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Peak Oil, Food Systems, Irene, Debt and Deadlines

By: Roni Neff

Last month I watched in amazement as a small but inflammatory political faction forced its agenda on the American people—and got results.  The debt-ceiling advocates bullied the issue into Congress using two powerful tools—threats and a deadline.

Standing in line at the Giant last Friday, I reflected on our collective ability to mobilize for deadlines.  “This is not a storm to be taken lightly,” said Governor O’Malley to Marylanders, and we didn’t. We loaded up coolers of ice and refrigerators full of food, double-staked the tomatoes, charged the electronics, filled bathtubs with water, even put away patio furniture in case it might fly into the air and smash our windows. “I just scored the last eight D batteries in Baltimore!,” crowed a friend on Facebook.

Many people lost power in the storm and benefited from the preparations they made.  While some of our efforts felt—and were—absurd, overall, the preparedness was a good thing.  We depend so heavily on energy for every aspect of our daily lives that a few days without it requires massive adaptation, not to mention discomfort.

Which all leads me to peak oil.  Coauthors Cindy Parker, Fred Kirschenmann, Jenny Tinch, Bob Lawrence and I just published the analysis, “Peak Oil, Food Systems, and Public Health” in the American Journal of Public Health. In the paper, we discuss the many ways our food system is completely dependent on petroleum. We describe the well-documented phenomenon of peak oil, whereby global oil supplies are expected to peak and then decline (or maybe they already have peaked); as a result of peaking, the cost of extraction—and thus oil prices and food prices—rises substantially.  The article describes how the situation could play out with widespread food insecurity, and potential famines—and describes how concerted efforts today might help head off the worst consequences.  Recognizing the gravity of the issue, and the need to wake up our community to the threat, the American Journal of Public Health published 8 articles on peak oil this month.

Irene caused major disruptions, but nothing like what could occur as oil prices rise into the stratosphere. What if there were an ultimatum to take peak oil seriously, as there was with the debt-ceiling? What if Americans were forced to get proactive about recommended interventions such as the ones we stress in our article (table 2)?  What if the president said, “I cannot stress this highly enough: …you have to take precautions now. Don’t wait. Don’t delay. We all hope for the best, but we have to be prepared for the worst. All of us have to take [peak oil] seriously”?  What if, when some insisted we find offsets for preparedness costs, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor did regarding Irene disaster relief, they “[felt] the wrath of everyday people”?  What if we as a society could wrap our heads around the vast costs of failure to prepare, both in financial terms and in human lives?

What if we, the advocates for public health and sustainable energy use, could force peak oil into the spotlight with our own grand deadline and list of actions?  The deadline? One year (give or take the time to when the next Farm Bill is passed), to dramatically ramp up action.  The actions?

  1. Reduce the oil used in food production, in part by shifting to more sustainable agriculture
  2. Increase food system energy efficiency and renewable energy
  3. Help adjust population-wide food preferences toward lower oil diets, including the reduction of meat consumption
  4. Support efforts to improve regional food system infrastructure, and plan in advance for how areas that cannot provide enough food to support their current populations will feed themselves as oil prices rise.

All these actions are already happening to some extent. When we consider the inevitable rise in oil prices, one of the smartest investments we could ever make is to scale them up in a massive way.  Further, many of the needed interventions are not costly, and most will ultimately make our food system healthier and more resilient to crises beyond peak oil, including climate change, soil depletion, water degradation and so on.

Irene blew through the U.S. in a few days.  As a society we spent millions preparing, and we will spend billions in the aftermath.  Peak oil, by contrast, will likely manifest over a period of years, although the onset will still be far faster than we are prepared for. The impacts will be lasting and could dwarf Irene’s costs.  We can’t prevent it.  But there’s a great deal we can do to soften its landfall.

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