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Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted December 13, 2006

As we all know, the warning signals we have received about energy, food, species extinction and global warming are just the most prominent issues. We are also seeing a host of other warnings, from every corner of the globe: wars erupting over water; infectious diseases that spread around the world like wildfire; actual wildfires that burn out of control because the forests are unhealthy; entire ecosystems and coral reefs on the verge of collapse due to pollution and destruction; huge "dead zones" developing in the ocean; the stunningly rapid retreat of the glaciers and the polar ice packs; the hole in the ozone layer; and a nauseating litany of other planetary plagues that we all know all too well.

All this, despite our best efforts to increase our harvests of natural resources. Despite more intensive drilling for oil than ever before, with the best exploration technology ever developed, we are finding fewer prospects, drilling more dry holes, and working harder for less oil every year. Likewise, despite the enormous advances of the Green Revolution and harvests increased by orders of magnitude through the heavy use of modern fertilizers and pesticides (made from natural gas and petroleum), the world will grow less food this year than it eats, for the sixth time in the past seven years. The world's food stocks have shrunk to about 57 days' worth [1] about the same duration as there is in the world's oil reserves.

Now, let's step back from these trees and take a look at the forest. What message do they have in common? It is a dawning realization that, simply put, what we've been doing so far is leading us to ruin, and that we must take a different course. When people with a deep vested interest in the way things are, like Matthew Simmons and the president of Shell, suddenly get religion about energy depletion, we know that a very significant change is happening.

Most prognostications about energy, food supplies, global warming and other related issues use a 50-year window, and within that window they see Big Trouble. Why? Because in 50 years we'll have 9 billion people on the planet, 50% more than we have today. And that is the bottom line. That is the fundamental driving force behind all of these interrelated problems. It's nothing more, and nothing less, than a classic case of ecological overshoot.

Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

In circles where peak oil and "petrocollapse" are discussed, one often comes across the basic question: are humans smarter than yeast? This refers to the classic study of bacteria populations in a Petri dish. (For more on the subject, see also Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.)

Dr. Albert Bartlett of the University of Colorado at Boulder has spent a lifetime lecturing about the mathematics of population growth and energy supplies. Both are examples of exponential growth rates, but he complains that very few people understand the implications of this "simple arithmetic" for even modest growth rates. By way of example, he notes that if our current 1.3% per year rate of population growth were to continue, "the world population would grow to a density of one person per square meter on the dry land surface of the earth in just 780 years, and then the mass of people would equal the mass of the earth in just 2400 years." [2]

Here is Dr. Bartlett's classic example of the bacteria populations:

Bacteria grow by doubling. One bacterium divides to become two, the two divide to become 4, become 8, 16 and so on. Suppose we had bacteria that doubled in number this way every minute. Suppose we put one of these bacteria into an empty bottle at eleven in the morning, and then observe that the bottle is full at twelve noon. There's our case of just ordinary steady growth, it has a doubling time of one minute, and it's in the finite environment of one bottle. I want to ask you three questions.

Number one; at which time was the bottle half full? Well, would you believe 11:59, one minute before 12, because they double in number every minute?

Second question: if you were an average bacterium in that bottle at what time would you first realize that you were running of space? Well let's just look at the last minute in the bottle. At 12 noon it's full, one minute before it's half full, 2 minutes before its 1/4 full, then 1/8, then 1/16. Let me ask you: at 5 minutes before 12, when the bottle is only 3% full, and 97% is open space just yearning for development, how many of you would realize there's a problem?

If the name of the game is sustainability, then what are we trying to sustain? Putting a finer point on it, Bartlett defines the first law of sustainability thus: "Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained. That's simple arithmetic. It's intellectually dishonest to talk about saving the environment, which is sustainability, without stressing the obvious facts that stopping population growth is a necessary condition for saving the environment and for sustainability."

Assessing the Alternatives

For the last five years, recognizing the enormity of the threat that peak oil poses to life as we know it, I have made an intensive study of the options. What mitigation measures might work, and to what extent? How much additional energy might we hope to produce, from any and all sources? What new technologies might come to our rescue?

What I have found is this: as long as current population trends persist, and as long as all of the world's major economies depend on constant growth, then all the energy alternatives, together, add up to about fifty cents on a one-dollar tab. It just isn't there. First and foremost, our immediate problem is a shortage of liquid fuels, but most renewable energy technologies produce electricity. (And converting our existing liquid fuel-based infrastructure to one that runs on electricity just isn't feasible-there isn't even enough energy, let alone raw materials, available to remanufacture all that stuff and still provide for daily needs!) In my wildest dreams-and I say this as one who has made my living in retail solar for several years now-I don't see solar and wind together achieving more than perhaps 15% of our total global energy mix in the next 30 years.

