Thursday, May 15, 2008

No Planet for Old Men

We are arriving at peak oil at a time when the largest generation yet in human history is entering statistical old age. Even more important, in most major western nations, it is a generation in which the majority of people have spent their working lives in various service industries, making their living through the neuron-firings of their brains rather than the sweat on their brows. Most have never turned a shovel, plowed a field, dug up a garden, grown their own food, canned, dehydrated or otherwise preserved their own food, harnessed a horse or helped a cow through the difficult birth of a new calf.

I am unusual in many respects. Firstly I was technically born before the arbitrarily-designated beginning of the generally-recognized Baby Boomer generation. It is generally accepted that that generation covers the period 1946-1964. I was born three months earlier in September 1945. I entered the computer software industry, one of those clearly service-oriented professions, in 1963-64 (long before the advent of the PC, computer monitors, GUIs and the internet) and spent thirty-five years in that industry. But unlike most in that industry I have done all of those self-sufficiency things I listed in the opening paragraph and even more, things such as working on farms during my late teens and even earlier if you count helping out on my uncle's farm as often as I could and working side by side with my mother and step father in our half-acre vegetable garden.

Despite my familiarity and comfort with skills that would be important in a post-peak world where self-sufficiency will be critical, I do not realistically expect to be able to achieve, let alone maintain, self-sufficiency in the coming years. In fact I do not expect to be a post-peak survivor. Nor do I at all expect the vast majority of the Baby Boomer generation to be long-term, post-peak survivors. It is one of those things that makes me wish that my non-belief in the afterlife turns out to be wrong so that I could watch from afar as peak oil unfolds...... just to see what happens.

In addition to the massive size of the Baby Boomer generation we are essentially a generation that have lived our lives with a totally unrealistic sense of entitlement. We feel that the lifestyle of relative wealth - relative to the rest of the world - and relative ease in which we were raised and have since lived and made our own way, is a God-given right. We have no sense of history, of the reality that we are the first and probably only generation that has lived in a long enough period of relative peace and economic expansion to have developed that myopic sense of entitlement. But it is the historical exception, not the norm. And the reality of history is very soon going to bite us in the ass and disconnect us from the matrix.

The other unrealistic view that we have developed in this past century is the assumption of a long and healthy life. Peak oil, I believe, will also mean peak life expectancy. Many seem to be unaware of or oblivious to the fact that the average life expectancy in industrialised nations has nearly doubled since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The greater the energy use per person the longer the average life.

That co relation is very definitely not accidental. That increased energy use has been the engine of innovation in human hygiene, human nutrition, human work and, most importantly, human medicine. Two keys to that statistical rise in life expectancy are; a major reduction in infant mortality especially in the areas of premature births and births of children with genetic diseases; and the dramatic improvements in medical care for the aged. Essentially if you can live into your sixties modern medicine can and will be used to keep you around for another couple of decades or longer. A very large proportion of seniors today have become seriously medically dependent, owing their continued survival to the wonders of modern medicine.

Both of these areas will face serious hurdles when we pass peak oil and the energy to continue the medical miracles of the past century - to which we have become accustomed and to which we feel entitled - goes into serious decline. Infant mortality will again be on the increase as access to medical facilities for difficult births declines. The increasingly difficult life that will accompany the decline of global oil availability will also exact a tremendous price on the aging baby-boomer generation and future generations of seniors. The heroic medicine that has been responsible for up to a 10-15 year increase in average life expectancy will be increasingly difficult to maintain as the world's energy resources decline.

I don't want to engage in a debate about creationism or intelligent design nor is this statement intended as an endorsement of either of those two points of view. Our bodies genetically evolved during millions of years where the average life expectancy was under forty years. Nature, for any species, does not expend a lot of resources on maintaining an organism beyond reproductive age. Man is the only living species on this planet that enjoys a lifespan that lasts twice as long as our reproductive period. That longevity is not of nature's doing. It has been of our own making, and it has been strongly linked to our use and expenditure of energy. Just as we have used energy - especially that from oil - to create an artificial carrying capacity 5-10 times greater than the earth's natural carrying capacity, we have used that energy to create an artificial life expectancy more than double the natural life expectancy for our species.

As the energy declines the age to which seniors live in industrialized nations will also go into decline. The artificial life expectancy created by our energy and technology will gradually be replace again by the natural life expectancy for which our bodies have genetically evolved. It is reasonable to assume that the first casualties in this transition will be those whose continued survival has been a result of the most recent and dramatic changes, improvements and innovations that our use of energy and technology have given rise to in this past century. The more medically and technologically dependent among us - which covers a high proportion of the senior population - will be the first to face serious problems as energy declines.

On a personal note..... I have been through two serious medical events in the past year, related to my heart, my circulatory system and my endocine system. The tests alone that I have endured would, if I were paying - I am Canadian and we have a universal health care system - would have added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The medicines that I have been prescribed and to which I owe my continued survival would, without that universal heath care and a good private medical plan, cost hundreds of dollars every month.

I am one of those medically-dependent people that will not fare well during a decline in global energy supplies. I have long accepted that. I continue to write what I write for the benefit of others. I want you to think about the ways in which your life and your survival, now and in the near-term future, are dependent on energy and technology. I want you to think about what you are going to have to do to ensure your longevity when the technology that our heavy of use of energy has allowed begins to disappear. I want you to consider what changes you are going to have to make as you become increasingly responsible for your own continued survival as the "system" that has taken care of you begins to fall apart.


PDB said...


Here's a post that says a male who reached the age of 21 in earlier times, would likely have another 25 to 50 years more to live.

Don't you think that, even without large inputs of fossil fuels, we now know enough to keep ourselves fairly healthy and the majority of the population won't need the high-tech, energy-intensive life-prolonging measures? And isn't most of that high-tech devoted to diseases of "civilization" - heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, other cancers? With fewer bad habits, less rich food, more exercise, won't folks be healthier?


Richard Embleton said...

It would certainly be nice to think so but I do not. Our generation will be arriving at "old age" already having heaped a lifetime of abuses on our bodies. We have done so with the knowledge that the medical care to which we assume entitlement will be there to deal with the results of those abuses. Clearly it may not, but the abuses causing the need will still have occured. The generations after us, those born into the more difficult life of a post peak world, will fare much better in that world than we. Those who disdain an abusive lifestyle will still stand a good chance, if they pass 25, to live into their sixties and seventies. I would doubt that they would much survive into their 80s and 90s as people do today, however.