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December 30, 2008

Q&A: Peak Oil and Public Health

Although the price of a barrel of oil has fallen from a recent record-high, economic turmoil and continued concerns about global climate change have brought new attention to the world’s dependence on oil and whether there will be enough of it to meet future energy demands. Oil is essential to modern life, from transportation to food production and storage, to electricity generation, medicines and chemicals. Nearly every aspect of the global economy relies on affordable oil.

Tim Parsons, director of Public Affairs, discussed the “peak oil” theory, or the point at which the maximum production rate for the world’s oil is reached, with Brian Schwartz, MD, professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences and co-director of the School’s Program on Global Sustainability and Health. Once the peak is passed, oil production is expected to decline continuously. (Learn more about peak oil here.) Schwartz explains how future demand for energy could impact on our society and our health.

Question: What will be the impact of peak oil on our economy and our daily lives?

Answer: Petroleum and other fossil fuels are essential to all aspects of our daily lives. It is a very unique source of energy that cannot be replaced. Oil does work for us. It moves us around in automobiles and planes and it powers heavy machinery. The transportation sector cannot currently function without it. Oil is heavily used in food production and distribution including everything from fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation to agricultural machinery, transportation and refrigeration.

Oil is the lifeblood of all economies around the world. It is the essential feedstock for chemicals and many consumer products, including pharmaceuticals, plastics, computers, paints and coatings, asphalt, synthetic fabrics, glues, lubricants, solvents—virtually all materials of modern economies. As oil becomes less available, it will become more expensive, which in turn will make the cost of all oil-based products and activities more expensive.  The world has always experienced recession when oil prices have temporarily spiked, such as during the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s. The problem now is that this will not be a temporary problem; declining oil production will continue forever. It is expected that after passing peak economies and sociopolitical systems will be dramatically affected.

Question: How will peak oil affect where we live and the types of houses we live in?

Answer: Since World War II many countries, especially the U.S., have invested in large tracts of low density, non-compact, single use developments, which are highly reliant on the automobile and often lack public transit options.  This type of housing and transportation system is totally reliant on cheap and plentiful oil. Our suburban way of life will have to change after peak oil, and the value of housing will be dramatically reflected in this new reality. We will have to build higher density, compact, mixed use, and walkable neighborhoods with access to public transit systems. Some current suburban housing will become unusable, much less valuable, or redundant. But let me emphasize that these new neighborhoods will also have many advantages: more social interactions among people, outstanding public spaces, more neighborliness, better physical activity options, and the ability to walk, to shop, work, eat and recreate.

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: The problems posed by peak oil and climate change appear to intertwine. What will less oil in the future mean for climate change?

Answer: Climate change and peak oil are interlinked. It should be emphasized that peak oil is NOT a solution for climate change. There are plenty of fossil fuels still in the ground and if we exploited them all we would emit far more carbon than the Earth’s atmosphere could handle without dramatic changes in climate. Rather, peak oil will make solving climate change much more difficult, because all the solutions to climate change require that we build new infrastructures, new power plants, new solar technologies, new transportation systems, and new buildings that will all be more difficult and more expensive to accomplish after we pass peak. Furthermore, if we tried to address the energy challenges of peak oil by using more coal, oil sands, or oil shale, this could rapidly accelerate climate change. It is critical that we address our coming energy challenges in a way that does not make climate change worse.  However, our politicians and policy makers have not begun thinking rigorously about climate change and peak oil as a set of problems that must be addressed together and not independently of one another.

Question: What should governments and communities be doing to prepare for peak oil?

Answer: To maintain industrial society and other aspects of our current way of living, energy must be rapidly scalable to capacity, be transportable and storable, and have a high EROEI (energy return on energy invested). It must be energy--dense and renewable, because if it is not, it only postpones the problem, and it must be ecologically sane and not exacerbate climate change. However, there are probably no alternatives to oil that meet all of these criteria. If we had started planning for peak oil 30 years ago—and we could have because it was predicted even before that—with a transition to other energies, public transit, energy-efficient building, and a different built environment than our current sprawling one, we could have avoided much of the likely disruption that is coming. However, we did not do this. So, once we pass peak and begin removing huge quantities of energy inputs to our current ways of living, we will notice it profoundly.

It is thought that nothing that governments do now can entirely prevent some of the challenges that are coming, because we cannot scale up any new energy regime rapidly enough. Experts on peak oil have argued that communities must start planning for this by enhancing their community resilience, by re-localizing and provisioning food locally, for example. The impacts are wide-ranging and the work that needs to be done is extensive. More can be read about this at and other sources. Many U.S. cities have begun this planning. For example, Portland, Oregon’s peak oil planning describes the different way of life that is coming and what must be done.

Question: Is there anything individuals can do?

Answer: I believe the U.S. will soon start to seriously address the issues of peak oil and climate change. In the meantime, individuals can begin to learn about energy inputs into their lives and how to reduce them. The more we can learn to rely on less energy, the better off we will be, because energy will soon be much more expensive and then we will have no choice.

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.