The Pandora Principle - Norbert Georg Schwarz - ebook

The Pandora Principle ebook

Norbert Georg Schwarz



Growth is commonly regarded as something positive, as something to be rewarded. At the same time the growth of the global population and economy leads to depletion of resources, violent competition and consequently, to the impairment of the quality of life on earth. Science has opened innumerable Pandora boxes, and humankind has no option but to live with the consequences. Once any item of knowledge has entered the world, it is practically impossible to remove it from the world. We could do away with all weapons of mass destruction, but still could not remove the fundamental ability of humans to construct such weapons. Progress is always accompanied by destruction. Where cities grow nature must give way, when a new technology arises it pushes aside older technologies, and where one group of humans appropriates resources it deprives another group of humans of them. The discovery of fossil fuels as energy resource around 250 years ago has allowed for tremendous growth and progress in a very short time span. If the current CO2 emissions continue, the atmospheric CO2 concentrations will reach concentrations that negatively affect cognitive functions within the lifetime of our children and reach lethal concentrations within a few generations. Methane is a 25 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and might apart from human economic activities be released in large amounts from melting permafrost areas of the earth. With melting of polar ice shields global warming will accelerate as sun energy that previously was reflected through the albedo effect gets saved in the oceans. With depletion of resources we think of resources to keep up our civilisation such as oil and gas. However we also have to consider the depletion of resources essential for the pure survival of human beings, such as water. While human populations grow exponentially , ground water levels shrink nearly everywhere. If we are not facing near term human extinction we will at least face enormous challenges in the coming years with potential mass dying in some regions of the world, most of them probably in poor developing countries of the tropics. The creative power of destruction is the destructive power of creation.

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This book was inspired by the 1st BNITM Alumni Symposium hosted in Hamburg by the Bernard-Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in summer 2018 and was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. My thanks go to Hagen Frickmann for his critical review of the manuscript and the fruitful discussions we had. This book reflects the opinions and views of the author and is not mandatorily in line with official points of view of the Bernard-Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine.


Prologue: Intelligence of a species and survival

1 Non-existential and existential threats

2 The non-sustainability of sustainable growth

3 Oil

4 The infinitely finite nature of water and sand

5 Climate change

7 Mass extinction

8 The nuclear threat

9 What’s so special about Homo sapiens?

10 Poverty and hunger

11 Epidemics

12 The Pandora principle

13 Reference list

14 Index


Prologue: Intelligence of a species and survival

1 Non-existential and existential threats

On the uncertainty of safety expertise

2 The non-sustainability of sustainable growth

Real reduction in population growth in some countries

Disintegration of society as a painful aspect of mild, gradual population reduction

Growth: locally desired, globally catastrophic

When do we perceive the limits of growth?

3 Oil

Oil barons

“Peak Oil“

Oil colonialism

The Carter Doctrine: Right to oil, no matter where

Oil wars

The destruction of Libya

“Peak gas“

Fossil fuels are finite

How can each individual human adapt to the challenges of the waning era of fossil fuels?

GM suburbia: the march of victory of individual transportation

Alternatives to fossil energies

4 The infinitely finite nature of water and sand

Water scarcity

Sand scarcity

5 Climate change

Making a religion of the debate on climate change

Mechanisms of human-made climate change

Ocean acidification

Possible changes in thermohaline circulation

The slowing of jet streams and its effect on weather conditions

Measures to reduce the greenhouse effect

Other processes driving the greenhouse effect

Is the Arctic ice really melting?

Is the Antarctic ice melting?

Is the sea level rising?

Consequences of a rising sea level and extreme storms


Do we know too little about human-made climate change to talk about possible measures?

7 Mass extinction

First traces of life on earth

Emergence of multicellular life

The big five mass extinctions

The sixth mass extinction of complex species

Comparison of humans, livestock and wild animal masses in the Anthropocene

Genetic bottleneck phenomena and historical demographics

The Palaeocine-Eocine Thermal Maximum (56 million years ago)

Extraterrestrial threats

8 The nuclear threat

The balance of terror

Stanislav Petrov

Counting warheads

How to survive a nuclear bomb explosion

How is survival possible in a protracted nuclear war (and is it worth the effort)?

Disintegration of radioactivity: the half-life period

Types of radioactivity and their radiation effect

The dirty war plans with clean bombs

9 What’s so special about Homo sapiens?

“Chosen nations” and “clean“ weapons of mass destruction

Global elites and “clean“ weapons of mass destruction



10 Poverty and hunger

Relative poverty

Existential poverty

Hunger today

11 Epidemics

Biological weapons

Antibiotic resistance

The house of diseases

Lung germ approaching!

The Spanish flu of 1918

Interaction between microorganisms and macroorganisms

A new world

Routes towards (self-) destruction

12 The Pandora principle

Toxins as an existential threat to humankind

Designer organisms and their unforeseeable consequences

Immediate and long-term consequences of technological innovations

13 Reference list

14 Index

List of figures

Figure 1:

World population and population growth between 1750 and 2015, world population projection to 2100 in billions [7] Source: Roser & Ortiz-Ospina (CC BY-SA 3.0 AU), Our World in Data

Figure 2


US field production of crude oil between 1940 and 2015 in millions of barrels per day [21] Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Public Domain.

