Western-style consumer lifestyles are highly resource and energy intensive. This paper examines the energy intensity of these consumer lifestyles and considers whether such lifestyles could be sustained in a future with declining energy supplies and much higher energy prices. The rise of consumer societies since the industrial revolution has only been possible due to the abundant supply of cheap fossil fuels – most notably, oil – and the persistence of consumer societies depend upon continued supply, for reasons that will be explained. But recently there has been growing concern that the world is reaching, or has already reached, its peak in oil production, despite demand for oil still expected to grow considerably. Put more directly, many analysts believe that demand for oil is very soon expected to outstrip supply, with a recent study by the US military reporting that, globally, spare productive capacity could entirely dry up by 2012 and by 2015 demand for oil could outstrip supply by almost 10 million barrels per day. What this means – even allowing for some uncertainty in timing and extent – is that the world is soon to face a situation where economic and geopolitical competition escalates over access to increasingly scarce oil supplies. One consequence of this (a consequence already playing out) is that oil will get more expensive. Since oil is the ultimate foundation of industrial economies, when it gets more expensive, all commodities get more expensive, and this dynamic will have pervasive implications on the globalised economy and the high consumption lifestyles that fully depend on that economy.
This paper reviews the current energy supply situation and considers the fate of consumer lifestyles in the context of an imminent stagnation and eventual decline in oil supplies. The primary purpose of this paper is to outline why the global consumer class should at once begin preparing itself for a significant downscaling of the highly energy and resource intensive lifestyles that are widely celebrated today. Such downscaling is desirable for environmental and social justice reasons, but the present focus will be on how oil supply may soon enforce such downscaling, whether it is desirable or not. While this externally imposed downscaling of lifestyles will be a great and unpleasant cultural shock for all those who do not anticipate it, this paper concludes by considering whether members of the global consumer class could actually benefit from voluntarily embracing a ‘simpler life’ of reduced energy and resource consumption. Although energy supply issues have the very real potential to cause unprecedented human suffering, it will be argued that, if handled wisely, the forced transition away from energy-intensive consumer lifestyles (whether due to peak oil, climate change, or broader resource constraints) could actually lead humanity down a more meaningful, just, and sustainable path, such that we should want to choose this path even if it were not to be forced upon us in coming decades. But it is important to understand that we must leave consumer lifestyles before they leave us, for if we wait for them to be taken from us by force of circumstances, the transition beyond them will not be a blessing but a curse.
Download the full paper here (320kb PDF).
- Read Dr. Alexander’s article: Peak Oil Can Fuel a Change for the Better
Dr. Samuel Alexander is a lecturer in ‘Consumerism and Sustainability’ at the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne. He is also Co-Director of the Simplicity Institute (www.simplicityinstitute.org), a research institute that addresses issues related to sustainable consumption.