The Epidemiological Environment: Concern and Disappointment

| March 20, 2020 | Leave a Comment

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Media Type: News / Op - Ed

Date of Publication: March 20, 2020

Year of Publication: 2020

Author(s): Paul Ehrlich

Newspaper: Environmental Health News

Categories: , , , , , , ,

In addition to great concern over the COVID-19 pandemic, my own reaction to the present situation includes a large dose of disappointment.  For more than half a century scientists have been expressing concern over the deterioration of what I like to call the “epidemiological environment.” That environment consists of the constellation of circumstances that influence patterns of disease and factors related to health.  It includes such things as population sizes and densities, diet, speed of transportation systems, fluxes of toxins, climate disruption, frequency of human-animal contacts, availability of medical isolation facilities, stockpiles of medicines, vaccines, and medical equipment.  The epidemiological environment also includes cultural norms, levels of education, equity in societies, competence of leadership, and so on.  In short, few aspects of the human predicament do not impinge on our epidemiological environment.

My own interest in one part of that environment, transmissible diseases, started as a grad student working on the evolution of DDT resistance in fruit flies.  The results of that research had obvious implications for the evolution of antibiotic resistance, a key element in the epidemiological environment.  It clearly influenced Anne and my scenarios in The Population Bomb (pp. 70-71), and a section on the epidemiological environment in The Population Explosion (1990).  We were responding not just to our own fears, but the fears of colleagues much more knowledgeable in areas like virology and epidemiology.  Of course, the utter failure of global society to deal with high probability threats to civilization warned of by the scientific community is hardly limited to pandemics.  Climate disruption is the best recognized of the health threats, but the decay of biodiversity, and “updating” the American nuclear triad as part of the Russian-United States’ “mutually assured imbecility” are among the most critical.  Those, at least, are not obvious to the average citizen or decision-maker, but what about others such as increased flows of plastics and toxins (especially synthetic hormone mimics) into the global environment?  Everyone knows about volumes of plastics and thermal paper receipts coated with bisphenol-A.  Why are there so few effective responses to the epidemics of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, crooked teeth, and other maladies of industrial civilization?

It is convenient for progressives to blame the COVID-19 disaster in the United States on the spectacular incompetence and corruption of the current Republican leadership.  Yes it has turned away from science, and worked hard to exacerbate the demise of civilization.  One of the Republicans’ many steps in that direction was to destroy the global health security and biodefense directorate that the Obama administration had created to help prepare for emergent diseases. Americans are now likely paying with their lives for Trump’s move there.  But the basic problem dates much further back and is bipartisan.  Rather than dwell on the past, however, let’s look at what the U.S. should be doing about the epidemiological environment starting right now. The U.S. has long stood alone in its failure to supply all its citizens with health care, an error the coronavirus has highlighted.[1]  Arranging that, however it is done, should be top priority.  Besides the obvious ethics and justice reasons, people without medical care exacerbate pandemics in ways that threaten even Republican senators and intellectually challenged Presidents.  This should also include insurance programs to remove incentives for infected people to go to work sick and for keeping small businesses providing essential services functioning.  Plans and equipment should be put in place to greatly increase the capacity of the medical system to deal with large surges of victims of epidemics.  Programs are needed to keep both the plans and supplies up-to-date.

U.S. security in a globalized world demands leadership in dealing with all aspects the world’s epidemiological environment.  Instead of just rejoining the Paris agreement America should do so and demand tightening it so it will have a better chance of ameliorating the building climatic catastrophe and reduce the likely huge refugee flows that will transform the entire epidemiological environment.  The U.S. should offer assistance to China to reduce that nation’s huge pig-duck-pond-wildlife-market lethal virus manufacturing machine.  It should lead a civilization-wide program to halt the destruction of biodiversity – another factor which, by building greater and greater monocultures, also negatively impacts the epidemiological environment.

