it looks like it went straight up starting when fossil fuels were added.

FIGURE 2 – World Population

World population based on data from

Figure 2. World population based on data from “Atlas of World History,” McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978 and Wikipedia-World Population.

Use of fossil fuels did not grow by themselves. Their use was facilitated by the development of improved technology, which provided the vehicle for their use. Increased debt also facilitated fossil fuel use, because it allowed potential buyers to afford the new products being developed, and provided companies doing energy extraction funds for their work.

Our ability to do physical work using human labor is quite limited. For example, if we want to dig a well for water, the depth that humans can dig without the assistance of a machine intended for this purpose is only about 20 feet. With mechanical drilling equipment, typically powered by oil, we can quickly and cheaply dig a well many hundreds of feet deep.

As another example, if we want to transport goods a long distance without external energy,  we can only push a cart at the speed at which we can walk. Oil or another other modern fuel allows inexpensive long-distance transport of goods.

Adding energy use changes costs. There is a two-way tug on costs:

1. Costs are typically reduced when fossil fuel energy or electricity from any source can be substituted for human energy. This allows greater leverage of the energy of the remaining humans doing the “work”.

2. Costs tend to increase, as the cost of the energy source in (1) increases. Such an increase in costs occurs as we approach limits of a finite world, partly because extraction is from more depleted resources (farther down in the resource triangle shown in Figure 1), and partly because we reach increased problems with pollution, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon well blowout in 2010. The cost of mitigating pollution problems also adds to energy costs.

Up until about the year 2000, this tug of war had a favorable outcome. An increased amount of fossil fuel energy was substituted for human energy, leading to lower costs. As mentioned previously, improved technology and additional debt enabling this substitution played a role as well.

In recent years, the tug of war has started to go the other direction. The cost, particularly for oil energy, has tended to rise far more rapidly than costs in general (Figure 3). This has produced many dislocations within the economy, making countries that use a lot of oil less competitive in the world marketplace and reducing economic growth rates, especially among  countries no longer able to complete. The higher cost of oil products reduces disposable income of citizen, leading to recession and to deficit spending by governments.

FIGURE 3 – World Oil Price in Current $

Figure 3. Brent-equivalent oil price in current $, based on data from BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 3. Brent-equivalent oil price in current $, based on data from BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

In future years, we can expect that two way tug on costs will increasingly be lead to higher costs, because of greater impact of limits of a finite world. This will tend to send economies increasingly into recession.

Our financial system has been built assuming that economic growth will continue indefinitely. There is significant risk that the recessionary influences of high oil costs will bring down the current economy. We know from a recent analysis by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov (Secular Cycles, Princeton University Press, 2009) that historically, when civilizations collapsed, they did so for financial reasons, as the cost of government became too great for citizens to fund with tax revenue. There would seem to be a significant risk that today’s economy will reach the same end.

Why didn’t others recognize this issue?

Reaching limits of a finite world is a subject that does not easily fit into any one subject area, so the subject tends to be missed by researchers concentrating on one field of study.

The closest fit came in the analysis The Limits to Growth (Donella Meadows et al, Universe books, 1972).  This analysis came very close, but did not quite hit the nail on the head because it missed the connection of debt to limits to growth. (The model was of course not expected to be complete.) More recent analyses along this line to miss the debt connection as well, pushing the likely date of collapse forward.

There is much confusion about the question of what limits, such as oil limits, mean. Many people believe that rising oil reserves (which are a given when the problem is ever-more expensive to extract oil, as illustrated in Figure 1) mean that our oil problems are solved. Our problem is not a lack of oil reserves; our problem is that the selling price needs to keep rising, to cover the rising costs of extraction and to cover government dependence on tax revenues. This increase in selling price makes oil ever less affordable, which is our real problem.

Even when oil price drops, this is not necessarily a good sign. It may mean that some oil extraction companies will no longer be able to afford to add new wells, because production will not be sufficiently profitable at the new lower price. It may also mean that some oil exporting nations will

not be able to get enough tax revenue from oil operations to fund programs (food subsidies, for example) that prevent revolt.

Reaching limits in a finite world is a scary issue. The book Limits to Growth was not well received when it was published. Governments have tried their best to avoid the issue. No president or prime minister wants to announce, “We have a problem that we have no way to solve.”

