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Public health and the precautionary principle: the case of peak oil

Seminar at The Ohio State University School of Public Health April 28, 2006

Good morning; it’s a pleasure to be among public health colleagues. I wish to briefly discuss and integrate:
1. The Precautionary Principle (PP) in public health
2. Peak oil as a multi-faceted public health threat
3. Why public health has not paid appropriate attention to peak oil.

What Is The Precautionary Principle (PP)?

If we tell an audience, “Public health’s core concepts are assessment, policy development and assurance,” we will get puzzled looks. But if we say, “Public health is about protecting the community from injury, sickness and death,” heads will nod in agreement. From its formal inception 100 years ago public health has functioned in the spirit of the PP, which the 1998 Wingspread Statement formalized this way: When an activity raises threat of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

There are other definitions of this principle, whose nuances as they apply to public health have been reviewed by Goldstein (2001), and Goldstein and Carruth (2003) and others (Tickner, 1997; Kurland, 2002; WHO, 2004).

In our risk conscious society suspected threats to health regularly undergo scrutiny: cell phones, saccharine, diets, exercise, genetically modified foods, the latest suspected carcinogen, to name a few. The PP codifies our collective apprehensions about health and safety –this is especially so regarding children and other vulnerable, innocent cohorts.

However, there is a cultural and psychological significance of the PP. To illustrate this, note that the Bush administration officially opposes the PP in many regulatory areas, especially in environmentalism and sometimes in public health issues. This stance is personified through the career of John Graham, formerly of Harvard’s school of public health and now Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget.

Graham (2003) argues that the PP encourages indifference to the cost-benefits ratio of intervention versus non-intervention; as a result, he claims, we often go on obsessive, wasteful wild goose chases. But if we consider the rhetoric of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, we see that precaution and prevention are the premises of all its explanations for the invasion of Iraq –without cost-benefit analysis or anything more than an untested ordinal level of data conjecture that we’re safer now than if the invasion had not occurred.

This shows, I surmise, that the public intuitively endorses an expansive interpretation of the PP; however, given our differing political, economic, ethical, moral and group allegiances, our actual disagreements are about when and how to invoke it.

In this vein, Judith Kurland has pointed out that in the health and environment arenas, the PP is better received and more consistently implemented in Europe, where it was formalized into environmental policy in the 1970s, than it is in the U.S. In our country the manufacturers of tobacco, lead paint, petroleum, pharmaceuticals, asbestos, among others, have at times sought to withhold, stall, or doctor vital epidemiological and biostatistical information while simultaneously arguing that “all the data are not in” (Kurland, 2002: 499).

Kurland rightly contends that action in the face of “informed” uncertainty is the cornerstone of the PP - and I add of good-faith –(as opposed to faith-based) public health. We are touching upon the fault line of a narrow versus a broad conception of the public health mission – just think of our current debate in this country about climate change, also known as global warming. Is it a public health issue?

With this conception of the PP as a strategic tool/resource of stakeholders in the policy-making process – because that is, I contend, its real function - it is enlightening to ask why public health has been slow to respond to the emerging worldwide petroleum crisis colloquially known as “Peak Oil.” Is this indifference justified? After all, we cannot attend to every potential risk. Or is it symptomatic of a failure of public health to engage in “assessment, policy development and assurance” – that is, a failure to act in accordance with the PP.

Peak Oil as a Public Health Threat

Some background on how I identified peak oil as a public health threat is helpful. I will summarize a great deal of information, so if you desire further details on anything I say I will be happy afterwards to offer you sources.

At first I was skeptical of the dire and gloomy warnings of “Life as we know it” coming to an end. I had concluded during the oil crises of the seventies, when I was a college student, that when push came to shove technology would save us. In 2004 I realized that this sanguine outlook on energy was naïve. At that point I had an “of course!” experience: It’s about systems theory; stress/disturb the political-economic system with an exogenous change (peak oil) and it will reverberate through the sub-system of public health. For example, there is a good deal of discussion in the peak oil literature on the possibility of food rationing and food riots, but what about healthcare riots? This is merely one example of the repercussions for public health.

Finding only a few documents dating back to the seventies energy crises in the public health literature - I branched out for perspective: economics, environmentalism, earth sciences, geology, and so on. I was intrigued by the writings of economist Nicholas Goregescu-Roegen (1971; 1975). During the 1970s he wrote how traditional economics literally defies the laws of thermodynamics and the concept of entropy. His exegesis on this simplistic thinking, exhibited even among Nobel Laureates, exposes the power of the taken-for-granted assumption of perpetual growth. He likewise critiques the belief that a Steady-State economy is a solution to growth based-economics. His thesis is uncomplicated: if you come to terms with thermodynamics –and therefore energy and entropy-- you realize its formidable long-term constraints upon economic activity.

