Minnesotans For Sustainability©
Sustainable Society: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
Population Changes and Energy Milestones
France and Australia*
The purpose of this article is to explore and contrast the potential for human survival in Australia and France after the petroleum interval, assuming that this interval may have lasted between around 1850 and 2035. To do this it is first necessary to establish pre-fossil fuel carrying capacity, assuming that soil, water and climate retain their productiveness. The carrying capacity sought for France is as an agricultural self sufficient country, with a high proportion of cereal crops. In conceptual terms, a return to later 19th century land use and farming intensity, if not techniques, and to early to mid 19th century population numbers may not be as difficult as it might look because we need only go back to the past. For Australia the method is different, because the people there prior to European settlement produced no recorded history. It is also difficult to compare pre-fossil fuel European agriculture in Australia because much of the land was developed after the Second World War. To work out Australia's productivity it is necessary to use palaeontology, archaeology, anthropology and ecology. Fortunately Australian scientists have pioneered the collection and analysis of this kind of data for just this purpose.1
Palaeontologist, Tim Flannery has popularised the notion of vastly greater
carrying capacities in Europe than in Australia by referring to calculations of
biomass in both regions.2
For instance, he points out how Europe easily sustains a vast population of
humans plus 27 species of mammalian carnivores, including two species of bears,
which are the biggest, most energy-intensive mammal, in an area not much bigger
Australia, of course, supports a much lesser biomass. The reason for this
difference, apart from the good rainfall, is Europe’s soil resources and the
role of glaciation - major glaciers only having completely withdrawn in the last
8000 years, grinding and renewing the earth as they moved. Such major
geological events are responsible for Europe's rich and thick topsoils 8 or 9
Fossil Fuel Population Settings for Australia and France today
population is about 20 million, and since 1990 population has increased by
2,198,550 people, or approximately 12.8% for an average rate of +1.6% per year.
Almost half of this increase was due to immigration. In 2003 Australia was on
course to reach about 30 million by 2050. By contrast France’s population
is 60 million and, since 1990, France's population grew by 2,462,700 people for
an average rate of +0.39% per year. A large part of this growth was due to
natural increase. After 2050, with the demise of most baby-boomers,
France's population is set to decline.4
In contrast to
the rich, deep European soils of France, in Australia the topsoil is often only
a few inches deep, if that. The biophysical constraints of this - the oldest
continent - are largely due to flatness and lack of recent major geophysical
upheaval. As well as affecting the potential for rainfall, the flatness means
that rivers flow slowly, little silt is gathered or deposited and salt
accumulates in the soil. Lack of volcanoes, earthquakes or glaciers means that
the soil fails to be renewed through widespread grinding and crushing of
minerals and rocks. Successful non-nomadic Australian mammals tend to be small
with unusually slow metabolisms. The largest mammals are nomadic macropods - the
kangaroos - which can travel quickly away from drought to rain to find better
foraging. Many of the largest fauna are land-based low food-energy requiring
reptiles, which use heat from the sun to raise their body temperature.5 Nomadic
birds, like cockatoos, parrots, and the flightless Emu, also do well. Both
flora and fauna display numerous adaptations to precarious, stingy soils and an
arid climate. Some of many unusual features are the number and variety of
adaptations to extreme soil infertility. These include those of the world’s
largest variety of carnivorous plants, which are thought to supplement
nitrogen-poor soils with insects, and a tree-size mistletoe that parasitises
nutrients from the roots of other vegetation.6 The scleromorphous structure of
much indigenous vegetation is an adaptation to water shortage.
Human adaptation to biophysical constraints in Australia prior to the fossil-fuel economy
pre-fossil fuel society was hunter-gatherer, averaging on continent-wide terms,
less than one person per 8.5 square kilometres, possibly as few as one person
per 51 square kilometers.7 There was no agriculture, almost certainly due to
the climate and soils.8 To get an idea of what this means requires the
understanding that the majority of the continent is hot desert.9 Total land
stock is 770 million hectares or 7,700,000 square kilometers but less than 30
million hectares or 300,000 square kilometers (less than 4%) is of good or very
good quality in terms of broadscale cropping potential.10 Rangelands encompass
some 75% or 570 million hectares of the continent. About 406 million hectares
is used for grazing, with stock density running as low as one beast per 100km.