Why might I be able to shed light on the real impact of finite world limits?

My background is as a casualty actuary, doing financial forecasting for insurance companies. Thus, I started with somewhat of a financial background, but did not have the usual “brainwashing” that comes when a person has studied the economy from the perspective of today’s economists. My background gave me a great deal of experience hunting for  publicly available databases, making graphs, doing analyses, and explaining the results to lay audience.

I got interested in the issue of oil limits and what impact they might have when read the book, The Empty Tank: Oil, Gas, Hot Air, and the Coming Global Financial Catastrophe (Jeremy Leggett,  Random House, 2005). His view comes from the “peak oil” view, which is close to my view, but not quite the same.

When I read Leggett’s book, it hit a responsive chord because I had had first hand experience with the impact that high oil prices had on insurance companies in the 1973-1974 period. In 1973, I was the actuary for a small insurance company that ultimately went bankrupt, at least partly because of the indirect impact of higher oil prices. Reporting to the president of the company, I got to see up close what kind of havoc high oil prices could cause in the financial world.

After I read Leggett’s book, I started researching the issue on my own. I wrote an article for insurance executives in early 2006 and an article for actuaries in early 2007. In March 2007, I decided to take early retirement, and work on the issue full time.

I set up my blog site, in March 2007. I soon was asked to help with the website, where I wrote under the name, “Gail the Actuary,” and made many contacts with others interested in the issue of limited oil supply.

To make a long story short, over the past several years, I have made many contacts with researchers who have discovered at least part of the story of oil limits and energy limits. Through my blog posts, I also received much valuable input, including suggestions from readers regarding academic books that might be helpful.

My work is now being published in the academic world as well. I wrote a paper, “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis,” published in the journal Energy in January 2012. It has so far been cited by 10. I was also a co-author of “An analysis of China’s coal supply and its impact on China’s future economic growth” (Energy Policy, June 2013). My most recent publication is an article called, “Financial Issues Affecting Energy Security” in the soon-to-be published book, Energy Security and Development–The Changing Global Context, (B. S. Reddy and S. Ulgiati Eds., Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).

Gail Tverberg's picture
Thank Gail for the Post!
Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.
More posts from this member
Spell checking: Press the CTRL or COMMAND key then click on the underlined misspelled word.
Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on May 7, 2013

As always, awesome stuff. Glad to see the journals, research, publications, and so on – it’s nice to see that patiently putting together all the different pieces can lead to something usefl, and that people do want to hear about it, get it published. Gives me hope.

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on May 7, 2013

Thanks! At least some people want to hear about it. My readership on Our FInite World keeps growing, and there are many sites that copy my posts.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on May 7, 2013

I cannot disagree specifically with anything here but am woefully disappointed in that the real limits are once again ignored.  These limits are not how much oil is there nor how much it will cost to extract but what are the effects on the life support mechanisms of the world.  How much water will be polluted into an unuseable state, how much CO2 in the atmosphere will essentially degrade the ability of food crops to grow (for either temperature denaturation or concentration reasons), how much damage will shut down/vastly reduce oxygen and nutrient cycling that support life.  These limits are for the most part not amenable to adjustment regardless of the amount of energy input to change them.  When actuarial/economic procedures take these considerations and other similar ones into account they will become reasonable tools but until then they are GIGO!

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on May 7, 2013

It is a question of which limits we get to first. All the publicity has been about environmental limits, and indeed, if we continue in the direction we are going (have enough cheap fossil fuels to do so without financial collapse), then indeed all the bad things that are being described will happen.

In my view, we hit the financial collapse limits first, and this brings down the world economy quickly enough that the environmental limits are not really the issue. 

A relaed issue is the way we view the problem. In a finite earth, it is naturale to cycle from one state to another, with one climate or another, and one species being domiinant. It is natural for overshoot and collapse to occur–think of yeast transforming the sugars of wine into alcohol, and then dying. Humans are headed toward overshoot and collapse in many different ways. The one I see as hitting first is financial collapse, which is the way other civiliztions have collapsed. If we don’t collaspe that way, we collapse in some other way–by pusing ecosystems too far, or too much CO2 or whatever. Another species, probably one that can use more CO2 (plants of some type, probably) will become dominant. This is the way a fininte system work.