Figure 3:

Weekly US field production of crude oil between 1983 and July 2018 in thousands of barrels per day including the current field production in July 2018 [22] Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Public Domain

Figure 4:

Ice-core-based CO


measures corresponding to the period 1006-1978 [82, 83] Source: Etheridge et al. Scientific Journal of Geophysical Research 1996

Figure 5:

Average monthly Arctic Sea extent June 1979 – 2018. [100] Source: (US) National Snow and Ice Data Center (, University of Colorado, Boulder

Figure 6:

A comparison of carbon mass of land mammals for humans, domesticated land mammals and wild mammals in 1900 and 2000. [149] Source: Smil et al. Population Development Review 2011

Figure 7:

Radiation impact in various rooms in variously constructed buildings. Source: US-Federal Emergency Management Agency [165]

List of Tables

Table 1:

Known vs. unknown of known vs. unknown

Table 2:

Al Bartlett’s tabular comparison of measures to increase and decrease the population

Table 3:

Effect of various CO2 concentration levels in breathing air on the human organism

Table 4:

Greenhouse potential of CO


, methane (CH


), nitrous oxide (N


O) and CFC, their greenhouse concentration in 1750, 2005, and 2011, and their proportional significance in the greenhouse effect in percentage of RF (radiative forcing)

Table 5:

Endangerment grading for species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, red- list classification of the high-risk species. The bowhead whale, sperm whale, blue whale and the European wild bison and the Yangtse dolphin are shown. *This list still classifies the Yangtse dolphin CR, although there has been no sighting of this species since 2002. The category CF sometimes includes the note “possibly extinct“. (Source:

Table 6:

The big five mass extinctions of complex species

Table 7:

Geological era of the last 541 million years (phanerozoic eon). The big five mass extinctions have been indicated with the figures 1-5 in small print next to the relevant era

Table 8:

Comparison of human, land mammals and domesticated land mammals

Table 9:

Official and factual nuclear powers with estimated number of nuclear warheads according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

Table 10:

Reduction in radioactivity for a radioactive source with a half-life period of 5 years, including the number of half-life periods, the corresponding duration and the expected radioactive reduction after the relevant period of time

Table 11:

Demographic development in India and China 2016-2026 (in billions). Projection based on population growth of

Table 12:

Example for the bacterial growth starting with 100 bacteria and a doubling time of 20 minutes (under ideal conditions in cultivation


Table 13:

Pre-Columbian domesticated animals in Eurasia and America

Table 14:

Infectious diseases carried from Eurasia to America, and infectious diseases originating in America and transported to Eurasia

Prologue: Intelligence of a species and survival

In a discussion with the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the biologist Ernst Mayr described intelligence as a form of lethal mutation. Indeed, those species that have long existed on this planet and have spread over large areas do mutate fast and otherwise do not have any mentionable complexity, such as bacteria. Mayr’s line of contention was designed to curb Carl Sagan’s optimism regarding the existence of intelligent life on other planets. Sagan had argued that such life must exist in the universe, because of the sheer inconceivable huge number of planets that offer good conditions for intelligent life [1]. Mayr’s reasoning countered that of Sagan: his line of contention is that there is little chance that intelligent beings exist that are able to make contact with us, since this would precondition a technology and level of civilization that in itself would necessarily have led to self-destruction, be it through environmental destruction, resource consumption or weapons of mass destruction.

It might well be the case that the complexity of an intelligent species restricts its chances of long-term survival. If intelligence were the condition for the capacity for self-destruction (for example, though nuclear war), there would indeed be a direct causal relationship between intelligence and a possible shorter existence of a species. Of course these statements are over-simplified. In a thought experiment, we could compare the long-term prospects of survival of intelligent to non-intelligent bacteria. Both would be prolific with a great capacity for mutation, and the only difference would be in their intelligence.

However, intelligence not only has the undeniable potential for self-destruction, but also the capacity to solve problems. If potentially life-threatening problems are solved with intelligence, the survival of the species Homo sapiens could be extended and its demise delayed. For an individual Homo sapiens, intelligence seems to be an advantage. As a species, too, Homo sapiens has come a very long way in the approximately 300,000 years of its direct existence on earth and in the competition with other species for food and resources. Without intelligence and the potential for adaptation that goes with it, our forefathers are likely to have been wiped off the face of our planet by other species or by adverse conditions.

1 Non-existential and existential threats

When considering safeguarding the future existence of all humanity, it is necessary to make a distinction between a threat that is existential, that is, one that could mean the end to humanity, and one that is not. Existential threats can lead to the extinction of mankind. Most threats are not existential, yet they could take on catastrophic dimensions. Just think of the devastating plague epidemics in the Middle Ages. Such mass human mortality does not automatically mean an existential threat to mankind. Nevertheless, such scenarios should be prevented.

