Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Monday, August 29, 2011

American Journal of Public Health special issue on peak oil

I posted the following today at an online discussion forum for public health students at the University of New Mexico. I wanted to alert them that the premier academic journal in the public health field just published an issue examining the impact of peak oil. Because I know several of the public health students (having worked until recently in their building) and I like hanging out with them, and I can't resist proselytizing to people I like.

This time, though, I kept to a more restrained tone than the one I'm apt to use in this here little blog venue, wherein I occasionally dispense brimstone and rivers of apocalyptic flame.

Still, it's nice to see at least one professional academic journal hasn't written off peak oil as a Malthusian-oid delusion.

* * * * *

"Peak oil?" What's that?

Check out the latest issue of the American Journal of Public Health; you can find a brief capsule summary with links to the issue itself at a very cool website (for us wonks of energy and environmental policy) called Energy Bulletin.

The AJPH issue has eight articles exploring various aspects of peak oil, which has garnered relatively little attention among public health practitioners and researchers to date. But it's becoming quite an issue in some segments of the public policy and business communities around the world, most especially (perhaps ominously) in the military leadership of the United States and allied nations.

"Peak oil" refers to the geologically inevitable point at which global oil production reaches its maximum possible rate and then enters permanent, terminal decline. Until recently, geologists and economists thought the peak was decades or centuries away. Now, a growing body of evidence suggests it's happening today. If it is, that might help account for the economic turmoil engulfing the world over the last few years.

Why does this matter? Because, simply put, oil is the lifeblood of modern economies, and everything that happens in them. It is critical not only for transportation fuel but for food production and for a variety of materials and chemicals used in a huge range of manufactured goods, from electronic devices to pharmaceuticals. If global oil production declines, even slightly, the result will be gigantic price spikes in virtually every service and product in human societies -- because all of them depend on cheap oil for manufacturing and delivery systems.

The potential impacts of peak oil on health are dramatic. Hospitals, for example, will be hard pressed, in a permanent oil shortage, to resupply themselves. Food prices will surge along with production and transportation costs. Meaning nutritional needs for multitudes of people will be much harder to meet. Meanwhile, the economic growth that provides tax revenue for public health services will be crippled (more so than it is already).

Ultimately, that's the biggest potential health impact of peak oil. Unless alternative materials and energy systems are available to replace oil (as of today they are not), economic resources for vital public services will simply go away. Those services have been based for over a century on the assumption of permanent economic growth, but our societies now face the prospect of a permanent end to that growth and a new era of long-term economic contraction. Consequently, the advances in medicine and public health of the industrial age will be cut off from their supply lines when and if the global oil production decline begins.

Right now, our health systems aren't prepared for that at all.There is no replacement on the horizon, or conceivable set of replacements, for the energy and materials made possible by cheap oil. Alternative energy and conservation measures have been tried on a small scale, but they aren't ready -- yet -- for global deployment.

One important dimension of public health practice in the coming decades will entail doing something to change that.

For more on peak oil, you can check out this useful primer. Or, if video is more your style, check out this documentary, "The End of Suburbia." It was made a few years ago, but it played a key role in getting the concept of peak oil into the political and cultural discourse.

And, finally, because topics like this can induce paralyzing despair, I highly recommend the Transition Network for an optimistic look at peak oil as an opportunity for far-reaching social transformation.

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