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Friday, July 01, 2005

"Peak Land" and Sardines

The USA hit the milestone of "peak oil" around 1970.

Less well known but just as significantly, our nation reached "peak land" in 1810. This rather contrived concept describes the maximum average amount of land "owned" per citizen over time. For nearly two centuries, we have ridden the tail downward. Each successive year, the average citizen owns less and less land as the pie gets subdivided among a greater population base (from a maximum of 150 acres per person to less than 8 today). I graphed the following from census data.

The "peak land" actually occurred between 1800 and 1820 as the states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Maine joined the union during those decades. Another mini-peak occurred in 1850 as Texas and California became states. That marked the last feeling of expansiveness that most Americans felt (apparently Alaska didn't even register a micro-peak).

What does "peak land" have to do with real physical constraints such as diminishing oil supplies? Probably not much, as land doesn't truly deplete like fossil fuels do -- but psychologically I think the process of dimishing land returns has much the same effect on people's mindset as constrained resources do. For example, witness what impact the latest ruling on eminent domain had on people of different political persuasions. And then think how people universally rise up when somebody decides to ration goods depending on social status.

In comparison to my thoughts on oil depletion, I feel rather ambivalent on the whole eminent domain issue. What the feds can take away, they can take away again. If land continually gets transferred to the most powerful, eventually something will snap. This will work its way out over time.

The good news? Our nation has had 200 years to psychologically prepare to get squeezed once again as global peak oil takes effect.

Sardines anyone?


Professor Blogger Big Gav said...

William Catton comments on this issue of land per person in "Collapse" - noting that the crowded and occasionally famine afflicted Europe that the original American (and later Australian) settlers left actually had more land available per person than the US does now.

But they didn't have modern agricultural techniques and artificial fertiliser of course.

1:27 AM  
Professor Blogger @whut said...

Interesting. I just noticed that Diamond's GunsSteelGerms will be shown on public TV in the next couple of weeks.

7:58 AM  

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