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.

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