There is a view that somehow, CO2 and other pollution are the most “important” limits, and if we avoid them, we can save ourselves. This is unfortunately not possible, as I see it. There is the very unfortumnate problem that with the 7 billion people we have, the vast majority of us would be dead without fossil fuels. So we don’t really have the option of walking away from fossil fuels and saving ourselves–this is just a story we have been told by people who have not looked at humans’ energy needs very closely. 




Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on May 7, 2013

I’m going to disagree that the financial limits will be reached first, because of resiliency mechanisms we won’t know when the natural limits are passed perhaps for decades (if we haven’t already).  If we reach those limits the vast majority of both people and other biota are FUBAR.  By focusing on the economic aspects we play russian roulette with our childrens and grandchildrens futures for what really amounts to our convenience.  Already climate change is costing the insurance industry billions every year.  It’s about time these natural systems figured into the cost accounting!   As for economic overshoot you might want to consider the Aztec and the Easter Islanders, those were not economic but environmental overshoots.  With 7 billion we have far to high a population.  It’s time to start addressing this problem instead of proping it up with fossil fuel inputs that ultimately will make things worse.  When you have necrotising fasciitus you don’t play games trying to save everything you cut off the offending limb to save the patient.  The earth’s systems are the patient and not valuing the ecosystems benefits to our well being appropriately will end up killing us.  Unfortunately we will take much of everything else with us.  Change the economics to reflect the real value of what is being destroyed.

I K's picture
I K on May 8, 2013

Personally I hate postd like this becuase it does the very annoying thing of using basic facts and then jumping two or three assumptions and using the original fact to try and back up the new ASSUMPTION. 


For instance stating the fact that for thousands of years the human population was loweer than….200, 000…fact. once we had fossil fuels the population increased to billions….fact….Therefore without fossil fuels it would return  to 200, 0000…..FICTION


If you study any science you will know all things have many variables and to try and figure out what you are investigating you need to try keep all other variables constant. So you can’t suggest fossil fuels are tje reason for our pppulation becuase you haven’t considered the other 101 things that impact upon it.


Just look at poor countries who have a hundred times less energy use than the USA. Theor populations have gone from….10, 0000 to 100 million. How do yoy explain that. The tooth fairy? 



Likewise this nonsense about 

a finite world.  Sure its finite but for all our intents for anything you can even dream


of it is infinite.



There are more atoms of any and all elements than yoi can dream of. There is more energy in all forms than we will ever want. 



Best fact is that all the humans alove today would fit in a cube with sides only 700 meters long. It would take yoy less than half an hour to walk around this 7 billion human cube







Thomas Garven's picture
Thomas Garven on May 8, 2013

Not only is this a very well written piece but I also believe it contains a lot of wisdom in what Gail is saying.  

As someone who has lived for 73 years, the gradual transitions she is talking about have become quite obvious to me.  Our ability to continue to find, develop and use more energy to maintain our existing lifestyle is becoming quite limited and here is just one such consideration.  The link will take you to several articles about how our waste heat from the burning of fossil fuels is becoming just as troublesome as many other environmental problems.’+waste+heat+affects+air&rlz=1C1...

If I were lucky enough to live another 73 years I believe our society would look much different than it does today.  It is quite possible that we can end up living on either an almost unlivable planet or in a Utopian society.  It all depends on how the 7-15 billion people decide they want to live.  

I only slightly disagree with Gail and the cause of the end result.  I believe that the root cause of the collapse she envisions might be something as simple as a “failure of leadership”.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on May 8, 2013

This type of irelevant and irreverent thinking is what has gotten us into the modern mass extinction of species currently underway.  You speak of facts and assumptions negatively then go on to portray your own assumption, that “for all our intents for anything you can even dream of it is infinite” as a fact when indeed it is an assumption.  You speak as if our actions have no consequences when indeed they do.  Energy isn’t just about it’s presence but also about being able to access it, use it and the consequences of doing so.  Your blindness to this is one of the numerous things in our society that are inevitably leading to ever greater problems and inequitable distribution of resources.  As to your final red herring fact, so what, it is entirely meaningless.  Facts have implications, you may disagree with them but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

I K's picture
I K on May 8, 2013

She is correct the earth itself is finite but that does not then mean you can conclude an arbitrary limit for things. Not only is it stupid its down right dangerous. Imagine climate change was invented one or two hundred years ago you can bet your bottom dollar man would be killing man ‘to save the planet’

Global warming is no danger to humanity the only danger now and in the past and in the future to man is man himself. 


