A Difficult Problem

Old Age and Peak Oil

T Vijayendra

‘‘Old age is a tiredness that does not disappear the next morning,
as we ingenuously expected upon going to bed’’.
                                                                                —Baldomero Ferndndez Moreno (Argentinean poet)

People above sixty years are considered old or senior citizens. It is the percentage of old people in the total population that is important and not the total number, and especially in relation to those in the 0-15 age group in the population. As the population of the old approaches that of the 0-15 group, the working population shrinks in proportion and the burden of taking care of the old and the young becomes very heavy. In such cases, societies experience a shortfall in its working population.

Old age is a human phenomenon with all the complexity that entails one. In nature, that is, in plant and animal kingdom, there is no such comparable phenomenon. And contrary to popular understanding, among humans also it is relatively recent—starting roughly since mid-19th century when it became possible to control reproduction. The knowledge of controlling reproduction became popular in modem societies due to technology, which made the availability of these devices cheap and easy. Although the Catholic Church frowns upon it, it rapidly spread in the developed capitalist countries.

The population of the elderly rises because of a fall in fertility and not because of decrease in mortality and increase in life expectancy at birth. (Ansley J Coale, The Effects of Changes in Mortality and Fertility on Age Composition? 1955). Fall in fertility reduces the number of new additions to the population and increases the ratio of old people in the population.

The twenty first century may see a dramatic rise in old age if present trends continue. It can be as high as one in three people. Today the so-called developed countries are experiencing it. In India, it is still below 10 percent, but even here the growth of the elderly population has been higher than that of the general population.

Historically, old people were cared for within the family. With the increase in their number and increase in wage employment, more and more old people are getting care through old age homes. The funding for this comes from the welfare state, charities and the pension of the old people themselves.

However, these 'homes', of which there are not enough to take care of all the old people, suffer from many defects. To begin with, they are often inadequately furnished or maintained and lack adequate funds. Also, because old people are vulnerable, they are often exploited by the owners of these homes (or the individuals who run them) and the medical industrial complex.

Today, the burden of the care of the elderly on the government is so big that it often exceeds the pay check of the working people. In Kerala, for instance, the pension of government employees is more than the current wages of the employees. As a result, today's governments desperately want to get out of it.

Elsewhere, one comes across fictional accounts where the state has made euthanasia above 70 liberal and is actively promoting it and offering incentives. In Japan, in one fiction, there is compulsory euthanasia, above 70 years! Of course there are a lot of moral and legal issues involved in realising this, but secretly the state would love it.

The fact is, care of old people is rapidly becoming an unsolvable problem, and only more so in the coming resource crunch due to Peak Oil.

Growth in the elderly population occurs due to fall in fertility. A fall in child mortality also helped because people no longer felt anxious about the possible death of their children. Reproduction of labour, in capitalist societies, began to take longer because it needed more years in education. This also led to smaller families. It is very difficult to reverse this trend and attempts to do so in these countries have largely failed.

On the other hand, this policy of reducing fertility has been aggressively pursued in Third World countries, both by local governments and by international agencies. This is giving rise to the rising percentage of old people in these countries too. In this context, it is interesting to note that today China is giving up the one child policy and allowing couples to have two children, 'in a bid to raise fertility rates and ease the financial burden on China's rapidly aging population'! (Wang Hairong, Beijing Review, May 8, 2014)

Capitalism became viable due to availability of cheap fossil fuels like coal and oil. These resources are finite, and will not last forever. The term Peak Oil highlights one of the key aspects of the depletion of these resources, namely the depletion of petroleum. While coal may last for a few decades, today the world is in the middle of Peak Oil which endangers the very existence of modern way of life.

This is applicable to old age too. Both health care and institutional care will be severely affected in coming years and the state would view old age as redundant and may actually follow a programme of liberal euthanasia. Expensive medical interventions will soon become unavailable.

Any demands for better regulation or for more resources to be made available by the state today will fall on deaf ears or the promises made would not be kept. To repeat, in the present system there is no hope for old people.

Post carbon or fossil-fuel free societies are visualised as local self governing societies. So old age care too would be community based care. What is the size of a 'local society'? It can vary in different ecological areas, but the Indian postal network gives a practical idea. In India an average post office covers 21.21 sq. kms and a population of 7176. So, 25 sq. kms (5 km by 5 km) and a population of 10,000 is a good figure for India.

In such a community the population of old people will be around 1000 or less. The care of the elderly will be a part of everyday community institutions such as school, health centre, public library, community agriculture and so on.

The old age centre will be located near the health centre and the kindergarten will be a part of the centre. The latter would take up only a few hours in the day and old people would be happy to see small children.

In such a society, all the old people or senior citizens will be members of the old age centre, though all may not be residents of it. It will be completely managed by the old people themselves, since many people below 65 are in fairly good health. So, it will be an organisation of old people, by old people and for old people!

To begin with, it can be just a cultural centre or club—place where old people can meet, play cards, listen to music, watch television and read newspapers or books. Later on, it can provide food and palliative care for all and special care for the disabled. The resources including funding for the centre will come from the community itself, where people will contribute according to their capacities.

It is possible that many members have a variety of skills which can be used for the community. There can be artists, authors, bankers, carpenters, cobblers, cooks, doctors, engineers, farmers, gardeners, knitters, lawyers, plumbers, poets, potters, tailors, teachers, spinners, scientists and weavers. These people may find it easier to serve their own small community of senior citizens. The community can become fairly self sufficient in many ways, particularly if they own an acre of land with some water.

Another way of looking at it is to have a focus: to serve nature. People have benefited so much from nature and in return people have only degraded it. It may be a good idea to correct this mistake and take a piece of natural resource and nurture it. Nature is so kind that it will give the society in return fruits, vegetables and herbs! Even if one is not able to eat the fruits, the next generation will eat it. After all people have been eating fruits from trees that have been planted by a previous generation.

Such a Utopian local community will not come into existence automatically. It will require a different value system. Today people either demand goods and services from the government or buy them in the market. They do not think that they can collectively do things on their own, except during a Ganesh Puja or Durga Puja. Human beings are products of circumstances and different human beings will be products of different circumstances. But as Marx said, it is only human beings themselves who can change these circumstances. So it is up to senior citizens, particularly those who are below 65, to take the initiative and set up such an old age home.

Vol. 47, No. 16, Oct 26 - Nov 1, 2014