A Golden Age?


John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service

According to the Hubbert Peak Model, the time-dependence of the production and use of any non-renewable resource follows a bell-shaped curve. When the resource is approximately half exhausted, production and consumption reach a maximum. Thereafter they gradually decline. As the decline continues, the resource does not disappear entirely, but its price increases, partly because of increased costs of extraction, and partly because the demand for the resource exceeds the supply.

This model of the time-dependence of use of a non-renewable resource was introduced in 1956 by the geophysicist and oil expert M. K. Hubbert, who predicted that the production and consumption of conventional oil in the 49 contiguous states of the US would follow such a curve, and that the peak would occur in the early 1970’s. Although this prediction was met with skepticism, it proved to be astonishingly accurate. In many other cases since that time, the Hubbert Peak Model has shown itself to be extremely accurate.

When it is applied to the global production and consumption of conventional oil and natural gas, the Hubert Peak Model predicts that a peak for oil will occur within a few years, and that a peak for natural gas will follow by 2020 or 2030. Supplies of coal are much larger. Burned at the present rate, they would last roughly a thousand years. Burned at a rate that would be needed to compensate for the end of oil and natural gas, coal would last only until the end of the 21st century. But to avoid disastrous climate change, we need to leave the world’s reserves of coal in the ground, rather than burning them. Thus the fossil fuel era is ending, and its end will have an enormous impact on human society.

When plotted together on a time-scale of several thousand years, the global population of humans and the use of fossil fuels show a dramatic and worrying behavior: The world’s human population remained at a very low level for millenia, at the level of only a few millions. But driven by the inventions of  the industrial and scientific revolutions, population has shot upward, and is now increasing by roughly a billion every 11 years.

When plotted on the same graph, fossil fuel use shows a remarkable spikelike behavior. Starting almost at zero a few hundred years ago, it rises to a sharp peak today, and in the future it will fall to almost nothing again, all within the space of a few hundred years. When plotted together, the spikelike graph of fossil fuel use, and the dramatic upsurge in global population are seen to be simultaneous. This raises the worrying question of whether the explosion of global population has been caused by fossil fuel use, and whether there will be a population crash when these fuels are exhausted.

Our present era has the appearance of a golden age. Never before in history have there been so many people; never before has there been so much collective and individual wealth; never before has there been so much knowledge; never before so many inventions. Ordinary people in China and India are experience levels of well-being that they never had before. Smart phones and Ipads are commonplace in Mongolia and Kenya. The Internet makes the knowledge and culture of the entire world instantly available to all of its citizens. Science and technology are triumphant. It is indeed a golden age.

But although we are experiencing a golden age, the fact that we have reached a peak implies that ahead of us lies a period of decline, a period of scarcity, a period of economic trauma, and a period of ecological catastrophe. The severity of the decline, and of the scarcity, trauma and ecological catastrophe depends on the actions of ordinary people living today. But how can we mobilize ordinary citizens to the action that will be needed to save the biosphere when they are lulled into inaction, both by the stupefying trivia of the mass media and by the pleasures of their daily lives?

We need to act today to save the future. We need to stabilize global population today; we need to achieve world peace today; we need to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses today; we need to make the transition to renewable energy today; we need to stop overfishing today; we need agricultural research today; we need to save the rainforests today. But today is so comfortable, today is the golden age of humankind. Yes it is, it certainly is, but we must act today. Tomorrow will be too late.


John Scales Avery, Ph.D. is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is “Crisis 21: Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century.”


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 May 2013.

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