Saturday, December 7, 2013

Future Famine: the Numbers

Humanity has struggled to survive through the millennia in terms of an imbalance between population size and food supply. The same is true now, but population numbers have been soaring for over a century. Oil, the limiting factor, is close to or beyond its peak extraction. Without ample, free-flowing oil, it will not be possible to support a population of several billion for much longer. Famine caused by oil-supply failure alone will probably result in about 2.5 billion above-normal deaths before the year 2050; lost and averted births will amount to roughly an equal number.

This famine will be on a scale many times larger than ever before in human history. It is possible, of course, that warfare and plague will take their toll to a large extent before famine claims its victims. The distinctions, in any case, can never be absolute: often "war + drought = famine" (Devereux, 2000, p. 15), especially in sub-Saharan Africa, but there are several other combinations of factors.

Although, when discussing theories of famine, economists generally use the term "neo-malthusian" in a derogatory manner, the coming famine will be very much a case of an imbalance between population and resources. The ultimate cause will be fossil-fuel depletion, not government policy (as in the days of Stalin or Mao), warfare, ethnic discrimination, bad weather, poor methods of distribution, inadequate transportation, livestock diseases, or any of the other variables that have often turned mere hunger into genuine starvation.

The world's population has grown from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to over 7 billion today. A quick glance at a chart of world population growth, on a broader time scale, in other words, shows a line that runs almost horizontally for thousands of years, and then makes an almost vertical ascent as it approaches the present. That is not just an amusing curiosity. It is a shocking fact that should have awakened humanity to the realization that something is dreadfully wrong.

Future excess mortality can be determined -- at least in a rough-and-ready manner -- by the fact that in modern industrial society it is basically oil supply that determines how many people can be fed. In fact, everything in modern industrial society is made possible mainly by oil and other fossil fuels. An increase in oil production leads to an increase in population, and a decrease in oil production will lead to a decrease in population.

In round numbers, global oil production in the year 2010 was 30 billion barrels, and the population was 7 billion. The consensus is that in the year 2050 oil production will be about 2 billion barrels. The same amount of oil production occurred in the year 1930, when the population was 2 billion. The population in 2050 may therefore be the same as in 1930: 2 billion. The difference between 7 billion people and 2 billion is 5 billion, which will therefore be the total number of famine deaths and lost or averted births for that period. (A more-precise measurement would entail looking at the number of survivors in each year and then determining what might be called the "temporary carrying capacity" for that year, based on the remaining oil, but the grand total would be roughly the same.)

We can also determine the number of famine deaths and lost or averted births on an annual basis, rather than in terms of the entire 40-year period. In the 40 years from 2010 to 2050, the average annual difference in population will be 5 billion divided by 40, or a decrease in population of about 125 million people per year.

Many of those annual 125 million will not actually be deaths; famine will cause a lowering of the birth rate (Devereux, 2000; Ó Gráda, 2007, March). This will sometimes happen voluntarily, as people realize they lack the resources to raise children, or it will happen involuntarily, when famine and general ill health result in infertility. In most famines the number of deaths from starvation or from starvation-induced disease is very roughly the same as the number of lost or averted births. In Ireland's nineteenth-century famine, the number of famine deaths was 1.3 million, whereas the number of lost births was 0.4 million. The number of famine deaths during China's Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), however, was perhaps 30 million, and the number of lost births was perhaps 33 million.

The "normal," non-famine-related, birth and death rates are not incorporated into the above future population figures, since for most of pre-industrial human history the sum of the two -- i.e. the growth rate -- has been nearly zero: 2,000 years ago the global population was about 300 million, and it took 1,600 years for the population to double. If not for the problem of resource-depletion, in other words, the future birth rate and death rate would be nearly identical, as they were in pre-industrial times. And there is no question that the future will mean a return to the "pre-industrial."

Incidentally, it would be impossible to avert famine significantly by any program of family planning. No such program would be able to reduce the population from 7 billion to 2 billion by mid-century. Even if -- purely hypothetically -- every woman on earth were to have zero children from now on, the natural (non-famine) death rate would still be at its usual 1 percent per annum (rising slightly as time goes by), so the population would not be declining significantly over the decades.

Nevertheless, it will often be hard to separate "famine deaths" from a rather broad category of "other excess deaths." War, disease, and other factors will have unforeseeable effects of their own in the days to come. Considering the unusual duration of the coming famine, and with Leningrad (Salisbury, 2003) as one of many precursors, cannibalism may be significant; to what extent should this be included in the calculation of "famine deaths"? In any case, it is probably safe to say that an unusually large decline in the population of a country will be the most significant indicator that this predicted famine has in fact arrived.

These figures obliterate all previous estimates of future population growth. Instead of a steady rise over the course of this century, as generally predicted, there will be a clash of the two giant forces of overpopulation and oil depletion, followed by a precipitous ride into an unknown future.

If the above figures are fairly accurate, we are ill prepared for the next few years. The problem of oil depletion turns out to be something other than a bit of macabre speculation for people of the distant future to deal with, but rather a sudden catastrophe that will only be studied dispassionately long after the event itself has occurred. The massive collapse of human population will be upon us before we have had time to look at it carefully.

The world has certainly known some terrible famines in the past. In recent centuries, one of the worst was that of North China in 1876-79, when between 9 and 13 million died, but India had a famine at the same time, with perhaps 5 million deaths. The Soviet Union had famine deaths of about 5 million in 1932-34, purely because of misguided political policies. The worst famine in history was that of China's Great Leap Forward, 1958-61, when perhaps 30 million died, as mentioned above.

A closer analogy to "petroleum famine" may be Ireland's potato famine of the 1840s, since -- like petroleum -- it was a single commodity that caused such devastation (Woodham-Smith, 1962). The response of the British government at the time can be summarized as a jumble of incompetence, frustration, and indecision, if not outright genocide.

The above predictions can be no more than approximate, but even the most elaborate mathematics will not entirely help us to deal with the great number of interacting factors. We need to swing toward a more pessimistic figure for humanity's future if we include the effects of war, disease, and so on. The most serious negative factor may be largely sociological: To what extent can the oil industry maintain the advanced technology required for drilling ever-deeper wells in ever-more-remote places, when that industry will be struggling to survive in a milieu of social chaos? Intricate division of labor, large-scale government, and high-level education will no longer exist.

On the other hand, there are elements of optimism that may need to be plugged in. We must not forget the sheer tenacity of the human species: we are intelligent social creatures living at the top of the food chain, in the manner of wolves, yet we outnumber wolves worldwide by about a million to one; we are as populous as rats or mice. We can outrace a horse over long distances. Even with Stone-Age technology, we can inhabit almost every environment on Earth, even if the required survival skills have been largely forgotten.


Devereux, S. (2000). Famine in the twentieth century. IDS Working Paper 105. Retrieved from

Ó Gráda, C. (2007, March). Making famine history. Journal of Economic Literature. Retrieved from

Salisbury, H. E. (2003). The 900 days: The siege of Leningrad. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press.

Woodham-Smith, C. (1962). The great hunger: Ireland 1845-1849. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)