Tad Patzek, a professor of petroleum engineering and physicist, gave a talk on January 16, 2019 at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.
His talk is titled “How Can We Salvage Our Global Civilization?” however Patzek does not answer his own question. Instead he reviews the brief history of humans and shows that we are in a severe state of overshoot with a population that exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet by about 30 times thanks to fossil energy, which he predicts will soon rapidly decline due to depletion. In the Q&A that follows the talk, Patzek advocates for population reduction policies. Also in the Q&A, Patzek gets quite aggressive with audience members who argue that technology will save us. He concludes that we will probably use nuclear war to correct overshoot. I wonder if he’ll be invited back next year? 🙂
You can find other work I’ve posted by Patzek here.
Thanks to Nate Hagens for bringing this talk to my attention.
Here are some notes I took while viewing the talk:
- Continued exponential growth of human population is suicidal and will stop one way or another.
- Humans have only one chance of survival by drastically limiting population and consumption.
- Patzek quotes from Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, my all-time favorite lecture series, to make the point that humans, the fire apes, have been setting fires continuously from our origin until today when many of the world’s tropical forests are being burned to make way for agriculture and plantations.
- Patzek does a nice job of explaining that humans have existed for an extremely short period in the context of geologic time. For example, if we call January 1 the start of the Silurian period 444 million years ago when multicellular life first appeared on land, then behaviorally modern humans emerged 70 minutes before midnight on December 31, our first civilization began 9 minutes before midnight, and the industrial civilization we currently enjoy began 20 seconds before midnight. The explosion of human population to 8 billion began 7 seconds before midnight on December 31, and was enabled by the Haber Bosch industrial process that converts natural gas into nitrogen fertilizer.
- At 3 seconds before midnight on December 31, half of the US’s top soil had been washed into the sea, having taken only 9 seconds to accomplish this feat.
- For an example of what 10,000 years of agriculture does to the earth, look at Iraq with its complete environmental devastation.
- We only have one shot at the global civilization, and it shall never be repeated again.
- Sending colonies to Mars is complete nonsense because there are not enough resources to send them.
- None of our overshoot issues are captured by our economic models.
- Our planet can support a maximum of 8 million humans making a living as hunter gatherers.
- The earth might support 2.5 billion people assuming an 1800’s equivalent life expectancy (32 years) , lifestyle, slavery, and conflict. If we assume today’s life expectancy (71 years) the maximum drops to 1.1 billion people. Adjusting for our increased standard of living decreases the maximum to 500 million people. If we assume a peaceful life without wars the maximum sustainable population drops to 250 million people. This means we have overshot by the 30 times the carrying capacity of the planet by using fossil fuel subsidies.
- Later in the Q&A, Patzek clarifies that if we assume an American or German lifestyle, the maximum sustainable population is 90 million without fossil energy.
- I note that Patzek’s estimate of the maximum sustainable population aligns nicely with Jack Alpert’s plan to preserve our modern civilization with rapid population reduction.
- Patzek shows that population is proportional to power production. Recall that Tim Garrett has also shown that wealth is proportional to power production. Energy is therefore central to our predicament as Nate Hagens elaborates in his video course.