The First World Is Destroying the Third World Through Climate Change
About 500 years ago, capitalism started to displace feudalism as the dominant socioeconomic system on the planet. There were about half a billion humans wandering around then, and about 80 percent of them were living hand-to-mouth existences and relying on subsistence agriculture. It wasn’t until the replacement of animate energy (biomass) with inanimate energy (fossil fuels) in the West during the 19th century that the global population started to grow exponentially, ballooning to its current level of over 7 billion. (To understand what powered this increase, consider that a teaspoon of diesel fuel contains as much energy as a human can expend in a day.) This transition from diffuse/currently available solar energy to stored/concentrated solar energy transformed every aspect of society, from manufacturing to agriculture to transportation to life expectancy. Basically, the last 200 years of exponential industrial and population growth have been subsidized by ancient, compacted sunlight.
It took about 200,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion (~1800 CE), 130 years to reach 2 billion, 30 years for 3 billion, 15 years for 4 billion, and around 13 years each for 5, 6, and 7 billion. The UN is predicting that reaching 8 and 9 billion will take 16 and 19 years respectively, meaning the rate of population growth might have peaked around the year 2000. It’s probably not a coincidence that this growth corresponds pretty closely with the easy availability of ancient stores of fossilized energy. It has been argued that without fossil fuels, the carrying capacity of Earth would be around 1 to 2 billion humans.
To put it bluntly, we’re reaching peak everything. We’ve blown through our one-time inheritance of natural capital (fossil fuels, topsoil, groundwater, biodiversity) like the crazy, hairless apes we are.