Also, I was impressed by Reg Morrison’s (1999) encyclopedic book Spirit in the Gene, one of whose themes, the unavoidable ecological costs of extracting resources from the planet, parallels Goergescu-Roegen’s analysis and is indispensable to grasping the enormity of our energy-intensive and dependent lifestyle.

I should add a definition of peak oil, which in shorthand form means the point at which half of all the recoverable conventional oil in the world has been pumped from the ground. This is momentous because of the universal role petroleum plays in society. Given our time limitations, I will not stray into examples; suffice it to say that we are ensconced in what some have labeled the petroleum era.

As alluded to earlier, “catastrophists” argue that peak oil signals the end of technologically complex society –a return to muscle-powered times awaits us, they claim. I understand fully why a first time or casual reader could dismiss their arguments as the latest Cassandra narrative –although we should remember that Cassandra’s “curse” was to tell the unvarnished truth all the time. Indeed, there is an element of identification or rejection one feels compelled to make when reading this (sometimes) fervent literature. All I can say here is that as scientists we have to keep these deep-seated feelings in mind and separate, as best we can, fact from value, wish and fantasy.

The three benchmarks I pay attention to are empirical: the price of crude, daily worldwide production, and the supply-demand ratio. Prices approximately are at an all time high and expected to rise, and demand is beginning to surpass supply. At this time, those who claim we are at or near peak oil are, in my estimation, supported by data trends. The flatness of daily extraction – it’s hovering around 85 million barrels per day - for the past two years may indicate we are at peak oil; we will not know until production falls and cannot recover. I suggest that this plateau in production alone is a classic case for invoking the PP: we do not have all the data, but the consequences of waiting to have full information are potentially damaging or irreversible.

Therefore, dismissing peak oil as humbuggery is unjustified because running out of oil is not a fantasy for revenge or the science fiction of unhappy recluses or cargo cultists; it is a geological fact.

At this point some of you may be thinking, “What about substitutes? Sugar cane, tar sands, shale oil, solar wind, chicken fat, palm oil, hydrogen, and so on. If these can offset the decline in oil, won’t public health be utterly unaffected by peak oil?”

Well, I’m glad you asked since this brings us directly to the mission of public health and how to deal with uncertainty and risk. Let me categorically assert, and I will be happy to provide evidence, that we do not have scalable, fully appropriate alternatives and substitutes available at present to face what a decline in world oil production will wreak. In addition, even if we are not geologically a peak, we would need, according to The Hirsch Report which is described below, 20 years lead time to make a soft landing. Therefore, I believe we should create risk management scenarios for a variety of disruptive to worst case outcomes.

Note I’m advocating risk assessment; this is an analytic process, not a call for immediate system change. Our default “do-nothing” position is to hope all goes well – and right now our old friend “Mr. Free Market” is pretty confused about oil. For public health to stand pat is irrational, even as it is the natural response from the point of view of what we know about the social-psychology of risk - I will return to this in my summary.

Consider that “The Hirsch Report” to the Department of Energy, released in February of 2005 to virtually no media attention,(2005: 64) states: “The world has never faced a problem like this…Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary [emphasis added].” I hope that this brief review has made the minimal point that public health should, in accordance with the PP, react to peak oil through the framework of risk assessment. Now we may ask why public health is not paying due attention to peak oil. Let me offer some admittedly preliminary classes of explanation.

The Unprecedented Nature of the Problem

Peak oil is not a virus, carcinogen, or a pool of fetid standing water. It is a unique problem of exogenous change: a geologically imposed end to the fossil fuel era, whose first manifestation is the peaking of petroleum extraction, to be followed later by natural gas and then coal.

Ideally our government and the market should solve the energy problem. Thirty years ago Jimmy Carter took steps toward a national energy policy that was subsequently ridiculed by Ronald Reagan, as was symbolized by the first act of his administration: dismantling the solar panels Carter has installed on the White House roof. In addition, there is no guarantee that government can alone solve this problem without substantial guidance from the public and interested institutions –like public health.

Turning specifically to public health, most textbooks acknowledge the importance of energy but only in the contexts of its environmental pollution challenges and its necessity to spur economic development and growth. There is scant literature on its scarcity or depletion; overall, it is taken for granted that fossil fuel energy will always be available and cheap. Historically, this is a pardonable but nonetheless an immense oversight or misconception that now must be rectified; and let me emphasize that many students are reading in their public health textbooks that we have a 50 year supply of petroleum remaining, and 300 years of coal.

Our discipline must revise its understanding of energy in its generic sense and petroleum in its uniqueness as more than a source of energy. For example, petroleum is integral to the cultivation, processing and distribution of food; and it is an ingredient of a vast array of products, from toothbrushes to pharmaceuticals to computer cases. Also it is associated with population growth and lifestyle comforts.

I only mention transportation. Problem Identification How would public health recognize the problem of peak oil? This is not a frivolous question; a theme of inquiry in the area of social studies of science is, “Where do research questions come from?” Do they come from theory and the internal dynamics of the field? Or from external political, social and economic forces? We can stipulate that ideally it’s an interaction of both because public health is an applied, problem-driven field. Still, I suggest that most public health problems reflect de facto government and foundation agendas – that’s where the positive incentives are.

Finally, public health suffers from the “Silo effect,” or to be charitable, the “Invisible College” phenomenon, where one’s research colleagues are few and spread across the globe. This is to say the discipline lacks overarching communication and integration and has, as do most scientific disciplines, small semi-insular groups working on esoteric problems. This is a widespread yet often benign pattern in some scientific disciplines, but it is vexing in public health.

The Media

Reviewing sociologist Herbert J. Gans book, Deciding What’s News, Frank Mankiewicz, characterized television and newspaper reporters: “[O]ur colleagues who set much of the nation’s agenda have solid, bourgeois, mildly reformist views, respect authority, want to be liked and probably see the unfamiliar as vaguely threatening. The result is that tomorrow’s news is going to look very much like today’s, even if the world does not.”

This orientation is not conducive to reporting that we face an energy predicament that may precipitate an economic and social crisis, let alone lead to extrapolating as to how this could affect public health. To indicate how little “mainstream” attention has been paid to the topic, on March 1st of this year, Robert Semple, Jr., wrote in the New York Times: “The Age of Oil … could be ending without our really being aware of it.” Semple never uses the term “peak oil” in his article; it is still a virtually taboo concept in mainstream media, and he takes the most optimistic position that peak is thirty years away.

Reviewing the literature on risk identification, Fischoff (1989) informs us that we tend to hold on to pre-existing beliefs in the face of conflicting evidence and are unlikely to change our minds exclusively on the basis of logic and appeals to evidence –they rely heavily on their social context for definition. Furthermore, people typically disagree more about whether a risk exists than what to do about an acknowledged risk - in other words, the question of when to invoke the PP is paramount.

There is hope as little-by-little the energy crisis enters the mainstream news discussion. A week ago Jane Bryant Quinn wrote soberly in Newsweek of her alarm over the oil situation, but she did not use the term “peak oil.” Three weeks ago, Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading news magazine, published and article titled, "Wie lange noch?" (“How much time is left?”), that dealt with the concept of Peak Oil by name. This has yet to happen in a major American media source, but, as the Germans say, “Wir wollen mal sehen” –We’ll see.

The Government

In the first three chapters of Kevin Phillips’ new book, American Theocracy, he indicts the federal government for failing to forthrightly inform the public about our energy situation. Philips writes, “The political establishment’s reluctance to acquaint the American electorate with this dilemma involves three particularly glaring problems:
(1) unwillingness to speak of the present oil crisis in the full context of geological, economic, and military history;
(2) failure to understand the past vulnerability of great but idiosyncratic national energy cultures [like England relying on coal] losing their familiar footing; and
(3) refusal to discuss the evidence of oil-field depletions and insufficient new discoveries that shows petroleum production moving toward an inflammatory worldwide shortage…”

I believe he is right to draw these conclusions. But governments, especially large ones, are not unitary rational actors. As some of you here know, I attend the Defense Department’s monthly “Conversation about Energy” series in Washington.

Let me interject an example you’ll appreciate on the ambivalent nature of government. While the Defense Department is planning for peak oil, the DoE in essence “buried” the Hirsch Report. It was not available on its website until October of last year - in response to citizen complaints about its unavailability. Hirsch spoke at this past Monday’s Conversation meeting, smiled and said “No comment” when asked if he felt the DoE had hidden his report.

