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The Olduvai theory: Something to think about as we approach the darkest day of the year

December 16, 2009

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl

President and Vice President

Illinois Renewable Energy Association

According to its creator, Richard Duncan, the Olduvai theory posits that the industrial civilization in which we live has a life expectancy of 100 years. It is defined by high energy production per capita, which is assumed to have started around 1930 and could end by 2030.

The exponential growth of world energy production ended in 1970, and by 2008 had shown no growth. The rate of change in energy production per person will be steeply negative thereafter. Lacking sufficient energy to power industrial society, world population will decline to 2 billion people by 2050.

The theory is named after the Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania, where Stone Age tools more than 2 million years old were found. The site is the basis of the Leakeys’ studies, which provide evidence of the age of humans and suggest Africa may have been the center of human evolution.

The Olduvai theory has its roots in the thinking of Henry Adams, Frederick Lee Ackerman and M. King Hubbert. Hubbert, best known for his predictions regarding peak oil, believed that as world energy per capita declined, society would permanently decline back to a level of agrarian existence.

Duncan cites “The Unruly Power Grid” by P. Fairly in the IEEE Spectrum, which indicated that massive blackouts of the electrical grid are inevitable. Apt and Lave predicted that such low probability but high consequence events and proposals to prevent them could cause future failures as the result of unanticipated interactions within the grid.

According to the Olduvai theory, the electrical grid will eventually collapse and never come back into service. One important consideration is the source of the nearly $10 trillion needed to expand the grid to cover projected growth in demand by 2030. Already burdened by massive debt, nations, states, cities and corporations seem unlikely to provide needed funds.

As industrialized nations continue to grow and consume more resources, countries supplying them are likely to withhold resources to meet internal needs. Wars to secure withheld resources are likely.

While the Olduvai theory predicts dramatic future declines, only time will tell if it proves true. The theory can serve as a basis to reconsider underlying assumptions of the modern economy. Modern industrial systems are designed to achieve expanding economic growth based on plentiful, low-cost energy supplies. Business and political leaders and citizens seek economic growth for the sake of providing jobs and increasing the tax base as a means to raise our standard of living.

Since economic growth is based on increased productivity and efficiency, such growth is producing fewer jobs and leaving more people out of work. As the economy seems to be picking up, pundits warn that we are likely to experience a jobless recovery, and former well-paying jobs are unlikely to return.

Mike Shedlock of Sitka Pacific Capital pointed out that based on birth rates and demographics, our economy must generate 150,000 jobs monthly until 2020 just to keep the rate of unemployment at 10 percent. Based on his estimates this past November, we fell 161,000 jobs short of the goal.

If the Olduvai theory proves accurate, local communities will be best served by focusing on providing essentials such as food, clothing and shelter along with tools and services essential to rebuilding their economy.

Simpler lives can be satisfying if we are prepared to live them. When the next storm cuts off electrical supplies, envision how we would have to reorganize our lives if the grid failed for an extended period.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. The Vogls and the IREA are members of the Environmental Hall of Fame. Dr. Robert Vogl is vice president of Freedom Field, and Dr. Sonia Vogl is a member of Freedom Field’s Executive Committee. The Vogls consult on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are active in preserving natural areas and are retired professors from Northern Illinois University. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Dec. 16-22, 2009 issue

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