As for the nonsense of species extinction, its as natural as new species being created.


I will repeat once more. The earth is indeed finite but for all intents it is infinite for anything we can care to even dream of let alone need. Just like the air we breath is limited bit also infinite for all purposes

I K's picture
I K on May 8, 2013

We have the technology and enough resources to actually change the climate if we actually knew if a hotter or colder world was indeed a net better world.

We don’t because we have no idea if climate change one way or the other is a net positive or negative. 

We are approaching the level of a type 1 civilisation with the ability to manipulate nearly all aspects of our planet. You need not worry

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on May 8, 2013

Man is creating global warming so in that you’re correct, man is a threat to man.  The rest of that garbage is just that.  Species extinction rates due to mankinds depradation and habitat destruction is neither nonsense nor natural.  Biodiversity is a foundation for our success.  Killing off species with our stupidity is disrepectful of both the environment and our future.  Air is not infinite it is recycled.  Disrupt the ocean cycles and you may find breathing more difficult than you’d like.  That attitude that the finite is infinite is a degree of hubris that ensures destruction outpaces creation and is simply rediculous. Saying it again simply emphasises the rediculous and changes nothing, saying the earth is flat over and over does nothing to change it from an oblate spheroid.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on May 8, 2013

Not worry??????  With people like you having god complexes we’d better worry?  Type 1 civilisation, hardly.  That level needs not only the ability to make changes but the wisdom to know when.  Your statement is clear evidence we aren’t even close!  What you have is arrogance not wisdom!

I K's picture
I K on May 8, 2013

The universe is finite too so why dont you do a post about the impendong shortgage of protons and mans crash course to peak protons and the reducrion to 200,000 people when we hit peak protons in a few short generations if we dont hit peak credit debt first

Get in quick I can imagine gail has a post ready to go. 

A finite universe, a finite galaxy a finite solar system a finite earth are all infinite for all intents and purposes.

I K's picture
I K on May 8, 2013

So your saying

Man is changing the enviroment just as a side effect which is bad

Im saying that we could cool or heat the earth and change the enviroment if we wanted too

And then after that you claim I am arrogant for suggesting its possible even though the whole warming argument is based on the notion that we are chaning things.

You may think me arrogant but what I think you is a lot less nice. ….

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on May 8, 2013

Gail has now published many lengthy articles on TEC. I think I’ve read and enjoyed all of them.

She is quite unique in trying to derive context from many simultaneous variables. In so doing, she does what most scientists do when charting “separation of variables;” she makes some assumptions.

She is also quite unique by not insulting her reader with some sales pitch. She offers her perspective and has been willing to follow up in comments.

Personally, I think there remains a lot of room for improving resource development and use. And I can agree with some of most comments here. But when the dialog turns to conflict, progress stops and fur flies. I hope Gail’s book is as reader friendly as her posts.

My biggest take-away from this article is her measure of carbon-capture now so aggressively promoted. How can we burn high concentration, solid carbon (eg. coal) then capture and store CO2 gas?? Gail is listening, if nobody else is.

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on May 8, 2013

The financial problems we have right now–particularly government debt problems and lack of econmoic growth are related to limits we are reaching. This is a real problem.

Many civilizations have collapsed in the past. The problems they faced prior to collapse look very much like the ones we were facing. Wages of the common worker stagnated over a period of years. Governments were increasingly unable to collect enough money for all the programs from the increasingly impoverished workers. Doesn’t this sound rather familiar? When civilizations collapsed in the past, their populations dropped to a tiny fraction of the original populations (or zero).

I didn’t give a number as to what population would drop down to. People often say that around 1800, the population was about 1 billion (rather than our current 7 billion), so that might be the sustainable level. (We started using fossil fuels in quantity about 1800.)  I am not convinced that we could sustain 1 billion people without fossil fuesl in the world’s current degraded state, and without the horses and other adaptations we had back then.

Normally, in an overshoot situation, population drops below the sustainable level, so even if 1 billion were sustailable, it would likely drop below 1 billion.


Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on May 8, 2013

Unfortunately, it is way too clear that humans can’t really keep expanding their share of the earth’s resources.  

There are really two parts of the problem:

1. Humans and every other species drive to have more children than needed to replace the parents. This is supposed to be part of the natural selection process, with the weaker ones dying off, being killed, etc. With our intelligence, we keep allowing population to increase.

2. Humans and every other species make use of whatever resources are given to them. They will raise their standard of living,if given a chance (or just have more children than needed to survive to adulthood).

The failure of leadership is a failure to address these two issues. In fact, capitalism takes advantage of this natural drive. The investment of money is with the expectation that it will pay back more in the future than the original investment. This is what we really cannot continue to do, in a finite world. Needless to say, no leader can say, “Oops. We need to restore the world to the way it was before we started harming it. We will have a lottery to decide which 1 family out of 100 will be allowed to have a child.” We don’t think in terms like this.


I K's picture
I K on May 9, 2013

Its amazing that someone of your generation thinks so lowly of the most basic of human rights the right to have a family,  fought for and won with so much bloodshed yet dismissed by you as a lack of leadership to control it.

Also your general premise is totally wrong.  we dont need an increasing level of consumption to have or to maintain a good level of wealth.  Also as I have noted before population numbers are largely irrelevant to fossil fuel usage.

I know you will just ignore this but let me destroy your theory.  How was china plus india capable of sustaining a combined population of 1.7 billion in 1980 with fossil fuel use some 90-96% lower than the USA at the same time? 

How can you try to claim thay fossil fuels are the primary or dominant factor artifically holding up a natutal low population when historically and even today countries which use close to zero fossil fuels are able to sustain billions

Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on May 9, 2013

Agreed, Rick.

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on May 9, 2013

The thing that we have lost sight of is that financial limits are likely to largely wipe out our children and grandchildren’s futures, even before all of the dire climate change impacts that we hear so much about.

A few years ago, governments in Europe could see that the North Sea was rapidly depleting, and that they had nothing else to depend on. They also knew that world oil supply was likely to drop within the next twnety years. (In fact, the IEA forecast in 1998 talked about the likely decline in world oil supplies.) At least some politicians should have been able to see that they were in for huge financial problems. But what the OECD/IEA chose to emphasize was something else–climate change issues. Admittedly, both financial and climate issues were ahead, but one (financial problems) came much sooner, and was part of a much larger problem (reaching limits of a finite world) that was not really fixable.

Governments had a real need to reduce oil imports, simply because oil exports available on the world market-place would start declining even before total oil supply started declining. In fact, oil exports reached their maximim level in 2005. Governments had a choice of what topics they could talk about:

1. A huge near-term financial problem (basically related to the fact that we are reaching limits in a finite world) that is not fixable.

2. Climate change, which was at that point viewed to be a more distant problem, and theretically fixable.

It is no surprise what they chose to talk about. The could taylor climate-change fixes to match their need to reduce oil imports without citizens needing to go without transportation. If they convinced everyone this was the only problem, it would even divert attention from financial problems, which they knew were ahead, but couldn’t really fix. And of course, there was always the hope that some sort of technological miracle would fix the oil problem.

Many now think that shale (also called tight) oil can fix their problem, but they do not understand the issue is one of high oil prices, not lack of suppy. High oil prices push economies under, by making people’s salaries go less far, leading to recession, less taxes paid to governments, and more benefits paid out. This leads to the government debt problems we are now seeing. HIgh oil prices also make countries that use more oil (or high priced fuel of any sort) less competitive in the world marketplace. This gives Asia a huge advantage, and pushes up world carbon emissions. The reason why there is more shale oil is because oil prices are high. But this is making government financial problems worse.

I think climate change was picked to talk about, because it was convenient, and, in some sense, not too scary. Telling the whole truth would have been too much.


Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on May 9, 2013


Wondering how you expect “leadership” to address these issues without them (eventually) being seen as just another garden-variety Social Darwinist and/or Robert Malthus disciple.  It isn’t as if these are new ideas.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 9, 2013

I agree that it is not correct to draw a direct link between population and fossil fuel use. You also have to factor in per-capita consumption. The link between fossil fuel use and total consumption (product of population and per capita consumption) is quite strong though. 

