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by Murray Grimwood


The Show is nearly over – get ready to clap. It was a marvelous effort, great cast, good plot, all that. Only trouble was, like all plots, it had a final scene.
What? Nobody told you? You bought the bit where that 3% growth could be carried on forever? Sorry, wrongggg.
There are two concurrent, mathematically provable paradigms happening right here, right now. They are Hubbert’s Peak, and Bartlett’s Law. A quick explanation: M. King Hubbert (the M stood for Marion, understandably underused) noticed that oil discovery followed a bell-curved graph. Not surprisingly, production followed a similar graph, just later. When he charted the top of the discovery graph, he could predict the top of the production one, its front edge ‘ramp’ being already visible. In 1956, he called ‘Peak Oil 1970’ for the USA and was right on the money, more correctly, the lack of it! The bell-curve holds for all finite resources – uranium, coal, copper, phosphate, alumina, arable land. The process was applied globally from 1969, after world-wide discovery had peaked in 1964. On the way, we passed ‘peak liters-per head’ in 1979, peak ‘crude oil’ production in 2005, and peak ‘all liquids’ is predicted about now, 2008. It was always understood, among those of us who understood, that the indication that it had arrived would be oil prices ramping rapidly, due to inequality between supply and demand. Ring any bells?
Bartlett is a math’s-man who points out that exponential growth is unsustainable. Whether 3%, or 10%, exponential growth is expressed in terms of ‘doubling time’. Something to note here is that if you are using a finite resource, the last ‘doubling’, is from 50% to depletion. And Peak Oil was when?
Bartlett’s Law applies to, you guessed it, the exponential use of all finite resources like uranium, coal… and arable land. Hence the breaking wave of food issues. When Bartlett’s law is applied to population, we get the old grains on the chess-board thing, One grain on the first square, two on the next, then four, eight, sixteen… the last square requires more wheat than has grown in the last 2000 years. It doesn’t happen. World population has gone from one billion in 1804, to two in 1927, to four in 1974, and a projected eight billion by 2024. That won’t happen, either. We are at the limit of oil-driven agriculture now, and into food-riot territory. Add desertification, salinity, ph issues, water-table depletion, urban sprawl… something’s gotta give! There is no way we can carry another 1.5 billion from here, in fact it has been estimated that a post-oil world can support two billion, that part of the bell-curve being only 30 – 40 years away.
There are two imperatives, then. We have to get to a lesser population, and wean ourselves off oil, while we have the oil to do so. A lubricated transition, so to speak.
There are some other interesting points which cannot be contested (although there are always economists, just as there is a flat-earth society!) Given the finite nature of oil, and it’s irreplaceability as a mobile energy source, experts suggest a bumpy ride across the top of the bell-curve, lasting perhaps five years at essentially zero growth. It is reasonable to predict that higher prices will activate previously uneconomic oil extraction, but mathematically that can only stay the execution, extending the bell-curve a little to the right. Quite fitting, really. After that it’s all downhill, accelerating year-on-year. Nobody would invest in that scenario, so it raises the interesting question: what value would capital have? Or would there be a mad scramble to see who could lose the least? You can just see it: “Marry me, I’m good breeding stock, see? I’ve got the slowest parachute”.
There is an obvious chance that the population may decline through war, pandemic, or starvation. We can do little to alter that, but (as an old aviator) I can assert that a controlled descent is better than a crash, and early is better than late for changing the direction of things possessing inertia.
Some at the top have cottoned on – Michael Cullen bough rail because we will need it to shift essentials – like food. Annette King has launched Coastal Shipping not because of growth in transport, quite the opposite. David Parker has said that “the world is moving to a post-oil future”. From now on, the key to it is not voting for anyone who champions continual economic growth – as they’re clearly an idiot.
The only response to such a threat of course, is to be proactive. At a local level, strategies for near-by food sourcing have to be put in place. An example would be stopping any more subdivision on the Taieri, something I first suggested round a Council table twenty years ago. Strategies for rail, public transport, walkways and cycleways have to be well in hand, because when the oil can’t be bought, your machinery is in trouble. Then, rather than a gladiator stadium, a whole lot of Edgar Centres (just warmer…) for the youngsters. A serious appraisal of what people will ‘do’, when they’ve did dunning. Engineering, both manufacturing and design, will be at a premium because whatever we move to, won’t be what we have. Lateral thinking will be a definite advantage, and much of the old leadership will no longer be relevant.
What this does say, categorically, is that the freemarketeers were wrong. You have to hit the brakes before the wall, and a market only stops on impact. Too late. Move over Mr Kerr, move over Mr Douglas, we’ve been Rogered enough. We have to remove a few drips from the House, too, before the rains come.