The distinction between existential and non-existential threats will not be maintained consistently in this book, because it not possible to identify a threat as clearly existential or non-existential. This ultimately depends on the final outcome of this threat to mankind: what might be perceived as a non-existential threat today could become existential in the future. And if a threat were to prove existential, there would be no longer be humans to conclusively classify the threat as such.

The necessity to deal with threats – be they perceived as existential or not – can never be an absolutely comprehensive task. We cannot know in advance whether a perceived threat is existential for humankind. This is a known unknown.

On the uncertainty of safety expertise

The former US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, is not only known for preparing wars of aggression on Afghanistan and Iraq that contravene human rights laws, but also for his statements at a press conference on 12 December 2002 that led to an epistemological debate.

Rumsfeld was confronted with the fact that there were no indications that the former US ally and subsequently hostile Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In his response, Rumsfeld avoided answering the question. This seems to clearly justify the accusation that his confusing response was consciously designed to avoid stating that the reasons for the war of aggression were specious. Nonetheless, his statement has come to be regarded as a tightly compacted philosophical debate [2]. Rumsfeld’s phrased his statement as follows:

“[…] there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” (Donald Rumsfeld)

There are three dimensions in Rumsfeld’s statement:

known knowns: known knowledge

known unknowns: known questions with unknown answers

unknown unknowns; unknown questions, or, no knowledge of the existence of these questions.

Another dimension of the known-unknown constellation was added by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek [3, 4]. Žižek broadcast his statement on the internet platform Youtube:

“I think he [Rumsfeld] should have gone on. Making the next step to the fourth category, which is missing, which is not the known unknowns but the unknown knowns. Things we don’t know we know them. We know them they are part of your identity, they determine our activity, but we don’t know that we know them […] The tragedy of today’s American politics is that they are not aware of theses unknown knowns, which is why […] Americans don’t even control themselves.” (Slavoj Žižek)

According to this statement, there is a fourth constellation of the unknown knowns (unknown knowledge), that is, those things that we do not know, or want to know that we know. In other words, those matters that are actually known, but not admitted. Žižek refers explicitly to the concept of the subconscious in a psychoanalytical context.

The four dimensions of knowledge can be tabulated as follows (Table 1).

Table 1: Known vs. unknown of known vs. unknown


knowledge (knowns)

non-knowledge (unknowns)












It is precisely those events that are not predicted that often influence the course of events and impact global history, as Nassim Taleb described in great detail in his book ‘Black Swan. The impact of the highly improbable‘[5].

An oxymoron holds a contradiction within itself, irrespective of how the observer interprets it, whereas contradictions may depend on the interpretation of the observer. Such ’pseudo oxymorons‘ are often used in the news media with propagandistic effect. Examples can be observed in such phrases as “humanitarian war“ or “friendly fire“. Contradictions in the mind’s eye of the observer are a veritable invitation for humorously ironic exaggerations implicit in pseudo oxymorons such as “military intelligence“, or ”creative destruction“. Or even “sustainable growth“ and “homo sapiens“ (wise man). Pseudo oxymorons, whose absurdity will be illustrated in this book.

2 The non-sustainability of sustainable growth

Al Bartlett was a physicist at Colorado University in Boulder. He died on 7 September 2013 at the age of 90. He is best known for a one-hour lecture that he held a total of 1742 times, from 1969 to his death: ”Arithmetic, Population and Energy“. He began each of his lectures with the following sentence: ”The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function“ [6].

Bartlett always started his lecture by establishing that stable growth, or sustainable growth, is something that sounds good and unproblematic at first glance. He then went on to give an impressive, but easily comprehensible explanation of what this actually means. In order to illustrate what stable growth of, say, 5 % means, he gave his listeners a simple rule of the thumb to calculate the doubling time of this fraction:

Let us imagine a small town with a population of 60,000 – that was the size of Boulder in Colorado in 1969, when Bartlett held his lecture on how difficult it is for the human race to understand the exponential function. The town Boulder had a stable population growth of 5% per year. Using the mathematical equation reveals doubling time of 14 years. If the annual growth rate of Boulder had been a stable 5 % during Bartlett’s lifetime, the population would have doubled to 120,000 in 1983, and, another 14 years later, in 1997, it would have quadrupled to 240,000. And finally, another 14 years later, in 2011, it would have multiplied by eight, to 480,00. This simple example clearly uncovers the fact that “stable population growth” is not linear at all, but exponential. (In reality, Boulder’s population was only 100,000 in 2011.)

Figure 1: World population and population growth between 1750 and 2015, world population projection to 2100 in billions [7] Source: Roser & Ortiz-Ospina (CC BY-SA 3.0 AU), Our World in Data

The earth has a land surface of 150 million km2. The surface currently used for farming worldwide is estimated at slightly less than approximately 50 million km2 [8]. So this corresponds to a third of the land surface worldwide. With a world population of currently 7.5 billion people, one square kilometre of agricultural land needs to be shared by 150 persons on average. In figures, this means that in order to feed each individual person, the available area per person is an average of 6666 m2, that is, a square measuring 80 m x 80 m. If the world population were to grow at a stable rate of 1.1 %, in another 64 years, the world population in 2080 would count 15 billion people, which corresponds to 100 persons per km2 (1,000m x 1,000) of land surface. The available land remaining for each individual person would be a square of 100 m x 100 m - de facto even less, since not all land area is habitable, i.e. can be used for the production of foodstuff.

