Monday, January 24, 2005


Population and Oil

The BBC has an article on the problems Japan is facing because of its declining fertility rate. Unfortunately, and like all the media coverage of this issue in Japan, this short-sighted article ignores far greater dangers.

Specifically, Japan’s government and media (which the BBC article more or less parrots) talk only about the immediate economic consequences of an aging population, but appear oblivious to the far more serious consequences of maintaining Japan’s current population, which is roughly half that of the United States.

Sure, the national pension system is going to be in trouble with a rising population of long-lived senior citizens and a smaller working population paying into the fund. But it’s not an insurmountable situation. Like other countries, Japan wastes staggering sums of tax money on worthless and damaging pork-barrel projects. One of the biggest drains is the heavily subsidized nuclear power industry, while the much-ballyhooed maglev train is another expensive boondoggle headed for the museum before it gets anywhere. And don’t forget road construction. The only reason that tax money ends up feeding pork instead of the populace is politics.

But let’s move on to the consequences of maintaining a population half that of the US in a far smaller area, much of which is mountainous and therefore of little use as farmland. Because this population is larger than the ecological population-carrying capacity of the Japanese archipelago, the Japanese are obviously living on copious imports of oil and food (while Japan’s reliance on food imports differs depending on how it’s calculated, around 60% of all food comes from abroad). But clearly, oil is going to get more expensive, and so will food, because food production in our modern agricultural system — in Japan as well as its overseas suppliers — is heavily dependent on cheap oil.

You can see where this is leading. Instead of worrying about the labor market and pension fund, Japan’s leaders should be concentrating on how to take advantage of population decline. Instead, they speak of the declining birth rate as a “problem,” and try to devise ways to induce women to make more babies (which reminds one of the prewar exhortation: “Have more babies and increase the population!”). A few years ago the government brought together a group of “experts” and corporate leaders, who issued a report on the dire consequences of a declining population. They likened Japan’s current situation to the waning days of the Roman Empire. More recently, a headline in the December 7, 2004 English-language Daily Yomiuri screamed, “Japan heading for extinction.” Hyperbole, anyone?

But the effects of more expensive oil, and therefore more expensive food, will not be limited to Japan. Many countries and regions around the world are overpopulated. “Development” and “globalization” are supposedly going to lift people out of poverty, but much development depends on cheap oil, and globalization (is this really meant to help the poor?) is a no-starter without cheap oil.

In developed countries too, more expensive oil is going to bite hard. In such countries a large urban or urbanized population buys its food from a small agricultural population. Industries are highly dependent on cheap energy. What will happen to commercial aviation, for instance, when jet fuel reaches a certain point on the price curve? How will all that food be produced and transported over long distances? How will high oil and natural gas prices affect the production of pesticides and chemical fertilizers?

Speaking of food, even large food exporters can’t be sanguine. For instance, last November the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service announced that in 2005 the US will become a net food importer. Of course Americans eat far too much for their health, and they can tighten their belts considerably, but there are limits to what mere belt-tightening can achieve when one’s food-production infrastructure starts crumbling.

Many people predict a crash, and I don’t rule that out. But here I am not assuming that the flow of oil will totally stop, nor that national economies will collapse. I am just making the safe assumption that oil will get more expensive. And because the whole world economy is dependent on cheap fossil fuels, the impacts are going to be far-reaching, especially in regions where population carrying capacity is exceeded.

Better plan your kitchen garden now.

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