Rainfall is highly variable, with frequent droughts lasting several seasons,
resulting in massive die-offs.11 Like the nomadic adaptations of kangaroos and
birds to erratic climate, the aborigines, who were hunter gatherers, moved with
their food sources in response to changing conditions, with the exception of
those hunting and gathering under more settled conditions in comparatively more
fertile, less arid parts, especially the South East. The continent supported
numerous clans at different densities according to regional soils and climate. The
distribution of the fossil fuel era population is similar, also reflecting
climate and soils, although abundant fossil fuel has made it much denser and
Primary productivity improvements since the fossil fuel economy
Net primary productivity continent wide was about 5% less prior to European settlement in 1788.13 For all intents and purposes this increase has been restricted to 25% of the continent, mainly in the South East. From this we can infer that net primary productivity has increased in this more fertile quarter of the continent by about 20%, and that productivity in the most fertile 4% would have increased over 100%. Almost all of this is due to the application of fossil fuel sourced synthetic fertilisers, irrigation, and internal combustion engines for machinery and transport.14 Synthetic fertilisers and irrigation are beginning to seriously go wrong, leading to desertification of previously productive areas.
Prior to European settlement, for at least 40,000 years, Australia was occupied by clans of Aborigines totalling a population estimated to have been between 150,000 and 300,000, although some estimates have taken it up as high as 900,000.15 With wood, wind, draft animals and some coal the population rose to around 6 million prior to the First World War. This is the number that Flannery thought would be sustainable in the long term for Australia and at a relatively comfortable lifestyle.16 He was however probably also thinking of continued fossil fuel use. It is likely that long term carrying capacity without substantial quantities of fossil fuel may be closer to that of the pre-European Aboriginal population.
The question of determining the carrying capacity of Australia, as a pre-fossil fuel agricultural self-sufficient economy, is problematic on multiple levels.17 None of these, however, should stop discussion. Firstly, the notion of an agricultural economy is counterintuitive because of the inherent unsuitability for cultivation of most regions and soils of Australia and because of severe, widespread damage to soil and water resources since European settlement. Secondly there is the certainty of further and massive land degradation induced and entrained by ongoing processes. Problems with dryland salinity (currently irreversible) affect 2.5 million hectares, with 17 million hectares among the 30m good likely to be destroyed by salinity by 2050 on current trends, leaving 13 million "good" and probably at least halving agricultural productivity.18 More than 24 million hectares of soil is considered acidic. Much of this is natural, but agricultural management technologies are causing the soil acidification process to accelerate.19 The logistics of distance and area required for traditional agriculture, are so vast that they are generally incomprehensible to Europeans from the Northern hemisphere who do not have science-based ecological knowledge.
So, in doing a ball park calculation of carrying capacity post fossil fuel, we need to consider the following.20 With productivity of land approximately halved by 2050 and population of 30 million (half as big again as it was early in the 21st century), Australia's export economy, which consists mostly of agricultural and mineral product, will be reduced in line with the growing needs of its own population unless an elite continues to export at the expense of the local population. We can assume that both oil and natural gas will have run out by then.21 Taking into account its role substituting for declining oil and gas, coal may last, according to high economic and population growth rate scenarios, up to around the middle of this century, or, at a quite unlikely zero growth rate, up to the middle of the 22nd century.22 Conventional sources of nuclear energy will possibly last until around 2100.23
Back to the notion that an agricultural economy is counter intuitive.
The idea of a hunter gatherer, herding economy, with, so to speak, some oases of gardening and crop production, is the one that offers itself up as the most natural, logical and efficient. In Australia we have a natural biodiversity that has adapted beautifully to the biophysical restrictions of the Australian continent. This ecology has probably maximised the greatest productivity at an indefinitely sustainable level. In the absence of large quantities of fossil fuel, it makes far more sense for humans to adapt to this ecology than to continue to try to reorganise, with multiple prosthetic innovations, something so big and organically synthesised.
forms of energy stored as fossil fuel have run beyond their commercial
production lifetime, the capacity of the continent to support more than its
natural biomass will be enormously reduced, and the human population will
shrink, one way or another, as a result. If we assume a loss of at least 50% of
the 5% gain in agricultural productivity since 1788, then we are perhaps
contemplating a population 2.5% larger than the aboriginal population pre 1788.
Such a population would subsist mainly through hunting indigenous fauna (like
macropods and birds) or herding exotic fauna (like cattle), using draft animals
(camels and equine and bovine), cultivating, by recycling manure and other
wastes, a greatly reduced area of relatively arable land, and using flow
energies,24 of which the most representative will probably be wind, with some
solar and some biomass if combustion engines are maintained for limited specific
purposes. These flow energies might add to the productivity of the land, but
from that gain should be subtracted the land needed for accommodation and food
supply of beasts of burden.
