how large can we grow?

The industrialization of food production has allowed global population to grow exponentially, from 1.3 billion in 1850 to nearly seven billion today. With this comes exponential growth in the consumption of non-renewable resources like minerals, metals and fossil fuels, as well as the destructive overconsumption of renewable resources like topsoil and freshwater. Our current levels of consumption and population are so high that we are already drawing down the resources that future populations will need; put another way, we would need 1.6 Earths to maintain current levels indefinitely.

Contrary to popular belief, the warnings about overconsumption and overpopulation given by Thomas Malthus in 1798 and the "Limits to Growth" in 1972 were largely correct — we simply cannot keep growing forever on a finite planet. Barring a massive disaster, it is estimated that the world will have nine billion people by 2040. How will we feed so many of us at the same time that fossil fuels, potash, and other materials essential to industrial agriculture are in decline? How can we manage an equitable transition to a more stable global population?


J. David Hughes: The Energy Sustainability Dilemma

length: 1:16:55   credit: Shale Shock Media

A fascinating talk by J. David Hughes given at Cornell: "The Energy Sustainability Dilemma : Powering the Future in a Finite World." Most of the easy energy is gone. This was from oil which was plentiful, and easy to get, with a very high net Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Now we are pursuing Deep Ocean Drilling, Tar Sands, Fracked Shale Gas, etc. Are we heading for a dead end? What about Wind and Solar? Can they make up the difference? This talk is somewhat technical, but essential if we are to understand our energy options as our society pushes for more energy. The slides are here.

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