Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CXXXII

Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)
4 min readMay 24, 2023
Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

A Population Bottleneck For Humanity: Ecological Overshoot And Energy Descent

My comment left regarding the latest post by The Honest Sorcerer who contemplates our ‘renewable’ future.

As you suggest, the transition period to a far more sustainable existence for us story-loving apes is rife with possibilities. And the most probable ones are not likely to be enjoyed at all by those in so-called ‘advanced’ economies.

This is not only if we don’t use the nuclear weapons we’ve stored around the planet — for when hasn’t a group of psychopaths bent on geopolitical domination not used the latest, greatest armaments at their disposal when challenged? — but if we make it out of the ecological bottleneck we’ve created for ourselves.

And certainly, those of us living in a world supported by way of a significant array of fossil fuel-energy slaves (thanks net energy surpluses) have a rather precipitous fall to experience to arrive at a level that is more in line with what can be locally resourced and supported in any kind of ‘sustainable’ manner.

The big difference I perceive between past societal simplifications and eventual rebirth, and the journey our industrial civilisation has begun, is the massively exacerbated predicament due to ecological overshoot and its many symptomatic consequences. These have so disturbed the situation that the pre/historic cycle of rise/fall/rise/fall/etc. of large, complex societies — that has been a pattern for more than 6000 years, perhaps longer — may no longer hold. There may be no subsequent rise after our ‘collapse’ for there may be no humans that make it out of the ecological bottleneck that lays in wait, as some argue[1].

While the research around previous human population bottlenecks — where as little as 2000 individuals may have been present on the planet for a good 100,000 years before beginning its exponential growth towards our present numbers near the end of the Late Stone Age[2] (and, of course, exploded with the exploitation of fossil fuels) — is greatly debated, what is not so skeptically viewed is that these bottlenecks are almost always the result of environmental events such as climate change, famine, and/or disease.

Regardless of the cause[3], the climate change button seems to have been pushed — dramatically.

Famine? Without fossil fuels inputs (that have been encountering significant diminishing returns), our modern agricultural and distribution systems cannot adequately feed all those humans who depend on them for food, especially in large urban centres — to say little about the fact that we’ve paved over a lot of our arable lands, most humans have lost the skills/knowledge to feed themselves, and that much of the arable land that is present is greatly degraded from overexploitation and fossil fuel-derived supplements.

Disease? This tends to be a consequence of a number of variables, not least of which are nutritional levels, climate change, and rapid dissemination (thank you fossil fuel-based travel) — all those boxes appear to have been checked too.

So a bottleneck appears baked in at this point. And probably a significant one given how far into overshoot we seem to be.

Will our species revisit such small numbers and possibly not be capable of creating some future large, complex society?

Who knows? But the possibilities do make for a number of very interesting storylines for these story-loving apes that have narcissistically labelled themselves ‘wise’.

From optimistic ‘technocornucopians’ to pessimistic ‘doomers’ there lay a plethora of compelling narratives to soothe every beastly reader’s personal biases…and the more I read and learn, the more I am leaning towards the end of the spectrum that paints a far less complex future with significant simplifications and far, far fewer humans around. And whether one views this as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ very much depends upon the interpretive lens one wears.

Finally, I refer you to my post from a couple of months ago that similarly projects where our societies may be heading based upon archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s thesis on why/how past complex societies have collapsed.

If you’ve made it to the end of this contemplation and have got something out of my writing, please consider ordering the trilogy of my ‘fictional’ novel series, Olduvai (PDF files; only $9.99 Canadian), via my website — the ‘profits’ of which help me to keep my internet presence alive and first book available in print (and is available via various online retailers). Encouraging others to read my work is also much appreciated.

[1] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[2] See this.

[3] And there are many. From the burning of hydrocarbons to land use changes to shifts in hydrological cycles.

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Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)

A guy trying to make sense of a complex and seemingly insane world. Spend my days pondering our various predicaments while practising local food production...