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Dan Bednarz

The September 2011 issue of the American Journal of Public Health offers several papers on peak oil. Ten years ago this special issue would have been revolutionary; five years ago it would have been an urgent warning. Its appearance in 2011, however, leaves this participant/observer[ii] disappointed.

Its central deficiency is its “priestly” style,[iii] which leads to –I believe- a Type III error: asking the wrong question[iv]. This is revealed in three passages from the lead article.[v] The first is a laudatory summary of John Holdren’s[vi] position followed by two additional passages:

Holdren highlighted the dilemma the world faces today: reliable and affordable energy is essential for meeting human needs and fueling economic growth (emphasis added), but the world’s current production, distribution, and use of energy is responsible for a series of difficult, damaging, and challenging environmental problems.

 In the United States, we should encourage federal funders of research (e.g., National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency), industry, and foundations to fund broad-based, interdisciplinary research on the linkages among climate change, energy scarcity, ecosystem degradation, species and biodiversity losses, urban form and transportation systems, and public health.

 We urge close collaboration between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and national and international energy and development institutions (e.g., Department of Energy, International Energy Agency, World Bank, International Monetary Fund).

In the social-empirical world I believe we inhabit, meeting human needs and fueling economic growth is incompatible with the thermodynamic, economic, financial (massive debt, political dominance and corruption) and environmental realities brought to the fore or worsened by peak oil. Nor do I expect corporations, politicians, and governmental and international agencies to hear the clarion call sounded by these earnest academics. These bodies have their underside agendas, as evidenced by their vain attempts to maintain the political/economic/financial status quo peak oil is upending. Bluntly, they evince little or no concern for social responsibility or the public good.[vii]

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A recent Post-Carbon Institute paper, “Public Health Concerns of Shale Gas Production,” (contained in: Natural Gas Report Supplements: Public Health Agriculture & Transportation) is plagued by irony: the authors’ (Brian Schwartz and Cindy Parker) commitment to protect public health nonetheless defaults into placing business interests ahead of the public interest. Read the rest of this entry »

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Re-orienting Public Health:
Rhetoric, challenges and possibilities for sustainability
Phil Hanlon and Sandra Carlisle
Critical Public Health, Volume 20, Issue 3, 2010, Pages 299 – 309

Abstract: “We make a case in this article for re-orienting public health, based on evidence that societies across the globe are now facing inevitable change for which public health remains insufficiently prepared. We focus on the relationship between different sustainability ideals, displayed through rhetoric and discourse and the reality of a number of challenges in the ‘modern’ world. We briefly describe discernible elements of public and policy rhetoric around sustainability, as an important background for public health efforts, and present two significant public health discourses. We then outline some of the challenges to sustainability; some relate to the powerful social systems and cultural values associated with modernity, while others refer to broader environmental issues. These are not unconnected. We conclude by outlining the possibilities for ustainability, which include a transition to a more sustainable form of society that could lessen global inequalities, combat emerging problems, such as obesity, depression and addictive behaviours, and improve individual and social levels of well-being. We believe that this may well require a change of consciousness for a change of age, so the scope and scale of the required response should not be underestimated.”

(Note: Links to publisher site for full access. Signin/paid access may be required without institutional subscription)

Are cars the new tobacco?
Margaret J. Douglas, Stephen J. Watkins, Dermot R. Gorman, and Martin Higgins
J Public Health (2011) 33 (2): 160-169.

“Public health must continually respond to new threats reflecting wider societal changes. Ecological public health recognizes the links between human health and global sustainability. We argue that these links are typified by the harms caused by dependence on private cars.”

Bristol Community College

Fall River, Mass.

Institute for Sustainability and Post-Carbon Education

Dan Bednarz, Ph.D. Instructor

Instructor’s Note: This is an abbreviated syllabus for this distance learning course, CRN number19029 X HC 33 01, that runs from March 21st through May 13th 2011.  The cost is $380. It is a non-credit course; however, once the course has started, students can apply for academic credit. To register click on: Read the rest of this entry »

Dan Bednarz, PhD, Nancy Lee Wood, PhD

In spring semester 2011 the Institute for Sustainability and Post-carbon Education at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts will offer an online course titled, “Building Sustainable Health Systems: The Essential Role of Public Health.” The premises of this course are that 1) the structure and content of public health, medicine and nursing will be deeply transformed as society reaches the limits to growth and 2) public health is critical to all socioeconomic localization and community building. The course is designed to allow public health professionals and members of the community to work synergistically and strategically as ecologically mandated social change emerges. Read the rest of this entry »

Dan Bednarz, PhD

J. Mac Crawford, PhD, RN

Nancy Lee Wood, PhD

Conventional wisdom maintains that we are slowly recovering from a recalcitrant recession. As we are now entering at least the third year of real economic contraction, continue to reel from the depredations and corruption in a financial sector the federal government treats as sacrosanct, are in the sixth year of a plateau in worldwide oil extraction, and climate change is essentially unmitigated, it should be obvious that American society is arrantly unsustainable – ecologically, fiscally, economically, politically -and ethically.

