Exploring health care in a post peak oil world

The latest Transition Truro meeting was looking at how climate change and peak oil could impact upon health and healthcare.

Anyone who has worked in the health service will know how heavily dependent upon oil it is – energy to service buildings and power numerous diagnostic, monitoring and life-support machines; embodied energy in appliances, buildings etc; mountains of disposable plastic products – syringes, tubing, gloves etc; transport; and, perhaps most significant, pharmaceuticals – estimated to be responsible for 50% of CO2 emissions in the NHS in England.

Clearly there are no quick and easy answers to this and, whilst climate change is at last being considered by health trusts, energy supplies are not featuring prominently. During the discussion it was recognised that many of the advances in health had been in the public health field and that ill-health was caused or exacerbated by factors such as housing, access to healthy food, exercise etc. We also looked at a broad definition of health rather than the mere absence of disease.

The obesity epidemic we now face in the western world is strongly linked with our addiction to oil. Cheap oil has enabled motor transport to be the predominant method of travel; processed, dense energy foods to be the favoured western diet; and for work to be much more sedentary. Were we to move into a future where walking and cycling became the preferred mode of travel – with public transport or car sharing for longer journeys or the less mobile; where local foods, home cooked, became the normal diet; and where communities became more social and inclusive, obesity and its associated risks could be drastically reduced.

Paul Roth, an Australian General Practitioner who has done a lot of work on peak oil and healthcare, believes we should start looking at David Holmgren’s permaculture principles and EF Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ appropriate scale technologies when designing future health care provision. Also localisation, emphasis on prevention, personal responsibility, lifestyle factors. Although a medically trained practitioner, he is open to complementary and alternative therapies and has categorised them according to the amount of training and inputs required to practice them.

There is an urgent need to start planning for post peak oil health services – the current health infrastructure is so heavily dependent upon fossil fuels and so entrenched in bureaucracy that it will be akin to turning the Titanic before it hits the iceberg.

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