Today, the top 10% of the global population is responsible for about 60% of private consumption (World Bank estimate). This implies that, on a finite resource budget, the earth can sustain about 13.5 times more people if everyone lived like the bottom 90% than if everyone lived like the top 10%. The problem of course is that most people want to live like the top 10%.

China’s per-capita GDP in 1980 was about 2% that of the USA, just showing how little people actually need to live a decent life. If everyone lived like the average 1980 Chinese, the world can easily sustain many more people, but if everyone lived like the average American, the number that can be sustained drops by some orders of magnitude. 

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on May 9, 2013

Last resort of the unarmed, resort to the rediculous.  We can’t reach the rest of the universe yet so we don’t need to be concerned over it just yet.  But since you bring it up do look at the portion we can reach, almost 1/2 million pieces of space garbage cluttering up space, hazards to everything functional, like weather satellites, up there.  Hardly infinite.  Only the foolish try to take things out of context to denegrate them.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on May 9, 2013

Appreciate your thoughts but I guess we must agree to disagree.  Though complicated, finances are entirely a human construct and therefore much more amenable to being fixed whereas the environment, though far more resilient, once pushed over the edge collapses.  We haven’t been able to recreate lost species yet to my knowlege though there have been advances in that direction.  Though very bad the consequences of the 1st are survivable, the consequences of the 2nd may not be.  Our major problems in both are 1) not valuing things accurately and 2) not looking to the long term.  The short term needs to be made to serve the long term.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 9, 2013

Thinking about CCS as a simple direct mass balance is overly simplified. This would be true if we could only deposit CO2 back into the cavities left in depleted oil fields, but many more CO2 storage options are available. If CCS is finally deployed on a large scale, the first CO2 will be used for enhanced oil recovery at a substantial profit, followed by deposits in depleted oil fields and saline aquifers at a cost of roughly $5/ton. Ultimately, most CO2 from CCS will be stored in saline formations which have a total capacity far exceeding that which is required. 

In general, the storage cost is a fairly small component of the total CCS cost with the largest costs stemming from the parasitic load that CO2 capture imposes on the power plant. More efficient second generation CO2 capture is therefore an area of high research priority. 

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on May 9, 2013

That is the real question Schalk, how are we willing/wanting to live?  Is it the average subsitence life of the 1980’s chinese or a sustainable version of the modern 1st world.  The populations in those worlds will be vastly different as will their lifestyles.  China’s average oil use in 1980 was about 600kg oil/person and is now more than triple that.  With a population of over a billion people that adds up to a lot of resources!  I K thinks that reproduction is a right and until that view is reversed to being seen as a responsibility, not only the having of children as in the RC credo but also the consequences of having them, we will continue to have global problems escalate.

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on May 9, 2013

I don’t really expect “leadership” to address these issues. The problems are too severe for them to admit. A big part of the problem is that there is no longer a way for governments to collect taxes needed to pay promised benefits. Furthermore, the disparity gets worse and worse, as more pople lose their jobs.

The closest things governments could do to trying to fix the problem is to call for 

1. Many fewer children, to bring population quickly down to the level that can be supported with wood and biormass energy for cooking energy and for some very limited list of other tasks (probably not including heating homes.)

2. A return to locally grown food, using methods that are much more “inefficient” (and probably just as damaging to the land) as current methods. We really need to go to perrenial plants that are hand-harvested, but the transition would be very slow. 

3. Wells or some simple device for collecting water.

4. Some way of limiting future generations (a) interest in having children innumbers that will increase total population and (2) interest in using metal, glass, and other products that would require cutting down trees for fuel, thus reducing their ability to farm (3) interest in killing off animals in numbers that wipes out species, (4) other instinctual issues leading humans to maximize their own life expectancy, leading humans to cause ecological devastation since long before we began using fossil fuels. 



Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on May 9, 2013

Part of the issue, too, is that the bottom 10% tends to live in warm areas of the world, where it is quite possible to live in flimsy houses, and to grow food year-around without worrying about storage (or even refrigerators). The top 10% tends to live in areas of the world where we have many amenities like paved roads, hospitals, clean water, sewer systems, universities, Internet, and close to universal access to electricity. These amenities by themselves would bring us far above the world’s 10% level, even if people did not have homes and cars. 

I K's picture
I K on May 9, 2013

The real question is why you think a specific value of energy equates to a good life.

