I never really understood The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I’m not sure that I do now, but the discussion about how vital fossil fuels are to our very existence – and how they are dwindling – has brought into focus the implications of this disaster and how much this disaster looks like the ride of the Four Horsemen.
Remember that it was coal and then oil that gave us transportation and electricity. It was coal and oil that gave us the ability to lift heavy objects and carry them around. Coal and oil gave us sanitation and clean water, freeing us from disease. Coal and Oil conquered malaria and lowered the cost of our food.
Coal and oil gave us the ability to grow food cheaply, with less effort. So, we moved from the farm to the city.
Coal and oil gave us factories to create products faster and cheaper. So, we became teachers, scientists, artists, physicians, engineers and bankers. We also became policemen, drivers, secretaries and soldiers.
True, we had all of those before we discovered coal and oil. But, we never produced enough extra food to support very many of them.
Let me illustrate this for you
A grown man needs an area the size of a football field to produce enough food to feed himself.
Do you know how much work that takes?
That’s a lot of work, and you had better hope that the soil is good and the rains come at the right time – otherwise, you starve.
If you have a wife, add another football field.
They eat a lot, so add one football field per child.
If you have two kids, you will need to plow, plant, fertilize, water, and harvest four football fields twice a year. Without a tractor, that will require back-breaking effort, six days a week, sun-up to sun-down.
If you produce more food than you consume, you can get together with your neighbors and feed a teacher. If you and your neighbors work even harder, you might even be able to afford a doctor.
In 1790, just as the industrial revolution was beginning, 90% of the working population were farmers. That means that it took nine farmers to support one non-farmer.
About a hundred years later, farm productivity had increased dramatically. In the 1870s and 1880s, the ratio had increased to one-to-one. One farmer was supporting one non-farmer.
In 1902 tractors started to enter the picture. By 1910, they became popular. In 1916, the peak in the US farming population, one farmer was supporting two people. The ratio shot up from there.
Today, one farmer supports 50 people.
Do you see the implications of all this?
With one farmer supporting 50 people, we can do a lot of art and science. But, that takes a massive amount of coal and oil. Massive.
When our energy production falls to what it was in the 1880s, we will have to take almost all of our scientists, doctors, engineers, policemen, lawyers, teachers and soldiers and turn them into farmers.
Let’s put this another way. The transition from 1-50 to 1-1 is going to be huge. But, it took us 133 years to get to this point. So, we have 133 years to before we reach that one-to-one farmer/non-farmer ratio, right?
Remember that we haven’t taken into account population growth, population carrying capacity for the world and the fact that we’ve been doing huge damage to arable land for the past 100 years. In 1900, the world only supported 1.65 billion people. Are we going to murder 5-6 billion people over the next 15 years?
If we had started to adjust our society twenty years ago, we might have been able to figure something out. But, we didn’t. Instead, we pressed harder and harder on the accelerator. As each day passes, the decent back to where we started becomes steeper and steeper. In fact, the most accurate graph that I see, looks like a cliff.
That gray curve spells disaster for every one of us by 2030. In fact, death and destruction will descend on us long before then.
Do we even have ten years left?