The curse of the X

Consider any unsustainable growth pattern.  Consider for example the growth pattern of a locust plague.

Initially, there’s lot of acres of farmland and a few fast-breeding locusts.  Then the locusts multiply.  And multiply.  Their food source slowly dwindles, but at this stage they don’t notice.  It’s all blue sky.  Then a point occurs – the intersection between rising population and diminishing food supply.  The crossing point of the “X”.

The locusts don’t notice they have just crossed into unsustainable territory – their population exceeds the carrying capacity of the remaining food source.  The population continues to grow exponentially.  Until, suddenly, just at the point of MAXIMUM population, there is a CRISIS – EXHAUSTION of the food supply!

What do the locusts do then?  They are forced to eat themselves.

In the weeks leading up the massacre, can you imagine the likely “locust government reports” from the elite locusts, communicated out to the population: “Population growth soars!  Production and consumption at record levels!  Economy has never been bigger!  Risk appetite for more food has never been better!  It’s all blue sky when we extrapolate from our models!  Everyone should keep consuming, paying their taxes in excess bushels of wheat to us without complaint!  Get to work everyone!”

It works.  Until it doesn’t.

I saw a documentary some months ago regarding the once-in-a-generation rains that fell in central Australia a few years ago.  These rains created inland waterways and rivers and lakes, which then produced freshwater fish in abundance.  For two seasons, the pelican population exploded.  Then the water started drying up.  For another season, the pelicans continued to breed.

Then the fish population dried up and died.  And the camera panned across the breeding grounds of the pelicans.  The scene was shocking.  Half-dead maturing baby pelicans, still in their nests, slowly dying of starvation.  Hundreds and hundreds of them.  They were stuck – they couldn’t fly off to the coast, and yet their food supply had dried up.  Overpopulation, just at the time when the waters were dwindling at their fastest rate, resulted in a mass wipe out of the inland pelican population.  The sad, confused look on the faces of the pelicans about to die still stays with me.  It was though they were asking “What the Hell is going on?  Last season was fine!  What’s happened?”

Many scientists have come to the conclusion that 6.8 billion people, with the increased consumption patterns that many in the developing world are following, is ALREADY exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet.   Only 10% of our land mass is arable land.  Much of that arable land is being destroyed by dry land salinity, desertification, residential and industrial re-zoning/re-development and over-farming.

I’ve done my own back-of-the-envelope calculations. 

We are not even close to making it through this “X” without massive de-population.  Who is going to be voted off the island?  How? 

If we just leave it, we’ll be like the Pelicans – a final sudden catastrophe will engulf us within a very short time-frame.  Water, food… all essentials will be at risk.  We will be “cornered”  –  too many young mouths to feed, with too few depleted, exhausted, overused resources.  It will be too late.

And yet, no action is being taken to control exponential population growth. 

Some consider that this will take care of itself.  The developing world will slow its rate of fertility.  Humans will adapt.  New forms of farming technology will allow us to extract even more from even less land. 

I’m not so sure.  Peak oil may have already arrived.  Oil has been our saviour, massively increasing our output capacity both industrially and in terms of agriculture.  Once oil becomes more expensive, I see a huge bottleneck, where we need to move away from oil, and yet have not developed alternative systems of fertilization or transport.  Local farming in many areas has already been destroyed by low-density housing and crazy zoning decisions by local councils needing a quick buck.

Are we going to be like the locusts?  Like the pelicans?  Cornered by the curse of the “X”?

Can we keep cheating Malthus?

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