It is unlikely
that such a small population would benefit by organising big scale commercial
electricity from flow sources, except perhaps in the island of Tasmania, which
has some fast flowing rivers. Inland water sources on the mainland, with the
exception of the unreliable Murray-Darling River system, are almost all unviable
for commercial transport and power. Wind and draft animals were the power
source most used prior to fossil fuel in Australia. Geothermal, solar, and
tidal energy offer limited opportunity, but require high technology for
sophisticated harnessing and this may not be practical for a small post fossil
fuel population living largely off the land. Failing massive technological
breakthroughs, these sources are not likely to greatly increase on the
continent's original fertility. Note that I have not talked about utilising
existing transport infrastructure, as I have done for France. This is
because, although it might be possible to use trains and grid electricity on a
limited scale, the distance between cities and the fall in population makes
maintaining these options unlikely. There might perhaps be a case for a wood
fired railway from the major inland food production area (should any of this
survive), and then redistribution via road by draft animal and a coastal
shipping transport service.
On the way to sustainability without fossil fuel
In Australia at present time there is capacity to generate enough electricity through wind power to strongly assist transition to a smaller population and the depletion of fossil fuel. The capacity to plan for and implement this potential is the big problem, due to the influence of the coal lobby and the property development and construction industry which are institutionalised at a structural level in the Australian planning and political system.
Dr John Coulter has been lobbying to change these inertias, and has developed a plan based on study of costs and production for a wind farm in Albany, West Australia.25 He writes that “Each of these turbines in the Albany wind farm built for Western Power is rated at 1.8 MW; the towers are 65 metres tall and the blades 70 metres in diameter. The farm is connected into the West Australian grid through a 15-km underground 22,000-volt line. The expected completed capital cost will be $1.81/watt.
wind does not blow all the time the capacity factor for wind generators is
between 25 and 30% depending on the location. The capacity factor is the
percentage of electricity actually generated compared with the amount that would
be generated if the generator worked 100% of the time.
We need to install some 7,500 MW of wind power each year for the next decade. That is equivalent to building 7-1/2 Torrens Island power stations every year. At $1.81 per watt this represents an investment each year of $13.5 billion or about 2% of GDP. This is a large amount of money but last year Australia spent $44 billion on building construction or 6.5% of GDP. The physical dimensions of the task are also enormous. At 1.8 MW per generator we will need to build approximately 4,200 towers and generators every year. It must be interpolated here that the building industry is one of the very strong lobbies for population growth. How much more progressive it would be if it were building wind farms rather than more and more houses?"
The Australian land
planning development and construction industries and system have successfully
fought necessary policies to reduce population growth and energy demand.
Australia's incapacity to plan and adapt infrastructure, industry, and resource
draw-down for radically changing circumstances is a major problem. It has
been bedevilled and will likely remain bedevilled by the federal government's
lack of legal authority to direct, oversee and co-ordinate state and local
government land-use planning.26
Europe and France were blessed by very rich soils and a climate conducive to
agriculture, it must be noted that modern agricultural equipment, irrigation,
single-cropping and near-total reliance on mineral fertilizers has radically
increased erosion and soil degradation all over Europe, this being compounded
in regions north of about 45°N by increasing rainfall, probably due to climate
Human adaptation to biophysical constraints in France prior to the fossil-fuel economy
From medieval times until the middle of the 18th century France's population oscillated around 18-20 million, which at the time was the largest in Europe. Growth was then relatively rapid; attaining nearly 30 million by 1815.28 Territorial expansion through warfare also increased France’s population by altering the borders: in 1850 nearly one million more people and their territory, in the form of Nice and Swiss Savoy, were added. Since the middle of the 19th century, however, increased agricultural land due to drainage, irrigation and other works was more than counterbalanced by loss of better land to urbanisation, soil degradation, and pollution both from industry and intensive agriculture. Despite this, it seems possible to consider a population of around 20-25 million as sustainable in the post fossil fuel era. Further, the policy and practices applied regarding the conservation of soils, the recycling of soil nutrients, and the recovery of biotope diversity may enable France to reconstitute soil quality and restore pre 19th century productivity in some regions. In such case it might be possible to maintain the higher end of the above, very general, sustainable population estimate.
France did not begin to experience its own industrial revolution until around 1880. The First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War further delayed this development. There was little local coal except in rather isolated and restricted areas. Probably for this, but for other reasons as well, French population growth was modest relative to those of Germany, the UK and Italy. Between 1815 and 1845, France’s population grew from 29.4 million to 35 million, largely due to skilled immigration. Subsequent growth still remained lower than for other large European nations, with the French national population only increasing from 35.6 million to 38.4 million through 1850-1869.
In 1869, when the population of France had reached 38 million, horses, donkeys, oxen and even cows and dogs were used for road transport and hauling. The dominant industrial energy sources were still the water wheel, windmills and tidemills. Rivers provided the most energy-efficient form of transport and were extensively used before the fossil energy period, with some transport networks connecting to those of other European countries. Bulk transport, wherever possible, was by boat and barge. Today, and excluding large scale hydro power (producing about 70 TWh/year) small scale and run-of-river hydro installations (below 150 kW) produce about 4.5 TWh/year. France also has one of the world’s few operational, larger-sized tidal electric power stations (Rance river, Brittany). In the late 19th century coal was increasingly used, but wood, which still provides about 40% of space heating fuel requirements in rural areas, was a major source of both commercial and non-commercial energy.
