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Tough Oil

Illustration by Michael Gibbs

Tough Oil

Five public health challenges of petroleum scarcity

It was the easy oil—that’s what fueled our prosperity.

Economists associate the availability of abundant inexpensive energy with economic growth, suggesting that the modern era’s rising tide of global wealth—and health—was borne up largely on a sea of cheap oil. “We’ve been living for 150 years on a fossil fuel bubble,” is how Stuart Chaitkin, MA, a retired energy policy analyst and senior associate in Environmental Health Sciences (EHS), describes the current situation. “You can’t just simply replace oil for many of its uses. Oil is the world’s master resource.”

But what happens when the supply of that master resource can no longer keep pace with demand? Despite tremendous increases in demand for oil during the economic boom from 2005 to 2009, world production during that period was generally flat, leading to the record-breaking $147 per barrel cost of oil reached in July 2008. This experience exemplifies the concept of “peak oil,” the idea that because petroleum is a finite nonrenewable resource, at some point maximum possible production will be reached—and thereafter the number of barrels of oil pumped worldwide each year will decline steadily, with a resulting significant rise in prices.

Oil was cheap only so long as it was plentiful and easy to extract, but in tandem with growing demand from emerging economies like those in China and India, more and more of remaining “non-conventional oils” are locked in tar sands or buried deep under the ocean’s bed. This tough oil will be costly oil, presenting enormous challenges to everything from transportation to food production—and ultimately, to global public health.

“There are no solutions, only responses,” says EHS professor Brian Schwartz, co-director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Health and a nationally recognized expert on the health consequences of peak oil. “You can deny climate change forever, but you can’t deny the rising price of oil. The limitations to ever-increasing production are a geologic reality.”

The coming era of petroleum scarcity is “probably the most underreported issue of our time,” says Schwartz, MD, MS. He and Bloomberg School colleagues have spent much of the past decade looking at how ever-more-costly petroleum will affect some of the key drivers of public health, and what strategies we should adopt now to minimize future health consequences. (Schwartz and Cindy Parker, MD, MPH ’00, an EHS assistant professor, were guest editors for a special issue on peak oil’s far-reaching impacts on health in September’s American Journal of Public Health.) Schwartz says the immediate challenge is simply making people aware of what’s headed our way: “Until we acknowledge the problem, there will be no will to develop responses.”

The five key areas that follow illustrate the potential health fallout of petroleum scarcity.

1. Economic Instability

The Japanese coined a word—oirushokku or “oil shock”—for the wrenching consequences of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo that caused the price of oil to quadruple to $12 a barrel. Sudden large increases in the price of oil present an enormous economic challenge; as the Japanese understood, they shock the system. Some economists claim spiking oil prices caused four of the last five global economic recessions. And, says Parker, co-director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Health, economic decline is bad for public health: “Health outcomes decline when the economy declines. People make ends meet at the expense of their health, and societies reduce health benefits when budgets are tight.”

At the extreme of this correlation is the former Soviet Union which, since the fall of communism and the collapse of its economy more than two decades ago, has experienced an increase in mortality and some kinds of morbidity unprecedented for an industrialized nation at peace. At the peak of the economic crisis in the mid-1990s, the country was experiencing its highest peacetime death rate in the 20th century; the incidence of tuberculosis, brucellosis, diphtheria and syphilis had increased dramatically and in the case of the last two diseases more than doubled. The country also witnessed the return of epidemic diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever. Ironically, it was the wealth generated by Russia’s vast oil and natural gas reserves that eventually enabled the country to reverse its economic decline—though health indices for Russians continue to lag far beyond those of their European neighbors.

Budget shortfalls brought about by recession and declining government revenues will inevitably have a strong effect on research funding as well, threatening the next generation of advances in medicines, vaccines, preparedness and knowledge that could most effectively advance the global public health agenda.


  • Kristyna Solawetz

    Dhaka, Bangladesh 09/25/2011 12:08:04 AM

    This article provides an excellent overview of how peak oil impacts public health. However, I am surprised and disappointed that there is little or no mention of how the field of public health should respond to these challenges. I can't quite think of another public health issue that is caught in the "awareness raising" stage without a few targeted campaigns to respond and address the problem. As a masters student at JHSPH working in Bangladesh, I see environmental vulnerabilities impacting population health in real time. Who is taking the health lead? I am part of the Social Science and Sustainability Working Group at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Though sustainability is just one example of an adaptive response, it would be nice to see these research efforts and interests take the forefront. We are scientists trained to protect health and save lives. We can't stop at pointing out the problem without suggesting some adaptive responses (i.e. food security> resource management and local food systems development, clean water> water conservation mechanisms integrated into new development, etc.).

  • i

    Earth 10/02/2011 05:11:53 PM

    I think oil depletion will present us with much more prosaic public health issues such as effective garbage pick-up and disposal, water pipe repair and urban pest control. All of these things depend on a truck, using oil to get from point a to point b. The devices and chemicals needed are similarly oil-based. Natural gas might substitute for urban transportation if we transition our fleets in time, but the chemicals and tools we depend on may be in short supply for quite a while.

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