August 31, 2012

Aunt Polly

What makes for a person's legacy? The things they achieved? The money they made? Fame and fortune are indeed common measures, usually reserved for ... well, the rich and the famous. But for the rest of us, the measure of a life is more often to be found in the impact we made on the friends and family we leave behind.

Using that as our scale, Pauline Laugelle Litchfield--my Aunt Polly--lived an extraordinarily full life. She was the youngest of twelve, she and her twin Peter coming last but not least. Growing up in such a large family, she must have gotten used to being in a crowd. When she had her own kids, it was perhaps inevitable that the family circle would grow to include any kid who happened to walk by the house slowly.

My earliest feeling about Aunt Polly was that her house was always a place I wanted to visit. We'd swing off the road and park on the side yard next to whatever car they had at the moment--a pickup truck that could hold a hidden stash of deer meat in the door panel or a station wagon wide enough to hold a growing family and their gear or the retired police cruiser that could go like a bat out of hell--and we'd pull open the screen door and walk into the kitchen where she might be making a frittata in a big iron skillet, although it could just as often be her husband Marsh standing at the stove, as he was himself a better than fair cook.

The stories would start almost as soon as you entered the door, after, of course, a hug and a big smooch on the cheek. With some of my relatives, that was a ritual to be endured. With Polly, it was a genuine moment of love given and received. I would sit at the kitchen table entranced by her stories of family and the neighborhood. This was not the polite conversation of parlors, but the honest talk of a plain-spoken woman. If someone was a "g-d sob," you heard about it. Most folks who made it into that category got there because of a failure of generosity or understanding that cut against Polly's own giving spirit.

She never had much, but what she had was always there for someone in need. The labors and sorrows of her life--the loss of Marsh, the struggles to raise a family in tough times--never dimmed her enthusiasm for life or her willingness to help others. As she made her way through life, the circle of people who knew and loved her kept growing and growing.

Polly was no saint. Hers wasn't that kind of life. She wore her heart on her sleeve and could hold a grudge with the best of them. And she wasn't shy about voicing her opinions, either. The same inventiveness she could use to weave a great story would yield equally rich veins of invective. She said the things most of us thought but never had the guts to voice. That willingness to speak the truth as she saw it was something I tried to grow in myself, a process that gets easier with age, I might add.

But none of that mattered all that much to me or anyone else. The love she took was more than offset by the love the made. Whenever we would meet--usually at a family gathering to celebrate a wedding or a funeral or a graduation--she would always greet me with a huge hug which I would return in equal measure. I always felt like the center of attention at that wonderful moment, just as I'm sure all the other nieces and nephews did.

Unfortunately, her strong spirit was not matched by an equally strong body, and the years took their toll on her sooner and harder than anyone would have wanted. She spent her last few months living in Wrinkle Village, holding court to an endless stream of friends and family who were with her around the clock. She faced death squarely and on her own terms. Ready to move on to an even bigger circle of friends and family, she died quietly after a long and event-filled life. Heaven will be a livelier place for it.

August 28, 2012

When In Rome ...

They say those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. Well, sometimes it wouldn't be so bad if history did repeat itself. As we ponder the empty pageantry of the Republican and Democratic conventions, I offer this lesson from history, with a tip of the hat to Plutarch's Lives, which is where I found this tale of old Rome.

In the early days of the Roman Empire, there was a major shortage of woman. So, Romulus, the founder of Rome, devised a plan. Under cover of a festival, he lured the neighboring Sabines to come and party down. When the revelries reached their height, Romulus gave a signal and a brief battle ensued during which the Romans stole all the Sabine woman. Naturally, this caused a lot of hard feelings among the Sabine men.

Long story not so short, the Sabines bided their time and  some years later launched a counterattack. Another fierce battle with the Romans ensued, but the ending was unexpected on both sides. In the heat of battle, the Sabine woman came out and begged the Sabine men to stop. The woman were treated with respect in Rome, had married freely, and had families. They loved their Sabine brothers and sisters, but they didn't want to give up the lives they had built in Rome. The women asked if everyone couldn't just get along together.