A global economic system based on growth provides the future leaders with incentives to propagate growing population figures. A larger population is often associated with a growing gross domestic product, and a country with a larger population is considered to have more power on the international stage.

Measures to reduce the population

The development of the population in any one region of the earth is influenced by the birth and death rates (natural population development), and also by emigration and immigration, while the size of the world population is only influenced by birth and death rates. In his famous lecture, Al Bartlett drew up a list of measures to increase the population and those to decrease the population figures. This list is absolutely neutral, and is soberly brutal, without any ethical evaluation. (Table 2).

Table 2: Al Bartlett’s tabular comparison of measures to increase and decrease the population

Increase population

Decrease population




Contraception / abortion

Large families

Small families


Stopping immigration



Public health




Law and order

Murder / violence

Scientific agriculture


Accident prevention


Clean air


Ignorance of the growth problem

Some of these “measures“, such as war or disease are certainly not desirable and it would be ethically and morally reprehensible to implement them. Yet, we should not ignore them. Some of the measures to reduce the population could come about naturally as a result of a scarcity of resources, e.g. famine, or by a war for resources - and against competing persons or powers. Also, the active implementation of murderous population reduction measures by brutal totalitarian systems such as the national socialist regimes of the 20th century is thinkable. In rather dystopic scenarios one could imagine elites (genetically optimised humans, for example) that consider themselves so superior to the masses that they feel entitled to decide over life and death of inferior members of society (very similarly to the way we slaughter entire animal populations when we consider this to be necessary, e.g. to contain animal epidemics).

Many of the “measures“ used to favour population growth are regarded as positive. Hygiene, medicine and peace are measures which I myself as a medical doctor and epidemiologist feel committed to and of which I am convinced that they improve human life on earth.

In most parts of the world, population growth is a very recent phenomenon, which was only perceived as a problem with the onset of the industrialisation in the 19th century. Prior to this time, population growth was a sign of prosperity and wealth, and basically, it was also perceived as such in the emerging economies of the industrialisation era. However, the perception of a normal human being that competes with other normal people for resources, living space and work will tend to be less optimistic.

Real reduction in population growth in some countries

The global population is increasing. However, this growth is by no means spread evenly – it is not balanced. Whereas the natural population growth in Africa of 4.7 children per woman is very high, in Europe and Japan, this figure is distinctly below the 2.1 children per woman required to maintain the population (not including immigration and emigration) [9]. This leads to new challenges for these countries, namely, to an increasingly aged population with the corresponding burdens on social systems and generational balance. Another possible concern employers may have are rising labour costs in the long run, with the working population decreasing in numbers. Interestingly enough, the number of children is decreasing in the middle classes in particular, where the parents are particularly involved in working life, while poor and rich families continue to have more children than average [10, 11]. Due to the lack of young, creative people, it is feared that less innovation coupled with a decrease in the economic growth of the society will result.

Since sustainable growth becomes de facto exponential, permanent global growth does not seem desirable (this also applying for the economy). The problem is that, due to global competition, the size of the national economy is a significant element of power. This in turn creates incentives for growth (at least for the elite members of a society).

Let us contemplate the results in those countries whose natural population growth has fallen to 2.1 children per female or lower. These are Eurasian countries between Lisbon and Vladivostok und Japan (including China, thanks to its one-child policy, which was in force until recently). Expressed in very basic terms, it can be said that material prosperity and wealth appear to go hand in hand with a decline of the natural population growth. Other factors associated with declining natural population growth are higher education levels, particularly among women, and gender equality.

Disintegration of society as a painful aspect of mild, gradual population reduction

However, those countries with declining population growth have also experienced a change in their moral values. The value of families, for instance, has declined considerably. Whereas in former generations, a family with children was considered to be central to defining the meaning of life, this is no longer the case in our modern times. This is particularly true for women: in former times, women regarded the family as the expression of their self-actualisation, and their central focus was on their role as a mother. In the past fifty years, young girls have increasingly been brought up to regard professional life as their focal point, and not the family. This means that the labour market has a greater potential workforce, a factor that has certainly reduced labour costs and led to significant economic growth. The original act of emancipation by gaining access to paid labour has meanwhile changed from a possible way to reach individual fulfilment into an economic necessity.

True, the fact that explosive population growth has been curtailed in many countries can only be welcomed on the whole. For the individual, however, this development can mean loneliness as a result of the increasing disintegration of traditional family structures and social alienation.

The industrial revolution led to a separation of the working place and the domestic environment. Farmers, craftsmen and small business owners once normally went about their work within the family environment. Even if it was predominantly men who carried out those tasks that today are regarded as a profession, all the family members were involved in supporting the family as far as possible. For unmarried women or for those who had lost their husbands, it was very difficult to be able to maintain their livelihood. Children born out of wedlock were a catastrophe for women, since this meant that the mothers not only had another mouth to feed, but were also ostracised from society. The chances of survival of children born out of wedlock were correspondingly restricted.

