Papers in the Biological Sciences


Date of this Version



DeLong JP, Burger O (2015) Socio- Economic Instability and the Scaling of Energy Use with Population Size. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0130547. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0130547


Copyright: © 2015 DeLong, Burger. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License,


The size of the human population is relevant to the development of a sustainable world, yet the forces setting growth or declines in the human population are poorly understood. Generally, population growth rates depend on whether new individuals compete for the same energy (leading to Malthusian or density-dependent growth) or help to generate new energy (leading to exponential and super-exponential growth). It has been hypothesized that exponential and super-exponential growth in humans has resulted from carrying capacity, which is in part determined by energy availability, keeping pace with or exceeding the rate of population growth. We evaluated the relationship between energy use and population size for countries with long records of both and the world as a whole to assess whether energy yields are consistent with the idea of an increasing carrying capacity. We find that on average energy use has indeed kept pace with population size over long time periods. We also show, however, that the energy-population scaling exponent plummets during, and its temporal variability increases preceding, periods of social, political, technological, and environmental change. We suggest that efforts to increase the reliability of future energy yields may be essential for stabilizing both population growth and the global socio-economic system.