The Sabines settled into a relatively peaceful coexistence, helped by a generous gift of money and land from the Romans. That lasted until Romulus died. This left a huge power vacuum. The Sabines thought it was their turn to have a king in charge. The Romans were reluctant to do so. The Senate stepped in and said, "We'll do it." Even in those days, no one trusted politicians, and the people soon registered their dislike for that solution, bringing things back to Square One. Here's where it gets interesting.

After much back and forth, someone came up with a brilliant idea: The Sabines could choose a Roman to be king or the Romans could choose a Sabine. The Sabines deferred to the Romans and the Romans were more willing to accept a Sabine king as long as they could choose him. The Romans nominated one Numa Pompiius, a Sabine of excellent reputation. The choice was quickly accepted by the Sabines and peace returned to the valley.

So think about it. What would the American political system be like if something like this was used for the presidential primaries? The Democrats would have to nominate the Republican, and the Republicans would have to pick the Democrat. Call me crazy, but I kind of like the idea. For damn sure, we couldn't do any worse.

August 27, 2012

The Elephant in the Room

In politics, the blame game is everything, so starting this week you will hear a lot of rhetoric from both sides as to who caused the problem. None of this is helpful in terms of actually solving any of the problems, but the blame game is tremendously useful in getting elected, which is, after all, the primary objective of politicians.

So, what are they blaming each other for? Well, any reasonable person will agree that the economy sucks and we have too much debt. How that happened ... aye, there's the rub. In my view, we got into this mess over a very long period of time, mostly as a result of our response to two major events: the real estate collapse, which was brought on by shady financing techniques; and the wars fought in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, which were paid for by ... well, shady financing techniques.

Take a look at this chart, produced by an economist named Steven Stoft, who began publishing economic data on a site called zFacts in 2003, the year we invaded Iraq. The chart shows a rising trend in debt as a percentage of the total economy that spiked sharply in 2008, the final year of the Bush administration. While we hear much talk about the collapse of the real estate indusry, too little is made of the role played by the decision to invade Iraq.

What matters most about Iraq is not so much the cost—a cost that will eventually include money spent caring for the wounded—but how we paid for it. Rather than raise taxes—which would have meant unwinding the Bush tax cuts—the Republican-controlled Congress chose to borrow money against future revenues to pay for the war. The result was a rising tide of debt that became a tsunami when the second wave kicked in, the collapse of the real estate bubble. The affect on the national debt is shown in another of Mr. Stoft's charts:

Liars figure and figures lie. We all know that. But in my gut, I firmly believe that Bush's decision to pay for the invasion of Iraq with a credit card—a decision supported and defended by the Republicans who then controlled both houses of Congress—has to play a significant role in today's debt problem. Throw in the Bush tax cuts and you have most of today's debt accounted for.

So please, spare me the rhetoric about how Obama is killing us. He may have been ineffectual in his efforts to stop the bleeding, but the wounds were inflicted during a time when Republicans had total control of the government. Invading Iraq was a choice. Paying for it by borrowing was a choice. Doing so while keeping taxes at historic lows was a choice. These choices were made by the Republicans then in charge.

If there is a debt bomb, it was the Republican Party that lit the fuse. Until they stand up and admit that their policies were and are largely responsible for today's debt crisis, the Republican Party will have no credibility. I'm not overly enamored of Obama, but the devil I know is better than the devil I know even better.

August 22, 2012

Legitimate Rape

Representative Todd Akin (R-Miss.) finds himself at the center of a political firestorm which he ignited by a now infamous allusion to "legitimate rape" and his belief that pregnancy from rape is rare because a woman's body "shuts the whole thing down," whatever that means. Were the subject not so serious, the affair would be grotesquely entertaining, one of those hyper-ironic "only in America" moments that connoisseurs of politics treasure.