Biofuels are promising, but as soon as we start producing them at scale, we run straight up against food supply. Consider this statistic: To produce enough ethanol to fill the tank of a big 4WD SUV, you would need enough grain to feed one person for an entire year. [3] Nowhere in the world is there enough unneeded, arable land and water to grow the requisite feedstock for the immense volume of biofuels we will need, no matter which feedstock you choose-and the energy returned on energy invested (EROI) is so low that in most cases it's simply not worth doing. As Dr. Tad Patzek of U.C. Berkeley, one of the top experts on the feasibility of biofuels, has said:

[The] vision is to capture in real time most of net growth of all biomass in the US, while at the same time mining soil, water, and air over 72 percent of our land area, including Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. This biomass would then be devoured to feed our inefficient cars. We would have little food production, as well as little wood for paper and construction. In effect, the brave new US economy would be dedicated to feeding cars, not people. This vision has been enthusiastically embraced by some in the US science and industrial establishment.

According to Patzek, the EROI figures in the oft-cited DOE/USDA report of 2005 are "laughable," requiring impossible crop yields and impossible levels of residue recovery. He adds sardonically, "To utilize all residues, I suggest to also process fresh corpses into biofuels." [4]

Another trenchant commentator, Robert Hirsch (more about him later), has famously quipped that making ethanol from corn is a process by which a certain amount of energy in the forms of natural gas and diesel fuel are used to create an equivalent amount of energy in the form of ethanol, with the primary output being money from government subsidies.[5]

The well-known alternative ways of producing liquid fuels, such as coal-to-liquids and gas-to-liquids, are neither ready to scale to the huge volumes we need nor likely to attract the immense capital needed for such an undertaking within the required time frame, due to the uncertainties and risks of the global commodities trade. ("The ability and willingness of major oil and gas producers to step up investment in order to meet rising global demand are particularly uncertain," according to the IEA report.)

Further, even if those problems could be somehow addressed, there would remain the problems of how to keep all that additional carbon out of the air and how to mitigate the horrific environmental cost of massively upscaled coal mining. And don't think that carbon sequestration technologies are going to solve those problems. "Clean coal" is strictly for sound bites-don't expect to see it happen in real life. If making our coal plants clean today is deemed too expensive, when the economy is healthy and energy prices are high, what will make it seem affordable tomorrow?

More recent and exotic alternatives for producing liquid fuels include recovering usable hydrocarbons from oil shale and tar sands. Unfortunately, there are immense hurdles to making either resource accessible in any real volumes. Oil shale is still very much in the research and testing phase, but it is clear that the energy invested will be very high, and there are many technical challenges that remain to be solved. The tar sands of Alberta are currently producing about 1 of the world's 85 million barrels per day of oil production, but "as North America runs short on natural gas to cook the tar out of the sands and water to move the mess to processing plants, very large increases in production from the tar sands seems less and less likely no matter what the price of oil." And this assumes that Canadians will continue to tolerate the enormous environmental destruction that tar sands operations entail. Suffice it to say it's unlikely that either of these lesser quality sources of hydrocarbons will ever provide more than a few percent of the global mix.

Nuclear energy, likewise, is also not the right solution to the problem, because it neither creates liquid fuels nor is it feasible. Nuclear power has earned the support of environmentalists who recognize the benefits of its lack of greenhouse gas emissions, but it has been estimated that if we were to meet our anticipated electrical needs over the next 30 years with nuclear power, we would have to build some ten new plants each year in the U.S. alone-a highly unrealistic outcome. And in the same way that we are about to pass peak oil, we are past peak uranium.

All the other approaches to our energy dilemma, from tidal energy to biofuels from algae, are either so far off in the future that they don't matter, or just not scalable enough.

In short, there are no supply-side solutions that will allow us to continue with our way of life. The solutions, such as they are, are all on the demand side: first by increasing efficiency to stretch out the remaining fossil fuels we've got, and second by decreasing overall demand, both through reduced consumption per capita (e.g., growing food locally instead of shipping it halfway around the world), and by reducing our population.


-Chris Nelder

[1] Gwynne Dyer
Energy bulletin
October 28, 2006

[2] Dr. Albert Bartlett: Arithmetic, Population and Energy (transcript), 6 February 2006

[3] ibid

[4] "Why Cellulosic Ethanol Will Not Save Us" by Tad Patzek 11.5.06
Source: Venture Beat



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