The Future of Medicine-by Liam Scheff

What would you do if you couldn’t get medicine? What if hospitals couldn’t get the ‘life-saving’ drugs they’re so fond of? (But why couldn’t we get medicine?) Answer: Because of oil. (Have I lost you? I’ll try again.)

What are drugs made from? Where are they made? (Laboratories.) And what makes a lab run? (People running machines.) And machines run on? (Electricity.) Yes, and that is made from? Oil. Coal. Petroleum distillates.

Now look around your room, office, cafeteria, workspace. Everything around you: the plastic-coated tables; the pressed wood cut down by diesel and hauled on long trucks. The electronics, the paint, the fabric, the food; grains, beans, vegetables, corn, sugar, tropical fruit - these didn’t grow here. They grew in Canada, Idaho, California, Mexico and China. They traveled 1,500 to 5,000 miles on plane, boat, train and truck - oil-burning machines. Which were themselves forged and pressed and shaped and heated by? Oil and coal burning machines in hydrocarbon blast furnaces.

State of Dependence

When we need something, we get into our…what? Horse and buggy? No - into the car! The same car we drive to get a gallon of milk at the store two miles away. Why not walk, or bike? (Because we don’t have to! We have cars!) We’ve grown accustomed to it - and getting away from an oil-dependent lifestyle will be very, very hard work.

Are we too dependent on oil? Well, we’re just dependent enough to keep the whole calliope going. Let me ask you, how much oil do you think we use per day? It’s not a trick question - there is an answer. Let me give you a hint - It’s in “millions of barrels.” So, how many million barrels per day do we, antibiotic-, pesticide- and GMO-infused Americans, consume each day?

Well, it might help to know what a barrel of oil is worth, before trying to answer. Here’s a hint: We measure its value in units of heat - these are known as “British Thermal Units.” A barrel of oil is worth? Five point eight (5.8) million British Thermal Units. That is the equivalent of approximately 23,000 hours of human labor. Which is like making a large fabricating machine work non-stop, night and day for 3 years, no breaks, not even an hour off. In human terms, that’s about 10 years of a day job, working eight hours per day, taking a few weekends off per month. And that’s one barrel of oil. So, how many do we use per day in the U.S. alone? The answer: twenty million. Twenty million barrels of 10 years of work - per day. Call it 200 million barrel-years of work - each day. (Worldwide it’s closer to 90 million/day; 30 billion barrels per year.)

We make everything - our transportation, food, plastic, drugs, tubes and wires - everything - from the energy we get form coal and oil. Oh! I have to add, we use millions of tons of coal per year, too. Hundreds of millions. That gets added in. The energy value per pound is less, but we use much more of it, mostly for electricity. Now, think about a typical healthy lunch with soup and salad. What’s is it worth in oil? Consider the carrots and beans popping up in fields a world away, sprayed with the pesticides (oil) and fertilizers (gas) and harvested with enormous tractors (gas, oil) and separated and refined, packaged in factories (oil, diesel and coal) and shipped (diesel and gas). That’s a lot of oil, just to keep you fed!

But what does this have to do with modern medicine?

Think about it - if we run low on oil, we run low on everything. How do you run a modern hospital without oil - without the energy, machines, chemical compounds and immediate access to petrol-materials? Answer: we don’t. We have to do something different.

But, are we really running out of oil? (Let your mind search all related data: We are doing a lot of ‘fracking.’ There is a push for ‘new nuclear’ going on, even as Fukushima fissions in the open.) So, are we running out? Well, no. But, are we running low? The answer is, yes - of the cheap stuff. The easy stuff. The stuff that flows freely and comes up with very little effort. The stuff that made the 20th Century possible.

I mean, what is the difference between 200 AD (or 1200 or 1600) and today? What gave us 1,000-foot buildings with toilets and flowing water all the way to the top floor? Did the Romans have this? Why not? What do we have that the they didn’t? That Queen Elizabeth never heard of?

Oil - a source of energy so vast, so far outpacing ‘horsepower,’ or slave-power - or dynamite - that it changed the way civilization looked and behaved. But it wasn’t just a source of energy - it was an ability to use it.

We’ve had one device for 100 years that has changed society more than any other. It makes everything fast, immediate, hot and noisy. (Can you guess what it is? It goes ‘VROOOM!’) Yes, the motor. The internal combustion engine - exploding the refined oil into a driving force propels us over continents, through mountainsides, and over oceans. So hot that it can forge and form steel with exacting precision, hoist it 1,000 feet into the air, and torch-weld it into place for centuries.

But are we running out?

The answer is, yes, but slowly. Today we’re at a ‘peak’ of production. We are just coming down from the highest point of oil production into a perpetual decline. Think of a bell curve. An uprising arc coming from the left, and falling down on the right. That’s the natural production line of any individual oil well, and all oil fields.

Try this on: You’re an oil investor. What’s the first thing you do? (You scout locations, find suitable rock that looks like it’s hiding oil.) Then you dig a well. (It’s expensive, and it takes a good while to find one that actually produces.) But eventually, you hit crude oil. So, you dig more wells and increase production, and you discover more fields.

At the same time, other oil barons are doing the same thing worldwide. And within a handful of decades, you’ve scouted them all, and discovered and begun to drill all the accessible fields. You get each field to produce at its maximum. And one day, you reach the top of the curve. The fields produce more than they ever have before, and they hold for a moment - a week, a month, a year - and then they produce…less, and less, and less, until it’s not worth drilling anymore. When it uses more energy to pull the oil out of the ground than you get from the oil, you stop drilling. And that is “peak oil.” It’s not an hypothesis or a theory. It is repeatedly observed behavior in all oil-producing rock.

So, are we at the peak? Most serious petroleum geologists and investors think so. That’s what fracking is all about. Fracking isn’t only for methane gas. It’s for oil. But it’s expensive - the cost of getting it is massive compared to old-fashioned oil drilling. It requires tons of water - tens of millions of gallons per well. And it ruins water tables - that’s drinking water. It’s not the oil of yesteryear. It’s nothing anybody would do - if they didn’t have to. If the good stuff wasn’t gone. Or going. And that’s where we live (and I barely mentioned Fukushima).

Not The Future We Ordered

I mean, ‘the world we know?’ Where everything is convenient and available and easy? Well, that’s the question we have to answer through our efforts right now.

Medicine is going to have to remember how to use things that grow, that can be replenished, that aren’t fabricated from petroleum distillates and made in sterilized pharmaceutical labs.

In the very near future, the person who knows how to use wild plants, grasses, berries, roots, poultices, salves, creams, natural distillates and oils for healing - will, I predict, be one of the most valuable members of his or her community.

Permanent oil shortages. Non-stop radioactive spills. Agricultural uncertainty. It’s going to be a challenging century. It’s a good time to be a doctor. If you don’t need the pharmaceutical industry to do it.


Liam Scheff
Copyright ©2013 Liam Scheff