But the topic is a serious one. The statement is a grievous error in fact. The mindset revealed by those hurtful and cruel remarks is indicative of values shared by too many people. The way I read it, Congressman Akin seems to be implying that if a woman becomes pregnant due to a rape, then some small part of her must have consented to the act. According to Akin, nature acts to shield woman from pregnancy by rape, so if the woman does become pregnant, then it must not have been "legitimate" rape.

The rate of pregnancy from rape is inherently difficult to estimate, especially given that rape is an under-reported crime, by over 50 percent according to some estimates. A couple of studies conducted on small groups of woman found that 5 to 6 percent of women aged 12-45 who were raped became pregnant. Other large-scale studies have found that the pregnancy rate from a single act of intercourse is 3.1 percent, suggesting that, contrary to what Congressman Akin believes, rape is perhaps more likely to result in pregnancy than a single act of consensual sex.

But statistics do not get to the heart of the matter. Sparing a woman the consequences of rape has always been common ground that opponents and supporters of abortion could agree on. It is just common decency not to force a woman to endure a pregnancy caused by an act of sexual violence against her person. (Of course, not every woman terminates a pregnancy from rape; that's why they call it the right to choose.)

The entire Republican Party establishment has recoiled from Congressman Akin's remarks, but this won't go away that easily. Paul Ryan, who is Mitt Romney's choice for vice-president, voted pretty much in lock-step with Akin when it came to abortion. Ryan goes even further, believing that abortion is permissible only if the life of the mother is threatened, a view now being retouched and softened by the Romney campaign.

Ryan was also a co-sponsor of legislation, along with Akin and over 200 other House Republicans, that would have limited abortions funded by Medicaid to only those cases involving "forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest," which is almost certainly what Akin was thinking about when he made his comments. The addition of the word "forcible" was seen by many as introducing a significant restriction on what forms of abortion could be funded. That language was eliminated, but apparently it lingered in Akin's subconscious, only to come out in a revelatory slip of the tongue.

It's funny how these things work out. No doubt there are many Democrats who have equally stringent views on abortion, but the fact remains that opposition to abortion in just about any form is a core Republican Party value. That said, the last thing the Republican Party wants is for this election to be about abortion, but thanks to a Missouri-mule stubborn congressman, abortion is once again front and center as part of the national debate.

This is as it should be. There is a small but determined group of legislators who would undermine a woman's right to choose by any and all means. They prefer to operate out of the limelight, using deceptively worded bills with lofty sounding titles. If Akin were to win, control of the Senate might well shift to the Republicans. Think about what that would mean on an issue like abortion.

August 19, 2012

Money Talks, Wall Street Walks

On August 9, 2012, the Justice Department announced that it would not be seeking criminal charges against Goldman Sachs or any of its employees for selling risky mortgage securities to banks and other investors without telling them that the investments were risky. In the world of business ethics, these are known as liars loans. After marketing what it knew to be very risky mortgage securities, Goldman secretly bet against the investors’ positions and hid the fact that it had done so ... and laughed all the way to the bank.

A Senate probe had no trouble finding plenty of evidence against Goldman, including emails written by company employees describing the mortgage securities as “junk” and “crap.” But after conducting what it called an exhaustive investigation, “The department and investigative agencies ultimately concluded that the burden of proof to bring a criminal case could not be met based on the law and facts as they exist at this time.”

The newly minted Government Accountability Institute (GAI), has just issued a report documenting the stunning decline in prosecutions, a decline it alleges is due to the revolving door between the Justice Department and law firms representing the big financial firms on Wall Street. Attorney General Eric Holder came from Covington and Burlington, a big D.C. law firm that represents Goldman Sachs and other financial institutions. The man he appointed to head up the Criminal Division came from the same law firm. Other top deputies shared a similar background of representing top financial firms.

