Q & A: Peak Oil and Public Health
Posted Dec 30, 2008 by Brian Schwartz
The interview excerpted here was published in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health news center.
Question: How will peak oil affect nutrition?
Answer: The variety and quantity of food available will decline in many settings, for two reasons. First, there is the problem of transport. If you walk through the supermarket, you can find fruit juice from South Africa, seafood from China and rice from Thailand. As the price of oil rises, it will become too expensive to transport many kinds of food around the world. Second, there is the problem of the dependence of modern food production on the availability of cheap fossil fuels. These fossil fuels are the energy for farm equipment, inputs for production of fertilizers and pesticides, and energy for irrigation and refrigeration. Now, the average foodstuff in the U.S. requires approximately 10 units of fossil fuel energy input for each unit of food energy derived from the food, and this ratio is almost 100 to 1 for many meats. As available energy inputs decline, available food calories will likely decline too, as many kinds of food will become too expensive to produce and too expensive for consumers.
Question: Why will peak oil affect health services?
Answer: As economies are affected, GDP will decline and this will influence what societies can spend on health care, social benefits programs, unemployment programs, infrastructure and other government programs. The current models of health care provision are highly dependent on cheap fossil fuels. Large energy-inefficient health care facilities are staffed by health care workers living in distant suburbs who require large quantities of paper, plastic and electronics to do their work. Systems for provision of care will need to be completely redesigned to adapt to the new reality of more expensive energy. The emergency medical transport system will also have to rethink its business. The fact is that hospitals and the emergency medical transport system are very energy intensive; as energy prices rise, past models of practice and business will change.
Question: What is the Bloomberg School’s Program on Global Sustainability and Health?
Answer: I co-direct the Program on Global Sustainability and Health with Dr. Cindy Parker. The Program is involved in research, education, professional practice and policy change on the converging challenges of climate change, peak oil, our built environment reliant on cheap and plentiful oil, land use, population challenges, and food production and distribution that is very energy intensive. We are involved in the School’s MPH Concentration in Global Environmental Sustainability and Health, along with Dr. Peter Winch and the Department of Environmental Health Science’s MHS Track in Global Environmental Sustainability. There are many knowledge gaps about how climate change and peak oil may affect public health, and we are trying to raise awareness about these issues and develop research programs to help us see the way forward.
Read the whole interview.
Photo by Chris Fritz.