(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent ASPO-USA’s positions; they are personal statements and observations by informed commentators.)

Know any public health professionals? You might want to wish them a happy National Public Health Week this week. This year’s theme is “Preparedness and Public Health Threats: Addressing the Unique Needs of the Nation’s Vulnerable Populations”. You might also want to remind them that “Public Health Threats” include Peak Oil. Except that they don’t yet know what Peak Oil is…

After 9/11, the Public Health community became caught up in the U.S.’s fear-mongering regarding terrorism; emergency preparedness is now the newest and latest funded topic. Nationwide, public health systems have been training to attend to situations that would affect the public’s health. Terrorist threats, radioactive spills, with some hurricanes, earthquakes and pandemics thrown in for good measure. Emergency preparedness is a good thing – with each hurricane, Florida has learned from experience over many years. And Public Health has become a crucial component of emergency preparedness systems. Since Hurricane Katrina, concerns over planning for vulnerable and marginalized populations (i.e. low income, disabled, children and infants, the elderly) have also emerged. The problem has been how these systems define “emergency”, and what levels of planning exist for those vulnerable and marginalized populations.

James Howard Kuntsler’s concept of “The Long Emergency”—also the title of his most recent book—is an important one for public health and emergency preparedness professionals to
consider. The public health community is working hard to ensure that they are ready for the next short-term emergency. But while they are preparing for the bird flu, the next hurricane and nuclear spill, preparation for Peak Oil isn’t anywhere on the radar. Public health hasn’t yet heard about Peak Oil, and after they do, it will take them a while to link the impacts to people and prevention of disease.

While debates about the “when” of Peak Oil often emerge, in the case of public heath and social service systems, that’s a debate that doesn’t change future realities. Public health and social services systems will need to be involved. Many times these systems take a while to react. They should know what to expect whether or not that “peak” occurred in 2006 or happens in 2025.
At this point, Peak Oil has been viewed as a technical supply problem; players in the dialogue focus on oil reserves, production, and technologies to mitigate the decline. But a plateau in supply, plus a sharp increase in demand, equals rising prices and pressure on household budgets. In the end, Peak Oil is about people – how we’ll cope, how our behaviors will change, and how those vulnerable and marginalized will be affected and accepted by society.

Even with no knowledge of Peak Oil, the emergency preparedness systems recommend people plan for a three-day emergency. This turns out to be a major underestimate of the need for self-sufficiency, as demonstrated by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The federal government expects each local community to go it alone during “the big disaster”. If communities are alone (which actually may be a realistic scenario for a peak oil long emergency), the impact on local public health and social services systems could be devastating and those most vulnerable become especially at risk for being abandoned.

Who are those vulnerable and marginalized? Low income populations – whose numbers will grow – will be the first and hardest hit by Peak Oil; those already stigmatized racial and ethnic groups; the growing number of elderly in our society who will require an increasing amount of medical care; those with chronic illnesses (currently 7 percent of the population has diabetes, 12 percent heart disease); and those who are disabled.

Vulnerable and marginalized populations are already among the most at-risk members of society. They are also the least likely to have information or understanding about Peak Oil. They have the fewest resources to deal with any increased cost from Peak Oil and are currently struggling now to pay for $3.00/gallon gas. They are also not well represented in policy and planning discussions. The GAO’s recent report focuses on the need for strategies for addressing Peak Oil, but even they didn’t focus on the people affected.

Will we catch on before a large segment of our community gets left behind? My hope is that we will. The awareness of a future decline in world oil production needs to be incorporated at the local level in public health systems planning. Here in Oregon, Portland’s Peak Oil Task Force is the first in the nation to identify likely impacts from Peak Oil and then to recommend mitigation strategies for the broader community. Vulnerable populations, emergency preparedness, the abilities for public health and social services to provide services to all who may potentially be in need, and the lack of awareness of peak oil impacts were all concerns of the Task Force.

For Portland’s Task Force and the City Council, there had been some expectations regarding the “obvious” impacts–personal transportation availability, increased costs of freight transportation, population shifts, increased food prices, increased need for local agriculture, decline in the availability of a variety of foods–but peak oil impacts on the city’s vulnerable and marginalized populations had never been previously considered. Portland is now paying attention and other communities should do the same. Because we have been the first to conduct formative research and publish the results, groundwork has been laid for cities, counties, and public health departments to use Portland’s research as a beginning point for their own work. An opportunity has been established for greater depth of focus on the impacts of peak oil depletion and recommendations for dealing with it. Other communities, including Indianapolis, Seattle, and San Francisco, are not far behind in their own planning. Hopefully they too will consider the effects of Peak Oil on public health, social services and vulnerable populations.

So when you encounter a public health professional this week, make sure you recognize them for the difficult work they are currently doing, but also take the opportunity to educate them on Peak Oil (perhaps providing them with a copy of Portland’s report? www.portlandonline.com/osd/index.cfm?c=42894). After all, Peak Oil is also an issue for emergency preparedness and vulnerable populations, and in the end, it will have an effect on the public’s health.

Lesa Dixon-Gray, MSW, MPH, a native Floridian, is a Public Health Social Worker living in Portland, Oregon. She served as a member of the citizen-led Portland Peak Oil Task Force and chaired the Public and Social Services Subcommittee.