During the period of industrialisation, home and the working place became physically increasingly removed from each other. At the same time, the increase in material prosperity was associated with enormous population growth. The individual person experienced a gradual dissolution of the direct connection between labour and maintaining a livelihood for the family such as previously existed in a subsistence farming economy. In the industrial society characterised by division of labour, wages were paid in the form of money, i.e. in an abstract form, which was needed to buy goods and foodstuff.

With the advent of the feminist movement, not only gender equality, but increasingly, capitalist-oriented narratives appeared among the demands of women’s liberation movements. Meanwhile, gender equality in the working world has become the central issue of feminism. This cannot be regarded as self-evident, since the discrimination against women has taken many other forms. For instance, instead of an upward revaluation of women’s contribution to society by creating financial incentives for the work women do within the family, or by making better social security available to single women, the traditional role and daily life of women within the family was demolished.

This may well be a logical consequence of a capitalist economy: financial remuneration (i.e. wages) for family work only results in costs for which there is no means of direct reciprocal financing, since the task of caring for the family cannot be sold and monetised. As a result of the implementation of the demand for women’s participation in professional life, the size of the labour force has increased, which in turn has reduced the price (i.e. the wage) of each individual member of the workforce. This, in turn, has led to higher corporate profits. In capitalist competition among the nations, the mobilization of a female workforce in commerce, i.e. employment remunerated in terms of money, (wage-dependent work) has thus become a competitive advantage.

In view of the explosion of the world population, the resulting lower birth rate appears to be a positive development. However, this has also led to the previously mentioned disintegration of society. Despite our material security, we may find it difficult to find happiness in our modern western societies if we have to cope with social isolation.

Throughout Europe, natural population growth has fallen below 2.1 children per woman. Nevertheless, with a view to finite resources, it seems easier to cope with the resulting problems (ageing of society, isolation and social alienation) than to cope with the problems resulting from a rapidly growing population.

The prognosis for the African continent is that the population will double from the figure of 1.2 billion in 2015 to 2.5 billion people in 2050 (calculated at a doubling time of 35 years and a population growth of 2% per year).

Growth: locally desired, globally catastrophic

Permanent stable global growth, whether it be of the population or the economy, ultimately leads to impaired quality of life, due to resource consumption or to rivalry and conflicts over resources. At the same time, at most organisational levels lower than the organisational level humankind (e.g. at state, regional, urban or corporate level), growth is regarded as positive and is rewarded.

Let us recall Al Bartlett‘s simple rule-of-the-thumb formula for calculating doubling time:

Economic growth of 2% leads to a doubling of the economic performance in 35 years. This is the stuff of success stories!

If the there is an increase in the population of one of the sub-global units (such as at state or urban community level), this growth comes along with an increase in political and economic prowess. State leaders of large and populous states claim more power – just as do state leaders of flourishing economies. Economic growth leads to prosperity and a good life. Prosperity increases in proportion to the easier access to cheaper energy. States that do not sell or use cheap natural resources for their own benefit, but instead forego them in consideration of their scarcity, are perceived as giving up the competitive advantage they could have over other states [12].

Viewed in global terms, however, the living space available to humankind is limited. How should humankind survive on earth if all the reward systems favour growth processes that inevitably lead to overconsumption of resources and to exceeding the proverbial limits of growth? On the other hand, does going beyond the limits of growth necessarily mean an existential threat for the survival of Homo sapiens as a species, or can it be assumed that, despite mass mortality and the collapse of civilization, a sufficiently high number of humans will survive to secure the continued existence of humans? This will probably depend on the extent to which the limit of growth is exceeded, and how much this coincides with a destruction of the planet’s biosphere. It will also depend on whether the resulting wars for resources are fought with weapons of mass destruction, which have the potential of wiping humans off the face of the earth.

When do we perceive the limits of growth?

At what point in time do we as human beings perceive the approaching limits of growth? Probably only shortly before they are exceeded.

In his legendary lecture on stable growth, Al Bartlett draws a comparison with a bacterial culture. He asks his audience to imagine a bacterial culture that doubles every minute. The bottle with the cell culture containing the bacteria represents limited living space. If the bottle is full exactly at midnight, at what point in time was the bottle half full? The answer: one minute before midnight, since the last doubling time from half-full to full requires only one single minute!

When would a bacterium realise that the bottle is running out of space? Let us take a look at the culture bottle in the last five minutes before midnight. One minute before midnight, it is half full, two minutes before midnight, a quarter full, three minutes before midnight, an eighth full, four minutes before midnight a sixteenth, and five minutes before midnight, a thirty-second full. So, five minutes before midnight, only 3 % of the total available space is taken up with bacteria. As a single bacterium, I thus still have plenty of space for development at five minutes to midnight, so I have no reason at all to think that this will change in just a few minutes. (In this thought experiment, the fact is ignored that bacteria become stationary when they have attained a certain density, i.e. they suspend growth.)

