End of cheap oil will force lifestyle change

Judy Ong explores how part of population growth is down to people living longer

In his essay on technology and climate change on ClickonWales at the end of April (here) Calvin Jones appears to confuse cause and effect regarding population growth. If there are sufficient resources, such as water, food, heat, sanitation and healthcare, available to the population, then that population grows. But just because a statistical model based on population growth over the previous ten years predicts that the population will grow, it doesn’t mean that it will.

Moreover, if population stops growing it does not mean it goes off the end of a cliff. In his book Reinventing Collapse, Dmitry Orlov talks about the financial crisis that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the turmoil that followed, the average life expectancy dropped by 20 years. It wasn’t a visible massacre or famine, but resulted from a whole host of issues surrounding available resources.

Part of our current population growth is about people living longer. If you look at Greece, some people can no longer afford medicines and healthcare, and struggle with food and energy. In ten years time, when people look back at the figures, will they see the population growth that was predicted?

The population growth that we have seen is based on cheap oil. Cheap oil is the basis for modern agriculture, modern medicines and global trade. When oil subsidies are removed in countries like Pakistan there are riots. When the price of petrol starts getting unaffordable in the UK there are blockades. The more demand for oil increases, the higher the prices get. And if you are at a stage where all the easy to reach oil has already been drilled, then what is left is expensive oil and less of it, so prices continue to increase even when the demand drops. The price of oil affects the price of food, energy, medicines, building materials, not just petrol prices.

There are several ways to deal with resource shortages. China made a bold and unpopular decision to introduce the one child policy, curbing the country’s population growth. Why would they do that? Because they could see that there would not be enough food and water to sustain the growing population. Had the population been left unchecked then maybe the scenario would have looked more like Egypt with riots and the government being overthrown. Or even with resource depletion so severe that famines would severely cut the population to a more sustainable figure.

When you look at our history, and the great famine in Ireland, have we learnt from this? The English landowners in Ireland were producing wheat and exporting it for a profit. The Irish could not afford to buy the wheat and lived on potatoes. When the potato crops failed many starved, whilst the rich landowners continued making a profit exporting the wheat grown in Ireland. Sometimes it isn’t about running out of food, or oil, or electricity, or medicines. It is about it becoming too expensive for people to afford. This is where inequality comes in. If all the world’s resources were shared fairly, then maybe we could sustain the current population. With the wealthy few squandering more than their share, then I don’t see how the population can be sustained.

If you are an executive at a large bank earning 250 times the average person’s salary, a doubling of food prices may not make a difference. But for those living on the average salary or less things can go downhill very quickly. Being unable to heat your home is not inconvenient, it is life-threatening. Homes kept below 14 degrees can become damp and this can lead to respiratory problems. Missing one meal a day may not mean dying of starvation, but the lack of nutrition and calories could shorten a lifespan or make you more prone to diseases. Of course, we can’t detect this until there are sufficient numbers to affect the figures, that will be analysed in years to come.

I think there are ways out of this mess we have made for ourselves, but I think that Professor Jones is right. It is not about technology fixing things for us, because the majority of the worlds poor can’t afford technology. It is more about changing our lifestyles. A lot boils down to leadership, making strong long-term decisions for the good of all, rather than for the profit of a few. I like the ideas of the research and campaign group Positive Money. Their proposed solutions for a stable economy seem to make sense.

Judy Ong is a mother of four, working as an energy efficiency consultant and supporting her local Transition initiative. With an engineering degree, she studied for an MSc in Architecture: Advanced Environment and Energy studies at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. She blogs here.

6 thoughts on “End of cheap oil will force lifestyle change

  1. I often wonder why it is that government doesn’t make the obvious decisions that would lead to fuel economy and self sufficiency; after all, in my lifetime, we have had enforced maximum speed restriction of 50 MPH on all roads. Apart from the bleating of Clarkson and the petrol heads what stops this from happening again?

    Of course, I don’t have to wonder for long. The big companies that provide oil have the ear of the Government……”The greenest government in the history of Britain” and so no logical steps will be taken to reduce consumption.

  2. We have such a speed restriction in Wales. It’s called the A470. However, you are quite right Jon that much more could be done. Why not a mandatory miles per litre standard for all new cars? It would be perfectly possible to double fuel economy with existing technology. Then increase fuel duty so people didn’t use the extra disposable money to drive further. You could halve petrol use in transport in a decade. Refurbish the housing stock and you could cut space-heating emissions by at least 20 per cent. And make offices turn the lights off at night and that all new houses have white roofs. We haven’t started to do what we could. Big company interests are no doubt the biggest problem but the reluctance of voters to make small sacrifices for their descendants is also to blame.

  3. It appears the DOOM mongers are being proved wrong again in relation to oil/gas available for useage by mankind.The USA has transformed its energy position by fracking and its huge demand is now to be met by own resources,rather than by imports from unstable regions. Just about to a)drive to East Midlands,b)fly with my grandchildren to Gran Canaria for week in sun,so i’ll worry/not worry about long term future whilst sipping a San Miguel!!.Once middle class people have had the liberating freedoms of travel,and mainly through carbon energies its going to be difficult/nay impossible to get them to vote to changes. If the taxes were taken off petrol/oil it would create a major growth in free economy as actual costs,through the efficiencies of market providers are still relatively low. Its the politicians who need money who are to blame!!.In conclusion there is an industry based upon green rubbish,and like the NHS the only one thriving in destitute wales.

  4. @Judy
    I don’t address population growth anywhere in my earlier blog – just demographic change/aging and the increasing consumption in the BRICs – so the C rather than P of PxC. World population looks to be peaking by 2050, but as you point out its over- and unbalanced- consumption that is the key issue.

    @Howell – US Shale gas and oil production will peak by 2020 (shalebubble.org) and by 2025 they’ll be back exactly where they were in 2005, except worse off as in the interim, liquid oil production will have entered steep decline.

    Enjoy the San Miguel whilst you can. If we all do what you suggest re. petrol tax, within a couple of decades Gran Canaria will probably be an unlivable hellhole 🙂

  5. @Calvin. I have much greater trust in the capacity of capitalism to provide the answers to the ‘energy’ crisis, if there is one at all. It appears that there are oil deposits being found all over the place, with one apparently in the Irish Sea, which if commercially viable could transform the economy. If such a find was made off Barry the welsh green ‘experts’ would be on TV telling house some lesser spotted dick, lived near by and on no account could any development take place. I genuinely believe that some of these people,and all in well paid public sector jobs would like to turn us back to 1815,however how would the welfare state survive,and perhaps that should be explained to ordinary people like me. I wont be around in a couple of decades,so will enjoy GC as it is (Purto Mogan),Why is it that the WAG supports the ownership/growth of Rhoose Airport,and wing plant on English border whilst also funding GREEN organizations. Is there not a duality of policy aims in this area?.

  6. @Calvin. No, it was meant to refer to some of the people commenting on your earlier blog rather than what you actually wrote.
    @Howell. Have you tried to imagine what the world will be like for your grandchildren when they are adults? Fossil fuels are a finite resource, so if we blow them all on luxuries like flights now, will their be enough left to grow the food, and make the medications for your great grandchildren? And if you are right about fossil fuels remaining abundant, and we continue burning them, then we risk catastrophic climate change. Isn’t it prudent to play it safe and avoid the risk?

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