NOTE: Make sure you read the first three posts (in order!) before tackling the rest, or it could be confusing: Post 1 is Designing the future, Post 2 is Setting up the problem, and Post 3 is Estimating basic requirements.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Are we better off?

For thousands of years, our ancestors lived in a low-energy world. They worked the soil without the aid of powered machines, raised their own crops, and independently produced nearly everything they used. The post-Peak Oil future will require that we live similarly to our powered-down predecessors. But will we be better off than they were?

Without question, there is far more knowledge at our disposal now than at any other time in the past. This knowledge is our greatest ally and increases our ability to not only survive but thrive. We understand the vagaries of electricity, medicine, engineering, ecology, and even education itself that will enable us to live comfortably and sustain our environment.

Agrarians of the past enjoyed rich natural soils, unspoiled waters, and pure clean air. Obviously, this is no longer the case in most areas of the planet. The industrial period has left in its wake myriad forms of pollutants in our land, air, and water. Most surface and shallow well water (sometimes even rainwater) must be thoroughly treated before completely safe for consumption – a near impossibility after Peak Oil. Some staples of our diet, such as fish, are often highly contaminated with mercury, bromine, and other toxic chemicals. Excess fertilizers contaminate the soil and severely damage aquatic ecosystems.
The atmosphere has also seen very serious damage, particularly in the form of global warming. The coming decades and centuries will see increasingly unpredictable weather. The climates and basic ecology of entire regions will dramatically transform, driving many to disaster. For some areas, climate change may bring beneficial precipitation and temperate weather – but the net effect will be negative for humanity.

Citizens of the past (and some in the present) had to contend with an astonishing array of deadly and debilitating diseases. On the whole we have learned how to treat or outright eliminate many diseases and life expectancy has soared beyond pre-industrial levels. We will carry most of this knowledge with us into a Peak Oil future and we will combine it with healthier agrarian eating habits.
Unfortunately, much of our improved health is owed to technology—particularly plastics—that is essentially gone shortly after Peak Oil. Post-Peak Oil doctors will be forced to innovate in order to maintain our current levels of health.
In addition, the intervening industrial period has introduced many contaminants into our environment which lead to many serious and difficult-to-treat conditions. The end of oil will reduce their rate of accumulation of carcinogens and other pollutants, but many persist in the environment for long periods of time.

The global population boom in the last century has put enormous demand on all of the world’s resources. Oil is the prime example, but the geologic theories of Peak Oil apply to metals minerals, water, and even salt. The key factor is that the most easily accessible quantities were obtained first, leaving increasingly inaccessible residuals available for future use.

So are we better off? The answers seem mixed. We're better prepared to handle the challenges of an agrarian life, but we face a greater number of challenges than probably at any point in human history. In some respects, the question is moot; but in others, answering the question allows us to assess what we can take from our ancestors' way of living. One thing is for certain: we will be far worse off if we don't plan carefully for the challenges ahead.


At 8:35 AM, Blogger DJEB said...

Thanks for your visit to Terrorism News. I think my site Permaculture Reflections might be more useful to you.

Although peak oil is bringing some frightening challenges, I am ultimately more frightened of a technological fix to give us a longer run of cheap energy. This prospect frightens me because it is the cheap energy that allows us to rapidly destroy the planet. It is no secret that our species is living beyond its means and destroying the Earth's natural capital in the process. Any "solution" to peak oil is just a setting a trap to be sprung at a later date.

At 12:11 PM, Blogger PeakEngineer said...

Thanks djeb, I'll check that one out.

At 4:31 PM, Blogger Jon L. Picard said...

Great article!

I think you hit the key - careful planning - those that do will be better off.

Those that don't...well...

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