Much of the pre-fossil energy infrastructure either exists or could be reconstructed, or even improved upon. This is particularly true of the canal system and woodlands. France’s woodlands and forests have been maintained, even increased on earlier times. Efficiently used, in combined heat-and-power facilities, wood and other biomass energy resources can easily provide envisageable heating, and rational electrical energy needs of an equilibrium or sustainable population of around 20-25 M persons. The capacity of the managed forests of France to support the return of a functioning biodiversity which people could supplement diet with would, however, require big changes in vegetation species mix and variety.
In the future, there may be potential for wind-powered transport, both along canals and rivers, as well as roads.
19th/early 20th century, primarily rural population of France, employing candles
and mineral ―and animal― oil lamps for light, was often little-integrated in the
growing, urban ―and industrial-based cash economy. The peasants had acquired
land ownership rights through the French Revolution of 1789. This relatively
secure peasantry, with strong cottage industries, lacked the motivation to
provide the ‘factory fodder’ of the dispossessed in the UK and other European
countries where the people were still surfs, or had lost all title and communal
access to land by the Middle Ages. The French were similarly reluctant to
settle France's colonies. Some of the 19th century’s demographic growth may
have been supported by wealth, or related commerce, arising from foreign
possessions, particularly in the cities.29 Without question, access to land,
food ―and energy-producing resources will form an important part of those
‘social contracts’ that new regional or national entities will construct or
develop in the period from about 2035.
Primary productivity improvements since the fossil fuel economy
French may claim status as ‘the EU’s breadbasket’ this ignores two key factors.
The first is the pollution and depletion of water tables, most spectacularly for
pollution in Brittany,
and most intensely for depletion of water resources in the entire south and
south-west of the country. Secondly, although French agriculture is among the
most productive in the world, it is heavily dependent on fossil fuels and
petroleum products, both directly for machines, and indirectly for fertilizers,
insecticides, animal medication and other inputs vitally necessary for intensive
production. Once these are stripped away, food self-sufficiency for perhaps 25
million persons, less than 50% of France’s 60 million population in 2002,
becomes an optimistic but perhaps attainable target.
Organisation and modern infrastructure
It should not be forgotten that France was not really a political, linguistic or cultural entity before the early 19th century. Development of railroads, post and telegraph systems played a major part in the sudden rush of ‘nation building’ that occurred in Europe through 1780-1860, and France provides an excellent example of this. The ability to cover wide areas with fast physical transport, and now communications, necessary to bind disparate communities and cultures into what are called ‘modern nations’ would necessarily diminish fast with loss of fossil fuel. It might however be possible for France to maintain electricity supplies for a certain level of high ―or medium-speed rail transport through a mixture of renewable energy sources― that is water, wind, wood and biomass, and tidal energy, although nuclear electricity will most certainly be the first choice of current policy makers.30 The infrastructure is also still largely in place for canal traffic at certain levels of capacity (a few percent of current road transport capacity). Urban and settlement spatial organisation, outside the unsustainably large and energy-intensive large cities, includes certain amounts of building stock capable of being adapted to much lower energy operation and therefore utilization.
France's centralised land development planning system and construction industry organisation and technologies have previously adapted to and offer more scope for innovative adaptation to energy and population logistics than Australia's.31
century infrastructure overlay to the above target population (20-25 M), which
is the same as that at the beginning of the 19th century, offers some potential
for restructuring, adaptation and continued utilisation. This notably includes
rail transport. At present some all-electric, but mostly diesel-fuelled onboard
electricity generator powered trains link major points of the country and
neighbouring countries. Other than canal and maritime transport, rail
transportation is the most energy-efficient. Building stock, insulation and
design improvements could be applied to selected building groups in efficiently
and rationally located settlement centres outside the major urban areas, such as
Paris-Ile de France, Marseilles, Lyon, Lille and Bordeaux, enabling a stabilised
and decentralised population to live in an increasingly sustainable way.
The most important sources I have used were Barney Foran, Franzi Poldy, Future
Dilemmas, CSIRO Resource Futures Working Paper 02/01, CSIRO Sustainable
Ecosystems, GPO Box 284, CANBERRA ACT 2601, available online at <
http://www.cse.csiro.au/futuredilemmas > and the Australian Resource Atlas,
which are products of long-term and ongoing work by CSIRO natural and physical
scientists. For other ecological works on population see S. Newman, The Growth
Lobby and its Absence: The Relationship between the Property Development and
Housing Industries and Immigration Policy in Australia and France, 1945-2000
with projections to 2050, <
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