As I write this, I realize that what I’m basically saying the U.S. should fix the epidemiological environment by taking the obvious steps to solve the human predicament – to avoid the collapse of civilization now entrained.  This seems wildly optimistic in a world that has not even recognized its problems of overpopulation and overconsumption or the impacts on health and well-beings of socio-cultural regression: rising sexism, xenophobia, racism, religious prejudice, and, especially, economic inequity.  What explains this?  There are the causes usually noted, such as the role of money, not just in politics but in global culture as a whole.  But a major element is widespread ignorance, partly clearly due to broken educational systems – allowing, for example, mobs of innumerate economists, politicians, and decision-makers in general to believe in perpetual growth in population and consumption.  The widespread inability of “educated” people to think is frequently underlined by statements on how “we don’t have a population, problem, just an problem of too much consumption.”  Can’t they grasp the difficult idea that a billion people are likely to consume more than a hundred?  Case in point: Donald Trump got a B.S. in economics from the Wharton School of my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

To overwhelm this vast ignorance demands resuscitation of our system of higher education. Universities (and colleges) remain stalled in a 19th century Aristotelian state.  They have given up any goal except turning out people who will be financially successful in a deteriorating culture — oiling parts of the engine with never a thought for where it is heading.  And that “education” clearly doesn’t even give its products a grasp of such concepts as exponential growth, as the response of Trump and many others to the corona virus epidemic so clearly showed.[2]  Educational systems have given up any .pretense of supplying leadership to society or informing people about what is coming down the track.  Stanford faculty members seriously discuss nonsense about “sustainability” in a university (like Harvard) that will not even divest from fossil fuel stocks.  Can the absence of a draft alone explain the difference between the ferment in universities during the Vietnam war and the quiet today with the situation a million times worse?  Once again, population size and growth are major factors in this human dilemma – maybe Homo sapiens shouldn’t have tried to organize itself into groups exceeding the Dunbar number.

Where could all the money come from to make the changes to preserve civilization.  That’s one of the challenges for the economists who today are operating in a perpetual-growth fairy-land.[3]  Much obviously depends on the course of events and whether the debt pyramid collapses.  One obvious step, however, is repurposing the military.  When Anne and I were working with them on nuclear winter issues we were greatly impressed by the intelligence and ethics of some of the field-grade officers with who we were involved.  The military is already way ahead of the present civilian government on dealing with existential threats like climate disruption.  Various military units have already employed in dealing with emergencies ranging from pandemics to hurricanes, and there is no reason why they cannot be used to help in tasks ranging from building medical isolation facilities to de-carbonizing energy systems.  The gigantic amounts of money wasted on such nearly useless toys as nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, main battle tanks, and air superiority jet fighters could be directed toward rebuilding infrastructure such as sewage systems, electric grids and water-handling grids, and on and on.  The same can be said on the other money used for decades to support (often clandestinely) U.S. state terrorism that has cumulatively killed millions since the second World War.[4]  Those now engaged in building the military’s junk-of-tomorrow could be re-deployed as well.

Is all this impractical, pie-in-the-sky, never happen stuff?  Sure.  But nothing is more impractical than civilization trying to continue business as usual as it circles the drain.  The current disaster may end up damping down consumerism and improving the environment – there are reports of the lethal smog blanketing some Chinese cities clearing during lockdowns.  Maybe there’s some hope of people learning the lessons the corporate owners of the media don’t understand – we can always hope.


[1] Mike Davis, Who gets forgotten in a pandemic, https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/mike-davis-covid-19-essay/

[2] For more on what’s missing from general education see Ehrlich PR. 2011. A personal view: environmental education—its content and delivery. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 1:6-13.

[3] For a recent exception see Barrett et al., Social dimensions of fertility behavior and consumption patterns in the Anthropocene, .PNAS March 12, 2020 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1909857117.  For astounding example of idiot growthmania see Charles I Jones, 2020, The end of economic growth: The unintended consequences of a declining population.. Stanford GSB and NBER, version i.1, February 12.  Strong evidence for the closing of all business schools (Parker M. 2018. Shut Down the Business School. University of Chicago Press Economics Books).

[4] E.g., Chomsky N. 2002. Understanding power: the indispensable Chomsky. The New Press.

— that other nations have behaved badly (at a historically lower level) does not change what is the best course for the United States now.  The issue Chomsky has long highlighted, the narrow limits on what the corporate media will allow discussed remain critical


This article was originally published in Environmental Health News 

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