3 Oil

In the second part of his lecture, Bartlett placed his emphasis on the steadily increasing consumption of resources, with special emphasis on mineral oil.

Global dependence on oil is a comparatively recent phenomenon, being no older than about 250 years. Prior to this time, people used their own muscle power and that of animals. Preindustrial systems such as mills were driven by hydro or wind energy. For thousands of years, wood had been the most important source of fuel. In the early industrial age, brown and black coal, but also charcoal, were the most-used fossil fuels. Mineral oil, too, had been known for thousands of years, but only became as significant as it is today in the mid-19th century.

Mineral oil is a fossil fuel, in the same way as natural gas, peat, brown and black coal are. All these substances containing high levels of carbon were formed aeons ago through decomposition of plants, animals and microorganisms. Coal formed from the plants that rotted at the bottom of moors under the exclusion of air. The decayed material sank into deeper layers of the earth and was covered by new layers of earth, which in turn resulted in increased compression and higher temperatures. This led to highly condensed high-carbon compounds. This energy can be released by combustion, and thanks to its compressed state, can be transferred into a restricted area (such as the tender of a steam locomotive, or the petrol tank of a motor car). Black coal has a very high level of density and is a pure substance, whereas brown coal has a lower density, is more impure and contains higher levels of sulphur, which is why its combustion process is the form of energy generation with the highest carbon-dioxide levels.

Most of the mineral oil that we extract today “lived” about 150 million years ago, when the dinosaurs dominated the earth. Both mineral oil and natural gas were formed from decayed algae, which is why the two are often found close to each other. By means of a process of new layers covering older ones and their sinking further into the earth, these carbon-rich algae were covered by ever more layers, where higher pressure and temperature resulted in a transformation into one or two physical states: a fluid substance (mineral oil) or a gaseous substance (natural gas). Natural gas has a high methane content. In a non-combusted state, methane is a potential green-house gas. Fortunately, natural gas burns very efficiently, with only a small volume of the greenhouse gas methane being released into the atmosphere. For this reason, it is cleaner than other fossil fuels.

Due to its low density, mineral oil reaches the surface of the earth on its own, if the rocks are sufficiently porous. It has long been used for ointments and lubricants and to produce tar masses (such as are used to seal ships). In regions where mineral oil was found, there was more to be found by digging or boring in the vicinity.

Today we associate the largest mineral oil reserves with Middle-Eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia. However, the first oil nation was the USA. In the outermost north-eastern part of Pennsylvania lies a town called Oil City with about 10,000 inhabitants. Here, the Oil Creek River flows into the Allegheny River. A particular attraction is the Drake Well Museum named after Edwin L. Drake, who managed the drilling process in 1859. This marked the first extraction of mineral oil for industrial purposes and thus the start of the mineral oil age. The particular innovation in Drake’s boring process was the use of drilling pipes to stabilise boreholes, thus allowing safe deep drilling. The men in Drake’s team bored a hole 21 meters deep before they found oil.

Mineral oil was the ideal fuel – its reserves seemed to be unlimited, it was easy to transport (with pipelines) and was much better as a fuel for mobile machines (cars, ships, airplanes) than solid fuels: whereas the fuels for coal-driven steam engines had to be extracted from the coal fields with muscle power or by using cranes, oil could simply be pumped into a tank [13].

Oil as a fuel for industrial purposes came just at the right time. Since the end of the 1840s, lamp oil, which was used to light European streets, became ever more expensive. Greed for this kind of fuel based on whale oil (or ‘train oil’) as it is also known, had led to the sperm whale population being reduced drastically, as a result of which the market was hungry for alternative fuel sources.

Oil barons

One might assume that Drake became hugely rich as a result of his inventing a new means of oil drilling. This was not the case, however. Drake was very ill and was reduced to using a wheelchair increasingly more often. His wife tried to earn some money by doing casual work, such as sewing. Ultimately, the financial situation of the family was so precarious that the citizens of Titusville petitioned the Pennsylvanian legislature to provide a pension for the family in 1873. This was granted as was an income for the family after Drake’s death in 1880. Although the name Drake is associated with the wealth from oil in America, he himself was not an oil baron. Indeed, the first oil millionaire was Jonathan Watson, the owner of the land where Drake had drilled.

The company and stockholders for which Drake developed his well-drilling method was the Seneca Oil Company, named after the Mohawk tribe, the Seneca. The Senecans had used the mineral oil that seeped from the Oil Creek as a basis for medicinal cures long before the arrival of the European settlers. But the Senecans did not become rich from the oil that was extracted from their (former) land.

Other persons, such as John D. Rockefeller, H. L. Hunt and J. Paul Getty were the ones who became genuine oil barons. The Standard Oil Company emerged from the original company Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler. Henry M. Flagler invested capital in the Standard Oil Company. He later played a significant role in the construction of the Florida East Coast railway. Samuel Andrews was a chemist: it was due to his improvement of mineral oil refining methods that the company was able to achieve its success. During the 36 years after 1870, the Standard Oil Company developed into an industrial imperium of hitherto unknown size and power – until the government under Theodore Roosevelt dissolved it into 34 corporations by passing the Sherman Antitrust Act. This was the first legislation in the USA that regulated competition. This law caused the share price of the company to plummet. Once again, J.D. Rockefeller benefited from this situation by buying up the all-time low-priced shares, making enormous profits when the share price rose again. (Roosevelt himself was the offspring of an American dynasty. Basically, the history of the USA can probably be told as the history of family disputes between the various dynastic families.)

