On Public Health and Energy

October 24, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

The past 200 years have been remarkable. Since the Industrial Revolution, staggering advances in transportation, communications, food production, building, weaponry and countless other technologies have utterly transformed and reshaped the human experience.

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Public health nursing made available through child welfare services in U.S. (c. 1930s). Via Wikimedia commons.

According to the conventional story, this all started with the inventions of the spinning jenny, the steam engine and modern steel, which in turn allowed for the creation of factories and mass production; factories and mass production spurred the growth of cities; the growth of cities increased wealth; increased wealth funded innovation and research; innovation and research led to improvements in health and living standards, and so forth. According to this story, innovation will continue to build on innovation, technology on technology, wealth upon wealth–a cycle of more-or-less continuous improvement through which we solve whatever problems we create or encounter through more technology and innovation and money, moving on to vistas we cannot see or comprehend–any more than an 18th century textile worker could comprehend a smart-phone.

Alas, no one believes this story–the story of Futurism–wholeheartedly anymore. At the same time no clear replacement story has yet taken hold. Lately, however, a different, less well-known story of the past 200 years has been getting traction.

According to this story, all of the world’s recent increased knowledge and wealth, all of the improvements in technology and living standards, all of its social progress–is merely the result of a anomalous historical one-off, an accident of history which began when humans managed to “crack Nature’s fossil-fuel cookie jar” (as John Michael Greer would say), and furiously exploit the finite resources of coal, oil and natural gas. According to this story, it was the near-miraculous qualities of coal, oil and gas–their portability, their energy density–that allowed industrial civilization to apply unfathomable amounts of power to the world to create an absudly complex society, replacing the ancient reliance on human labor (and slavery) with fossil-fuel “energy slaves,” dramatically increase food supply and–most importantly–explode population to unprecedented levels. Exploitation of fossil resources yields economic growth and complexity, which creates progress and new problems; new problems are solved through further complexity, which requires more energy, which requires more exploitation.

The problem, according to this story–the story I’ll call Petrodeterminism–happens now: at the moment when it no longer becomes possible to grow fossil-fuel energy production. As the easy-to-get resources are exploited, producers reach for more difficult-to-tap sources; difficult-to-tap sources cost more to develop and yield less net energy; lower net energy means less power is available to create wealth, support new technology or solve the problems we have created. Because virtually everything we do depends on the exploitation of fossil energy (even the building of wind turbines and solar panels requires oil and coal and gas for mining and manufacturing and transporting), once society’s fossil-energy support-structure weakens, buckles and begins to collapse, it is very likely that civilization as we know it–industrial civilization–will collapse as well. According to this story, population will have to contract as well, by one means or another; and as we know from history, it is war, famine and pestilence that are the most efficient reapers of human lives.

The compelling thing about this story is how obvious and commonsensical it seems: just look at a plot of global fossil fuel consumption next to population for the last two hundred years:

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World Fuel Consumption and Population, 1900 to 2050. Source: The Cultural Economist

Among the many radical changes that have transformed society since the birth of industrialism, perhaps none have had as great an impact as the revolution in health. As master statistician Hans Rosling pointed out in recent Gapminder video, during the first decade of the 19th century, no country had a life expectancy above 40; by 2009, every country did.

For Petrodeterminists, however, this change is little cause for optimism. As Mary Odum wrote recently:

“Rosling’s video from Gapminder on ‘200 Years That Changed the World identifies the trend,’ but misses the cause. His plots could be better expressed by plotting life expectancy against global per capita fossil fuel use. Our first world exceptionalism is a function of fossil fuels and the hierarchy of complexity and not some special character trait.”

For Odum, “Public health has gotten a free ride in the fossil fuel era, as everyone’s socioeconomic status, including sanitation, clean water, and healthy, safe food improved,” but “in energy descent, the energy basis for our public health basis will decline,” a thought that is particularly alarming in light of the recent Ebola outbreak.

On that somber note, I thought I would take up Odum’s challenge and see if I could plot life expectancy against fossil fuel use on Gapminder. Unfortunately, I didn’t see an easy way to plot the global oil consumption as one bubble on Gapminder–so it wasn’t possible to see the trend as a whole, as Odum suggests. The other major problem is that the Gapminder datasets for energy only go as far back as 1960, so it’s possible that I’m missing the most crucial piece of the story. Nonetheless, the exercise yielded some interesting results.

First, I plotted total national energy consumption against population. Then I looked at per capita energy consumption (from all sources) against life expectancy. Then I looked at oil production alone against life expectancy.

The first thing you notice from the total energy consumption versus population series is just how much energy the United States has been using over the past four decades compared to everyone else–in spite of the fact that its population is less than third the size of China, the next largest energy consumer. It’s only at the last minute, in the first decade of the 20th century, that Chinese consumption suddenly races ahead to outpace the United States.But even as the US bubble bounces around at the far end of energy consumption, US population remains relatively stable compared to China and India.

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When you look instead at per capita energy use versus life expectancy, the story gets more interesting. Once again, the United States–along with Canada and a few small oil producing nations–leads the pack, with high per capita energy use. From the beginning of the period measured, life expectancy, already high, rises slowly.

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By contrast, we watch as life expectancy in China, India and the majority of other nations rises dramatically from the early 1970s into the 2000s–in the case of India, from 51 to 65–but with *very little* increase in per capita energy consumption. If there is a direct correlation between energy consumption and life expectancy, it’s not visible here.

If the question is how to maintain public health in a world of declining energy resources, it’s worth looking at countries with relatively low per capita energy consumption and long life expectancy. Cuba and Costa Rica stand out; so I plotted those countries against the United States, and added Germany and France for comparison’s sake.

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Amazingly, in 2011, Costa Rica and Cuba had life expectancies of 79 years — the equivalent of the United States–while consuming only 14 percent of the per capita energy. Germany and France each consume about 4 tons of oil equivalent per capita, which is about 4 times what Costa Rica consumes, but still  only 57 percent of what the US does. But Germany and France each have longer life expectancies: 82 years.

One might argue that Cuba and Costa Rica benefit from a better climate and therefore have lower building heating requirements, which accounts for a significant portion of overall energy consumption; in that case it might be fairer to look at crude oil consumption alone. Unfortunately the Gapminder oil consumption data doesn’t include Cuba and Costa Rica. But according to the CIA factbook (Via Index Mundi), Cuba and Costa Rica use 16 and 10 barrels per thousand people per day, respectively; Italy, Germany and France use 25, 28 and 31; while the US uses 61. In other words, the United States consumes more than twice as much oil per person as major European countries, more than 4 times as much as Cuba, and 6 times as much as Costa Rica, but achieves only similar or worse health outcomes, at least as measured by average lifespan.

Does this suggest that public health has nothing to do with per capita energy consumption? Of course not. Does it mean that the Petrodeterminists are completely wrong about the threat of a public health collapse in the wake of declining energy availability? No.

What I think it does suggest is that there may be more room to maneuver in a post-peak oil world than some claim. It suggests that there are more and less effective ways to allocate resources; that there are more and less efficient approaches to achieving similar social and human needs; and, therefore, that there may be more and less graceful ways to navigate humankind’s inevitable journey back to living within our planet’s annual energy budget.

Lakis Polycarpou

Lakis Polycarpou is a writer, ecological designer and sustainable development consultant.

A veteran of the 2008 banking crisis, Lakis watched from the inside as the company he worked for collapsed, nearly bringing down the global economy. This perspective reinforced his belief that society must find new approaches to confront the emerging climate, resource and economic challenges of the 21st century. Since then, he has worked to develop and promote sustainable development, regenerative design and social innovation at various scales.

Lakis’ articles on water, climate, energy, social media, sustainability and resilience have appeared in numerous national and international publications. He is the author of City of the Future, a blog about urban life in a lower-energy future that has been quoted worldwide in discussions of energy, economics and urban sustainability.

Tags: energy consumption, peak oil, public health