Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Parallels between antibiotics and peak oil

I just read a really interesting interview on the state of our antibiotics:

We've reached "the end of antibiotics, period"

In short, there've been rapid developments ("evolution") in antibiotic-resistent bacteria such as MRSA and another called Klebsiella pneumoniae. Some are more-or-less treatable with highly toxic, decades old antibiotics, but those too are losing their efficacy. With no treatment options available for some of these, we're also at a point where there are no antibiotics in the research pipeline to give doctors and patients hope that someday there will be treatment.

This will have a dramatic effect on the quality of health care and range of treatment options available in this country. Read the whole article for details.

The whole article is interesting and disappointing, but a few points jumped out.

Parallels between Peak Oil and Antibiotics

I will quote the article on the topic of antiobiotic research and then I'll quote Gail Tverberg's primer on peak oil. Spot the pattern:

Antibiotic research:
We were quickly developing new antibiotics. When bacteria developed resistance, we always had a new antibiotic waiting in the wings, and we had new therapy that we had to offer.

It all changed several years ago. What we found is that the pace of development of new antibiotics really began to slow down about a decade ago, and now we began encountering these highly resistant infections, and we didn’t have new antibiotics to use. We had the ones that we had, but we didn’t have anything new.
…There’s probably a variety of factors that have contributed to the fact that we don’t have new antibiotics. One might be that we developed a lot of the antibiotics that were easy, if you will, to develop. …

There are some people who say we sort of picked all the low-hanging fruit, and then it got really hard to develop new antibiotics.
[emphasis added]

Peak oil / discussion of oil extraction (source)

We live in a world that is finite. While there are huge amounts of oil, gas, coal, and minerals (such as uranium, gold, silver, copper, and lithium), we tend to extract the easiest to obtain, highest quality resources first. Eventually, we find it is more and more expensive to extract additional quantities of these items. Aquifers that are slow to replenish become more and more depleted. Top soil tends to erode faster than it is replaced. Pollution tends to be a problem too, with the most obvious example being carbon dioxide added to air and water.

Economists have set up their economic models as if we would never reach limits. In fact, we seem to be reaching limits now, especially in the area of oil supply....
[emphasis added]

Fascinating parallel! We developed the easiest-to-develop antiobiotics first, just like we mined the easiest-to-mine minerals, extracted the easiest-to-extract oil, and invented the easiest-to-invent inventions.

Rather than use all this wealth - energy, minerals, safety from disease, comfort, reliability, etc - to develop a happy, long-lasting society, we've continued to grow exponentially, using up our resources as fast as possible. And now we're out of the easy resources, and having great trouble meeting our needs with the remaining ones.

Another Parallel: Protecting the Commons

The other parallel between oil and antibiotics is that both represent a commons: resources which could benefit everybody for an unbelievably long time if managed responsibly and if society were restrained from abusing them. Just like we've insisted on increasing our oil usage exponentially until there's nothing but highly dangerous and expensive energy sources remaining, we've abused antibiotics by over-sanitizing with antibiotic soaps, giving antibiotics to farm animals unnecessarily, and over-prescribing antibiotics.

In order for our current lifestyle and society to persist long term, we would have had to act much more responsibly in the past. But with peak oil and increasing antibiotic resistance here today, we have 3 choices:
  1. continue our pattern of learned impotence, hoping 'researchers and the free market and government' will save us with new technology
  2. contribute somehow to the development of new antibiotics and more responsible use of them 
  3. adjust our expectations and lifestyle so we're not dependent on things which are going away
Since (1) seems unlikely to succeed and I'm unable to contribute on (2), I'm left to figure out (3). I believe there are many exciting possibilities here, and I'll update with more research as I find it. The key will be to recognize the scale of the problem and respond in a reasonable way to address it.