Then there is the man where the buck stops, President Obama. He outraised his Republican rival, John McCain, on Wall Street--around $16 million to $9 million. More to the point, Newsweek reports that, "in the weeks before and after last year's scathing Senate report, several Goldman executives and their families made large donations to Obama's Victory Fund and related entities, some of them maxing out at the highest individual donation allowed, $35,800, even though 2011 was an electoral off-year. Some of these executives were giving to Obama for the first time."

Maybe there is a dot or two to connect here, maybe not, but the record of the Justice Department under Eric Holder speaks for itself: not a single criminal prosecution filed against individuals involved in financial corruption. Contrast this with the record of the Clinton and Bush administrations. A GAI report notes that, "Financial fraud prosecutions are down 39 percent since the Enron and WorldCom disasters in 2003, and they are just one third of what they were during the Clinton years."

But cheer up. All is not lost. The Securities and Exchange Commission has finally found a poster boy for financial corruption. That would be former Baltimore Orioles star Eddie Murray. Murray had a former player/friend who had a neighbor who told him about a deal. The friend passed along the tip to Murray, who invested in the stock and made a modest killing. Murray got called out on an insider information pitch, and was ordered to pay $358,151 to make it go away. That sounds like a pretty good chunk of change, but as David Weidner points out in the Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch:
To give you some perspective of the enormous gains Murray made — it took American International Group Inc. about three hours to make the same profit in 2007. It took Goldman Sachs Group Inc. less than 15 minutes the same year ($11.6 billion divided by 365 days, divided by 24 hours equals $1.32 million an hour). Lehman Brothers chief executive Dick Fuld was awarded a $22 million compensation package in 2007 — $5 million of which was cash. The same year Jimmy Cayne, who led Bear Stearns & Co., was given a package worth $34 million. The week his firm collapsed he sold all of his shares and pocketed $61 million.
Some banks are too big to fail. They also seem too big to be criminals. Greedy, duplicitous and immoral ... for sure. Criminals? Can't prove it by Eric Holder or anyone else in the Obama administration. Little guys like Eddie Murray have the government all over them. The big boys walk away with golden parachutes. That stinks.

August 15, 2012

Paul Ryan

So who is Paul Ryan, and what are his plans for America? As near as I can figure, he is first and foremost a policy wonk. That's not such a bad thing. Nobody was better at rattling off numbers and facts than Bill Clinton, and he worked out okay. The question is what do Ryan's numbers all add up to?

The best place to find out is the budget Ryan, in his role as chairman of the House Budget Committee, put forward to much hoopla last March. Ryan will be subtly rounded and smoothed to better fit into the Romney campaign, but the March budget is pure Ryan. This is his claim to fame. This is why he was nominated. This is what he will press for in White House meetings if elected to the vice-presidency. It is a plan that I think would change America as we know it today. Judge for yourself.
  • First, taxes would be changed to a two-tiered rate system of 25% and 10%, the effect being to reduce revenues by some $4.6 trillion over the 10 years. These cuts would be offset by "broadening the tax base." This is wonk-speak for eliminating tax deductions. The plan doesn't say which tax deductions would go, but certainly the mortgage deduction would have to be among them if anywhere near the numbers he suggests for revenues are to be achieved. Ryan's plan also eliminates the Alternative Minimum Tax, cuts the 35 percent corporate rate to 25 percent and eliminates taxes on foreign profits.

  • Second, there would be a large increase in defense spending and a major reduction in all other government spending (as a percentage of the total economy) to levels that existed prior to the New Deal. Under Ryan's budget, the government would consist mostly of Medicare, Social Security and defense spending. Everything else would be cut to levels that would profoundly alter the ways in which the federal government operates. The trickle-down effects on state governments are unknowns at this point, but there will be a huge impact one way or another.

  • Third, Medicare would end in 2022, to be replaced by a new plan for people born after 1956, with new enrollees receiving vouchers to buy private insurance. The annual increase in Medicare voucher payment rates would be smaller due to changes to the present system for calculating increases.  Already, hospitals are issuing dire warnings about the impact these changes would have on their ability to treat Medicare patients. Medicaid would become a program of block grants to states. President Obama's Affordable Care Act would be repealed. Social Security is left to the perennial-favorite bipartisan committee to solve.
The plan, like all budget plans, was dead on arrival. It will never be passed and was never intended to be passed. It was intended to draw a political line in the sand, the point of the spear that would be used to attack Obama's failure to cut the debt. The immediate effect of Ryan's budget was to completely undercut the deal the Republicans agreed to after last year's debt crisis, a deal that would balance cuts evenly between defense and other spending. Ryan's plan puts the thumb heavily on the domestic side on the scale. Democrats immediately cried foul, raising questions as to the trustworthiness of Republicans as bargaining partners. You will hear lots more about this in the upcoming debate over Taxmageddon.

Now that Ryan is on the ticket, the plan's greater significance is in what it reveals about the mindset of a man who wants to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. This is a guy who wants to reshape America as it has evolved since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. This is a guy who takes his ideas very seriously. Maybe this appeals to you. I find it alarming, but then I tend to be conservative when it comes to radical change.

August 11, 2012

Nuns to Vatican: Nuts!

A dispute between American nuns and the Cardinals of the Vatican that has been simmering for several decades has erupted into full boil, with neither side showing any signs of backing down. It was bad enough that nuns stopped wearing habits, but helping women get abortions? Supporting women for the priesthood? Supporting gays? This was too much for the conservative cardinals in Rome, who voiced serious concern about "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

In 2008 they launched a full investigation into the activities of the American sisters. Their report was released, in April 2012, and it was basically a "cease and desist" order. The cardinals declared themselves to be the sole voice of the church on faith and morals. Like many men, the cardinals think they are in charge. Yeah ... well, good luck with that.

It was no doubt the good sisters' support of President Obama's health care reform act, despite the opposition of the Vatican to many of its provisions--especially those requiring religious employers to provide free contraception--that was the final straw for the Vatican. The report noted that "it is clear that greater emphasis needs to be placed both on the relationship of the LCWR with the Conference of Bishops, and on the need to provide a sound doctrinal foundation in the faith of the Church." In other words, shut up and get in line.

Shocked by the harsh tone of the report, the sisters, speaking through the Leadership Conference for Women Religious (LCWR), responded to the report with a resounding "Really?" They did allow as how they would "proceed with discussion with the Vatican 'for as long as possible' but will reconsider if the sisters are 'forced to compromise the integrity of [their] mission.'"

A quote by Sister Pat Farrell, outgoing head of the LCWR is what caught my eye. As a desiderata, this will do until a better one comes along.
... be humble, but not submissive ... (Be) rooted in a solid sense of ourselves, but not self-righteous; truthful, but gentle and absolutely fearless. ... Concern is based in love and invites unity. Control through fear and intimidation would be an abuse of power.
No matter where you end up, this is not a bad place to begin. The good sisters will keep on fighting the good fight. And for that I say, thank God.

August 10, 2012

Not A Drop To Drink

In Fifty Years of Global Warming, I focus on the modern-day Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse: climate change, population growth, and peak oil. While climate change is getting a lot of press, we still don't hear much talk about peak oil and population growth, even though they portend an equally bleak future of increased demand pushing up against decreasing supply. We ain't making any more oil, at least any time soon, but we sure as hell are making lots more people. Sooner or later, that has to cause problems.

Oil isn't the only vital resource running dry. The demand for water is outstripping supply in many parts of the world ... water ... the only other thing besides the air we breath that is essential to life. Amanda Mascarelli, writing in Nature magazine, reports on a recent  study led by Tom Gleeson, a hydrogeologist at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. They found that 20 percent of the world's aquifers are over-exploited. India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mexico, and the United States are among the thirstiest places in the world. The study also noted that demand exceeds the capacity for renewal in many of  the world’s major agricultural regions, including the Central Valley in California, the Nile delta region of Egypt, and the Upper Ganges in India and Pakistan.

It is true that, unlike oil, we do store new supplies of water all the time. The land and the sea are constantly exchanging water through the mediums of evaporation and condensation. But like oil, we are extracting water faster than the water cycle can replenish supplies through the normal processes of rainfall and snow melt. These systems run on geological time. We don't. And it's not just humans who consume water. Every other life form needs water, from the ants and beetles that equal mankind in biomass to all vegetative matter, including the food we grow to eat.

Just as the logic of peak oil is hard to argue with--at some point the rate of consumption of known sources outruns the rate of discovery of new sources--so, too, the logic of sucking on a straw seems pretty simple to grasp. Sooner or later you reach the bottom of the glass. How fast depends on how quickly the aquifer can refresh itself from groundwater seeping down through the soil. Right now, we are sucking pretty damn hard on that straw in certain parts of the world.

The recent drought compounds the problem. Crops survive on rainfall and irrigation. In places like the High Plains, which runs from southern Montana to northwest Texas, both are in a long-term shortfall. Never a region with much rainfall, the main source of irrigation water has been the Ogallala Aquifer, one of those over-exploited aquifers listed by the McGill University scientists. Daily, we see images of farmers scratching their heads as they stand in sun-baked stretches of caked and parched soil that once held their corn crop. The situation is made worse by laws that govern the use of water, laws that were created in times of abundance, laws that gave landowners unlimited rights to extract water on their own property.

We hear the phrase "the new normal" more and more, of late. What exactly does that mean? Well, for one thing, it means hotter and, for some places, much drier weather. If those places happen to be where we grow the food needed to feed the world's rising population, then we are also in for for higher food prices and more starving people. Corn is especially critical, given that it is used in just about everything these days, and what we don't use to make other products we feed to our cattle, so you can look for the price of a Big Mac to start inching up, along with everything else.

We think of climate change and its impact on people and we tend to think of some tiny island in the Pacific slowly being displaced by rising seas. But no place is an island when it comes to climate change. We are all facing massive shifts in ways of living that have persisted for centuries. You don't believe me, just ask the old boy standing in his corn field, wondering how he will hold on for another season.

August 8, 2012

Another Giant Leap

The news of late has been pretty gloomy ... climate change, political gridlock, economic meltdowns ... so anything that reminds us of our once and future greatness is especially welcome. We have had two pieces of good news in one week, something of a record I would think.

The spectacular descent of Curiosity into Gale Crater on Mars is one of those rarest of all stories ... all good, no downside. We are reminded of what we can achieve when we work together towards a common goal, no matter how difficult it might be. Meanwhile, some 11 million miles away, Voyager 1 continues on its journey that began in 1977, an investment that continues to pay dividends. Recent indications--still to be confirmed by NASA--are that Voyager 1 is poised to exit the solar system and enter interstellar space. It will truly go where no man-made object has gone before.

Space exploration is a long-term business that requires an equally long-term commitment. Given the hard times that many are going through right now, one could fairly wonder if we shouldn't be using that money to solve some of our more earthly problems. There will always be those who agree with that premise, but you could also ask if it made a lot of sense to build cathedrals in the middle of the Black Plague.

Cathedrals and space ships are both expressions of mankind's quest to find something greater than ourselves. This desire to touch the sky ... be it with a cathedral's spires or a rocket arrowing into space ... defines our humanity. When we get it right, when we build something that satisfies those aspirations at the profoundest levels, we gain much more than a building or a space ship. We take yet another giant leap towards understanding who we are and why we are here.

Images of Curiosity's Landing on Mars

Voyager 1 Approaches Deep Space

August 5, 2012

Welcome to the Rest of Our Lives

Just how abnormal is the "new normal" in climate going to be? This video offers an admittedly alarmist take on the changing climate we are bequeathing to our children and grandchildren, changes that are coming at us faster than expected. And still we do nothing.

August 4, 2012

One Hundred Trillion

 Hand sanitizers are everywhere now. "Antimicrobial" is the most desired adjective on a label, right up there with "organic." By some estimates, there are over 700 antimicrobial infused products, found in everything from dishwashing liquid and sponges to socks and underwear. Damn, I feel safer already. True, some of the major active ingredients bear a disturbing resemblance to the active ingredient in Agent Orange, but hey, what's that compared to being germ-free?

Germ-free. The Holy Grail of modern living. Japanese men and women walking around with breathing masks will soon be supplanted in their race to the top of the risk-free world by anxious mothers wiping the grocery cart handle with a disposable antimicrobial wipe thoughtfully provided by the grocery store at the entryway.

Now, the first rule of any military strategy is to know the enemy. Just how many of these little suckers are we talking about? One hundred trillion. You heard me. That's the number of bacteria, fungi and other microbe's cells in a typical human body. That would be each and every one of us. They outnumber human cells by 10 to 1. Only ten percent of us is ... well, us. That otherness adds up to a few pounds of our body weight. And that's nothing compared to the genetic match-ups. The human genome contains about 23,000 genes. Stack that up against the 8 million non-human genes that comprise the totality of the genetic mass of microbes. Makes you wonder who's in charge. Or as Pogo once famously observed, "We have met the enemy, and it is us."

This otherness we have inside us is collectively known as the human microbiome. It exists mostly in our mouth, our nose, our skin, our gut, and our uro-genital tracts. The exact composition of each individual's microbiome is unique, more unique than DNA. (Identical twins may have identical DNA, but their microbiomes will be very different.)

So what exactly are they doing with us ... or to us? Like everything else ... some good, some bad ... but the good way outweighs the bad. Most of them live in our gut, and we all know what happens if they act up. That has given our collective microbiomes a lot of bad press, leading in no small measure to the increasing popularity of sanitizing products.

Without getting in too far over my head on this, the take-away message I get is that we humans co-evolved with our microorganisms and presently exist in a symbiotic--mutually beneficial--relationship with them. We wouldn't be who and what we are without them. The more we learn about them, the deeper we see our connectedness. Lactobacillus johnsonii produces enzymes that digest milk. It normally lives in our gut, but it is also found in the birth canals of pregnant women, leading to speculation that infants are coated with it during birth. This may prepare the infant to digest breast milk. During breastfeeding, babies are exposed to as many as 600 species of bacteria and assorted sugars that jump start the beneficial bacteria needed for proper digestion.

Taking the idea of co-evolution a step further, some scientists have come up with something called the hologenome theory of evolution. Earlier I mentioned that the collective genome of the microorganisms far outnumbers the human genome. If you take the human genome and combine it with the genomes of the symbiotic microorganisms, you get a hologenome. This hologenome can react more rapidly to changing environmental circumstances than the human genome can on its own, giving the total organism much greater adaptive capability.

Does all this mean that we should stop using hand sanitizers? I have no clue, although there are valid concerns that the widespread use of antimicrobials has led to the increased presence of highly resistant strains of bacteria; less resistant forms are wiped out, clearing the field for those that aren't affected. And the greatest usage of these antimicrobial agents is by the food industry, where fears have long been expressed about the dangers of increasing drug-resistant microorganisms. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers antimicrobials to be "among the most misused of all medicines" and cautions against "the indisciminate use of antimicrobials in patients unlikely to derive any benefit."

My own sense is that we probably are spending too much money on products that have only limited effectiveness, hardly a novel occurrence in our consumer culture. The surge in antimicrobial products is driven by our natural desire to shield ourselves and our loved ones from risk of any kind. But that isn't how it always was.

