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.