Monday, August 17, 2009

From 48 to 76

If you ask the average Joe or Jane how we have so radically improved our life expectancy during the 20th century, the answer is likely to be "medicine." Most people believe that our doctors have become so skilled at treating infections and disease, and our medications so advanced, that they have been responsible for prolonging our average life expectancy from 48 to 76 years of age.

Life expectancy 1900 - 1997

But that is a misperception. Public health professionals, unlike most of the rest of us, understand that the underlying foundation of our life expectancy advance is the invention of electricity, which allowed for a step-change improvement in our sanitation. Electricity allowed us to design, implement and maintain energy-intensive systems such as water treatment systems, sewage plants, refrigeration systems for our food distribution and storage, and widespread vaccination manufacture and distribution. (Of course, medications such as antibiotics, anesthesia and painkillers have contributed as well, but not nearly to the same extent.)

In countries where proper sanitation is not available, millions of children still die of diarrhea, often before they are two years old. In countries with proper sanitation, such tragedy is decades gone, and we enjoy the ability to never think about our sanitation situation as we go about our daily business.

So if modern urban sanitation is dependent on electricity, how is electricity dependent on oil? As a direct source of electricity, oil is in the distinct minority. It is the source for diesel power generators the world over, for backup generators, and for a very small number of large power-plants. It is dwarfed by the number and capacity of power plants run on coal and natural gas.

Yet oil still affects power production in many ways. For one, the machinery that mines coal runs on oil; the trains and ships that transport coal run on oil. The workers that keep electricity flowing get to work in oil-powered cars and trucks. Oil-based transportation is needed to maintain and repair the power lines that criss-cross our cities and our country. Replacement parts for the electrical infrastructure are shipped in trucks. And let's not even mention the financial relationship of commodities such as oil, natural gas and coal that are traded on an open market. My conclusion is that any kind of prolonged oil disruption would be very likely to affect the flow of power, although less in areas running on natural gas than those running on coal.

Peak oil is inevitable. An extended oil disruption (or "oil shock") is not necessarily inevitable, but it is a significant enough risk that we should plan for it. Because how long will the sanitation systems that have increased our lifespans be able to function with an unreliable power grid? And how we will we maintain them as oil prices become more volatile and expensive, while city and county budgets are slashed? What sanitation alternatives that use less energy could we deploy on a widespread, urbanized basis?

I am planning a series of two or three posts about The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters, by Rose George, in the near future. If anyone wants to read along, it's an extremely interesting and sometimes hilarious look at sanitation around the world, along with a discussion of some of the problems facing us.


straker said...

The grid isn't likely to go down due to peak oil unless it's due to general anarchy ala Mad Max. I think when people try to link oil with the grid they are really reaching.

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Straker -

Some people don't see the connection, but it's all about the ripple effect. It's not necessarily an A leads to B situation. As I mentioned, an oil shock may not be likely, although a definite possibility. But we've already seen that high oil prices (not an oil shock) can lead to economic depression leads to budget cuts, cuts in services, cuts in maintenance. What happens when electric and sanitation infrastructure starts to crumble, as it already is?

Even if you believe that a decrease in the availability/ increase in price of oil leading to electric interruptions/failing grid/high prices of electricity is not likely, it's a serious threat to our well-being that should be examined. It only takes certain parts of the structure - the weak links - to fail to affect larger parts of the system(s) that we have come to rely on.

Melissa said...

I'ld like to read that book with you. I'm off to the library this afternoon anyway. How fast do you read?

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Melissa - Right now, I'm pretty busy so not very fast. It's a 238 page book, and I'm aiming to have half read and a post written by next Monday.

Melissa said...

Sounds good to me!

Anonymous said...

I would think education linked to hygiene/sanitation, fewer children, literacy would also be key to longer lives.

To explore some interesting correlations see: