Olduvai Theory Update

There are many people out there writing about how the irreversible decline in oil production is going to deal a knockout blow to industrial society (myself included). Only a few writers have gone so far as to put out detailed theories for what’s happening, and how bad it’s going to get. One of those people is Richard Duncan, originator of the Olduvai Theory. Ridiculed as a pseudo-scientist and worse, Duncan has persevered and regularly updated data for the Olduvai Theory to the public. For a quick overview of what he’s theorizing, here’s a picture (albeit a couple of revisions out of date now) that’s worth at least 1000 words:

OT Chart

As the graph points out, Duncan feels that the terminal decline of industrial civilization is imminent, starting between 2008 and 2012, and by 2030 or so, we’ll be in very deep shit.

Mr. Duncan has recently released the 2007 update of the Olduvai Theory:

Olduvai Theory 2007 – Overview

Olduvai Theory 2007 Figure 1

Olduvai Theory 2007 Figure 2

Regardless of whether you agree with his findings or not, he lays out a detailed argument for why he feels we are close to the brink of collapse, and he brings up the one subject that is often avoided: overpopulation. Duncan states that the natural carrying capacity of Earth is between 500 million and 2 billion people, and that as global energy production declines, we will start reverting to that mean in a very messy and violent way. It’s not a pretty picture for sure, and it’s the one subject no-one likes to talk about since “being fruitful and multiplying” is what most of us are programmed to do.

One of the reasons that climate change and peak oil will be devastating to the planet is because there are lots of people living in almost all of the preferential places to live. There’s no where else large bodies of people can escape to if a region is hit with a hurricane or a drought. Witness the plight of the refugees from New Orleans, and then try to imaging hundreds of millions of people instead of thousands. A good overview of the intersections of population and energy usage is the video “Arithmetic, Population & Energy” by Prof. Albert Bartlett. The lecture is sometimes dry, but very informative, especially when you relate it to how the burgeoning population of the planet is stressing energy supplies.

Duncan is stating that he expects to see brownouts and blackouts affecting the power grid (in the industrial world, I’m assuming, since blackouts are common in some parts of the world today) staring sometime in the next four years. One of the main points of the Olduvai Theory is that when the electrical grid goes down for good, industrial society cannot survive. All of the other things that are features of that society, like the Internet, telephone networks, modern agricultural/food processing and many other systems will go down with it.

The Olduvai Theory is one of those things I wish I’d never stumbled across. Whether it is proved accurate or not will be another one of those rear-mirror events like peak oil. The verdict on Duncan’s projections can be delivered in the next decade or less. I hope he’s wrong, or at least off in his predictions, but I think there’s more than a little truth to it. If you haven’t read it before, I encourage you to do do so. The data contained within it isn’t comforting, but it is important and worth your consideration.

Hat Tip to Matt@LATOC

2 Responses to Olduvai Theory Update

  1. [...] Anytime Richard Duncan posts an update to his Olduvai Theory (OT), it gets quite a bit of attention from the peak oil crowd, myself included. The Olduvai Theory [...]

  2. [...] customers will make an interesting case study for those of us interested in Richard Duncan’s Olduvai Theory.  As you may remember, Duncan’s premise is that industrial civilization ends when the power [...]

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