With the emerging automobile industry, there was increasing dependence on oil. Today, the companies emerging from the Standard Oil Company form the very backbone of modern US oil companies, which are central components of the American military industrial complex.

Haroldson Lafayette (H. L.) Hunt accumulated enormous wealth from the East Texas Oil Field. However, the name Hunt is not as well-known as that of Rockefeller, possibly due to Rockefeller’s philanthropic activities, such as the Rockefeller Foundation. Nevertheless, the Hunt clan have considerable influence and wealth in the USA. H.L. Hunt is suspected of having played a role in the plot to murder the Democrat president John F. Kennedy in 1963. He certainly had a motive: Kennedy was planning to reduce the tax privileges for oil companies, which would have reduced the income of the Texan oil baron by several hundred million US dollars per year (but which would not have ruined him) [14, 15]. Hunt must have been a colourful personality. He was the inspiration for the fictional character J.R. Ewing, the central figure for the soap opera Dallas, which gained international success, running from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

Through his images agency Getty Images, Mark Getty has secured himself a firm position in the 21st-century media landscape. The wealth of the Getty dynasty is also based on oil: from the patriarch of the family, Jean Paul Getty, the founder of the Getty Oil Company, to Paul Getty II and then Mark Getty, the wealth accrued by this family has been passed on from generation to generation. Similar to Rockefeller, J. Paul Getty found great satisfaction in using his considerable wealth to foster the arts and culture, being an avid collector, establishing foundations and museums.

The Bush clan, which to date has brought forth two American presidents (George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993 und George W. Bush, 2001-2009), is an industrial and oil dynasty. Prescott Bush, father of President George H.W. Bush (“Bush senior“) and grandfather of George W. Bush (“Bush junior”) increased the fortune of the Yankee steel- industrialist family in Ohio by managing German steel industrialists’ property in the USA, having no qualms about having a shareholding in industrial companies using forced labour during the Nazi era. Prescott’s son, later president of the United States, George H.W. Bush (“Bush senior“), moved to Texas after completing his studies at Yale in 1948, and , facilitated by the network of the Bush clan with the world of high finance, became an oil mogul. His political career involved posts as a UN ambassador, CIA director, director of the ’Council on Foreign Relations‘, and vice-president, and ultimately, the 41st president of the USA in the White House. The Bush family was involved in the five key areas of American power: i) US investment banking, ii) the weapons industry, iii) the CIA, iv) the control of the international oil reserves, and v) the close cooperation with the former imperial power, Britain [16], (to be precise there is a sixth key area of American power in which he was involved, namely think tanks, such as the Council on Foreign Relations).

George W. Bush’s (“Bush junior”) road to the White House was also paved by the Bush clan’s involvement in the global structures of power. George W. Bush founded the oil company Arbusto Energy in Texas with “clan money”. However, the oil reserves in the USA that could be mined conventionally were already diminishing (see next chapter) and the oil drilling in Texas was not successful. His father, “Bush senior”, stepped in to offer support by intensifying the contacts between the Bush clan and the Saud Family, who own the country with the largest oil reserves (Saudi Arabia). George W. Bush’s company Arbusto transitioned into “Spectrum“, this company being bought up by Harken Energy in 1986. According to George Soros, one of the major Harken Energy shareholders, this transaction was made to benefit the good contacts of the Bush clan in the Gulf region and the Saud clan, rather than the company itself. Not surprisingly, Harken Energy became unusually attractive for Saudi investors, who were granted exclusive drilling rights on the coast of the island kingdom Bahrain. George W. Bush was elected 43rd president of the USA in 1989. The financial transactions of Harken Energy Deals were handled by the Luxemburg Bank BCCI, which was foreclosed in 1991 by the Bank of England, 20 billion US dollars disappearing without a trace during the process. The collapse of the BCCI is the greatest scandal in financial history to date [17].

Apart from the good relations with the Saud family, the Bush family maintains close business connections with the Saudi building construction industrialist family Bin Laden (whose probably most famous son is Osama Bin Laden) [18, 19]. The relationship between the Saud family and the American oligarch clan remains as close as ever. Saudi Arabia has pledged the current American president Donald Trump the purchase of weapons worth several hundred billion dollars [20] and Trump‘s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s personal debts make him directly dependent on the Saud family. [17]. Blood is thicker than water, but oil is thicker than blood.

“Peak Oil“

Rockefeller, Hunt and Getty – these names alone clearly reveal the strong impact that the oil industry of the globally imperialist superpower USA has had on the history of the country. Bush and Trump – these names in themselves convey the great influence of the Saudi-American oil industry on the present-day globally imperialist superpower USA.