Few in medicine, nursing and public health share our view; the overwhelming majority of practitioners and their leaders wait –silently, nervously. Many are sincere in this hope for “recovery” because they are –excuse our bluntness- ignorant of how the earth’s ecosystems, resources and the laws of thermodynamics set the parameters of human economic activity.

Succinctly, the world is reaching the physical limits to economic growth.  This metaphor, of a finite planet with limited resources and delicately balanced ecosystems, can lead us toward an intellectual paradigm, cultural values, mythology and national identity that support a sustainable world. It follows that it is the narrative from which to generate a new paradigm for the health sciences in the 21st century. It informs us that we are not going back to business as usual and, further, challenges us to envision a future where medicine, nursing, public health and allied fields redefine their place in both the natural world and the political/economy, by which we mean the relationships between economic activity and law, finance, culture, science, and government. Read the rest of this entry »

Dan Bednarz

Forecasts of Pittsburgh’s future cite education and medicine, complemented by entrepreneurial “green energy” and high-tech ventures, as engines of 21st century growth.

However, the country is entering its third year of economic contraction and fiscal crisis. In a recent column pundit David Brooks assures a return to prosperity is inevitable. Recall that three years ago he and many of his colleagues claimed that the economy was “humming along” and the financial sector was “innovative” with a “contained” problem in subprime mortgages. Read the rest of this entry »

Dan Bednarz

A year ago I delivered a paper[i] on how local public health departments were being denuded by the economic crisis. Their situation has worsened as unemployment climbs, the federal government pursues a bipartisan prop-up of a probably bankrupt and largely corrupt financial sector and prosecutes gratuitous military actions, while state revenues decline, with the budgets of California, Illinois, Michigan, New York and several other states tied in a Gordian Knot.

Most importantly, their is no widespread social awareness that we are entering what Jim Kunstler calls “The Long Emergency[ii],” what I non-poetically describe as a sustainability crisis that manifests itself as fiscal/economic but whose resolution begins with a grasp of underlying ecological realities. Further, signs of nascent political upheaval are everywhere, but I leave this critical dimension to more capable observers to articulate.

As a public good lacking market support public health depends upon state financing to function. If we are entering The Long Emergency, an increase of governmental support for public health –which was meager before the crisis- is improbable because state and municipal services, commitments and other expenditures will continue to contract. For instance, states have resolved their FY 2010 budget gaps with an approximately 2:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases.”[iii]

In the macro-context, our society is at risk to both systemic financial and energy-scarcity induced breakdown[iv] and disruption that will reduce our ability to maintain current levels of social and technological complexity. In a novel the author would at this point use plot, character and literary devices to drive this message into the “feeling structures”[v] of the reader: we can no longer rely on economic growth –which must be separated from economic development- to solve social problems, ensure the health of the public, add new levels of social complexity, and provide political legitimacy and social cohesion. As illogical as it seems to American Dream imaginings, we must consume less and share more if we are to survive the great ecological transition underway.

The principal health policy question we should be asking is, How should we think about the conundrum of mounting threats to the health of the public with declining resources to meet these threats? I take this question up here. In a subsequent essay I will ask, What kinds of public health systems –not all regions have identical needs- are viable in a contracting economy and how do we create them?

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Editors Note: This reprint is from Sharon Astyk’s blog (Casaubon’s Book). She’s not the first to make the connection between the now almost global car culture and huge public health and environmental costs, but in her indomitable style she says it succinctly and she says it well. A more academic piece with the same thoughts quantified was published a few months ago in the Lancet. [Woodcock J, Edwards P, Tonne C, Armstrong BG, et al. "Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: urban land transport", The Lancet, Volume 374, Issue 9707, Pages 1930-2114]

Sharon Astyk

One of the pleasures of blogging here has been the focus that this community has on issues of public health. Doing everything we can to maintain the health and well-being of populations through a shift into a different model of life is an issue that is deeply important to me – I don’t always agree with everyone who writes here on these issues (and, of course, they don’t always agree with each other ;-)), but I am struck with admiration of the degree of concern for the public welfare expressed by my Science Blog Colleagues.

Which is why I’m being so presumptuous (since I am a science writer, not a physician or medical researcher) as to suggest a new direction for my fellow bloggers who focus on public health issues. With any luck they will find that now that Andrew Wakefield’s false claims about vaccine-autism link are thoroughly discredited (for the bazillionth time – and can I just say how pleased I am, since I personally, as the parent of a child with severe autism, would like to know what actually *does* cause autism and we’re unlikely to find that out it by doing another 40 studies on a discredited line of reasoning) that they have some free time on their hands. My suggestion would be to focus on another public health crisis – arguably the biggest one we face – our dependence on cars for personal transportation.

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What we're reading:

Turner, Graham. "A comparison of limits to growth with thirty years of reality." June, 2008.

Korowicz, David. "Tipping Point: Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production." (From the Feasta and the Risk/Resilience Network). March, 2010.

Heinberg, Richard. "‘Searching for a Miracle. Net Energy’ Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society." Post Carbon Institute & International Forum on Globalization - September, 2009.


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