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Editorial: Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching
- Categorized in: August 2010
Editorial: Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.
– Thomas Jefferson 1743-1826
The Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster caused the release of an estimated five million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. President Jefferson’s advice seems even more poignant in our increasingly complicated world as the excuses and apologies of corporate executives compete with images of oil covered marine life and fouled beaches.
The human cost of this manmade calamity from the economic and ecological ruin is heart wrenching to watch. As a physician, I also wonder at the long term health effects of all the crude oil being dumped into the Gulf Coast environment. Crude oil is a cornucopia of thousands of hydrocarbon compounds, many are known to be toxic to humans, and for many others the impact is unknown. The enduring effects of the oil on the ecosystem and the life there is even more indeterminate. The psychological effects on the coastal population are already being experienced as the stress of lost livelihoods and ways of life impact on the local community. The impact of this stress was recently highlighted with the suicide of charter boat captain Allen Kruse that was described on network news channels as the first suicide directly associated with the spill. Many are concerned that captain Kruse is just the first of perhaps many who will be driven to such extremes.
As this tragedy continues to unfold I cannot help but reflect on the root causes that have led to this public health problem. Certainly the very fabric of our modern social structure is intimately linked to petrochemicals. The products from oil touch every part of our lives from the automobiles we drive, cosmetics we wear, clothing, furniture, plastics, even the sneakers on our feet. The list of products involving oil is seemingly endless. Modern life, not to mention modern medicine, would not be possible without the petrochemical industry. Oil is a precious resource that must not be carelessly consumed.
The corporations involved in the Gulf oil spill are obvious and easy targets for blame in this tragedy. Unquestionably these corporations have a clear responsibility to invest heavily in the recovery of the Gulf and by most accounts they have the means to do so. Our society’s dependence on oil has made this business very profitable, much of this profit going to countries that do not necessarily have the best intentions toward the United States. This profit is also the motivating force that drives oil corporations to ever increasing extremes to quench our thirst for more oil. When viewed through the simple economic lens of supply and demand, the Deepwater Horizon incident seems almost inevitable. What is the source of this enormous demand for the oil resource? Well, that would be us.
I imagine many within the federal medicine community share my frustration at the Gulf oil disaster and the corporate greed that likely fueled the events that precipitated the well failure. This frustration is compounded by our collective impotence to do anything to contain the disaster despite all of our modern technology and national power. I would suggest that, collectively, Americans are not powerless to positively impact on the present disaster. As consumers of oil no individual can make a difference but as a nation we certainly can. The government estimates that by raising fuel economy standards on new cars and trucks to 35 mpg we could reduce our petroleum use by 25 billion gallons (www.fueleconomy.gov). Some suggest that this standard is unrealistic for our automakers to achieve; though in Europe 113 new vehicles were available for sale in 2005 that achieved 40 mpg or better (research from the Civil Society Institute). Of course, without public demand for more fuel efficient vehicles the economic pressure to create this change in America will not occur. It is not enough that we can build fuel efficiency in our vehicles; we have to purchase these vehicles. This effort to reduce our petroleum waste does not stop with our automobiles; it must permeate every aspect of our lives. Using high efficiency light bulbs, insulating our homes, turning off lights and equipment when leaving a room at home or at the office, these are just a few examples of actions that will contribute to a reduced need for electricity and the fossil fuels that generate it. These small changes to our lives, when we embrace them as a society, can have a tremendously positive impact on reducing our demand for petroleum.
As federal medicine providers we have tremendous influence on our patient population. As the Gulf Coast oil disaster demonstrates, energy issues can have a profound impact on human health. Federal healthcare providers should take a leadership role in reducing energy use both at home and within our federal facilities. We can chose to lead by example by driving fuel efficient cars, building energy efficient buildings, and making energy conservation a part of our personal and professional lives. We can act as if all the world were watching, for indeed, they are.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of U.S. Medicine, Marathon Medical Communications, Inc. or the United States government and its agencies.