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You will never know: The volatile life

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the Peak Oil Review’s position; they are personal statements and observations by informed commentators.)

The Northeast US, where I live, has a particularly acute sensitivity to oil prices because 82 percent of the households heating entirely or partially with oil are in this region. Natural gas lines simply don’t go out to many exurban or rural areas in the Northeast, so in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and in Northern New York, a disproportionate percentage of the population heats their homes with oil.

In 2008, while travelling through New York State on a short vacation, the subject that consumed most of the people we met in small cities and towns was this – how will we get through the winter? There was a real fear of freezing to death underlying this conversation – the area has a lot of old, poorly insulated housing, and a poor and rural population without a lot of good choices.

Winter hunger is already a problem in this region – while food security is generally better than the rest of the country, hunger proliferates in the winter when poor families have to put hundreds of their hard-won dollars towards energy bills simply to keep warm. In 2007, the Boston Globe reported that among extremely low income households, the heating season meant a 10 percent decrease in caloric intake in most households – including by children. The cold houses and the decreased food intake put children at risk of illness.

This Thursday, the data on poverty revealed that one in seven Americans – more working households than have ever been recorded – are poor. This is almost 4 million more than last year. One in four American children is poor – including many more children who struggle through the winter as their parents spend their food budgets on heat. For the 43.6 million Americans in poverty, small price shifts and uncertainties aren’t just inconvenient; they represent a real threat to health and basic stability.

We are a long way from seeing the skyrocketing prices of 2008, but the recent rise in both food and energy prices (and the two are nigh inseparable in many ways) has raised fears internationally of revisiting the food crisis of 2008. The UN is carefully not calling this a food crisis – but despite record harvests, comparatively minor fluctuations in Russian wheat stocks and other small shifts are having a huge effect, raising prices more than 5 percent worldwide. Although a recent report found that the number of the starving worldwide has fallen below the 2009 record, to only 900 million, the report was compiled before the Russian Wheat crisis and Pakistani floods, and the New York Times was compelled to admit it may not accurately reflect the real hunger situation.

At the local level, most of my neighbors are ordering their heating oil now and recent small price increases make everyone nervous, since more of them are out of work and struggling than ever. What should they expect? No one knows for sure.

We have known for some time that one of the major features of peak energy would be price volatility – and for most people the reality of living in a world of tight energy and food supplies is that you will never know, from one season or month or year to the next, how much of your income you will pour into gasoline, heat and food. For those who understand peak oil only as “the end of cheap oil” this seems contradictory – but it also offers an opportunity for people to begin to understand how peak energy will affect them.

If we do not know how much of our income to reserve for our winter’s fuel supply, for transport to work or our food budget, those of us with the luxury of putting money aside will take it out of other purchasing and consumer activities so we won’t be caught short. For the poor, tightening budgets will mean disaster – more hunger and food insecurity, a cold home, the power being shut off, foreclosure, not getting their medication, a greater degree of desperation.

As more and more of us face greater uncertainty, and more of us enter the condition of poverty, it is up to those of us who recognize in this the face of tight energy supplies to help draw the connection. We have to explain it this way: You will not know what your heating and cooling will cost you next year. You will not know if it makes sense to stay put or look for a job closer to work – or whether you will have a job. You will not know whether food prices will go up or down, with climate change and input prices – only that it gets harder most years to keep food on the table. I find, however, that this reality is one that, once articulated, can help people grasp the real impact of peak energy and tight food supplies on their lives. We have had a period of unprecedented stability in the last decades – mostly declining food and energy costs have allowed us to live as we have. That’s changed. Now the one thing we know is that we’ll never know.

Sharon Astyk is an energy and environmental writer, and a member of the ASPO-USA Board of directors, who will explore these issues in greater detail at ASPO's upcoming conference.

Editorial Notes: I agree with Sharon's conclusion that it is impossible to predict these things from season to season now in the current circumstances. So the next thing is: what do we tell people about increasing personal and community resiliency in the face of this? -KS

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