In the Uk we produce and use about 330TWh of electricity. Scale that upto USA population and you have 1620TWh vs USA actual use of closer to 4000TWh or you use 2.5x what we do. Is the UK a third world country or is usage primarily driven simply by availability? 

We consume lots of energy becuase it is availible in huge quantities not becuase our lives or economies depend on it.


Going forward we could probably run a 10 billion human earth on 20TW of power at European type wealth a figure whicj can easily be generated via hydro niclear wind and solar once the enabling infrastructure is built

I K's picture
I K on May 9, 2013

Very funny

Humans can become the custodians of earth and all that live upon it. we are not a plague we are gods gift to earth itself and have the ability to preserve and maintain the planet better than random chance would. 

But it doesn’t involve us shivering in a cave dieing of a foot infection.  We will progress advance and get richer and with that will come the ability both technically and economically to be good stewards of our planet

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 9, 2013

I agree that American energy use is very wasteful and that the EU presents a better example to emulate. Granting EU type consumption ($32000 GDP(PPP) per capita – about 10% less than the UK) to 10 billion people at current EU energy intensity (energy/GDP) would require roughly 50 TW of energy. Energy efficiency technology will therefore have to bring a 60% reduction in energy use to reach your 20 TW target. 

The latest IEA energy outlook actually includes an “Efficient World” sceanario where all governments do everything in their power to increase energy efficiency. The IEA estimates that this scenario could see a 2.5% p.a. decline in energy intensity between now and 2035. If this could be achieved and sustained beyond 2035, 10 billion people could indeed enjoy an EU-type lifestyle on 20 TW by 2050.

The problem with this, however, is that the finite nature of our planet will demand ever greater amounts of energy to extract a unit of energy, food, water, metals, minerals etc. as time goes by. Recent trends in global energy intensity are already showing this where the last decade saw an energy intensity reduction of only 0.5% p.a. At this rate, 20 TW will only grant EU living standards to 10 billion people in the year 2194.

The claim that 20 TW of useful energy can be gained without fossil fuels is also highly debatable, but I think that we already know each other’s opinions on this matter. 

I K's picture
I K on May 9, 2013

The two biggest enabling technologies are still just around the corner. 

Computer driven vehicles can potentially reduce transport energy demand by 90 percent and once commercial they will very rapidly take market share. 

A global grid allows true mass nuclear and or global solar to provide near limitless amounts of power and energy

my guess is that the future earth will be powered by solar PV  connected to a global grid.  I believe solar will get so cheap the earth will be producing 20TW of electricity  from PV so that 10 billion people consume electricity at a higher level than Americans. that may be a hubdred years away in the interim we will likely see a shift to nuclear as the green movement finally wakes up to the impossibility of the storage problem


Many options available other than burning down our civilisation and finding a cave to call home


Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 9, 2013

1) I don’t think I want to live in a society envisioned by Gail. I can’t even see how it could happen, perhaps if we were struck by an asteroid, that’s if humans don’t deflect the asteroid before it hits, thus saving mass extinctions of those other species on the planet. 

2) I don’t think we are anywhere close to energy limits, as long as there is abundant Thorium, and a large stockpile of Nuclear waste to recycle.

3) We can’t exhaust the Earths resources, we just need to reycycle them

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 10, 2013

I share your viewpoint that projections of an inevitable 90% reduction in human numbers severely undervalue human resilience and inginuity. However, I also don’t want to see our society crumble under its own consumption and technological arrogance. 

There are tons of theoretical solutions to the problems caused by the finite nature of our planet, but any engineer with some real-world experience in complex projects will tell you that translating ideology to widespread commercial deployment is no easy task. For example, the nuclear industry has been promising energy that is too cheap to meter for 50 years, yet nuclear today provides a mere 5% of global energy. Solar PV has been 10 years from being competitive in the open market over a similar timeframe, yet it still makes a negligable contribution to the global energy supply and depends totally on large government subsidies. After decades of these and many other overly optimistic claims, good old dirty fossil fuels still power close to 90% of our civilization. 

Another worry tied to many proposed solutions is the complexity. Anyone who has ever built mathematical models of complex interconnected systems will know that every additional layer of complexity causes an exponential increase in the likelihood of system malfunction or divergence. The global grid you speak of will be unimaginably complex in practice and this complexity will be spread over a wide range of technical, economic and political aspects. Translating this ideology to widespread deployment will be incredibly difficult.

