Peak Living

Peak oil is a term used to describe the point at which the rate of oil extraction/production reaches a maximum. After peak oil, the availability of cheap abundant energy will decline unless sufficient alternative energy sources are already in place. (Building resilience to a post-peak oil future is one of the motivations for the Transition Town movement).

As depletion of existing oil sources pushes up the price of oil, the extraction of unconventional sources becomes economically viable. This process will delay peak oil, but it cannot continue indefinitely because a finite planet must contain a finite supply of fossil fuels.

And although the discussion around peak oil typically focuses on the availability (or economic viability) of conventional oil and alternative energy sources, it’s important to emphasise that we cannot burn all of the known fossil fuel reserves without committing to catastrophic climate change. If we burn [the fossil fuels], we burn [the planet].

Much of our current lifestyle relies heavily on the abundance of cheap fossil fuels, so a decline in the availability or usability of conventional oil is clearly a concern. But the concept of peak supply doesn’t just apply to oil. Any resource that is available in a finite quantity on Earth will reach peak production — and if we continue with our reckless use of the earth’s resources, this includes recyclable or naturally regenerating resources like metals, freshwater or soil.

Global prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria may mean we’ve also reached “peak antibiotics”. The increasingly common occurrence of antimicrobial resistance means that common infections will become untreatable. Many New Zealand scientists have provided suggestions for action to delay the move towards a post-antibiotic world, including judicious use of the antibiotics that still work (e.g. not using antibiotics for infections that are likely to be viral), avoiding everyday household products that contain antimicrobial chemicals such as triclosan and triclorban, and eliminating antibiotics in animal feed.

Reading about the threat of antibiotic resistance got me thinking: Have we in the modern western world reached Peak Standard-of-Living? The past century has been characterised by an abundance of cheap fossil fuel-based energy and considerable advances in medical science and healthcare, leading to explosive economic and population growth. In a future without the same access to cheap energy it seems impossible for us to maintain a standard of living that relies so heavily on consuming energy and materials. And in a future without effective antibiotics, death rates from previously treatable infections are likely to skyrocket.

I’m not entirely pessimistic though. In a future where economic growth is constrained by the high cost of scarce energy and materials, we cannot afford to work so hard and we’ll have more time to spend with family and friends, doing things we enjoy and find satisfying. We may experience a decrease in standard of living, but we have the opportunity to increase our quality of life, and that, I suspect, is far more valuable to our perception and enjoyment of life.