Tom Malthus, King Hubbert, and Me

Ron Gibson

Every reader of this publication will know of Thomas Malthus, the man who first warned of human overpopulation. His warnings that exponential human population growth would outpace food production have become so well known since his death (in 1834) as to give birth to that adjective Malthusian. And for the past half century or so, he has become an object of derision. Bring up Malthus’s name today, and a typical response goes something like this: “Malthus? Look how wrong he was—he had no idea of how science and technology would allow our population to grow.”

Dolts!

Malthus was completely right, and all that the science and technology, all the “green revolutions,” and all the people in white smocks have done is to push off our day of reckoning and give humanity a false sense of security. For the day when we could have saved ourselves and our planet from the consequences of our ever-expanding growth has come and gone. Which brings me to M. King Hubbert.

Marion King Hubbert used to like to refer to himself as King Hubbert—a testimony to his parents’ prescience and his own ego, for he became America’s foremost geologist in the middle of the twentieth century. Known for his brilliance and irascibility, he became famous for what came to be called Hubbert’s Curve: mathematically derived curves that could accurately predict the life of an oil well or an entire oil field. His methods became well known when he accurately predicted—some fifteen years earlier, and to within a few months—that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970. King Hubbert was to oil reserves what old Tom Malthus was to human overpopulation concerns—a harbinger of dark days ahead. And today he gets the same derisive treatment: “Hubbert? Look how wrong he was; with all our new technology, his curves are useless. Soon the USA will be outproducing Saudi Arabia.” Dolts! Hubbert was spot-on; it turns out our advances in drilling technology have enabled us to access hitherto unavailable oil-bearing formations, to wring more oil and gas out of the crust. But all we have done is win a brief respite from the insatiable need for oil and gas on which our exponentially expanding population depends. Earth’s crust is not a bottomless barrel; our respite will be brief—so enjoy it. No, it turns out that Hubbert and Malthus were both right about exponential growth; all our wonderful science has bought us a little more time but, in the end, made the problem worse.

Which brings me to me; why am I in the title of this dark and foreboding essay? Well, in 1965, I went to hear a lecture by Hubbert on U.S. and world oil reserves. I still remember the auditorium, filled mostly with geologists, sitting in stunned silence when he finished. No polite applause, nothing; we were all so shocked by what Hubbert had just outlined, a doomsday scenario by the most prominent among us. After his talk several of us geologists took him to dinner, where I posed the following question: “Dr. Hubbert, you have painted a very bleak picture for humanity’s future. If we took the necessary steps right now, do you think we could avoid the catastrophic future you predict?”

His answer was instant and stunning. To paraphrase (he used a metaphor to answer): “Oh, no, it’s too late—a big ocean liner has to slow down miles from shore, not when it sees the dock. There are already too many of us, and we are consuming too many of the Earth’s resources to avoid a calamitous future.”

Of course, he, a half century ago, was right, just as Malthus was right; all you optimists who think otherwise have your heads in the sand—or somewhere else. In defense of the optimists, of the we-can-grow-forever people, the pernicious effects of overpopulation take place so slowly and have been mitigated so well by technology as to be barely discernible down the generations. I am an old man, barely on the green side of grass, and I am much more aware of our planet’s overcrowded condition than people two or three generations behind me. The deterioration in the quality of Earth’s environment caused by our species’s inexorable growth has been slow, insidious, and barely noticeable to any given generation. But now, just as Hubbert predicted, it has gone beyond redemption.

And, this particular publication calls for a closing note to this utterly dismal topic—the role played by religion as humanity marches toward oblivion to the drumbeat of overpopulation. “Go forth and multiply.” Sure. “The Earth and its creatures are your dominion.” Sure. “Abortion is baby killing.” Sure. The dolts have followed their clerics, be they Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim—you name the religion—down the road to perdition as they drown in their fellow humans. Since the heyday of religion (which was called the Dark Ages with good reason), science has been slowly eroding religion’s grip on people but, sadly, not nearly fast enough. For I can see the dock now!

Ron Gibson

Ron Gibson is an exploration geologist (retired) and an unabashed atheist.


Every reader of this publication will know of Thomas Malthus, the man who first warned of human overpopulation. His warnings that exponential human population growth would outpace food production have become so well known since his death (in 1834) as to give birth to that adjective Malthusian. And for the past half century or so, …

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