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Human history tells the story of a series of population cycles. The names and locations change but the basic pattern is this:
- A small group of humans comes across a resource base (in most civilizations up until 1900, this was soil) and builds a thriving civilization.
- This civilization develops impressive art, social, commercial and military capabilities.
- Either the population grows too large for the resource base or the resource base is ruined by human overuse or natural disaster.
- The civilization starts to show the strain of decline, with the more privileged people drawing further away from the main body of society.
- This distance and disparity, along with the shortage of resources, leads to civil conflict, making it even harder for the society to deal with its fundamental resource crisis.
- The resource crisis forces large numbers of the population to either migrate or starve. Typically, birth rates plummet while mortality increases. The population declines, either gradually or abruptly.
Can Historic Population Declines Predict Our Future?
Most human population graphs show a very comforting continuous upward trend over history, however these smoothed curves mask the actual ebb and flow, booms and crashes, of human numbers.
Whether large or small, primitive or highly organized, all regions of the world have experienced heavy population declines throughout their history. The fall of Rome, for instance, saw the city’s population plummet from close to 1 million to barely 30,000 over a period of decades. Between then and the 1340s, there were many plagues and population declines (the Black Death is the most widely known and reported).
Our current global society is on a nearly 400-year rise of record population levels, driven by the discovery of cheap abundant energy. This has allowed us to exploit virtually every resource base on the planet near or past its sustainable limits.
These limits are becoming clearly obvious and all critical support resources are declining on a per capita basis. Oil production has plateaued and is expected to decline by the early 2020s, regardless of the effect of currently low oil prices. Climate change is likely to have a further negative impact on food production.
The key resources of energy, water and agricultural land are finite, putting humans in the position of impending shortage. Clearly, we are at a cyclical peak and we can only prevent disaster by recognizing the fact that the curve does not always project upwards.