The 22 Percent Solution

by Bradley Jarvis

As I've discussed elsewhere, the world is approaching an "energy transition" where our total consumption (used mass) will reach a maximum. Based on current trends, I'm projecting that this will occur in 2012. The population will peak at the same time and drop to zero within 22 years.

I've calculated that we could avoid reaching the consumption peak if each year we reduced our annual consumption by at least 24 percent (about one-fourth) per year, starting in 2007. For comparison, the average until we reach the peak is projected to be 12 percent (it is increasing at over two percent in 2006). If per capita consumption is three times the average body weight per day, and the absolute minimum is a person's body weight per year, then we would have to stop reducing consumption by 2031. We could then consume the amount of our body weight each year until 2177. It should be noted that with the current trends, we will reach this minimum rate of consumption in 2011, and be unable to sustain it.

My predictions, based on curve fits, are yet to be validated by anyone else. The formulas may be little better than good approximations to the past. However, from lots of reading, I expect that if the predictions are wrong only the timing will be off. The Peak Oil crowd, relying on their own curve fit and a wealth of supporting observations, expects oil production to reach a maximum by 2010, and then become progressively more expensive. This would correspond, in my model, to the switch from positive to negative annual consumption: People would be "re-consuming" (recycling) material to make up the shortfall -- the equivalent of burning your house to keep it warm. Coal will likely make up the shortfall for a while, thus adding to total consumption; but this gain may very well be offset by a decline in population due to added pollution as well as demographic effects.

The smartest course is to conserve resources (reduce consumption) as much as possible to buy more time for us to develop new energy sources and means to recycle material. We would thus avoid the energy transition and extend our collective lifetime. A critical question concerning how fast to conserve is "How much consumption is required to develop the new technologies?" We would need to keep this amount available during the time required for development and production. If my model is right, then the required annual decline is somewhere between 12 percent and 24 percent (discussed above). If we rephrase the question as "How much time do we need?" then we could use the industry standard of ten years for product adoption and calculate that we would have to reduce annual consumption by 22 percent per year to postpone the peak until 2016.

What are the odds of adopting the "smartest course" or anything like it? My guess is: Slim to none. It is still considered almost crazy to suggest a reduction in growth, at least in the United States (never mind China, which is accelerating its use of resources). Fortunately there is a hefty effort worldwide to develop renewable energy. With considerable luck, the "industry standard" won't apply, and adoption of the new technologies will occur fast enough to make a difference.

© 2006 Bradley Jarvis, All Rights Reserved