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Dan Bednarz

During the 20th century an indispensible yet unrecognized factor allowed the health sciences to attain dizzying levels of organizational complexity and achieve countless life saving and prolonging breakthroughs. The health professions drew upon ever-increasing amounts of human and natural resources, particularly energy. For example, energy’s significance was overlooked because –save for a few peroids of scarcity deemed anomalous or political contrivances- its main supplies –the fossil fuels natural gas, oil, coal- seemed infinite and its cost trivial. Therefore, the complexity of modern health systems and their accomplishments are an epiphenomenon of economic expansion made possible first and foremost by natural resources; only secondarily are they reflections of capital and labor expressed through human intelligence, drive and ingenuity. The era of cheap and plentiful energy is over and this has profound implications for the health sciences and modern world. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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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.