Growing up in the 50s, risk was more tolerated than it is today. As kids, we were allowed to explore the world around us. If that sometimes led to accidents or injuries or minor infections ... well, live and learn, as they used to say. What time couldn't heal, penicillin could. Not so much today. All of which makes me wonder how kids brought up in today's hyper-cocooned environment--where they are always in touch via Twitter or Facebook or texting--would deal with truly hard times. Let's hope they never have to find out.

August 1, 2012

The New Normal?

I recently started working on a sequel to The Magpie's Secret, which came out in January 2011. As I began writing, I realized that I had ... uhm, well, forgotten key elements of the book, it having been a while since I last read what I wrote. The immediate need was to refresh my memory on certain events at the end of the book, so that's where I began. Somewhere in there, I came across this passage about global warming. (My books are delicious and nutritious.)
Think about millions of people displaced by increasingly severe weather, rising sea levels and long-term shifts in food supplies due to drought and flood. Think about how we are going to pay for the social and economic costs of that displacement when we are already in debt up to our eyeballs. Think about the groups out there that would just love to blame all that on us. The hell of it is, they would be right. And who is going to save us? A bunch of politicians who have been bought and sold by industries that want to continue business as usual until it’s too late to do anything but damage control in a world literally drowning in problems beyond our control?
The nexus described in that paragraph--a changing climate, a broke and broken economy, and inept politicians--hasn't gone away. Oh, hell no. It is bigger and badder than ever. One thing has changed, though. In 2010, when I was writing The Magpie's Secret, the deniers of global warming were absolutely winning the debate. We had just been through the collective failure of Copenhagen, where the world's leaders left little doubt as to the hollowness of their promises. Belief in climate change was trending steadily downwards, especially in the United States, and then along came Climategate.

Things are a bit different now. The consequences of climate change--once thought to be decades away--are showing up a little ahead of schedule, and people are beginning to realize that there's something happening here, what it is they're pretty sure ain't exactly too good.The latest concern is the prolonged drought that has covered a broad swath of the country's midsection.

The USDA has declared that more than half of the counties in the United states are a disaster zone because of the high heat and low rainfall.  Scientists worry that these droughts could be "the new normal," along with extreme weather events. Besides sending corn prices skyrocketing, the droughts are disrupting the storage of carbon that typically occurs in wooded areas, adding to the pace of climate change. And, as if things weren't worrisome enough, climate scientists are beginning to think that climate models are underestimating the extent and severity of drought, leading to speculation that the great drought of 2000-2004 may seem like the good old days by the next turn of the century.

While more people are beginning to accept a changing climate, we are still as broke as ever, and the politicians are still unwilling and unable to mandate a serious reduction of fossil fuel usage. Republicans push for more reliance on dwindling stocks of harder-to-get-at fossil fuels. But, as the New York Times observed with some asperity in a recent editorial, "A country that consumes more than 20 percent of the world’s oil supply but owns 2 percent of its reserves cannot drill its way out of high prices or dependence on exports from unstable countries."

From the Tea Party all you hear about is debt, except the one that matters most: the debt we will owe to future generations for the climate mess we have left them with. President Obama urges a balanced approach that places equal weight on exploration conservation, and innovation. A good idea backed with little concrete action, the hallmark of his administration.

Climate scientists share the same concern: Have we waited too long? Too long to avoid a dangerous rise in average global temperature. Too late to prevent the impact of extreme weather on millions of the world's most vulnerable people. Too late to prevent a rise in sea level that will threaten major cities around the world. Too late to prevent the spending of billions of dollars we don't have to deal with all this.

If you want a glimpse of a possible future, check out the map below. It shows the extent of the ongoing electric power outage that has afflicted 60 million people on the Indian subcontinent, stretching over an are bigger than the United States. Is climate change responsible for India's power outage? Maybe to a small degree, but this is due more to an aging infrastructure and regional governments not playing by the rules for allocating power in the grid. But think about it. Everything you read about climate change portends hotter weather and more extreme weather. Ask yourself this question: Will we be seeing more or fewer of these types of massive power outages in the coming decades?