There's No Such Thing as an Accident: A Prevention Approach to the Gulf Oil Spill

The BP Gulf Oil spill makes one thing clear: our health and the planet's health are inextricably linked. Poisoned sea life, oil-drowned coastlines, sickening toxins in the air—it's taking a toll on our fiscal, physical, environmental, and emotional health. So when it comes to energy policy, it is time for a renewed and forceful partnership between health and environmental activists.

We can build from the emerging emphasis of prevention in our health system. Last week, former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister said that if oil companies had been allowed to drill closer to land we wouldn't face this deep sea technological crisis. We have to challenge this hubris.

There is virtual silence on prevention, when in fact, this was no accident. As health leaders, our prevention response to car crashes was to assert that highway deaths are not accidents—they are predictable and preventable. With this mindset, we insisted that industry make the cars safer, that government improve the roadways, and this cut the death and injury rate. The oil spill, equally, was both predictable and preventable.

Shifting the debate towards prevention—taking action before an incident occurs—has saved hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars related to tobacco use, lead poisoning, and car crashes. In each of these cases, effective prevention approaches pushed government and industry to change. We aimed for a new norm: tobacco-free, lead-free, injury-free.

Prevention is just as central to a new energy culture. We have to ask: what could we all have done to prevent this from happening in the first place? Preventing future spills and lessening their severity will require much more than technological fixes; it requires political will and actions at every level. Both our health concerns and our addiction to oil are more than individual, they are systemic, and we must look to our entire system for solutions.

It is not just the prevention paradigm that health and environmentalists share; it is some of the same essential solutions. With chronic disease overloading our health system and economy, and with our children's generation anticipated to have shorter life expectancy than ours, looking at our food system and how we get around are critical. Health advocates are promoting a new paradigm for transportation: we can't just make cars safer, or less polluting. We need to make it possible for people to drive less. The average American commutes hours every day, and most people go by car. Bike lanes and sidewalks , accessible public transportation, crosswalks and smart designs that put workplaces, jobs and schools near one another increases physical activity and makes it safer. It reduces oil dependence, builds healthy, thriving communities and saves money along the way. As Transportation Secretary LaHood put it: "I want to announce a sea change...This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized."

Health advocates have now joined environmental advocates in pressing to change the industrial food system that is as unhealthy for our bodies as it is for the environment. Businesses, government, and schools must support local agriculture and healthier growing practices, must reduce reliance on unhealthy and unnecessary processing. Transporting food around the world costs money, degrades local economies and drains oil reserves. As food is imported and exported around the globe, it travels in diesel guzzling—emission producing—ships, trains and trucks. Our current system overuses synthetic pesticides and fertilizers—mostly petroleum based—to make up for single crop industrial-scale farming, poisoning farm workers along the way. We need to follow the lead of cities like Woodbury, Iowa which prioritizes purchasing locally grown food, or major health systems like Kaiser Permanente who sponsor farmer's markets directly on hospital grounds. Policies in the US that support local agriculture, farmers' markets and farm-to-table food systems would decrease oil dependency and bring healthy, lower-cost fruits and vegetables to food 'deserts' in our poorest neighborhoods.

I live at Point Reyes, a peninsula off of San Francisco Bay. There are four million visitors each year who come to marvel at the seashore, at the birds, at the whales. And yet the weekend bus was eliminated, so these four million people all drive out from the Bay Area, mostly on the same road, instead of parking and stepping onto a functioning public transit system. During the peak whale migration periods, visitors stop in a parking lot a couple of miles from the viewpoint—yet nearly everyone has just driven forty miles and will return on the same route. In their quest to see nature, these visitors together drive as much as 320 million miles each year, using 14 million gallons of gas at a cost of $39 million dollars in the process. We have a choice—we can set up a bus system to Point Reyes or we can set up a new drilling platform to get them there.

Though the Gulf oil spill is shocking, we can't really say it is surprising. It is literally a watershed—a time when we will step over the line as a nation into a new set of expectations and approaches—from our government, from our businesses, and from ourselves. Despite the national concern about the spill, there is a risk that after a brief respite, it will be business as usual. Six years ago, I wrote Cultivating Common Ground to explore connections between health and environmental concerns. It became clear that health and environmental activists need to work together and enlist business and government to more quickly clean up the mess we are making of our health, and our planet's health. There's never been a more pressing time for collaboration to generate a new culture that emphasizes the interdependence between human and environmental health, a coherent agricultural, transportation, energy, and housing policy that can eliminate future oil spills in the first place. But it won't happen unless we raise our voices—together—and insist on it.