Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Hydrocarbon Lottery

The Census Bureau—that worthy supplier of great statistical instruments by means of which we see our world—provides (here) a tabulation of world population going some 12,000 years into the past. I’ve taken these data and graphed them in Excel, plotting the upper and the lower estimates the Census makes available.

The chart, shown below, is sloppy as such things go; the bottom axis, showing years, is unevenly spaced: on the left side intervals are thousands of years, in the center hundreds and then fifties, to the right tens. I present a more properly scaled picture of the same data (second chart), using intervals of 1,000 years. In that graph I’ve shown the 2000 world population as 6.071 billion for both the low and upper estimate.

Looking at these patterns, the first thing that stands out—by not standing out—is that the world’s population, going back thousands of years, barely changed. Our numbers never managed to exceed 500 million at any time until the year 1500, roughly the end of the Renaissance. The first great leap comes between 1700 and 1750—and after that population bursts upward like a geyser! The second chart, with its millennial scaling, shows the rise as an almost vertical ascent.


Here is an analogy. Place a tiny bacterial population on a laboratory sheet of glass. Watch it shrink or slowly increase using some faint residual nutrients clinging to the glass, left there by invisible moisture adhering to your fingertips. Now place a tiny drop of sugary water on the surface of the glass and watch what happens. The bacterial population will explode.

The analogy is apt because the sugary water most easily identified as the likely cause of our surge in numbers is the harnessing of fossil fuels. If we plot U.S. energy consumption from 1850 to 2000, shown below courtesy of Wikipedia, we get a pattern very similar to our population curve. As shown here, coal production predates the harnessing of oil, natural gas, and nuclear power.

The first mining of coal on record in the United States dates to 1748. Modern use of petroleum began when extraction of kerosene from “rock oil” began in 1852, the fuel used initially for lighting. The steam engine, which stimulated coal mining to feed it, dates to the late eighteenth century (the 1770s). The first internal combustion engine, a clumsy affair that ran on hydrogen and oxygen, saw the light of day in 1806, produced by the Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz.

The philosophical implications? One can’t help but think, looking at skyward rising curves that, well, what goes up, must come down. Was it wisdom or luck that opened cornucopia for us—or was it Pandora’s box? In any case, plenty to ponder here—not least the falling curves of oil discovery projected into the future. Will population follow where once it led?

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