Ever since the nineteen-seventies, when the quantity of oil mined in the US has been on the decline, the eyes of the oilhungry industrial nations have turned to other regions of the world, particularly to the Middle East. But what has become of the American oilfields?

Well, as far as more or less easily accessible oil is concerned, i.e. oil that does not need to be extracted by fracking or from hundreds or even thousands of meters under the earth, the answer is: it has simply been used up. In 1956, Marion King Hubbert, chief geologist at Shell Laboratories in Houston/Texas, made a disturbing announcement in connection with the volume of oil and gas available for extraction: he forecast that the maximum level of oil extraction, the “peak oil“ period, would be reached by about 1970; after this time, the quantity of oil mined annually would decrease every year. And precisely this has turned out to be the case: since 1970, the amount of oil mined by conventional methods has decreased decade by decade (figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2: US field production of crude oil between 1940 and 2015 in millions of barrels per day [21] Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Public Domain.

Only when fracking technology started to change the trend in the USA in 2008 was it possible to again mine the same quantities in the country that had been drilled in the 1970s. While writing these lines (in February 2018), the daily oil production figures are 10.27 million barrels per day and therefore slightly above the peak-oil level of 1970. When I was in the process of completing this book in December 2018, a new peak-oil level of 11.6 barrels per day was recorded.

Figure 3: Weekly US field production of crude oil between 1983 and July 2018 in thousands of barrels per day including the current field production in July 2018 [22] Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Public Domain

In 1956, Hubbert also forecast that the global oil production would peak in about half a century, thus in about 2006. Since that time, annual oil production has even increased and, due to fracking technology, the USA is again one of the most important oil producing nations worldwide, competing with Saudi Arabia for the leading position in annual oil production. So at present, there is no sign at all of a lack of oil. Rather, the oil price is so low that the oil producing states have huge problems concerning oil revenue, and Venezuela, the country with the largest oil reserves on the American continent (or perhaps even worldwide), is having to cope with economic collapse.

How did plummeting oil prices come about? The oil price is not only governed by the laws of the market, but also determined by political interests. The OPEC countries dominate the scene, but so does the USA, whose currency, the ‘petrodollar’, is linked to all crude oil transactions. (It seems quite plausible that the intention of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Libya under Gaddafi to sell crude oil in other currencies, rather than the dollar, was an important reason for the attack of western military powers on Iraq and Libya.) The United States, the most powerful military force in the world, thus benefits from the privilege of the most important natural resource in the world (namely, crude oil) being traded exclusively in dollars, which also happens to be the global key currency and the main reserve currency.

At the same time, since 2008, fracking technology has once again made the USA the largest crude oil producing country in the world. However, oil extraction using fracking technology is considerably more expensive, which is why some competing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, assumed that the American oil producing companies would not survive such a low oil price. But the USA drills more crude oil at present than any other nation, including Saudi Arabia. I, too, cannot see that the geostrategy of the USA will allow the extraction of oil by fracking to be discontinued, even if the companies involved require state subsidising. From the point of view of the USA, the certainly intentional side effect is that rival oil-producing countries, whose economies are strongly dependent on the oil price (e.g. Russia, but especially Venezuela), have to bear the loss.

Let us now turn to a parameter that paradoxically has little to do with the oil price, namely demand, i.e. global consumption. In 2008, the consumption figure for oil was calculated at about 86 million barrels per day. After nine years of steadily rising consumption, the figure in 2017 was 97 barrels per day [23]. Annual consumption growth is thus approximately 1,22 %.

Using Al Bartlett’s rule-of-thumb formula, which was introduced at the beginning of this book, the doubling time can easily be calculated:

Accordingly, assuming the same consumption growth, global oil consumption will double by about 2065. During this period, the global population of 6.8 billion in 2008 will have increased from over 7.6. billion in 2017, and to about 10.4 billion in 2065. This figure of 10.4 billion corresponds to the median UN population projection for 2065, the lowest figure being 8.6 billion and the highest, 12.4 billion inhabitants. [24]. All of these projections (i.e. the highest as well), assume decreasing population growth. However, if the population continues to grow at a rate of 1,19%, as it did in 2015, the population of the earth can be expected to have reached 13.3 billion by 2065.

Thus, the low oil price is deceptive. Those people who believe that the fear of running out of oil is only panic-mongering should know that demand for oil is moving in only one direction at present: upwards! [23]. Of course it is essential for industrialised countries to curb oil consumption by means of new and cheaper technologies or alternative forms of energy. While consumption per person in almost all African countries south of the Sahara is lower than one barrel per year, some even below one-third barrels per year, German consumption per person averages 12 barrels per year, the figure for Americans being as high as 25 barrels per year [25].

At the same time, China and India, both former developing countries, and now emerging market countries with the highest populations in the world, are undergoing a process of industrialisation. The two countries, both of which have a population of about 1.3 billion, have a comparatively low annual crude oil consumption: China’s is 2.14 barrels per year, that of India 0.94. These figures will increase in the years to come [25].

Africa is the continent with the highest population