Ultimately, the future will probably lie somewhere between the views of the extreme optimists and the extreme pessimists, but at this stage, the wide range of mutually reinforcing unsustainable trends within our environment, economy and society combined with the highly complex visions of technology optimists appear to make the downside more likely. 

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on May 10, 2013

“We can’t exhaust the worlds resources, we just need to recycle them” is exactly the willful stupidity that will ensure the current attitude of over-use continues until a collapse is reached.  Theory and practice don’t agree.  If too many people are using a resource, as is currently happening, the resource is depleted.  If there are 10 people who each need 10kg of food a day and they can only grow 7kg of food a day at some point in time someone starves.  There are limits to food production, water production, mineral resources etc.  What is there doesn’t go away and with sufficient effort can be reclaimed however there are rates of use that ensure there is not enough so the resource can indeed be exhausted!  As for 2, nuclear is not a viable option and it is doubtful that fission ever will be.  That is a red herring which is untenable to too many people and so is again a theory that fails in practice.

Thomas Garven's picture
Thomas Garven on May 10, 2013

Many years ago [i am guessing 6-10 years] there was a TV show on possibly the History Channel, TLC or one of the major networks, which revealed the amount of resources needed to raise a child to adulthood.  PLEASE HELP ME LOCATE THIS TV SHOW.  I have expended my computer search knowledge trying to find this program which means Google searches and emails to the networks.  If anyone remembers the show please post something.   

It was very interesting.  For example, if I remember correctly it revealed that 3 sets of washers and dryers would be needed.  Hundreds of loaves of bread and a ton of other foods plus 4 or 5 cars would be purchased by the parents and the sibling.  And of course gallons and gallons of milk, hundreds of pounds of meat and mountains of diapers and clothing.  Very shocking to see what it all looked like when the TV producers laid everything out in one location along with ONE PERSON.    

It seems to me this TV show would fit in nicely with many of the comments and points raised in this article. I believe the show was a single episode of about 1 hour in length.  It was NOT the series about how the planet heals itself after man no longer exists if that helps anyone.

Thank you all for helping.  

Tom G.    

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on May 10, 2013

Thomas Garven, it might be “Human Footprint,” “National Geographic.” I saw the show, too (or one like it). Absurd, sad. Thanks for the relevant reminder.

I K's picture
I K on May 10, 2013

A global grid would not be less secure or suffer more faults than a national grid. Just look at the vast differences between existing national grids. The national grid of the USA is some 200x as powerful and spread across an area 100x larger than the national grid of Ireland yet it does not suffer from 100x as many blackouts. 

A global grod would be less of a jump in scale than ireland to USA as USA to global grid. 

Regarding the nuclear industry promising for decades to provide electricity too cheap to meter that is a misconception.  Those tjay dont agree please find credible sources claiming that for decades….doesn’t exist. 



At the beginning nukes were built primarily to produce weapon grade material their electricity was a secondary byproduct. its fair enough to claim that the primary energy input is too cheap to meter. The uranium part of the cost is probably under a dollar per MWh. But there Iis a lot more to cost than the fuel. 



Id also note that the IUSA has the worlds best reactor fleer and also one of the worlds cheapest electricity rates.  France has thr second best fleet and has one of Europes cheapest electricity rates. ….






The biggest problem with nuclear is its sheer power. Lots of countries simply couldn’t install a single reactor as its output would be too high a fraction of their grid.  Even fairly large countries like France could only manage to install 60 at a push. Nuclear needs true mass build to be cheap.  I would wager china will go to 500-1000GW nuclear power by 2040 if not sooner and will have the rich nations cheapest prices as a result.  Building 500 reactors over 100 power stations will resilt in very cheap prices. Even now they are supposidlybuilding them at $2 a watt a figure that makes them cheaper than coal. 





Thomas Garven's picture
Thomas Garven on May 10, 2013

Thank you so very much Rick:  I have bookmarked the pages and will be keeping some of the information contained in the show on hand for other postings.  It looks like they have expanded some of the pages over the years and now have a calculator for various resources.  Very well done – and quick too.  

I owe you one.  

Tom G. 


Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »