Peak Oil and Health
First it is important to distinguish between health on the one hand, and the health care system which we often think of when ‘health’ is in the news. These systems widely across continents and countries, as does the health status of different populations. The health systems of developed countries, including our own, are heavily dependent on fossil fuels, for example;
- built estate - our large hospitals are very resource intensive
- transport - one in twenty journeys on our roads is associated with health care
- drugs and medical consumables - many of which are derived from oil.
On the other hand, it is possible to maintain good health in a population with relatively few resources. For example, the life expectancy in Cuba is higher than that in neighbouring USA, which spends many times more on its health care system. This is because health care delivered locally, and promptly, is more effective at keeping us healthy. In addition, because oil is scarce, the Cubans walk and cycle more, and drive much less than their American neighbours.
In the UK we retain the essence of a local health care service in our comprehensive network of general practices and surgeries, and the multi-disciplinary teams which work from them. Within living memory, district nurses used bicycles to do their rounds, (and were probably fitter as a result).
Apart from threatening the future of our large general hospitals and system of remote, specialised care, peak oil brings a more major health threat to everyone in the form of cold, damp housing. Until the advent of central heating, such was the norm. The result, especially where people lived in over-crowded conditions, was very high rates of respiratory illness (eg bronchitis, tuberculosis, asthma and pneumonia,) and early death, especially amongst children. A pioneering study by Dr Ian Mackenzie showed that warmer, drier homes in Cornwall led directly to reduced complications from childhood asthma.
To prepare Cornwall’s population for a healthy future in a period of fossil fuel scarcity is a colossal task, on a scale equivalent to the challenges of the early days of industrialisation, when life-expectancy rates plummeted. We are certainly starting our planning very late in the day, and the Groundswell movement is key to raising awareness of that fact, and the need for a determined, focussed and proportionate response.
Lindley Owen M Sc, FFPH, Consultant in Public Health Cornwall & Isles of Scilly PCT (to 31 Dec 08)
Taking the long term view: the Department of Health’s strategy for delivering sustainable development 2008-2011 http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/Publicati...