In a conversation I had with a colleague last month, he advises the Federal government on environmental risk analysis and science policy, he told me I was overreacting to think energy was a major threat to our healthcare system. “It’s third or forth in importance, Dan, not first.” I was dumbfounded and asked, “What about the Hirsch Report?” and he replied, “I’ve never heard of it.” I like and respect this man, so I bit my tongue and did not retort, “Okay, now I know where you’re not coming from.”

Daniel Yergin, energy consultant and peak oil denier, had the same “never heard of it” response during an interview last fall. These gentlemen are not my uncle Joe; and I’m sure we all have “expertise” stories we could share.

Also, a few weeks ago The Corps of Engineers released a study on peak oil. It reported, “The doubling of oil prices in the past couple of years is not an anomaly, but a picture of the future. Peak oil is at hand…” It also predicted the possibility of resource wars and recommended that the Army think strategically about energy.

And for those who appreciate irony, in 1995 the Congressional Research Service released a report titled, “World Oil Production after Year 2000: Business As Usual or Crises?” Further, at this past Monday’s “Conversation on Energy” both Hirsch and Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, R-MD, agreed that if the president would openly discuss peak oil the financial markets would fall prey to panic and instability.

Finally and most important, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control are – institutionally — oblivious to peak oil’s implications for the nation’s health.

I’m neither an alarmist nor moral entrepreneur by inclination, but let me observe that this is utterly astonishing.


The PP is a strategic resource in policy debates because it allows advocates and stakeholders to - properly I believe - take a broad view of public health’s mission and to act on informed suspicion of deleterious threats to health and the environment.

The PP is not an alarm system or an oracle. We need to understand the filters, bureaucratic and more generally economic, political and cultural, that both lead us to and away from the identification of health hazards. Why study this and not this? is not a navel-gazing question.

Given that resources always are scarce, we cannot avoid what Harold Lasswell termed the heart of policy analysis: “Who gets what, when and why?” This question will become immensely important if peak oil turns out to be the fracturing beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era. If it is, public health has an opportunity to help lead our society through several decades of difficult to catastrophic socio-economic times. By this I suggest that public health will no longer be able to avoid debating the limits to growth issue, for this may be the ultimate meaning of peak oil.

Finally, and here I am speculating with a tinge of grandiosity, if peak oil ushers in an era of resource scarcity and economic instability – perhaps in a way similar to what Steven Jay Gould has called “punctuated equilibrium”— public health will have an opportunity to turn its training and educational expertise to the task of – for want of a better way of putting it — providing a truthful narrative that explains the great transformation underway.

I will stop here for questions.

Thank you for your attention.


Fischoff, Baruch. 1989. “Risk: A Guide to Controversy.” In Improving Risk Communication. The National Research Council, ed., P 211-253. Washington: National Academy Press.

Fournier, Donald F. and Eileen T. Westervelt. 2005. Energy Trends and Their Implications for U.S. Army Installations. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Washington, DC. September.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1971.The Entropy Law and the Economic Problem. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1975. “Energy and Economic Myths.” Southern Economic Journal, 41.

Goldstein, Bernard D. 1999. “The Precautionary Principle and Scientific Research Are Not Antithetical.” Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 107, Number 12, December.

Goldstein, Bernard D. 2001. “The Precautionary Principle Also Applies to Public Health Actions.” American Journal of Public Health September 2001, Vol. 91, No. 9: 1358-1361.

Goldstein, Bernard D., and Russellyn Carruth. 2001. “Implications of the Precautionary Principle for Environmental Regulation in the United States.” Law & Contemporary Problems, Vol. 66.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge, Ma: Belknap Press.

Graham, John D. 2004. . “The Perils of the Precautionary Principle: Lessons from the American and European Experience.” Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation Lecture #818, January 15.

Kurland, Judith 2002. The Heart of the Precautionary Principle in Democracy. Public Health Reports, Vol. 117 Nov/Dec: 498-500.

Mankiewicz, Frank. 1979. “The Knowns and Unknowns: Review of Herbert Gans’ Deciding What’s News.” New York Times Book Review, June 24: 7.

Joseph P. Riva, Jr. titled, “World Oil Production after Year 2000: Business As Usual or Crises?” Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. Quinn, Jane Bryant. 2006. “The Price of Our Addiction.” Newsweek April 24.

Tickner, Joel. 1997. “Precautionary Principle. The Networker: The Newsletter of the Science and Environmental Health Net.” May, Vol. 2, #4

World Health Organization. 2004. “The Precautionary Principle: Public Health, Protection of Children and Sustainability.” Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health. Budapest, Hungary, June 23-25.

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