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A conversation with the famous M. King Hubbert by the American Hospital Association, 1976.

There are several important take home messages from this interview.

  • The basic impacts of peak oil on our health care systems were understood 1/3 of a century ago.
  • Everyone alive today has grown up in a period of growth. That era is coming to a close, but are we ready to face that reality?
  • All baby boomers lived through the burning of more than half of the world’s cheap oil.
  • It is no surprise that the environmental effects of burning all those hydrocarbons, in a closed system, in such a short period of time, are also showing up now. As the late Barry Commoner has said:
  • Everything Is Connected to Everything Else.
  • Everything Must Go Somewhere.
  • Nature Knows Best.
  • There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Haiti is the poorest and most densely populated country in the Western Hemisphere, with a (pre-earthquake) population of around 10 million persons and a population density of 335 persons per sq km (10 times the density of the U.S.).[i] With a long history of colonial and political oppression, shortened life spans, massive poverty, energy shortages, poor health care, a raging HIV/AIDs/TB epidemic, and numerous other deep-seated social, political and economic problems, Haiti also represents a vivid and tragic example of Catton’s “Overshoot” concept of when a population exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its natural environment.[ii]

The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haiti is to the left and the Dominican Republic is the greener area to the right (source: NASA).

As Amiel Blajchman and many others have pointed out, a major cause of Haiti’s environmental degradation has been the population’s need for cheap energy.[iii] Its growing and impoverished populace is perched on a small shared island landmass with almost no domestically available fossil fuel energy resources and few hydroelectric power supplies.[iv] The cause and effect has been a massive deforestation as wood became the primary but diminishing energy source for heating, cooking and lighting for much of its population. This dramatic deforestation[v] is even visible from NASA satellite imagery.[vi] The numerous ramifications of this environmental degradation are well described with adverse impacts on agriculture, hurricanes, transportation infrastructure and several ecosystems.[vii]

Now, with the worst earthquake shaking the Caribbean in 200 years, we must sadly add another chapter to the Haitian book chronicling the linkage between its human and ecological disasters.  Without significant domestic lumber sources or the resources to import replacements, much of the Haitian housing consists (or “consisted” in the areas hardest hit) of unreinforced or poorly reinforced concrete and concrete blocks of varyng quality.

Buildings lie in ruins on a hillside in Port-au-Prince (source: Ivanoh Demers / AP)

As can be seen by the utter devastation in the numerous aerial surveys and neighbourhood panoramas posted over the Internet, those type of structures fare much worse than that of wood frame housing known to perform well in earthquakes from a human safety perspective. Thus, the Haitians share all too much in common with the experience of the Easter Islanders ecocidal slide into oblivion discussed by Jared Diamond.[viii] Had the Haitian forest environment been managed differently they might have been able to build their homes out of wood and the human suffering from this rare but predictable earthquake would arguably not have been as great.

With the help of massive embodied energy in the food and disaster response resources imported from generous international humanitarian efforts, some of the longer term devastation and loss of life from this event will be averted or postponed. But one can’t help but shudder at the possibility of an entire world so constrained by energy/economic decline induced transport constraints where no help will arrive in time, if at all, in inevitable future earthquake and other natural and man-made disasters. Collapse may be slow and sometimes imperceptible by the current generation, as both Diamond and Greer[ix] eloquently discuss, but sometimes nature’s fury, compounded by mankind’s short-sightedness and foibles, wreaks havoc and death in a heartbeat.










Editors Note:  The following book review appeared in Public Health Reports / January-February 2009 / Volume 124. It appears here through the kind permission of the Journal.  A PDF version can be downloaded here.

“Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way… But you can never say again you did not know.”

William Wilberforce, British Parliamentarian, 17891

I recently finished reading a critically important book by Professor William R. Catton, Jr., entitled, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.”2 I not only consider it one of the most influential books I have ever read, but I believe it ranks as one of the most important books ever written, period. I wished I had read it 27 years ago, but at that time I had already left my undergraduate ecological roots behind me while engaged in the excitement and challenges of the start of my public health career at the Wisconsin State Health Department. Well, better late than never!

Despite its maturity, Overshoot remains a vividly fresh and visionary work of brilliance and foresight. The ecological foundations of Catton’s thinking are strong and enduring due to his careful research and interpretive power. His treatise explains much about the human condition that we find ourselves in now, early in the 21st century. In a breathtaking yet concise sweep of history and biology through the eyes of a human ecologist, Catton reveals how we got here and where we are in all probability headed. He summarizes this view as follows:

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“You cannot have well humans on a sick planet” – Thomas Berry

The U.S. presently spends an estimated 16 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health care, compared with 8 to 10 percent in most other major industrialized nations. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) projects that growth in health spending should continue to outpace GDP over the next 10 years [The Commonwealth Fund, January 2007]. But can this really happen in an era of energy and resource limitations? What are the ramifications to health care and sustainability if it cannot?

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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.